Mascots and Silly Characters

Well, the year is in full swing. Homework is assigned, assignments are being completed and collected, grades are going into the gradebook. All is going at breakneck speed from August to June. It’s already our 3rd week (almost the end of it!) and it feels like we just started.

Things have gone really well, especially my classroom mascots. All classes from 4th – 8th have created a mascot (2 grade level). Now, I am waiting on students to finish their artwork. Here are some examples of the mascots (art by students):

Jiggly Puff el Pato Rosado (incomplete, but looking good so far), Pikachu Llama Amarilla (lots of Pokemon suggestions 🙂 ), Furrari el Perro Rojo

Character Interviews

At the beginning of the year, there are always lots of posts about ice-breakers and about how to get the students to share their information with the teacher and the other students. I, for better and for worse, don’t have this issue. It’s better because I already know the students (and they know me, which means they think they know what they can get away with, more on management later). It’s worse because I have to come up with ideas to review introductions and talking about basic personal information (age, name, where you live, how you feel, what you like, etc). Luckily, this is all stuff we have talked about before, so it’s a quick review. Unluckily, the students have been with each other and with me for potentially 7 years! They all know each other!

So what to do?

To get around this problem, I had students practice by answering the basic questions about themselves in their notes and then interviewing each other. This is nothing new for them and they weren’t too engaged because they already know pretty much everything about each other.

But here’s where the hook came in. After their interviews, I had them sit back in their chairs and told them to answer their questions again. Only this time, they would answer as someone else (a famous person, a fictional character, or someone they made up). They wouldn’t share their info with others until the interviews. This gave them a chance to be creative and let their silliness take control. In the 4th and 5th grades, they interviewed each other and then reported back the information they found out to the full class. In 6th and 7th grades, the students interviewed each other, and then they had to create a comic of a story, the basic plot line of which was:

                       __(the character you created)_ needs a friend. He/she goes to all the people you                               interviewed (the other students’ fictional characters) and ask to be friends.

For the 8th grade, they had to be the person they created and answer a survey on the topic we have been discussing since the beginning of the year (the Olympics and Sports in general). Then, they interviewed each other in character about sports using some question prompts I came up with. They liked that they could make up the information they wanted (my favorite was a student saying, in a serious tone, “Señor, is Bob the Builder more of a baseball guy or a football guy?”) and they liked the unrestrained feel of the class because they could pick their partners and enjoy completing the activity with their friends.

If you have students that you already know and/or that already know each other, I highly recommend allowing them to let their creativity loose (with some constraints, of course: no politicians, no teachers or other students, etc) and play with their own ideas.


…And We’re Back

Summer has been a great time for rest and reflection. As much as I could, I tried to unplug from the things that were stressing me out from the year and turn my school brain off as much as possible. I had trouble with turning it off all the way, but overall, I have been able to relax, recharge, and come back to school and to blogging with a positive attitude.
Right out of the gate, I will not be using any English on the first day of class. As many others have said before, procedures can come on the second day. The first day will be used to set the tone in a way that I have always thought about doing, but I have never actually done before–All Spanish, no English (from me). This will be challenging. I have an advantage that lots of teachers don’t have, which is that 90% of the students already know me and how I teach and I won’t have to do lots of introduction. Rather than “Como te llamas?” and Ice-Breaker activities, we will jump back in just as we would after a long weekend or Christmas break. We will do some PQA about summer, we’ll listen to music, and we’ll make a class mascot (which started as an idea that I saw on Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell’s site a few years ago).
When I ask a story, I always start with a description of the character–what it is (animal, person, monster, alien, etc), name, age, descriptive adjectives, what clothes he/she/it is wearing, how he/she/it is feeling. I will use this familiar template to create a character in each class group. We’ll describe and draw him/her together on the first page of our notebooks. Then, I will have a student volunteer draw another and put it up on my Can-Do Statement boards that I have put up in the room (more on that in a later post). Hopefully, having a mascot will help with friendly competition between classes, especially now that the Olympics are going on.
My other hope is that by sticking to my guns on the first day, the students will see that I am serious about using Spanish as much as possible.The advantage of knowing all the kids is also a disadvantage because they all know me. They all know my personality and how I like to do things and making a change to that will be difficult. I will be tempted to speak with them during class in English to catch up on summer vacation stories, talk about new superhero movies, or to ask how older brothers and sisters are doing. But I will resist the urge to use class time to do these things. We have all the time in the world to catch up and I can and should have these conversations outside of our formal class time.
Spanish all around us
Living in Central Florida, there is so much Spanish around us, but it’s easy to not notice it. My goal with my middle-schoolers this  year is to get them to start looking around at their community and seeing what is just under the surface. We all know how kids are, they can walk past the same thing every day and not notice it.
So, how to solve this?
But not just any old homework…no busywork, no fill in the blank worksheets, nothing like that. This year, I’ll be rolling out a new (to me) system: Choose your own homework . I have taken from lots of other teachers’ lists and come up with something that will be appropriate for my middle-schoolers. The majority of the things that the students can choose from are ways to engage with the community, from things as simple as listening to a Spanish-language radio station in the car on the way home from school to interviewing Spanish speaking people in our community.
As a teacher, I let the Communities standards get away from me. It is an intimidating task to get students to engage with the language outside the school walls and outside the school day, but with this new, ongoing homework assignment, I hope to get them to open their eyes to the things they have missed in their own communities and beyond. This choose your own homework activity, with lots of opportunities for engagement, will be my way to begin to start a conversation with the students about just how much of the target culture is right here around us.
The year is beginning and I am ready for it. Units are planned, lessons are written and posted, and it’s time to get the party started.

