The world is bigger than you think

As an admissions counselor, or recruitment specialist, or whatever you want to call me, my new role involves a number of key job functions. In no particular order, I:

  • meet with students and parents at campus visits
  • staff admissions events
  • push in to high schools to speak with students about our admissions process
  • attend college fairs
  • make out-bound contact with students via phone, postcards, and email
  • answer in-bound phone calls, provide customer service at our office, and answer emails about transcripts, our admissions policies, financial aid… as the admissions office, we tend to be where people go if they’re not sure who to talk to so I also get a whole lot of questions that are actually the domain of other departments (housing, financial aid, registrar) but we’re encouraged to answer as many of those other questions as we can so people don’t have to bounce between departments which is SUPER irritating

Something that made me laugh is after I got hired in January, I was warned it was the slow season and things would get busy and the job would be harder in February when we had to get back on the road. I kept waiting for things to get ‘hard’ and… it never got anywhere close to what I consider having a ‘hard day’. I tease my coworkers about this because after 10 years of teaching, I’ve got all the skills I need to be successful at this type of job. Flexibility and adaptability are key, as well as good time management. But honestly, there’s also a lot of chill time in my admissions car (I routinely made 4-5 hour round trips) or just cheerfully plugging away at writing postcards to students with my headphones in.

So how does one become an admissions counselor, you ask? Well, that’s the thing: it’s not something you can major in in college. Higher ed degrees are graduate degrees, and on top of that, how can you know you want to work in a college until you’ve gone to one? It’s something most people tend to trip and fall into, sometimes because they were former high school teachers like me. Many of my coworkers were campus hosts (tour guides) while in undergrad, and we work very closely with them during our campus visits, so they get a feel for what the job might be like. And the thing is, outside of faculty, there are a LOT of positions in higher ed that are just like this. How many people grow up saying ‘You know, I would really like to become the director of housing at a public university’? Nobody, because as a teenager trying to figure out what you might want to do with your career, you have no idea that job even exists. You might FIND OUT it exists if you work in housing as an undergraduate college student.

And that is the difficulty if you are a high school teacher, counselor, or parent trying to help a student make those decisions, or a student yourself. As I went through our summer training sessions on the different programs offered by my university (over 150 majors,) a lot of programs are self-explanatory on the surface. Math majors do math stuff. Electrical engineers do electrical engineer stuff. Agronomy majors do agronomy stuff. But what can students actually DO with a degree in those majors? What kind of career options are available to them? And some things I’d honestly never even heard of, like bioinformatics or computational biology (which is basically using medical/biological data in research and being able to do the math that goes along with providing good data). But even once students pick a major and are looking for a career, there are nuances that they might not even be aware of. I am going to use my admissions department again as an example.

The admissions department at any university, as it turns out, is a beast. I work specifically in recruiting, but there are seven other different sub-departments of the main department and we all do related but vastly different jobs. If someone doesn’t want to be a recruiter, maybe being on our events team would be a good fit – the events team plans all our on-campus and off-campus events, from our gigantic 1000+ person admitted student day to a 15 person honors reception in an out-of-state territory. Or maybe they would prefer to be on our campus visits team, which helps coordinate our daily visits, manages our campus hosts, schedules everybody to handle all the personal appointments, and works with the colleges so that our visitors can have time with people in those departments as well. Then we could look at scholarships and financial aid. They review people’s FAFSAs, award merit-based scholarships, advise parents and students on how to complete the FAFSA as well as any other payment-based questions, and probably a bunch of other things I don’t know because we don’t work as closely with them. We have a whole department that works on our summer orientation program. If you’re less people oriented, that’s okay – we have an entire team devoted to our data management system, which helps us track all the different phone calls/postcards/texts/emails we send to students, their data as they move from a ‘maybe’ to ‘enrolled student’, and their application progress as they send in transcripts/test scores/etc. And then there’s marketing, which, wow. Our marketing team prepares all our admissions materials for us, creates email campaigns to send to students, somehow does some crazy magic with the data team to send certain emails to certain students at certain times to get the best responses from them and keeps our websites up to date. Oh, and our processors – without them, we wouldn’t even need to exist. They’re the ones who receive all the applications, transcripts, residency applications, test scores, basically any sort of paperwork, and somehow connect them all to the ~6500 applicants we get each year.

Honestly, if you’re not a people person, being a processor is a totally sweet gig (in my opinion). At my campus, they have a casual dress code, they just work with transcripts in an office tucked in the corner, and only have to work with people when my team has to bug them about a student who has a weird thing going on with their application (or needs something changed.) But teenagers don’t know these jobs exist. How do you even prepare for a job you don’t know you want because you don’t know it exists? I didn’t know it existed until I already took the recruitment job! (Or I might’ve applied for one if there was an opening, haha.)

