Don’t Replace, Add

Kids need novelty. 

Every blog from every teacher I follow, every textbook on language teaching, and every bIt of common sense in my head tells me that this is the case. Seven years of experience with the same kids in the same school has proved it. If I do the same thing day after day, year after year, the kids tune out. It is a struggle I’ve contended with since I started teaching: What can I do to keep my instruction interesting and compelling for the kids?

In the past, my answer has been to quit using whatever methods or techniques I’m using and start from scratch. My thought process went something like, “If kids have gotten bored with what I’m doing, I have to get rid of it and find something to keep them engaged.” I started this blog after doing just that. Every time I read a blog post with an interesting or novel approach, I tried it. At the first instance that this method would be great, I threw away what I was doing before (metaphorically) and started with the new thing. The kids and I were itching for something new and I was happy to try everything I could. And it seemed really successful. When I found effective alternatives to grammar-heavy, book-based activities, I happily ditched them. When I learned how to ask a story and circle (TPRS techniques), I gladly did that and nothing else. When kids got bored with the same sorts of stories using the same types of vocabulary, I looked for other things-I tried OWL techniques and non-targeted CI and a host of other techniques.

Ultimately, instead of being successful, it was exhausting. Each different thing burned bright and then fizzled out. And each technique fizzled out a little bit more quickly than the last. What was the problem? Why were these techniques that other teachers use so effectively falling flat for me?

The answer:

I misunderstood the kind of novelty that students need. They don’t need something brand new every time they start to get bored; they need a teacher who has a large toolbox of fun and effective activities. The problem was that I replaced one fun activity with something else and never really returned to the others that the kids had gotten sick of. The problem was that I replaced instead of adding. 

The students didn’t hate the activities that we have done in the past, but they were just ready to take a break. Think of it like this: It would be really exciting to be able to eat ice cream for dinner every night, but in reality if we ate ice cream every night, it would lose its excitement. We would get sick of it. And just like getting sick of ice cream after having it all the time, the kids get sick of things they really like when it’s the only thing they do. 

The trick, then, is to be prepared to do lots of things that are effective and that the kids like. 

That’s my plan for planning this summer (and something I’ve talked about a little bit before): have lots of activities ready to go so that when one activity begins to sag or slow down or the kids don’t seem to be into it, we can transition into something that would be more effective and compelling. 

Loosening the “Teacher Grip”

As teachers, we want to control all the things the students are doing. It is in the nature of our profession to create perfect students who do things exactly as we tell them and give us answers that are exactly what we are expecting, but that’s not how kids work. They want to do things their own way and be individuals. If our grip is too tight, if we don’t allow their individuality, creativity, and ingenuity to shine through, we might turn off the students to learning and acquiring languages altogether.

Letting go and letting them 

(I heard this phrase somewhere (probably from one of you awesome teachers on langchat) and it stuck with me. I wish I had come up with it but I can’t say that I did. If you know who came up with it, please feel free to let me know.)

Lately, I have found that my students are getting a little tired of the standard storytelling format. (Maybe not so “lately”) They know what’s going to happen, they have a good working knowledge of the high frequency verbs we’ve been circling for years. They are ready for something new, but what?

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So You’re Thinking of Presenting At A Conference

I have a colleague and very good friend who asked me about my presentation at the SCOLT conference in Orlando (see this post). Her main question was, “How did you get to do that?” It’s a question I have gotten from lots of people since my first time presenting last year (see this post).

Attending and/or presenting at a conference is a great experience for any teacher at any point in their career. I have made friends and met colleagues that I would not have otherwise met. I have also met people I have only spoken with online through #langchat or other social media. When I met Laura, Keith, and Megan, I was completely star-struck. But the thing is, they’re normal people who want to be the best teachers they can be. Just like the rest of us. So come out to a conference and see what it’s like, then try and submit a proposal. The worst thing that could happen is they’ll say no. Last year, ACTFL rejected a proposal for a presentation. It was not very nice to feel the rejection, but at the same time, now I know what I need to do differently to maybe present there next year.

So What To Do?

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SCOLT 2017 Presentation

Below is my working script for my presentation at this year’s SCOLT conference.

The title of the Presentation is:

We Don’t Learn Anything Anymore: Moving Away From a Grammar-Based Curriculum

One note: There was a question about what I meant by Grammar-Based Curriculum. To clarify, I’m talking about curricula that are directly tied to a textbook and that follow the grammar points as presented in the text (only present tense first, then past tense, then direct objects, and students are not made to use any of these forms outside the order of the text.)