Summer Planning and Getting Back in the Game

An unexpected hiatus

Burned out, Over it, Exhausted, Fried, Run down

These are all phrases I can use to describe the last 2.5 months of school. I was ready to be done with the year in April, which is bad, because the year was over on June 1. I didn’t blog because all I had were negative things to say. I know that I would stop following a “woe-is-me” type blog from a burned out teacher, so I decided to just take a break.

And I’m glad I did, because, after a week and a half at home, I’m already anxious to get back into the game. I went back and re-read my posts from the last year. I really posted a lot less this past school year than the year before. I am not too happy about that. This blog is a place to post my reflections, ideas, and share what has been successful in the classroom. The reason I didn’t post was that I didn’t feel as inspired as I had in the last year. I felt like I made it past the honeymoon period of TPRS and have started to plateau.

Engaging students and myself next year

Now comes the hard part: How to keep students (and myself) engaged. I have storytelling pretty much down. The kids like the stories, especially in the lower grades, but the older ones are hungry for more. They need a new story template and new types of activities to keep them engaged.

This summer is the time for finding the solution. I have been reading up on Laura Sexton’s pblinthetl blog and am going to try some of her ideas:

Vocabulary blogs


Since the 8th grade is now a byod class, I am anxious to get them using their devices to personalize their learning. I learned about the idea of student-created word walls, but those are not very practical for me because I teach 3rd – 8th grade in the same room which I also share with another teacher. There just isn’t enough wall space for all the classes to have that for all of the classes.

An idea for those younger grades would be to have class wikis for word walls (have students suggest words or I can take a picture of the words we end up writing on the board) and post them to our class websites.

Interactive notebooks


Interactive notebooks are something that I have played with before, but it wasn’t very successful. First off, it was way too much work for me to collect and grade, which is because I implemented it in 4 grades at the same time. It was a bit of a disaster. This year, though, will be better. I am keeping it simple and straight-forward and I am rolling it out slowly, just like the byod activities that I talked about above.

Finally, assigning homework (or finally assigning homework)

With 2 days per week of instruction time, I decided that chasing students for uncompleted homework assignments wasn’t worth it. While this did free up my time and keep lots of 0s out of my gradebook (allowing grades to better reflect the students’ abilities), it hasn’t quite sat right with me. I want the students to interact with the language outside of school, but I don’t want to give worksheet and I don’t want to have to chase them down for it. Then, I found this 5 year old post from my Blackbox Buddy Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell at musicuentos. I will have some ideas on how to hold the students accountable for getting this work done and I will post them as soon as they are more fleshed out.

These are just a few ideas that I have encountered that are going to dovetail nicely with my own teaching style. I will be describing more as I find them and will be adding my own contributions as well.

Thank you to all the bloggers and great thinkers out there in the World Language Ed-Blogging world. Your work serves as an inspiration and I hope that I may rejoin your ranks soon!

One Minute Dance Party, or: Learning to Let Loose a Little

Sometimes I come in the classroom and kids are wired. They are keyed up beyond belief and they are jittery and wild and can’t sit still. This happens at all grade levels, but especially in the lower grades.

Other times I come into the classroom and the kids are zombies. They are bored and half-asleep and they are more lethargic than little kids should ever be. Like the wildness, this happens at all grade levels, but this occurs especially in the upper grades.

Either way, the students are not participating in class and they have a hard time following along with anything. This frustrates me to no end. One of my biggest faults lies in the fact that I take things the kids do too personally in class. It gets under my skin. After the fact, I always feel bad. I objectively understand that they are just kids with 8 other teachers who demand just as much from them as I do. I just get bent out of shape if they’re not into the lesson. They often show their lack of interest in the ways that I mentioned above: They sleep or they are not even trying to pay attention. Not. Even. A. Little.

