The Best Kind of Mistake

Everyone makes mistakes. As a language teacher, I know this implicitly: kids are always making mistakes with their language. But should I chide them for it? Or gently correct them? Should I be mad about mistakes? Or should I roll with it? I hope that it’s obvious from what I’ve written here that I am absolutely in the latter camp (gently correct and roll with it).

This is how I should treat students and this is how I should treat myself with regard to making mistakes in class, right? I think so. As teachers, it is so easy to be hard on ourselves. It is our responsibility to be the best we can be for the 45 minutes that the 20-30 kids are in our rooms so that they can acquire as much language as possible. At the same time, we are human and we make mistakes, we have off days, we just don’t feel like it some days.

And some days are like last Thursday. I was prepared, I was ready, I was excited for my lesson. My 4th graders were going to read and then complete their first timed writing assignment (40 words, 5 minutes). We have been practicing writing in Spanish to get the hang of it, to learn the skills of editing themselves and staying within the bounds of the high-frequency vocabulary that our class curriculum is based on. I was pumped to see what they could do…

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Stamps and Homework

Two days a week. That’s all the students get of Spanish. Two measly days. That is all the time the kids get to have CI, to practice their speaking, writing, and reading (with teacher supervision), to interact with their peers in the TL. This is something I’ve struggled with my entire time teaching. How much will the students care? How much should I care? Should I just be a babysitter, should I be the most serious and rigorous teacher I possibly can? These are the questions I’ve been asking myself over the last 8 years.

Some years, I swing into ambivalence: “Why bother doing anything rigorous? This should just be an experience for the kids to hear some Spanish and leave.” Other years, like this one, I am feeling like I have a grand opportunity, that even though the kids only have a 90 minutes (or less) a week of Spanish, they have the potential to move forward on their proficiency paths.

There are two ideas that I’ve played with before that I’ve given much more serious thought to and that I’m very excited about: Stamps and Homework.

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On My Own, But Not Alone

One and a half weeks down

The year has started and is in full swing. I am teaching all the kiddos again, K-8, and I have a homeroom this year, too. Seventh graders. They are goofy, loud, smart, boisterous, outgoing, friendly, and all the other things that 12-13 year olds can be (also moody, emotional, confused, annoyed…). They keep me busy; they need guidance; they are awesome.

The homeroom kids are a particularly special group: They were in Kindergarten when I started. They (most of them) have been at our school for as long as I have. I am excited to have them as “my kids” this year. I have watched them grow up. I have built relationships with them and their parents and I have been there with them to celebrate their highest moments in school and guide them through some of their lowest.

Department of One

Being the only foreign language teacher (#deptof1) can have its setbacks and problems. It is difficult to not have a partner teacher to bounce ideas off of or to commiserate with. I am on my own. Sometimes it can feel lonely. Since I am the only one teaching my content in my whole school, it is sometimes hard to share successes and defeats that happen through the year. Luckily, I have developed friendships with all the people I work with and I have found a community of teachers through Twitter, conferences, and blogs. They help me feel like I’m not so alone in my teaching.

The other thing I have that helps me to not feel alone is the kids. As the only language teacher, I see the same kids year in and year out. They grow up with me. For most of them, I’m the only Spanish teacher they’ve ever had. This is a situation that no other teacher in my school has. I see it as a blessing. It is a gift that many teachers won’t have in their careers.

When I started, I was overwhelmed–too many students, too much grading, too many preps (9!).

classroom(My first classroom at my school – 2010-11 School Year)

But as the years have passed, the rapport I have built with my students has gotten deeper and more meaningful for me and (hopefully) for them. There are no more icebreaker activities-we all know each other. There are no more placement tests, I know where they all are and what they’ve all been taught. I am able to develop a relationship with them unlike the one they will have with any other teacher.

