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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10 years ago today…(almost)

Ten years ago, on Monday, August 20, 2017, I stepped into my very first classroom. 

Twenty two years old, teaching undergraduates at the University of South Florida in Tampa. At that point, I had two years of one-on-one tutoring, one week of TA training, a textbook, a syllabus, and a desire (and need) to get my graduate degree paid for.

Back then, I was studying Spanish literature and not really knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature, I had a feeling that I’d end up in education, but I couldn’t picture myself doing it. I applied for and was given one of the few TA spots in the department. I arrived at the university a week before the semester started and had a crash course in what to do in the classroom. I leaned hard on what I learned those days for the whole semester. I taught the book just as the syllabus said to: page 6-10 on Monday, 11-14 Tuesday, and on and on. On top of that, I taught exactly like I was taught in high school and college, which is to say, I emulated my favorite teachers to point of plagiarizing catch phrases (hola, hola, Coca Cola) and class structure (homework check, grammar instruction, practice, assign homework, wash, rinse, repeat).

As a TA in charge of my own classroom, I was required to take a methods course. It was in that course that I decided. After about a month and a half of learning about input and acquisition and Krashen’s hypotheses and Input Processing and seeing their effects in the classroom as I was learning, seeing how input affected the students’ acquisition vs. their textbook practice activities….I knew what I had to do: I went to my advisor and switched from Spanish Literature to Foreign Language Education. 

Two years later, I graduated and after a few months of teaching online, I got the job I have now teaching kindergarten through eighth grade. I am challenged and delighted and surprised (and sometimes frustrated, just like everybody else) by my job every day. 

Since this journey began, almost accidentally, I have never ever been able to see myself doing anything else. The community of teachers that I have joined is the most welcoming, supportive, and helpful community I have ever been a part of. From the other TAs in the USF language department, to the professors who taught me how to teach effectively, to the langchatters and conference friends I’ve made from all around the country, everyone who is in this profession inspires me and keeps me going. Seriously, language teachers are, by a wide margin, the most awesome teachers around (if I do say so myself). 

Ten years snuck up on me. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to do the same thing for this long, but here I am, looking forward to the next ten, twenty, thirty…who knows?

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. 

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.