So what to do? Continue reading “One Minute Dance Party, or: Learning to Let Loose a Little”

“I like that we don’t learn anything in Spanish class”

I gave one of my classes a reading assignment today. Generally, they like the stories that we act out in class, but they aren’t too fond of the reading. Today, though, I gave them a reading and the assessment was to draw a original comic based on the reading. The structure of the story is one that we have covered many times before-someone wants something, doesn’t have it, and goes several places to find it. This is the basic structure of the stories I have done so far using Blaine Ray’s book, “Look, I Can Talk.”

In the beginning of the year, I had students write stories or summaries using the vocabulary, but this group today was a particularly artistic group, so I thought that I would set them up for success by giving them something that they would be more interested in doing.

On the back of the story handout, the students had six empty squares in which to draw their comics. Their only instructions were to draw an original comic based on the story structure. I told them beforehand that I wouldn’t be their dictionary and that I wouldn’t answer their questions for the first five minutes-they just needed to get started on drawing and writing something interesting and based on the structure of the stories.

One student said to me, “This is fun, I like when we have days in class when we don’t learn anything.”

At first, I was taken aback. I told her, “Well, yeah, today you’re showing me what you already learned.” And I continued walking around the classroom.

I came back a few minutes later and said, “So, how much have you learned in class this year?”
She said, “Nothing, really. You tell stories about people wanting stuff and having to travel around to get it. It’s more fun than before.”

I laughed and looked at her paper. This is what I saw:

photo 3

She was definitely having fun with the material, but also using Spanish pretty well. I went around the room and I saw these, too:

photo 1 photo 2 photo 4

I thought about it more and more as the day went on. “We don’t learn anything in here.” It sounds bad, almost insulting. But I’m not choosing to look at it that way. She was telling me that she likes having fun.

That is exactly how I described the TPRS method to the administrators at my school when I talked with them about changing the curriculum. I said that my goal was to tell and read stories and make it interesting enough that the kids wouldn’t even know they are learning anything. They just come in, comprehend the stories, and show me what they know in writing, story re-tells in class, or writing summaries of the stories. I posted about that earlier.

Of course, I realize that there is English in some of these comics and the grammar and spelling aren’t great, but they show that the students are responding to the material and are branching out and trying to expand their abilities in the target language.

The students are not learning rules or grammar or spelling in the traditional way. There are no worksheets here, no blanks to fill in, only stories that the kids had fun creating. They will get better as they build their proficiency. If I were using the traditional paradigm of grading, I would have to give many of these assessments Cs, Ds, and Fs-the kids use too much English, they misspell things, and they use the wrong verb conjugations. It would be disheartening for them and for me. Instead, with a new way of thinking about how to assess the students – a more holistic and proficiency-based grading model – I am able to praise the things that they are able to do and help to shape where they can go next. It goes from a “sage on the stage” model of teaching and assessment to a mentor model. Rather than me telling them what they did wrong and making corrections, I can praise what they have done and use the data to evaluate what they have and have not yet acquired in the language. I can then target those things in my stories.

Promoting Student Success, Pt 1

This will be Part 1 of an ongoing series of reflections and ideas for promoting students’ success in our classrooms. The idea is that with some activities, I have personally set up kids to do poorly. It’s not their fault, it’s mine. Now I’m going to do something about it. I hope that my ideas and reflections can help others to reflect on what they’re doing to help students to do well.

As someone much wiser than I said, “Success is the best motivation.” I wholeheartedly believe in this statement and I want my teaching to reflect it. Our students deserve to have every opportunity to succeed in our classes. I don’t mean that we should artificially inflate grades or ignore missing assignments give our students good grades regardless of their proficiency gains. These are examples of empty success. Doing these things would be the opposite of giving students the opportunity to feel true success at their given task. Instead of creating successful students, we would be creating students who feel entitled to good grades no matter what. That is not and should not be any teacher’s end goal. On the contrary, we should spend our time holding our students to the highest standards that they are able to achieve, based on their current proficiency levels and their abilities.

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this notion in recent weeks. This year’s curriculum changes (using TPRS and CI methods rather than the grammar-heavy Skill-Building methods) have brought with them a philosophical change that I wasn’t really expecting. I wrote in a previous post, “If it’s not fun, why do it?” and I stick by that. The students and I should all be enjoying ourselves when we communicate in the Target Language. It helps their memory and cognition and keeps them from tuning out.

The other big philosophical change is that the students shouldn’t be set up to do poorly. A year ago, I would have said, “Of course we should set students up for success. We should give them all the opportunities to do well that we can. That’s why I let them use their notes and work with partners on grammar worksheets. They can help themselves, they can help each other, and, if they really need more help, I can help them, too.  It’ll be great. They are going to be sooooo successful.”

And I was wrong.

That is not success the success the students should be working toward. Doing well on a grammar worksheet is not success; completing non-communicative grammar activities is not helping them to be able to communicate in the real world.