I am the only teacher who has taught them every year for their entire time at our school and that can be problematic in some ways: Conflicts that arise can are not easily solved when the student leaves my room at the end of they year, they have to be solved right then and there; The students only have one teacher’s perspective and voice (both metaphorically: I have to make sure that I am checking my biases and personal beliefs at the door; and practically: I have to go out of my way to find other voices for them to hear in the TL so that they can experience the language of someone who isn’t me). But ultimately, I wouldn’t change it.

#oneword

There are lots of posts about #oneword. My word this year is Appreciation. Having a homeroom this year has changed my perspective a bit. I spent a lot of the past 2 years feeling like unappreciated, like my room was a place for the “real teachers” to drop off their students so they could make copies or plan their activities. In reality, my room is an opportunity, no matter what the teachers who drop off their students there think (not that any of them think that I’m just a babysitter–that’s more of a personal fear than anything else). In reality, while I was busy feeling unappreciated, I was the one who was not appreciating the situation I am in. My classroom isn’t just a holding cell for while the students’ “real teachers” have a planning time, it’s a place where the kids build proficiency in another language and build camaraderie between each other. It’s a different kind of class with different kinds of interactions. The students are encouraged to speak their minds and explore their abilities to connect with others in another language.

Just as in Spanish class, in homeroom (a total of an hour spread throughout the day), the students need to feel safe to speak their minds and bring up their problems and successes. In previous years, I would have been mad about being assigned a homeroom. I would have complained about all the extra work and supervision that I was taking on. But this year, I am looking forward to it. It’s been a great first week and I feel like I know what I’m doing (famous last words, right? Hopefully I’m not jinxing myself).

As a homeroom teacher, I am like their parent at school. Just like being a parent at home, it’s my job to encourage them, to guide them, to help keep them on the right track. I hold them accountable for their behavior and praise them for their successes.

I am more excited for this year than I have been for a long time. I am looking forward to a year of laughs and tears and struggles and successes.

 

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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Start a Language Teaching Blog. Seriously, Do it!

Another Year Gone By…

Today is my 2nd Blogiversary. It’s hard to believe that it has been two years since I began sharing my reflections on teaching with the language teaching world and it’s even harder to believe that anybody has been paying attention to them!

Thanks to everyone out there who has read and commented!

Writing this blog has had a lot of benefits for me as a teacher. I recommend everyone start your own blog about your classroom! Lots of different teachers have lots of different blogs. Mine is a more confessional/look-at-what-my-students-just-did/Here’s-how-I-dealt-with-a-tough-situation blog. It started out as something for me to refer back to and has grown into something that matters (hopefully…a little bit…) to other teachers. Other teachers create activities and tasks to share with the world; others talk about the science of language acquisition; others talk about a specific method (like TPRS or OWL); some are written by teachers just starting out and trying something new; some are written by experienced teachers who want to pass what they have learned to another generation of teachers. Whatever category you fall into (or even if what you write about is in a whole new category that no one has ever thought of), writing a language teaching blog is wonderful.

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This Year’s Main Lesson: Every Kid Has the Potential

Update

And we’re back! I have had a great spring break-went on vacation to DC and ate some of the best food I’ve ever eaten and then I got home to FL and went immediately to the NCEA conference in Orlando with my whole faculty team and learned about all kinds of new things to use in class. Unfortunately, not many of the sessions were specifically for teaching Spanish, but I was still able to get a lot out of the general education sessions (brain-based learning/memory strategies, talking about “Hot Topics” with kids if/when they come up, etc).

Spring Break = Time For Reflection

School starts back up on Monday, 4/13 and then it’s a mad dash to the finish line on June 3 (last day for the kids). This time away from the classroom has been a great way to recharge my batteries and it has given me some time to sit back and reflect on the things that the kids have achieved this year. Over the last few years, I taught using more traditional methods-conjugation tables, straight-forward grammar instruction, rule memorization, etc-and I found it boring and difficult for me and the for the students. They didn’t know any better, but I knew that it wasn’t working. The best of them, the ones who are the most motivated to study every night, could do a pretty good job of memorizing everything I taught them and could regurgitate it on a test, but they couldn’t communicate and they couldn’t understand.

