Micromanaging the Class (Part 3): The Results

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my final exam projects. The gist of that post was that I was giving up micromanaging the kids’ writing. They would write on their own and they would edit on their own. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

The assignment

For their final exam, I assigned students in 6th and 7th grade to make a brochure for an incoming student to our school. In it, they had to describe their schedule and also write an autobiography. These two topics – school and describing themselves – were ones that we have come back to throughout the year in stories, PQA conversations, and reading assignments.

The language they needed to use to complete the assignment is language that they have worked to acquire over several years of TPRS stories and reading assignments (two days a week). As such, the task wouldn’t be perceived as difficult because it’s using language the students already have in their heads. In the 8th grade final, as I mentioned in the previous post, the students had too much freedom-the assignment didn’t reflect the language they had worked to acquire and as such they ran into problems in composing their stories, making sure the language was accurate, and being able to understand what they had written when they had finished.

(Side note: that was a real wake-up call for me–They wrote their stories and then couldn’t understand what they had written because they used translators and dictionaries rather than acquired language. It was after that realization that I decided to be sure that the students’ assignments reflect the language they have worked towards acquiring)

How they self-edited

I had 2 main goals in having the students edit their own work:

  1. I wanted to give the students the chance to reflect on their work and use their own knowledge (with guidance) to correct what they wrote
  2. I didn’t want to correct and (basically) rewrite 125 writing assignments.

After the students finished writing their rough drafts, they had to edit them. As I said in the last few posts about micromanaging, my plan was to give them an assignment that would actually show what they were able to do using the language that we have used throughout the year.

For their first draft, I handed them their assignment that had all of the details I wanted them to include (name, age, city and state where they live, etc) and let them write. They had a word limit that they had to surpass and I sat back and answered questions when needed.

For the second draft, I posted a list of tips and things to look for on the board. I had them make sure their verbs were in the first person (through our use of TPRS stories, they have become more comfortable with using the 3rd person to describe others and I wanted them to make sure they weren’t falling back on old habits based on older things they have acquired); I had them make sure they used the correct vocabulary; I had them check their adjective agreement. I had them work on their own to edit and then rewrite their own work.

Why they self-edited

The goal of self-editing was to give them more autonomy over their language. Rather than be the micromanaging dictator of what they could write, I tried to become a coach, giving pointers and helping them with specific questions. Unfortunately, some of my students have been held back from their true potential by my micromanagement. These high-flying students were more than happy to take on the challenge of autonomy and not ask for help. Others needed more help and I was happy to give it. Ultimately, based on the students’ engagement in the work and the results (mostly As and Bs), they were happy to be challenged a little bit more.

Final Results

Was it successful? No one failed! Even students who ventured out beyond what we have done in class (in terms of vocabulary) found success in their writing. This is how it should be always. Challenging students to use the language they have acquired (and use it on their own without micromanagement from me) boosted their engagement and their confidence.

Moving forward, my plan is to continue to give my students more autonomy. My plan for next year is to incorporate novels and current events content that keeps things fresh. I want the students to ride this success farther along the proficiency path. They’ve had a taste of what they can do when they’re left to their own devices with a task that has the right amount of rigor and is appropriate for their level.

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SCOLT 2018: “But I Only Teach Once A Week!”

Creating Memorable Experiences and Lessons in the FLES Classroom

Program Description:

Teaching a class only once or twice a week is just not enough time to provide input and foster language acquisition, right? Wrong. By creating memorable experiences through stories, personalization, and other brain-based strategies, we can foster acquisition in the leanest of scheduling circumstances. We can make our one or two classes our students’ favorites of the week and build their proficiency! Learn strategies to engage students and create experiences (and lessons) that they will remember.

Goals/Outcomes:

Teachers will

  • learn techniques and strategies to create engaging and memorable lessons for students who only have Spanish one or two periods per week.

 

Part 1

You guys already know about me here on the blog 🙂

Me looking cool:

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Me as a Narwhal:

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What does this tell us about my classroom? I used this as a way to show off some of my students’ doodles and also to show that we don’t take ourselves too seriously in class, which is an important theme throughout the presentation.

About this presentation

Elementary and Middle School Foreign Language Programs…

…Can be amazing

…Can be frustrating

…Aren’t always given enough time to get anything done

…Or so it seems…

The goals I wrote on my presentation application are below

Learn techniques and strategies to create engaging and memorable lessons for students who only have Spanish one or two periods per week.

As you can see, that’s a pretty general and generic kind of description of what we’ll do. While thinking of what to do for this presentation, as I wrote it and thought over all the things I wanted to talk about, I found myself asking some questions:

  • But what does that really mean?
  • What should be the goal of a class that meets with elementary and middle school students only 1-2 times per week?
  • If you could do anything in your classroom, what would you do and why?

A better list of the goals of this presentation is here:

  • To get you thinking about the future, specifically, your students’ future.
    • How will they remember your class?
    • How will they remember your instruction?
    • What content will they remember?
    • Why??

