A Recalibration: Finding the Positive Hidden in the Negative

1000 Days

1000 days ago (1001, to be exact) I wrote a post about having fun in the classroom. I wrote another one (about 870 days ago) about variety and avoiding boredom in the classroom. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of these things. I got bored and I started being the kind of teacher I always told myself I’d never be: unadaptable, stuck in my ways, unwilling and unable to see that what I was doing wasn’t working, and refusing to try something new. I committed 2 of the biggest teacher sins: losing sight of why I’m even teaching and blaming the students for not being successful.

It’s hard to say that out loud.

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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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#Teach2Teach Question 3 – “What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?”

A Tough Question With A Simple Answer

I have been blessed in my language-teaching career to not have too many bad things to deal with. I am definitely lucky. After some thinking, though, there are some things that have not been great. The most difficult experience I have had was being a first year teacher with no support. I was hired as the 1st – 8th grade Spanish teacher with a 6th grade homeroom. At the time I was hired, I thought it was great! I was happy to just have found a job that was in the field that I had studied. I was ready for the challenge of teaching so many new kids. Until that point, I had only taught university level (with lots of other TAs and we made department-wide tests and used the same department-created syllabus) and had an internship at a high school. I was definitely a newbie and I had a lot to learn and the principal who hired me (not at our school anymore) gave me the keys to the classroom and said, “Have fun!”

That was the extent of my orientation to the world of elementary school Spanish teaching.

So, August, 2010 rolled around and I started. But then…there was no curriculum; there were no materials from previous teachers other than the textbooks (originally published in 1987, 4th edition published 2000). I thought it was weird that the principal only gave me the textbooks and no scope and sequence documents or curriculum documents, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to rock the boat. I just got hired for my first real job and I wasn’t going to ruin it by complaining.

I floundered for a while. I didn’t get a lot of respect from the older kids because I kept teaching them things they already knew. I still didn’t say anything about the missing curriculum documents. I just kept trying new things in later chapters in the text. I told them, “Review is good, it’s good practice and you’ll need it for high school.” I kept my head down and just plowed through the year, hoping that I was doing a good job.

The more I taught, the more I found my voice in the classroom. I am not a quiet teacher; I am not laid back or subdued. I am wild and crazy and loud and do whatever I can to engage the kids. I have no problems with embarrassing myself for the good of their education. The way I handled it was to keep trying new things and to keep trying to do the best for the students. My goal is for them to communicate in Spanish. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to do it, from new textbooks, to units I’ve created on my own, to finding and using TPRS and CI Methods. I have just kept trying new things to achieve my goal.

I guess you could say that that answers the question in the title, but there’s so much more to it, so much more that I have learned from my troublesome experience of being an (almost) unsupported brand new FLES teacher.*

Blessing in Disguise

 In some ways, being thrown in head first…

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#Teach2Teach Question 2: Politics and Teaching

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School Politics

Sometimes the realities of running a school get in the way of the ideals that we have for our language classes. At my school, at least, Spanish (the only ForLang offered) is the first one kids are pulled out from for activities or resource classes or speech therapy. Sometimes I really feel like I am the very bottom of the totem pole; I’ve felt like my only purpose is to watch the students while their “real” teachers have a bathroom break. I have lobbied and tried for years to get more time with my students. I have presented revised school schedules, volunteered to give up planning periods and shorten my lunch period, all with the goal of seeing any or all of my students more times per week.

None of it has worked.

It can be disheartening. But after the initial disappointment, there can be a silver lining. We just have to learn how to spot it among all those dark clouds.

Politics is all about Perception

I would love to teach more, but it’s not a possibility. The last time I went in to ask if there was any way I could teach more classes to my students, the principal showed me the breakdown of the required amount of time for each subject. It was a bit of a wakeup call for me. Each subject area has a required amount of minutes per week that it must be taught. Different classes have different amounts of time, with ELA and Math taking the biggest chunks (we are transitioning to Common Core at our school). Foreign language instruction was the last on the list of subjects (a bad sign) and when I saw the amounts of time required, I saw:

K – 2nd – 0 Minutes

3rd – 5th – 0 Minutes

6th – 8th – 90 Minutes (optional)

I could choose to see this as something dismaying; I could choose to see the small amount of required time as something frightening. I foolishly thought that since this was new information for me, it would be new information for the admins and they would say something like, “Oh, you’re not supposed to be here. There’s the door, it’s been nice knowing you, now get out.” This, of course, is totally silly because they have known about the required amount of time since before I ever started. But that nervousness can get to you. It got to me for a while until I realized that I haven’t been fired in 4.5 years and since I teach all the kids in the whole school, I have become sort of a celebrity here with kids and parents. Once I had that realization, I chose to see it in a different, more positive way: Even with these constraints, I am a full time teacher. I see all students at least 30 minutes per week (and I get to see the majority of them 90 minutes a week).

