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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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?

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So You’re Thinking of Presenting At A Conference

I have a colleague and very good friend who asked me about my presentation at the SCOLT conference in Orlando (see this post). Her main question was, “How did you get to do that?” It’s a question I have gotten from lots of people since my first time presenting last year (see this post).

Attending and/or presenting at a conference is a great experience for any teacher at any point in their career. I have made friends and met colleagues that I would not have otherwise met. I have also met people I have only spoken with online through #langchat or other social media. When I met Laura, Keith, and Megan, I was completely star-struck. But the thing is, they’re normal people who want to be the best teachers they can be. Just like the rest of us. So come out to a conference and see what it’s like, then try and submit a proposal. The worst thing that could happen is they’ll say no. Last year, ACTFL rejected a proposal for a presentation. It was not very nice to feel the rejection, but at the same time, now I know what I need to do differently to maybe present there next year.

So What To Do?

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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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A long hiatus…

It’s been a while. It’s been time to decompress, time to focus on the art of teaching, time away from the hustle and bustle of all this language teacher blogging stuff. The irony, of course, is that I took a bunch of time away from the blog and from #langchat right after writing a post about starting a blog.

I still think you should start a blog, btw.

Personally, I needed time away. I was feeling uninspired and burned out. It happens to everyone from time to time. I feel like maybe I have written that phrase too many times on this blog, but it happens a lot. Don’t let anyone tell you they don’t get burned out, because they do. Everyone deals with it differently and that’s ok. Some people jump deeper into what they’re doing. Some people change what they’re doing and start from scratch again. And apparently, when I get burned out, I turn it all off and walk away.

But now I’m back and ready to share. What’s bringing me back is my SCOLT 2017 presentation. I will be talking about what to do when you move away from the textbook. Think of it like the sequel to what I spoke about last year.

I’m back in the game and ready to get back into the swing of it all. Seeing old friends at the conference like Laura and Fran (and meeting some people I feel like I’ve known for years but have never actually met in person, like Megan and Keith), and meeting new people with different perspectives and ideas has reinvigorated and inspired me. Seeing presentations from people whose work I have followed and admired for years is so encouraging. Thank you to all who are presenting or who have presented and keep inspiring us!

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.

Resonse to Laura Sexton: What Kind of Teacher Are You?

One of my blogging heroes, Laura Sexton (@SraSpanglish), has put out a challenge on her blog, pblinthetl.com. She has a list of 10 sentence prompts that she has used to reflect on her teaching up to now. I never miss an opportunity to reflect on my teaching, so as soon as I saw this, my mind went into overdrive mode trying to think of responses to all the questions. Here they are and I hope that they provide you with something to think about.

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1. I am a good teacher because … I am not very good at all, but I recognize it and I am always trying to improve.
I’m not good because I am good at what I do, in fact, I’m only just getting started, so by definition, I am not good at this yet. If I had to pick a reason that I’m good at teaching, it’s that I reflect on my teaching practice and I recognize where I need to improve. But that’s not all; I recognize my faults, yes, but I also seek out help from other teachers at my school, from members of my twitter pln, basically from anyone I can get to help me. I attend conferences when I can, I participate in #langchat conversations, I ask other teachers in my PLN when I have questions about strategies or activities. I’m good because I’m not very good and I have learned how to find and use the tools that are available to get better.

2. If I weren’t a teacher I would be … I honestly don’t know.
I can’t think of anything that I like better than teaching. I like writing, but I don’t think I’m good enough to get paid for it. I am a part time social media manager, which has been super cool, but would I want to make a full time career out of it? I don’t know. It’s possible, but I would really miss the classroom interaction. If I had to choose, it would definitely be something where I work with other people and where I get to do a lot of on the spot problem solving and where I get to laugh a lot. I don’t know what kind of job that would be, but I’m sure there’s something…Hopefully I won’t have to ever try to find out.

3. My teaching style is … Fun, silly, and boisterous
My philosophy on language teaching is that if it’s not fun, why do it? I love to have fun in the class and I love to make the class as fun and engaging for the kids as possible. It looks silly and crazy , but just because I wear silly ties, use silly props, and mess my hair up in a story for effect does not mean that I don’t know exactly what I am doing.

There has been a balancing act that I have finally figured out after 5 years of teaching and 1 year of tprs/CI teaching. I used to have too much fun and the kids’ learning suffered because they learned that they could get me off track by joking around. Now, I try not to tolerate as much joking around. The switch to CI has helped, because the curriculum is a lot less rigid (more opportunities to include silliness in the TL) and because the kids (mostly) can channel their silliness into the stories and they have a productive TL outlet for it.