The Powerpoint presentation that goes with the script can be seen here.

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A long hiatus…

It’s been a while. It’s been time to decompress, time to focus on the art of teaching, time away from the hustle and bustle of all this language teacher blogging stuff. The irony, of course, is that I took a bunch of time away from the blog and from #langchat right after writing a post about starting a blog.

I still think you should start a blog, btw.

Personally, I needed time away. I was feeling uninspired and burned out. It happens to everyone from time to time. I feel like maybe I have written that phrase too many times on this blog, but it happens a lot. Don’t let anyone tell you they don’t get burned out, because they do. Everyone deals with it differently and that’s ok. Some people jump deeper into what they’re doing. Some people change what they’re doing and start from scratch again. And apparently, when I get burned out, I turn it all off and walk away.

But now I’m back and ready to share. What’s bringing me back is my SCOLT 2017 presentation. I will be talking about what to do when you move away from the textbook. Think of it like the sequel to what I spoke about last year.

I’m back in the game and ready to get back into the swing of it all. Seeing old friends at the conference like Laura and Fran (and meeting some people I feel like I’ve known for years but have never actually met in person, like Megan and Keith), and meeting new people with different perspectives and ideas has reinvigorated and inspired me. Seeing presentations from people whose work I have followed and admired for years is so encouraging. Thank you to all who are presenting or who have presented and keep inspiring us!

Encouraging Student Interactions in Class

Since I attended the SCOLT conference, I have begun to implement a lot of new ideas into my daily teaching. Some of these things are a bit outside the TPRS mainstream, but I think that even if it isn’t “TPRS approved,” there can still be value. Specifically, I am talking about “forcing” student output.

I am on a journey with my students and I am learning as much as they are as we go through the year. Just like most of my students with their Spanish proficiency, my TPRS proficiency began at novice low. Just like my students, I have made major gains in my proficiency, but I felt I was reaching a plateau. I have felt stuck, not knowing how to get the students to the level above just acquisition. How do I get them to synthesize that newly acquired knowledge and use it in original interpersonal interactions?

Most of what I have read and researched about TPRS is about students at the beginning of their language journey-they shouldn’t need to produce at the very beginning, but what about the students who have had a lot of input and are eager to start speaking? As I move along my own Spanish teaching proficiency scale, I am finding that I have to do the same kinds of things that the students have to do to progress: take chances (they use dictionaries and other tools to move beyond what we are doing in class; I use ideas from all over the language teaching spectrum to make sure that they get CI and also the opportunity to express themselves), make mistakes (everyone in here experiments and gets things wrong, but that doesn’t stop us from trying again), and get messy (linguistically 😉 ).

01-frizzle (Thanks for the advice Ms. Frizzle!)

source

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Assessing Proficiency and Providing Feedback

SCOLT is definitely my favorite new conference. It is like ACTFL, but I can find my way around and recognize people. Take ACTFL and take away 5000 people and you have SCOLT: All the same kinds of presenters (Including me!) and ideas being promoted, but in a way that is more manageable.

For me, SCOLT was all about proficiency:

  • How do I get the students from one proficiency level to another (for me, mostly novice to intermediate)
  • How do I assess proficiency
  • How can I quickly and effectively give feedback?

I didn’t know that going in, but it was definitely a theme that I followed around the sessions of the conference. I will spend the next few posts discussing these things and how they will be implemented in my own classroom framework.

How do I move students from one proficiency level to the next?

I went to a workshop given by Paul Sandrock (@psandrock), who is a former president of ACTFL and currently the ACTFL Director of Education. It was all about getting students from performance to proficiency and how to get novices to reach up into the their next proficiency level. I didn’t have the vocabulary or expertise on the proficiency levels to really use them to describe my students or to figure out how to use them. I didn’t have a good working understanding of what they are, so how could I use them?

But now I do.

Novice level is all about memorized language. Novices are parrots, repeating what they hear. As Paul Sandrock and Thomas Sauer both stated: “Novices are full of answers waiting for the right questions.”

Intermediates, on the other hand, are peeking out from behind the memorized language wall. In the intermediate low level, they are using the memorized language that they have internalized and are beginning to creating with it. Additionally, they are not just reacting anymore, but asking their own questions.