And then there are really small one-shot people who do important things. In my office, we have one person whose job is to help prepare, pack, and drop off admissions materials to those of us who need it. She also manages our fleet of admissions vehicles, helps us arrange for service, does the trainings on rules for driving state cars, etc. It’s a great job for someone who likes to mostly work alone and wouldn’t mind something like a warehouse job, but with way less pressure.

So what is the point of this long rambling post where I mostly just talk about what we do in the admissions office? The point is, when we’re trying to guide students to picking a major and potential career path, we have to remind them that they are not choosing this one job forever and ever. As they enter college or their first job, their world will open a bit more and they will be exposed to new opportunities. Maybe then they’ll take a different job and again, find out about a new opportunity, and take that after a while. I think that kind of career path is much more common for people in their 30s and younger. A person’s world is always growing larger as they take new opportunities. I know 2020 is pretty awful right now and our world seems small, isolated, and ever-contracting. But it will get better, and the students we work with can take comfort in knowing that there is a variety of life experiences out there waiting for them. The world is bigger than they think.

Dustin’ off the old dusty blog

It’s been about two years since I last blogged here. I thought it had been much longer than that, really. I could name many reasons why I haven’t written, but it really comes down to this: number one, wordpress got blocked at my school for some reason and I couldn’t update my blog (or read any of my feeds) at school so that was really irritating. Two, I was terribly depressed. Three, I left teaching high school in December 2019 so for the past six months, I wouldn’t have had anything to really write about as far as lesson tips or tricks, classroom management ideas, book reviews, or anything that I used to write about because… I’m no longer in a classroom with students! And although I definitely DO still have these ideas, I don’t have test subjects to try them out on so I can share my successes and challenges here.

That being said, I am rebranding my blog to fit with my new career journey. I’m still calling it Making Good Mistakes. I originally named it that because, as a language teacher, you have those times when students say stuff in their L2 that is garbled because they’re trying to stretch what they know and apply their knowledge in new ways, but you’re SO HAPPY because they’re TRYING and GROWING and as a language teacher, I can usually figure out what they’re trying to say anyway. (Side note: I still refer to myself as a teacher in present tense. It is very hard to break that habit. I may have left the classroom, but educating has not left my heart and is still 100% my passion.) Anyway, I don’t want anyone to think that I consider my 10 years of teaching a mistake in any way. It was not. But the ‘making good mistakes’ moniker still sticks because it denotes a journey, a challenge, growth. My time as a high school teacher was definitely all of those things and more.

So what am I up to now? Well, after I abruptly left my position in December (abruptly to everyone else; I had actually been considering it and applying for jobs since February) I now work in the admissions office for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, the flagship public state university for Nebraska. This role is a better fit for me at this stage in my life, for reasons I will talk about in a later blog post probably, and I love it. Ironically, COVID-19 hit shortly after I finished up my training and just started what a regular recruiting season looked like, so I’ve spent more time working from home and connecting with students and parents in different ways than a typical spring and summer might look like. I still get to work with students. I still get to enthuse about how awesome education is and why it’s important. I still work for a public school whose mission is to provide higher education to the students of Nebraska (and anyone who else wants to come). Are there barriers to getting here? Oh heck yes. Don’t think for a second just because I now work in higher education that I’m not still a vocal proponent of equity of access. One thing that I very much enjoy about working here is that even though I still put in long days with sometimes weird hours, I am not so exhausted at the end of the day that I can’t function. Now I can come home from work and still have enough energy to be active on behalf of K-12 teachers, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ people, and especially students whose identities intersect any or all of these groups. I’m also ~*~*~*~*very generally*~*~*~*~ entertaining the idea of starting a doctoral degree, which I had no interest in previously, but now that I’m in higher education, it may serve me well if I choose to move up in the hierarchy. We’ll see. One of the things about working at a college is that I feel refreshed and renewed by all the great programs our institution offers and it reminds me that I’m NOT stuck, I CAN make a difference, I CAN achieve my dreams – maybe my dream just looks differently than it did when I was an undergraduate of 23, and that’s okay too.

These ideas and more are things I’d like to explore in the new iteration of this blog. In addition, I plan to continue being my general helpful self (turns out, I really love customer service? Who knew?) and post thoughts and help for people who are trying to go through the admissions process at a college or university. Especially if you’re the first student in your family to do it on your own (or a parent who is trying to help that student), it can be very daunting but everyone knows, teachers love a good success story.