My realization came this week with my Hispanic Heritage Month Projects. Every year, I have done Hispanic Heritage Month projects with my 5th through 8th grade classes. They are the traditional things:  research on countries (5th grade), research on holidays (8th grade), research on famous Hispanics in the USA and in the world (6th grade), and research on the benefits of language study (7th grade). These projects have become my marquee assignments. They are big, pretty, Spanish filled (except for the reasons to study Spanish, which is in English) posters and power points that get shown all around the school. Their importance has been paramount to my program because they are great marketing. I can show them off to new parents on open house nights or I can show them to the other teachers in the school to say, “Look at the cool things my students can do.”

All the while, though, these projects have been setting kids up to be unsuccessful. Their visuals are almost always perfect, but they can’t speak a word of what they write-it’s just way too advanced for their Novice-mid to Novice-High levels. Granted, some students are more successful than others, but I wouldn’t count it as a win if only 5% of my students can sound good while presenting their information.

Next year, these projects are getting a major overhaul. I already overhauled what I am presenting to the students:  my lessons during Hispanic Heritage Month with stories that give some information about countries of the Spanish speaking world (pictures, cultural products, fun slang, etc—more posts about those aspects of the stories are forthcoming). Now it’s time to overhaul what they need to present or produce. They need to do communicative activities (in the presentational mode), but they need to be tailored towards their level. The activities need to be appropriate for the students.

I’m still not sure what that looks like, unfortunately, at this point, I have only pinpointed exactly what I DON’T want to do with projects like these.

(Any suggestions would be much appreciated…and shamelessly stolen 🙂 )

The students’ writing

These kids, man, these amazing kids: They are capable of doing some amazing things when they get the opportunity.

Some background:

I have taught one particular class and this group has always been problematic for me in behavior and in motivation. I met these kids when they, and I, were young. I was brand new, a baby teacher who didn’t know his backside from a hole in the ground. I couldn’t tell you why I taught what I was teaching and I couldn’t tell you what I was going to teach next because I was flying by the seat of my pants. The kids, at least this group, were not aware of this and they were having fun learning about their colors and descriptive adjectives and the other things I taught them.

The next year, I started to explicitly teach grammar, which turned a lot of them off. One kid said to me, “This is just like English class, but in Spanish.” I didn’t really know what to say. I disagreed, I said, “No, this is how you learn Spanish.” Oh, how naive I was.

(Side note, at the time, I disagreed because I thought that he was wrong about my class being just like English class. In retrospect, I still disagree, but not because it was like English class, I disagree because almost nothing I did with them while teaching grammar was actually being done in Spanish).

Luckily for me, I attended a TPRS workshop with the incredible Donna Tatum-Johns, who had me retelling a story in French after an hour of instruction. I was hooked. I was excited to try it in my classes.

I started with it on the first day. Right after going over the rules (which have been the same since I started), I gave instructions on reacting to the stories and answering questions. They were intrigued to see what I was up to; I was nervous.

I started telling a story. I made it up as I went along, it ended up being about Cristiano Ronaldo wanting a Ferrari. It was quick and it was not that great, I’m sure, but it was fun and the kids were hooked. Kids that have rolled their eyes at everything I’ve said in the classroom for years were engaged and participating.

Then came the real stories. I currently use the first book in the “Look, I Can Talk” series by Blaine Ray. The kids enjoy the stories (although, about half way through the first chapter, they started to get sick of people wanting, but not having, cats–we started to change things up with the animals, which only engaged them more because the stories became their own) and they answer the questions.

Now to the writing.

After the first embedded reading, I had the students write a story similar to what they read. They could write it about anything they wanted. The original extended reading, from Look, I Can Talk by Blaine Ray:


Some of the students just wrote the story on the other side of the paper word for word, changing only the names, places, and items wanted by the characters. Others, though, were more adventurous. Their goal was to write 50 words. It was a way for me to just see what they could do. Most of the papers I got back had much more than 50 words, some almost reaching 100.

I was thrilled.

Now, to be fair, I do think that this group, since they are older than most of the others, has an advantage over the younger grades because they have had more experience with the language. I do know that one younger group, when they tried to do the same type of writing assignment, were not able to write as much or as accurately as this group. It’s all an experiment right now, trying to figure who is capable of what.

I definitely know that this group can write. They can write so well. See an example:


This example is one of my favorites: the girl who wrote it, even though she made little errors, chose to write from the perspective of the character who had something extra to give away, rather than a character who wanted a particular thing. We had never looked at the story from that perspective. When I read it, I was completely blown away and amazed. As I said, there are spelling and grammar errors, but this is after just 4 or 5 TPRS classes and 2 stories asked and read in class.

That’s the great thing about this method: allows students to get past the worrying about perfect grammar and spelling. Instead, they are free to focus on getting a message across to the reader/listener.