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?

Continue reading “Loosening the “Teacher Grip””

Falling Flat on Your Face

A lot of bloggers who write about using TPRS or any other CI method talk a lot about how great it is and how engaged the students are and how much more the students are able to do with the language with these methods. They make it sound easy and wonderful and like anyone can do it and there is no challenge to it; once you decide to do it, your teaching life will be perfect. And in a way, all of that is completely true. It is easier for me now than it was when I taught grammar and used only the textbook; it is definitely more fun; and my teaching life has definitely improved.

CI methods have made a huge impact on the learning of my students in the last year and a half. But the one thing that I don’t see very much in other teachers’ blog posts is what they do when they fail spectacularly. We all do it, it’s the nature of being a human being trying to teach 25-35 other little human beings. Sometimes, the things we do will fall completely flat.

Let’s face it: As positive as we are in the world of language teacher blogging, sometimes, a lesson just doesn’t work.

I had this very experience yesterday when my 8th grade lesson fell completely flat. But one of the best things about teaching is that I was able to come back in today and approach it from a new angle. It went far better today.

The Grump Factor

When a class comes in grim and grumpy, my gut instinct is to reflect that grumpy energy and get mad at them for not paying attention or for calling out. I have learned through experience that even though it’s my first gut reaction, it is the single worst reaction to have. It does nothing but get them grumpier, which makes me grumpier, and we end up getting into a sort of grump-spiral and the class devolves from there and everyone leaves with bad feelings. It has happened more days than I care to admit and those are the days that I want to quit. I don’t know if other teachers have those days, but I’m not afraid to say that I do.

I’m not afraid to admit it because after enough of them, I started thinking about my reactions rather than the students’ behavior. “Could I be enhancing the bad feelings and making my day worse for myself? Is it really more my fault than theirs? Am I to blame for adding to the bad attitude in the room?” I’d ask myself. And the answer is, “YES!” They are children, I am the adult, and is it my responsibility to not lose my cool when kids act like grumpy kids. Of course, this realization made me feel terrible because it’s always hard to figure out that something you were blaming on someone else is really your fault. But after reflecting on it and thinking what I could do, I came up with some ideas for what to do when I start to fall on my face and I’d like to share them with you now:

What to remember when lessons fall flat… Continue reading “Falling Flat on Your Face”

Promoting Student Success, Pt. 5: Reestablishing Expectations After Winter Break

The fifth part in the ongoing series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure.

As a teacher who only sees each class once or twice a week, I try to make my expectations simple and easy to remember. I have a whole speech about why students should be quiet, how their brains are wired to try to understand messages, and about being respectful, but it usually does a better job of putting students to sleep than opening their minds to the benefits of respectful participation.

As the New Year begins, I am reminding the students of the expectations I have of them and I am also reminding them of what they can expect of me.

Continue reading “Promoting Student Success, Pt. 5: Reestablishing Expectations After Winter Break”

What I Learned in 2014

As the New Year begins, I have been reflecting on what to write. I have learned some really valuable (and REALLY obvious) lessons throughout the last year and I’d like to share them with you.

Storytelling Rules!

There’s not really much more that I can say about it. It is awesome! It is fun for me, it is fun for the kids, and it is effective.

This is a time of big transitional changes in my department. As the only Spanish teacher, I have been granted the freedom to try a lot of different approaches to see what works the best. I am blessed with an administration that values experimentation and is encouraging when I find a new approach that might yield better results.

In addition to changing what the curriculum looks like (especially the change from a book-based order of instruction to a high-frequency-vocabulary-based order of instruction), the switch has also entailed a complete change in emphasis on what student progress looks like. I have been using stamp sheets to evaluate oral communication and I have been using timed-writing and free-writing activities to evaluate written communication. Gone are the days of teaching grammar for grammar’s sake. This doesn’t mean that I don’t teach grammar at all, but it’s never taught to be tested, rather I teach some things to help them to express themselves better. I will not test the students on verb endings, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t ever see that endings change for different subjects.

Student Success Starts With The Teacher

A lot of times, it’s easy to blame the kids for doing poorly in class – “So-and-so never turns in work,” “So-and-so sleeps in class every day.” It’s so easy to write off the kids’ misbehaviors and lack of success as problems that we can’t solve, but we can and those that we can’t solve, we can help to solve. It’s on us to decide what student success looks like in our classes and success in a language class doesn’t look like success in another subject. (See the Promoting Success tag below for more posts about this).

Continue reading “What I Learned in 2014”

Promoting Student Success, Pt. 4: No One Does Poorly in My Class

The fourth part in the ongoing series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure.

Student progress in a language is a very individual thing. Different kids who have had the same amount of comprehensible input might have significantly different levels of proficiency. This is just a part of language acquisition. As language teachers (and as teachers, in general), we must be willing to explain things differently for different students or to give alternate assessments that will allow students to show their individual proficiency. Kids who have not mastered all of the things we have discussed in class are not going to fail because they are on a different mental time-table than my course pacing.

If you checked my online grade book and saw all my grades for all my classes-kindergarten through eighth grade-you’d see that the grades are almost all As and Bs and maybe some Cs. You might be tempted to think something along the lines of, “well, this guy must not be grading everything;” “this guy’s class must be a joke–all songs and games and no actual rigorous content;” “this guy must just give everyone good grades to avoid painful meetings with angry parents;” or something else along similar lines.

But there is a really good reason that almost all of my students have great grades and it is none of the things listed above. Continue reading “Promoting Student Success, Pt. 4: No One Does Poorly in My Class”

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 🙂 )

ACFTL and 21st Century Skills

I wish I knew about this when I started teaching a few years ago. It so clearly sums up what we try to do when we go against the “grammar grind” (thanks for that term, Chris Stoltz – It’s a great tool to show administration and parents to say, “the way that we did it in school when we were kids is just not effective for the purpose of teaching kids to communicate.”

Optimizing Immersion

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This is page 4 of the some of the work the American Council of Teaching Foreign Languages has done in aspirations of inspiring innovation and change in the FL classrooms across the nation.  I like that teaching in the past is identified and suggestions for teaching in the 21st century are defined.

I use this page as a guide for the work that I do in the classroom.  This is also an important piece of information to share with our colleagues and administrators that might not fully understand the expectations of a modern language classroom.  This graphic helps us to make decisions about what we teach and how we teach it.  In many ways, it guides us to reflect on creating better lessons and assessments.

Daniel H. Pink wrote a New York Times bestseller,  “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.” Throughout the…

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If it’s not fun, why do it?

This year, I intend to have fun. If there were some research out there that showed that teaching grammar-heavy lessons with little to no use of the Target Language was more effective than CI methods, then I would do the less-fun option.

But that’s not what the research shoes.

The research shows that CI is the way to go for acquisition. To me, that is a free pass to make my class as fun as I possibly can for the kids (and for myself). My requirement is to get the kids communicating in Spanish. I have all of the Standards and Can-do statements and Most-frequently-used-words lists at my disposal and I plan to put them together to make a program that is effective, interesting, and, most of all fun.

Because if it’s not enjoyable or effective classroom practice, why do it?