4. My classroom is … Not mine.
I travel now. I used to have a classroom and a 6th grade home room in addition to teaching all the kids in the school from k-8. When give up the homeroom, I gave up the room. I spent a year sharing it with a homeroom teacher who was also the pe coach, which was ok, but I had trouble giving up my space. There were many…let’s call them territorial disputes…that made last year difficult. This year, the admin changed the schedule and my classroom became a room for Spanish and a homeroom and 6th and 7th grade math, so I travel now because the room is occupied by others most of the time. I only teach 2 grades, 6&7, in that room and I travel to everyone else. It has been a challenge in its own way because I feel like I’m invading other people’s space, but for me, it’s been liberating because I get to go all over the school and I have no worries about classroom politics. I have a closet space in my old homeroom and I can log into the school computer system from any desktop station, so I can get work done wherever I can find space. When I first heard that I was not going to be in that room, I was super angry about it, but after 7 months, I’ve come to see it as a blessing in disguise.

5. My lesson plans are … short, sweet, and likely to change.
I don’t do a lot of daily lesson planning in advance. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that I don’t have time to plan at home because of my many hats (being a dad is the biggest one, but there is also blogger, tweeter, and social media manager). The other reason is that the plans are soooooo susceptible to change. By that, I mean that I don’t know where a story is going to go. I know that one day I will be doing a class story based on an original one I write and on other days I will be using embedded readings and doing volleyball reading, team translating, drawing/writing summaries, retells, and/or original stories based on the readings. Finally, I have pared down my required materials for each level. TPRS has allowed me not to have to use textbooks, which is liberating. On most days, I am the most minimal teacher. I don’t need anything other than markers/chalk/smart board pen, my ppt presentations saved on the school’s faculty server (which can be accessed from any teacher’s account, so the teachers whose rooms I use don’t even have to logout of their stations and I don’t have to remember my USB drives), and my grade book for attendance and behavior plan purposes. I sometimes need to have copies and I always carry around blank copy paper for activities and writing assignments for kids who don’t have paper. Otherwise, I just need me. (That being said, I do have extensive unit plans that state all the materials I’ll need, the activities I plan to do, the skeletons of the stories I plan to tell, the types of assessments I plan to use, and the vocab and grammar I intend to cover)

6. One of my teaching goals is … To be better at assessing both proficiency and progress.
I have a gut feeling about each kid and I know how they talk and how they write, but there is not much evidence of what I see in class. This year has been dedicated to figuring out how to implement CI teaching methods, next year will be figuring out how to properly assess what the kids can really do.

7. The toughest part of teaching is … Seeing kids only a few times per week.
I can handle bad attitudes and I can handle disrespect in the classroom (hint: it is almost always something else in the kid’s life that is manifesting itself as disrespect towards the teacher, in other words, it’s not you, it’s the kid). I can handle the pressures of teaching all the kids and I can handle being on the bottom of the teacher totem pole (it helps that the kids seem to like me more than their regular teachers 😉 ). All this is easy or it’s something that I have learned to deal with. If there is one really tough thing about my job as a teacher, it’s that I don’t see them for enough instructional time. I wish I could see them more. I have gone into the principal’s office at the end of every year to ask for more time with any or all of the kids. I tech all the kids, but the biggest problem I run into is the fact that once an individual group starts to get something, I have to move on to another room and I won’t see them again for a week. It can be frustrating how slow their acquisition goes. That being said, they are doing a million times better than with legacy/traditional methods I used to use.

8. The thing I love most about teaching is … Being with students.
I don’t like working by myself and I have never liked being in a cubicle. I taught a university level online Spanish course for a number of semesters and it was definitely not for me. I feed off of social interaction. I love the spontaneity and the improvisation that occurs in a classroom. The kids can be so creative and they have the ability to surprise me all the time. I have gotten hooked on that sense of surprise. I never know what exactly to expect and it is thrilling. I also love the complex challenges that teaching provides: Something that I have planned for days or weeks doesn’t work; what do I do? Can I salvage the lesson and turn it into something useful? Or should I give up on it and try something different? These are the challenges that I live for as an educator.

9. A common misconception about teaching [Spanish] is … That because I have a lot of fun in the classroom I am not serious about what I do.
I talked a bit about this above and I will elaborate here: I am dead serious about what I do. I can’t stress enough how important I think it is for students to be exposed to other languages and cultures. I come from a pretty homogenous school population (mostly white, mostly non Hispanic, mostly well off). They have no idea what the world outside teh ‘burbs is really like. It’s my job to open that world to them a little bit, to give them a glimpse of the world beyond their back yards.
I have fun in class. I get silly. I get the kids to get silly. But it’s all for a purpose. I’m not just a clown who needs to entertain and be entertained. If the language acquisition research showed that grammar-translation or other grammar-heavy teaching methods were the best way to acquire a language, then that’s what I’d do. But the research doesn’t show that. It shows that students need a lot of comprehensible and compelling input. At this age level, that input comes in the form of stories and keeping the stories silly help the kids to remember them and to attend to them. It’s that simple.