I choose to see these constraints as freeing. There is no requirement for Spanish at the lower grade levels. Looked at from the other side, though, this means that there is no restriction on what I can do in the classes. I am not beholden to any one district-wide curriculum and even though it has been A LOT of work, I have been able to put together something that I think is pretty good (but there’s always room for improvement!)

I know that my situation is definitely NOT the norm. I’m sure that you have different types of constraints that I will not know about or be able to address because of the particulars of my situation. But I assure you, no matter what the problem is, there IS some different way of looking at it that you can gravitate towards if you choose to look hard enough. I’m not saying it’s easy. It took me months of reflecting and thinking (and stressing out) before I had my realization about the positive side of the administrative constraints of my curriculum.

Teach Smarter

I am blessed to have an administration that believes in foreign language instruction at all grade levels. But I still only see the kids a few times a week. Because of this, I have had a lot of different iterations of “Spanish Class” in the last 4.5 years. Currently, I am using TPRS and I believe that this will be where I stay. This is the future of language instruction because of the results it yields along with the level of engagement for student and teacher.

When I think about it, though, if I didn’t have time constraints and I could see all students every day, I probably would not have been so quick to change course. In a 2 day/week class, I was able to see just how ineffective the grammar grind approach can be. The students had 2 days of Spanish followed by 5 days without. Between classes, I was lucky if students remembered my name, let alone the complex grammar rules I taught them the week before. At the beginning, I used a much more traditional text-book based curriculum in which I taught everything in the book from Chapter 1 – Chapter 15 in that order. I taught, the students practiced and took tests, we moved on to the next chapter. The results were not great. The students couldn’t do much in their speaking or writing and their listening comprehension skills weren’t great because I spent the time teaching grammar rules, usually using English.

I saw early on that this was a fool’s errand. It was getting nowhere. So I began experimenting. I kept reading about TPRS and tried storytelling in some of my classes. It went OK. Then I went to a workshop in July 2014 and really was sold on TPRS. I have used it in class ever since. The students remember what they have learned because they are remembering story lines, not remembering discreet grammar rules. Politically, the administration is positive and generally leaves me alone because they see my classes with the kids engaged and having fun and they see the written and spoken results that TPRS is so famous for. The kids can understand so much more than they ever could before and they can speak and write, too.

Finding Inspiration

Even when we are frustrated by from the administration or from the district, there is always a bigger story. There is probably not some principal or vice principal saying, “ForLang classes are the bane of our existence and we need to get rid of them at any cost.” They are just doing their best to run their schools.

I am inspired by the administration in my school that is committed to carving out time foreign language instruction when it is not required. I am inspired by the other teachers in our diocesan district as well because they are working under the same frustrating constraints as I am. They come up with some great ideas for activities and their students (and mine) come out of our schools with a solid background in foreign language and culture that their public school peers probably don’t have (FLES programs in FL are provided on a district by district or sometimes school by school basis; to my knowledge, there is no requirement for public schools to have them).

I am also inspired by the teachers in my PLN. #Langchat has opened doors that I never would have considered before. There are so many teachers’ blogs with uplifting commentary and ideas for new activities. It is an amazing time to be a teacher. There are so many people out there with great ideas and who are willing to help either through information they’ve posted in the past or through direct contact with them through email, twitter, or blog comments. I can’t tell you how many teachers whose blogs I follow and whom I respect greatly have offered encouraging words or advice or congratulations when I post about a successful activity. The #langchat PLN is the warmest and most encouraging group of teachers I have ever encountered. I am inspired by someone every single day. I don’t have a department, so I have felt like I was going it alone for a long time and now, with #langchat and the inspiring teachers that I have connected with, I have the All-Star team of department-mates. That is where I find my inspiration on the worst days, the days when I feel frustrated and beat down by administration policies.

Thanks, guys!