I teach each class from Kindergarten to 3rd grade once a week for 30 – 45 minutes. I teach all the other grades twice a week for 45 minutes each class period. This is great in some ways because I get to make sure all my vertical alignment is great, I get to know the students over their whole time at our school (my first kindergarteners are now 7th graders in my homeroom).

But there is a downside to this schedule: it’s just not enough time. I can’t get all the grammar that is expected of high school Spanish one into these kids’ brains by the time they’re graduating 8th grade because they forget everything between classes and I can’t make any progress. They are failing because they just can’t get enough practice on verb conjugations!

This reminds me of a student I’d like to tell you about:

Part 2

D is a girl who came into our school in the 6th grade. She came from another school in our town and in her old school, she was the top of her class. Every test score, every stanine, every indicator showed that she was the most intelligent kid our school had ever seen. She was a genius, she was nice, she was a hard worker, she was humble. She was everything you’d expect the perfect student to be.

Until she came to Spanish class. She would come in and be a nervous wreck. There was no reason to think that she’d be unsuccessful. She hadn’t taken Spanish before, but I was confident that she would grasp the grammar and vocabulary concepts that we were learning about. She did ok. As it turns out, at the end of that year, I was the only class where she had a B average.

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From February, 2012

Part of me thought, “Wow, I must really be challenging this kid. She gets As in every class but mine. How great am I?”

The other part of me thought, “Wait, why is she doing so well in everything? Why does she have the academic Midas Touch in every subject except mine? Is it something I’m doing?”

It turns out, the answer was yes. It was something I was doing…or rather, something I was not doing.

I wasn’t making the class engaging, I wasn’t making the class memorable.

I was teaching as I had learned in High School, where I had class every day of the week for an hour long period. As a student, I practiced every day. Danielle did not have that. She had 2 days a week in Spanish.

You see, in my school (then, as now), kids in middle school only have Spanish twice a week. I see one group on Monday and Tuesday and I see the other group on Thursday and Friday. That means that they have 5 days inbetween their Spanish classes. 5 days to have stress or to have events happen in their lives…Basically, it’s 5 days to forget everything they’ve practiced.

When I taught straight up grammar lessons (lessons out of the textbook), that is exactly what happened: Students who were A students, students in the highest percentiles on standardized tests, the Ds of our school were getting mediocre grades. And the students who weren’t as academically gifted…They fared considerably worse.

As a beginning teacher, I took my lack of high grades as a sign of my rigor. I was the badass teacher who didn’t give good grades. We’ve all had that teacher, the one who relishes in giving as few As as possible:

“Call me Mr. F, not because my name is Fernie, but because I LOVE to give students Fs!!!!”

Reflecting on D and the other students, I found myself asking the following questions about my lessons and about my teaching in general:

Where is the CI?

Where is there anything memorable?

What is it I’m trying to teach: communicative competence? Or how to correctly conjugate and translate verbs to English? Which should I be doing and why?

Should Spanish Class Be Difficult?

Part 3: The Good Stuff

I went to ACTFL in 2013 in Orlando. I went to a presentation about something called Brain-Based Learning and I learned about how stories help students connect with the material. I researched online and found lots of blogs, including the blogs of some of the other presenters here (who I’m totally geeking out about meeting—I’m like a 13 year old girl at a Beatles concert…). All these blogs kept mentioning something called TPRS. I looked it up, I tried it out on my own and found some success—students were more engaged, students were having fun, students were remembering and reproducing language. I went to a TPRS instruction course in late July 2013. I was hooked and in later July 2013, I changed the curriculum for 9 grades worth of classes (450 kids).

That’s where my journey started. Thanks to D getting her first B in her life, I completely changed the way I teach.

The first thing I did was to Ditch Grammar as the Basis of My Curriculum (otherwise known as not using the book)

Grammar became the supporting actor, the one who works in the background to help the hero but is not the main focus of the movie (think Obi Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars).

So now that Grammar is in the back seat (or in the trunk of the car), what am I doing with my kids?

Stories/madlib stories

Character creation/mascots

One Word Images

Music

MovieTalk

Persona Especial and other Interviews (as themselves and as others-characters, actors, etc)

Student-created/derived word walls

Crafts

School-wide activities/performances

Classroom Setup

 I have talked about almost all of these things in the blog, but I talked about them in the presentation, so I will now include the slides that I showed at the conference and will add commentary as needed.

What Do all of these things have in common?

PERSONALIZATION!!!

If you want to create a memorable classroom experience, the students need to have personalized work—it has to be for them and about them and what they care about.

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How do we keep kids accountable now that we don’t have grammar tests? We can use proficiency guidelines and Can-Do Statements from ACTFL to guide them and to guide us so we can have a framework for what students need to accomplish while they are with us (see my blog post about stamp sheets and proficiency).

I’ve talked a lot about stories and characters in this blog, but in the presentation I focused on the personalized aspects of it and how they make it memorable: I have the very basic framework and students come up with all the information about the characters, settings, and any other details.

