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.

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!