Micromanaging the Class (Part 3): The Results

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my final exam projects. The gist of that post was that I was giving up micromanaging the kids’ writing. They would write on their own and they would edit on their own. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

The assignment

For their final exam, I assigned students in 6th and 7th grade to make a brochure for an incoming student to our school. In it, they had to describe their schedule and also write an autobiography. These two topics – school and describing themselves – were ones that we have come back to throughout the year in stories, PQA conversations, and reading assignments.

The language they needed to use to complete the assignment is language that they have worked to acquire over several years of TPRS stories and reading assignments (two days a week). As such, the task wouldn’t be perceived as difficult because it’s using language the students already have in their heads. In the 8th grade final, as I mentioned in the previous post, the students had too much freedom-the assignment didn’t reflect the language they had worked to acquire and as such they ran into problems in composing their stories, making sure the language was accurate, and being able to understand what they had written when they had finished.

(Side note: that was a real wake-up call for me–They wrote their stories and then couldn’t understand what they had written because they used translators and dictionaries rather than acquired language. It was after that realization that I decided to be sure that the students’ assignments reflect the language they have worked towards acquiring)

How they self-edited

I had 2 main goals in having the students edit their own work:

  1. I wanted to give the students the chance to reflect on their work and use their own knowledge (with guidance) to correct what they wrote
  2. I didn’t want to correct and (basically) rewrite 125 writing assignments.

After the students finished writing their rough drafts, they had to edit them. As I said in the last few posts about micromanaging, my plan was to give them an assignment that would actually show what they were able to do using the language that we have used throughout the year.

For their first draft, I handed them their assignment that had all of the details I wanted them to include (name, age, city and state where they live, etc) and let them write. They had a word limit that they had to surpass and I sat back and answered questions when needed.

For the second draft, I posted a list of tips and things to look for on the board. I had them make sure their verbs were in the first person (through our use of TPRS stories, they have become more comfortable with using the 3rd person to describe others and I wanted them to make sure they weren’t falling back on old habits based on older things they have acquired); I had them make sure they used the correct vocabulary; I had them check their adjective agreement. I had them work on their own to edit and then rewrite their own work.

Why they self-edited

The goal of self-editing was to give them more autonomy over their language. Rather than be the micromanaging dictator of what they could write, I tried to become a coach, giving pointers and helping them with specific questions. Unfortunately, some of my students have been held back from their true potential by my micromanagement. These high-flying students were more than happy to take on the challenge of autonomy and not ask for help. Others needed more help and I was happy to give it. Ultimately, based on the students’ engagement in the work and the results (mostly As and Bs), they were happy to be challenged a little bit more.

Final Results

Was it successful? No one failed! Even students who ventured out beyond what we have done in class (in terms of vocabulary) found success in their writing. This is how it should be always. Challenging students to use the language they have acquired (and use it on their own without micromanagement from me) boosted their engagement and their confidence.

Moving forward, my plan is to continue to give my students more autonomy. My plan for next year is to incorporate novels and current events content that keeps things fresh. I want the students to ride this success farther along the proficiency path. They’ve had a taste of what they can do when they’re left to their own devices with a task that has the right amount of rigor and is appropriate for their level.

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Experiments, Failed and Otherwise

Sometimes I question my grand experiment, that is, the whole story behind this blog. I know others out there can feel a lack of confidence bred by the daily grind of school life, the inability to step outside of our own routines and see through new eyes. Sometimes I want to just go back to how it used to be – books, worksheets, quizzes; surely that would make daily life easier. No more running around, no more loud kids to settle, no more thinking on my feet to adapt to whatever the kids decide they want in the story. It would be easy-street.

TL;DR – I stopped my current 4 year long experiment to conduct another experiment: Going back to the book…It wasn’t what I was expecting.

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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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