10.The most important thing I’ve learned since I started teaching is … How to be an adult.
Kids have problems outside school that affect their moods. These things manifest themselves as outbursts, disrespectful comments, and/or bad attitude. Kids also have their own personalities that might clash with mine. They just plain might not like me. This is ok. They don’t have to like me. It’s not a popularity contest. I hope that they like me, but it’s not necessary for them to learn. That being said, the most important thing that I have learned since I started teaching is to not let bad attitudes get to me. I have learned to address these issues in ways that talk about what is happening with the kids rather than in an angry way. I have learned to not get into battles/arguments/debates with kids. I have no interest in these kinds of conflicts, I just want to figure out the problem, solve it, and get back to teaching.

I hope that this post can provide some help and some insight to those of you out there going through the same type of curriculum transition that I am going through. Please write your own response and post it in the comments here or on Laura Sexton’s blog pblinthetl.com!

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).

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Class-Created Stories

FLES is popular!

I’ve recently gotten a lot of views on my post about using CI in the fles classroom. I’m so glad that everyone likes it! I’ve just started using CI in all of my classes this year and it has been pretty great. Some things I still have to work on, especially keeping middle school kids interested, but the elementary school kids LOVE IT! I highly recommend using some CI methods in your elementary class if you haven’t already.

One of the most popular things I do with the kids is Getting it Wrong. In the lower grades, this never ever seems to get old. I’ve found that with the upper grades, I get a lot of rolled eyes and big sighs, but the little ones can’t seem to get enough of it.

Class Stories

Another thing that has worked really well is creating a class story together. This activity is described in the Sixth Edition of Fluency Through TPR Storytelling by Blaine Ray and Contee Seely. If you don’t have this book, I highly recommend* it! It is a great resource for how to do everything in TPRS. Continue reading

Hallway Conversations

Sometimes it is hard to determine where the students truly are in terms of proficiency. I am currently implementing a change in my curriculum from a traditional textbook-based one to a communicative one based on high frequency vocabulary and grammar forms. I use storytelling in class and I ask students lots of questions and they generally understand all the things that I’m saying.

For assessments, I have the students do several different types of things. for example, I have students write their own stories, rewrite stories they have heard in class, retell stories in English and Spanish (depending on confidence level), and draw comic strips of the stories that we have heard or read in class. Upon reflection, most of these assessments are very good at showing how well the students comprehend the language we use in class, but I’m not so convinced that they have great control over the language to use it on their own. Their stories are based on stories we have done in class, so it’s safe to say that they are just copying some of the forms and story structures and rewriting them. In other words, if they didn’t have the old stories to fall back on, I’m not convinced they could come up with the stories on their own. This is a challenge that I am going to face in the second trimester (which started yesterday) and I will keep you updated as I go.

Proof of Ability (in other words, Assessment)

In my search for authentic assessments that show students’ true levels of confidence and control of the language, I have been able to find one that is pretty accurate: Hallway Conversations. All I do is talk to the kids in Spanish outside of the classroom setting. It seems simple, but the way I see it, if the students are able to interact with me in Spanish outside the classroom, then I must be doing a pretty good job. And it works for all levels, K-8!

In my experience over the last few years, when I have spoken to students in Spanish outside the classroom, I got a range of reactions that went from blank stare to deep concentration while trying to remember how to respond to “hola” or “buenos días.”

Currently, though, things have improved. Students can generally answer when I say something to them in Spanish. Some of the more confident ones will even say things like hola, buenos días, or cómo estás to me without prompting. CI has built the students’ confidence outside the classroom. If that’s not a gleaming endorsement for teachers to use CI instead of (or along with, I won’t discriminate) grammar-based methods, I don’t know what is.

Building Student Rapport

Hallway Conversations have another, even more important benefit. Sure, they let me know (informally) who is feeling confident in using Spanish, but they also help to build rapport. The students feel confidence because they are able to communicate in Spanish. They feel a self-esteem boost because they have a teacher who is willing to meet them half way in their language. I never correct or tell them they are doing it wrong. That’s not the purpose of the activity. I just want to know how they are doing.

Only the Beginning

This promising development is one of hopefully many more that I will be able to implement that will show where they truly are in their ability to use Spanish in real world situations. I will be implementing speaking and writing rubrics that are much more formal and proficiency-based than I have ever used before. I will be drowning in data about the students’ proficiency (in a good way!). I don’t currently know definitely where each student is in their proficiency journey. I have a general idea about each one, but there is no direct evidence.

Now that the kids are starting to feel confident, it’s time to get more formalized with my assessments; it’s time to help them to branch out and reach the next level.