This year has been completely the opposite. I’m 99% sure if I gave the students a grammar test after these last 8 months, they wouldn’t do so well. But when I give them a writing assignment in Spanish, I can get 10-20 good sentences in Spanish from kids as young as 4th grade! I couldn’t get last year’s 8th graders to do anything near that.

Of course, I must note that this is not the previous year’s 8th grader’s fault. It’s my fault. I was not getting their best from them because I was not teaching them the best way. They all had the ability. This year’s improvements are testament to that.

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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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FLES TPRS Story – Opuestos (Opposites), Pt. 4 – The Final Part of the Story

This is the final part of the story that I began at the beginning of January with my first and second graders (part 1; part 2; part 3). The target vocabulary terms are opposite adjectives – tall/short, fast/slow, nice/mean. It has been super fun in class. The other terms in today’s story were

Necesita ayuda – needs help
Va a – goes to
Le dice – says to him/her

Up to this point, I have reviewed the adjective vocabulary with TPR actions and the kids can do the actions when I say the words. I have found that the best way to practice this is to play Simon says with the TPR actions.

One problem that I encountered today was confusion with nice/ happy and mean/angry. In the future, I will have to differentiate the TPR actions and the words much more so that they are completely different to avoid confusion.

The story is below:

DV es antipático. DV necesita un amigo. DV no tiene un amigo. DV va a el chico bajo. DV le dice, “Necesito un amigo.” Chico bajo le dice “No. Eres antipático.”
DV va a el Chico alto. DV le dice “(same statement)” el Chico bajo le dice, “(same answer).”
DV va a la chica rápida. DV le dice, “(same question)” La chica rápido le dice, “(same answer)”
DV va a la chica lenta. DV le dice, “(same question)” La chica lenta le dice, “(same answer)”
DV va a la chica simpática (student number six from the first day). DV le dice “Necesito una Amiga.” La chica simpática le dice “sí sí ven aquí!” (chica simpática and DV give each other a high five)

Darth Vader is mean. DV needs a friend. DV doesn’t have a friend. DV goes to the short boy. DV says, “I need a friend.” The short boy says, “no. You’re mean.”
DV goes to the tall boy (same statement and same answer)
DV goes to the fast girl (same statement and same answer)
DV goes to the slow girl (same statement and same answer
DV goes to the nice girl. (Same statement). The nice girl says, “yes yes! Come over here!”
They give each other a high five.

I made sure to give an extra special round of applause for the students who played Darth Vader because I wanted them to feel loved by their class. I didn’t want them to think that no one wants to be their friend.

Reflection on the Entire Story Unit
I think that the story presentation was great overall, but there were some things that could be improved:

1. Fewer vocabulary structures–the kids had trouble keeping track of the words. I think that if all of the parts of here story were as repetitive as the final part and only focused on those few terms, the kids would be able to acquire them better.

2. Better TPR actions–the actions for alto and bajo and rápido and lento were easy for the students to understand, but, as I stated before, the actions for nice and mean where too similar to previous actions we have done for happy and angry and this caused some confusion.

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Variety = Success

“Kids can be so mean. It’s like they don’t even know that their words carry emotional weight. They say something and it just totally cuts you down…”

That is how I used to think. And sometimes it is still true about the emotional toll that the words of children take, but I’ve learned to not take it personally. I have realized, after a great long while, that their words and reactions probably have nothing to do with me or my class. Sometimes, people are just in bad moods. I think about how many times I have been curt or short with them because I was having a bad day and it reminds me that they are just kids and they lack the self-awareness that (most) adults have.

Boredom in Class

The reason that I bring all of this up is that I had a bad day on Monday. My first period (on a Monday) class didn’t want to do the work that I had planned. I had planned to do an embedded reading from the “Look, I Can Talk” text that I have been using. The kids did the reading ok, but then, when it came time to write, they hemmed and hawed and complained…and whined and protested and told me how sick of writing they are and how they don’t like writing about the stories.

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