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Screen Shot 2018-03-17 at 4.47.02 PMStudent’s ask how to say words, add them to a list that all of your classes can benefit from-they will all see what other classes are interested in and might find inspiration in what other students have asked about.

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(I’ll have a more in-depth look at Interview coming soon!)

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Final Thought

Given our scheduling situations, it can be difficult for our students to reach high levels of proficiency, but I argue that proficiency isn’t the only thing that we help students develop. We help them see the world in a way that they never would before, from perspectives that they don’t get to see in their communities. It might be more important that we allow our babies to grow up to be life long language learners than perfect young speakers.

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?

Continue reading “Loosening the “Teacher Grip””

Expanding Personalization in the Classroom

This year is the year that everything changed for me, teaching-wise. I became a traveling teacher (rather than having my own room), I changed my curriculum, and I really started to feel like I have come into my own as a teacher. I feel an ease with instruction that I haven’t felt before. Additionally, this year has been the year of TPRS: It has completely changed my instructional style and goals for the foreseeable future. There is no going back for me.

I have been using pre-written stories for a while now, but as you can see, sometimes I like to go a bit off-script. I feel that it can make a huge difference in student engagement if I meet them where they are rather than following the textbook blindly. The stories in Look, I Can Talk by Blaine and Von Ray* were a great starting point and I will start with them with my new crop of students that I get next year. They are a great intro to what I will be doing with storytelling in the classroom and they have provided me with a template for how to write my own stories for students. But instead of blindly following the book, which is what I was trying to get away from when I started using TPRS in the first place, I will move on to more personalized stories earlier.

For me, personalization doesn’t just have to mean using specific student likes and names, but rather it can mean that the stories themselves refer to things that exist only in our school or our program. Everything about school is on the table: names of teachers and administrators, the names of people in our community (like the youth minister, Coach D, who the kids all love), and topics that are relevant to what is going on in our school community like our Fall Fest (I will definitely be writing a carnival/fair themed story to coincide with this in October).

Interestingly, I started doing this type of personalization without even realizing throughout the. In this series of stories I used the school as the setting and teachers and admins and the cafeteria chef as the side characters; in the Tim y el café story, I tied the story to what was going on in the school community, specifically Hispanic Heritage Month; to a lesser extent, in the Familia story for Kindergarten, I used students as the adult characters and adults as the child characters; with Madlib Stories I put all the events of the story into the students’ hands; and with the latest story I wrote for class, I used the students’ things (school supplies and backpacks and desks) to personalize the story (the script for that story, which was very successful for me in the last few weeks, will be coming soon!)

Personal Attachment to the Content

Ultimately, everyone feels a little bit more attached to the story when it is about them. If the audience for the story is connected to it in a deep way, we make a deeper connection; they find it more compelling. Research shows that compelling input has a huge amount of value for students who are acquiring language—the motivation level of the student shoots up and they are engrossed in a story that they might not even realize is in a different language.

Additionally, when we acknowledge what is happening in our schools, outside of the classroom, we build rapport. We need to have genuine interest in our students’ lives. Their needs and desires and interests need to be validated by the adults they spend their time with every day. If we can make that connection and if we then take it and put it into our instruction in the form of fun stories that the students find interesting and relevant, we can fill our classes with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to become life-long target language learners and speakers.

Our goal as CI/TPRS teachers is to connect with students using a different language and help them to acquire that language. We want the students to be totally wrapped up in our input because they will be more attentive to it; when they are attentive, they get lots more input because they are engaged and their affective filter is lowered (they don’t feel self-conscious) because they are focused on the fun that they are having.

*I understand that the books that are written with TPRS stories are developed with incremental vocabulary gains in mind and that they are labored over. I don’t want to diminish that work that was done by so many teachers and writers. In my classroom, though, I like to branch out a little bit to what the students are doing, like I did with my first original story, Tim y el café.

Practical and Common-Sense Tips for Personalizing Stories

Personalization

Personalization is one of the most important things we can do to make our input compelling. As a new CI teacher, I found that I was focusing too much on making input comprehensible and forgetting to make it compelling. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have gotten to the point where I need to do some things a little bit differently in order to keep the kids attention. I have tried to stay positive (when the kids say, “We’re hearing another story about someone who wants something…aw,” I used to get frustrated, but now, I say to myself, “They know enough of the language to be bored by it!” It’s all about being positive!)

I know now that I can make lots of not-very-interesting stories comprehensible. So it’s time to take the plunge into making the stories more varied and interesting for the students. They crave something different. I think that’s why TPRS was so successful at the beginning of the year: it was new and fresh and different. But like having pizza and French fries for dinner every night, something that seems awesome can get old after a while.

That’s what this post is about—how I have taken stories to the next level by involving the students to a greater degree. Personalizing the stories keeps the kids involved and interested. These are some of the things that I have learned in the 7 months that I have been using TPRS with Kindergarten through 8th grade:

Continue reading “Practical and Common-Sense Tips for Personalizing Stories”