So the question becomes: How do I get the students from novice into intermediate? How do I get the students to create with language and how can I get them to keep conversations going by asking more questions?

Answer: Always be looking at the next level. By that, I mean to keep an eye on the ACTFL Can-Do Statements. Once they can reach the novice benchmarks, start planning on how to get them to the next. Give the novice level students lots of input and phrases that they would use as intermediates—question words, transition words, phrases like “I agree,” “I disagree,” “How is it possible that…,” etc. Basically, give them the phrases to start internalizing the strategies you will be teaching them to move beyond the parrot stage.

Remember that Novice learners can’t really interact with each other because they can only react to input from an interlocutor, they can’t really produce original language. That’s why if we give them the strategies and phrases to begin to talk to others on their own, we can foster more student-student interactions and get them to move beyond the novice level.

What would this look like in my TPRS classes?

So all my TPRS friends out there are reading what I wrote above about getting the students to speak (aka forcing output) and are probably spitting coffee all over their computer screens. The whole idea of TPRS is to get students to proficiency in the most natural way possible: Input until the kids start producing. I am all for this, but at the same time, I feel like my students are ready to begin their output journey. They have had a lot of CI in the last year and a half and are anxious to get the language from their heads to their mouths. I also find it to be beneficial to get students comfortable with being in the uncomfortable position of speaking to others in the target language.

I know that focusing on output in the classroom will not lead to true proficiency. I get that. I understand that performance and proficiency are not the same thing. At the same time, I learned at the conference that things learned for use in performance activities (output activities with strict parameters and lots of support posted around the room) can become internalized in the same way that input can be.

In the realm of writing, we do timed writings and retells to assess our students in TPRS classes. I am thinking of applying my new deeper knowledge of proficiency levels to direct how I assess this output. I am not going to take off points for the grammatical rules that students break. I will draw students’ attention to their errors and help them to correct them. I will help them to get to the next level in their output all while telling stories and circling and doing movietalks and all of the other activities that I have learned how to do as a teacher in the TPRS world. So don’t think I’m abandoning my beloved TPRS to go to back to another type of teaching from the past. I will continue to be forward thinking and focusing on acquisition and proficiency.

Assessing students’ proficiency

Another thing I learned (or that I inferred, you could say) from the conference is that my assessment tools are really lacking. With the kind of assessment I am doing now, it is very difficult to let the kids know what they can do to improve. Enter Thomas Sauer (@tmsaue1) and Bethanie Drew (@lovemysummer). Both of them presented on how to use rubrics and provide feedback to students in a positive way that emphasizes their movement along the proficiency continuum.

At Thomas Sauer’s presentation, I learned about using rubrics and about what makes rubrics useful. Firstly, no number ranges! There is no reason that rubrics can’t use the proficiency levels as the criteria. This lets the kids know exactly where they are on the proficiency continuum for each assessment. They will know that on such and such interpretive assignment, they are at Intermediate Low and on such and such interpersonal assignment, they are at Novice Mid. This becomes positive for the students because they can see the requirements for the next proficiency level. Rather than seeing that they lost points for only including 3 verbs instead of 5 (which they already know because they did the assignment), they can see where their proficiency is and the exact kinds of things that they need to be doing to move to the next level.

These levels can be tied to letter grades, but Mr. Sauer was reluctant to endorse that, even while saying that it may be a necessity in some places. Even though it isn’t ideal, it is much more valid than the, “I can understand what you wrote, you get an A” style of grading that I have been using (for lack of a better alternative) since I started using TPRS.

This leads into the other thing I learned about rubrics and proficiency in general: Kids will be all over the place depending on the kind of mode they are using. Someone may show high proficiency in presentational mode (because of the ability to revise and practice the presentation) and show low proficiency in interpersonal mode (because they are nervous in 1 on 1 conversations with others). The only way to know where they are is to use these rubrics consistently.

Providing Feedback

Bethanie Drew’s presentation on “Fortifying with Feedback” was great because it helped me to see how I can do what she calls compassionate assessment. The idea is that we focus on the strengths of the students’ work, rather than marking up their papers with red ink. We can focus on what was good, then give them concrete ideas on what they can work on to do an even better job next time. instead of saying, “You did A, B, and C wrong,” we can say something more compassionate, like, “I like A, so keep that up. To do a better job on B, why not try ___, ___, and ___?”