The Takeaway

As I mentioned, my situation is probably a lot different from that of most of the others who will read this, especially the secondary teachers. That being said, if there is one thing that I hope that everyone takes away from reading this, it’s that there is always a different way to look at a terrible situation, no matter what that situation might be. There is always something positive that can be made from something that at first seems negative.

The key keeping your sanity in the minefield that is school politics is figuring out how to find positive thing and nurturing it until it transcends the negative and you forget what all the stress was about in the first place.

#Teach2Teach Question 1: How Do You Balance Teaching and Planning

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My answer to Amy Lenord’s #Teach2Teach first question. I am coming late to the party, but I hope you like what I have to share!

Set Your Priorities

When I started, I was developing a curriculum basically from scratch. I also had the shock of going from teaching 150 students in an online university course, the kind where all of the assessments and assignments were provided by the textbook publishing company, to teaching 350 kids ranging in age from 6 – 14 and having a sixth grade home room. It was overwhelming for my first year in the classroom.

I stayed late, until 5:30 or 6:00 PM almost every day and I came in at least 1 weekend day per week, sometimes 2. Basically, I lived at school. Whenever my wife was at work, I was at school.

Then, in March of my first school year, my first son was born. He had some health problems (all better now!) and it was scary. It reset my entire outlook on life and time with my family. I had to ask myself, “What is truly important?” Yeah, I spent 2 years getting a Masters degree in foreign language education and that is super important to me, but is it more important that my family, than my new child at home?

Before my son was born, the question was a complicated one. I worried about work-life balance and how I would get everything done with a new baby. Then he was born. And that made the answer totally obvious–No, teaching is not nearly as important as my family. It is a very distant number 2 on my list. So, it’s still high on the list, it’s just that number one is waaaaaayyyyy bigger than I ever expected it would be. I had to look at what I was doing at school and pare it down to make time for being at home. I had to get organized…really organized.

Get Organized

It’s still a struggle to stay organized, but having a system that works for you is the best advice I can give. I had a lot of trouble with this and there were a lot of experiments to figure out how organize y school stuff. You have to know what you are willing to do. If you’re not willing to put all of your papers in a binder, then you won’t do it. After a lot of experimentation with different methods of organization, I found that I will. So that’s what I do. You have to think about what you will do rather than what looks like a great idea on Pinterest (disclosure-I got almost all of my organization ideas from Pinterest! I love that site).

A note about being organized: you need to have an end goal in your organization. Ask yourself, “What is my goal in being organized?” Then you can fit your organizational tools and tricks around that goal. For example, I need to be able to turn off school and go home and be with my family. I need to avoid bringing work home as much as I can and I need to avoid going back to school at night or on weekends. That was my reason for getting organized. I still bring home work sometimes and I still come in at night or on weekends sometimes, and I’m definitely thinking about school all the time now to write on the blog, but it’s a different thought process. Rather than being overwhelmed with work, I have time to be reflective about the things I do in the classroom. That’s a luxury that I hope everyone can fit into their day.

Figure Out What Works For You

I am a morning person. I am bright eyed and bushy tailed in the morning. Then, when I add coffee, I’m ready for the day! Knowing this, I can work with it to help me with my reason for being organized that I talked about above. I try to get to school at least an hour early, if not more so (school starts at 8). I get to use the computer in the classroom I share with 2 other teachers, I get to make copies without a line out the door behind me, I get to sit in my classroom and quietly prepare myself mentally for what I will do for the day, and I get to prepare for class- find pictures for PowerPoint presentations, cut up papers for activities, etc. I also use the time for grading class work. I don’t really give homework anymore because it didn’t really help the kids and just gave them lots of zeroes and I had to spend time catching up with them to find the work. This definitely did NOT work for me. No homework has freed up a lot of time – in other words, I now spend my time grading quality work that I know the kids have done themselves. There are some homework ideas, like that I’d love to start implementing, like real world homework Once I find what works for me in implementing this, I I will definitely assign more work outside the classroom.

Final Thought on Question 1

What we do is important. We are gatekeepers to a larger world that the kids might not be exposed to otherwise. That being said, we also do important things outside the classroom. As important as we are in it, sometimes, we are needed elsewhere. As teachers of any subject, we need to make sure that we know what our priorities are. We need to figure out what we are willing to do (example: organize lessons and units in binders-YES; assign, grade, and stress out about collecting busy-work homework assignments-NO). Once we know what is most important and what we are willing and able to do, we can develop a system to create the best class that we can for our students and our lives.