SCOLT was so inspiring and there is so much to unpack (both physically from my suitcase and metaphorically from all the great sessions I attended). I will be working on that for a while, now that I am back in the classroom and able to throw more ideas into my teaching repertoire.

As always, thank you to all of you out there who share your ideas through conferences and blogs and tweets!

SCOLT 2016 Presentation: The Switch from Traditional to CI Methods

This was my first SCOLT Conference and it was my very first time presenting at a conference. It was super exciting! I met a whole bunch of my langchat friends who live in the Southern Region of the US. As a conference, it was just big enough to get a lot of perspectives from a lot of different places and just small enough to keep bumping into presenters and people who I wanted to interact with. The ACTFL conference is always filled with great presentations, but it is so enormous that it’s hard to connect with people. SCOLT, on the other hand, was the best conference experience I’ve had so far. Their conference next year is in my back yard: Orlando, FL. I hope to see you there!

This year’s SCOLT will also have a special place in my heart and mind because it was the first time I presented. My presentation was:

The Switch: Shifting from a Grammar-Based to a CI Curriculum 

SCOLT2016logo

If you weren’t able to attend and are interested, click the link for an adapted transcript of the presentation:

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Class-Developed Stories

I love developing stories with my students. I have written about this before. In the older activity, I would write half the story with the students and then they would finish it on their own. This was very successful last year and gave the students a great amount of ownership of their work. This year, I will continue to do that activity with the older students, but I have a different twist on the activity for the younger grades (4,5, maybe 6): I complete the story with them and then make the story that each class came up with an extra embedded reading assignment for a different grade or homeroom.

The reason that this works across grade levels is that the objectives for different grades are very similar in the beginning of the year—the older students review things that the younger students are just getting into. This allows me to recycle some of the same stories between the grades. This makes for great marketing with the younger kids (“We’re reading an 8th grade story in 4th grade? That’s so cool!”) and makes the older kids nostalgic for when they first spent a lot of time learning about the structures that they are reviewing. Some of them even bring up plots of stories that they heard at the end of the year 2 years ago (when I started experimenting with TPRS and before I delved deeply into using it exclusively, which was last school year), “We have already talked about people who want things—Remember when we talked about Ed who wanted the pizza and went to all those places to get it?”

I love that they remember the plot lines of the stories. They never remembered grammar instruction that was over a year old. That’s the power of storytelling!

Anyway…

Today, I used a story that 5th Grade wrote with the 8th Grade. Their objective is “I can talk about what I need and what others need in Spanish” (not an exact I Can statement from the list, but one that covers a lot of ground, linguistically).

The first picture below is a shot of the story itself for you to read. After that, I have posted some of the students’ work – their assignment was to draw a comic of the story. They definitely took it in a great direction. The comics are mostly simple, but they show the students’ understanding of what they read. I always let them read and then we act it out together and go over any difficult vocab and then they show me their comprehension.

This activity went so well that I felt I just had to share some of them:

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This is why I do what I do. If you have never tried a madlib story, check out my link above to the previous post about it. If you’re interested, you can also look at Blaine Ray and Contee Seely’s book, Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. In the 6th Edition, the authors talk about “Developing a Mini-Story Through Questioning” (Chapter 5) and also “The Class Invents a New Story” (a heading in Chapter 6, on pg 101). My activity was adapted from that activity and I adapted the assessment to fit my needs, too (I wish I came up with this activity on my own!). Ray and Seely recommend taking a quiz on the class-created story. While a quiz can be a great way to assess the kids, I only have them for class 2 days a week and I like to keep class as interactive as possible. Instead of a quiz, I assign a comic drawing or story re-writing/summary activity as homework that we begin in the last 10 or so minutes of class.

Ownership

The most powerful part of TPRS is the amount of ownership that it gives the kids. I can use the same script all day long with kids ranging from 7-15 and get completely different and personalized stories. They are allowed to be totally individual in their work and they get to express themselves in their own ways.

And on top of all of that, they get lots of input in the tl that is tailored just for them. They get the “boring words” (wants, needs, has, etc) that they need over and over, but the words are presented in an activity with compelling input. Instead of focusing on the words themselves, I get to use them in all their fun and interesting ways so that the students are engaged. And as you can see, the kids definitely put their own stamp on each activity and have lots of fun. Something that has been boring for me and for the kids in the past has been given a new life.

Compare the story below to the one above. On the surface, they seem very different, but the story is (in other ways) exactly the same.


I’ll update soon to show some of the great comics that classes come up with for this story!