Just another manic Monday

Just another manic Monday. Or el lunes loco, if you’re a Spanish teacher. I really don’t care for Mondays, and it’s not that typical “ugh, Monday, I hate going to work” trope. I don’t work a job; I have a career that I love and I enjoy it all days of the week. However, I’d be a liar if I said that Mondays weren’t the hardest day of the week. There’s just something about student behavior on Mondays that is harder for me to deal with – I don’t know if it’s the excitement of the weekend, trying to get back in the school routine after a whole two days off, or what. At my school, I much prefer Friday behavior to Monday behavior. (Tuesdays are my favorite, for the record.)

That being said, I am someone who believes in working smarter, not harder. I have always tried to align my teaching with the reality of students. For example, no assessments on Mondays. That’s just a great way to make sure everyone forgets (including me, honestly) and there’s a big panic – not worth it. This year, my big focus has been taking into consideration the student needs to walk and talk. Mixing what I’ve learned through CI trainings (the brain craving novelty) and Kagan (humans wanting to be mobile and socialize), I’ve tried to find some activities that I can especially use on Mondays that will keep learning happening without making me crazy with constantly trying to get student attention.

**Side note: my Spanish 1s this year are… a bit more squirrelly than my last few bunches. This means that my last few years of ‘here is a story, let us do it’ is NOT working. They can’t get through even a paragraph without me having to stop and regroup them. PQA tends to be a disaster. I am having to mentally adapt all my activities because as reflective teachers know, what works for one group of students does not necessarily work for the next, and we always need to adjust to that. Upon further reflection, (this post has been sitting in my draft queue for a long time) of my 17 students, I have at least 5 in this class who have been formally diagnosed with ADHD. On top of normal student silliness. Some of them are wonderful about taking their medication, if prescribed, others are not. Some days are a really rough go.

Anyway, if you are having the same issue with your students, here are some things that are working and some things that are NOT working for me.

Working well:

  • quiz-quiz-trade
  • numbered heads together
  • mix-pair-share
  • round-robin (depending on the task)
  • Señor Wooly puzzles
  • fan-n-pick

These activities all have a few key ideas in common. If you’re not familiar with the terms, just google them (most of them are Kagan structures). Number one and most importantly, these activities allow students to mostly work at their own pace or with a timer. This keeps students on task without making me, the teacher, go crazy by trying to keep a group together. Number two, these tasks are completed in pairs or small groups. Again, trying to keep a large group together on Mondays seems nearly impossible for me, so letting students work in much smaller groupings is easier on my ears and my patience. Finally, these activities also promote positive interdependence – the students have to work together to complete the task, which creates all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings like lowering the affective filter and strengthening relationships.

Not working:

  • Four corners
  • MovieTalks, PictureTalks, pretty much anything that introduces new vocab where I stand in the front and give input for more than 12 seconds
  • OWI

To reiterate, these activities are terrible for me on Mondays. Every other day, they’re fine – the squirreliness of students is just too much on Mondays. I’m not sure what causes these activities to break down. Four corners ends up with too much side chatter. MovieTalks, PictureTalks, OWIs, stories… any of those that require the whole group’s attention and circling, introduction of new vocabulary, etc. do not go well for me. These activities are easier with my upper level classes who have a higher level of focus, but I still find it easier on myself just to pick an activity from the first list. My second period would be comatose if I let them, so picking an activity that forces them to interact with each other and/or walk around keeps them from falling asleep on me.

As we head into the end of 2017, hopefully these ideas will help you have happier, more productive Mondays in 2018!

Grades are not punishment

Hello, dear readers! Long time, no write! You would think that, this year, with my supposedly ample planning time (I have had two or three planning periods, depending on if my ELL class existed or not) I would have plenty of time to write. Ha, ha, ha! Of course not! Ironically, I have mostly ended up being Full Time 8th Period Sub (and because 7th period is often open, I also end up subbing in places that I normally wouldn’t, like in the 3rd grade room). However, I really don’t mind it. I love being able to get to visit other teachers’ rooms, see what goes on in their classes, see my own students in a different context, and also get to meet and work with students that I won’t get to have for years and years. You see, I’m so sneaky – I want to build up good relationships with them NOW so that when I have them in the future, we already have so much good rapport, it’s gonna be like a dream. Right? That’s how it works, right? (Okay, maybe not perfectly like that, but it’s gotta help.)

It also does NOT help that WordPress has been blocked at school, even on the teacher side of things, and it’s one act season so the last thing I think about doing when I get home at 9 pm is remembering to post a blog. I literally walk in, feed the cats, get ready for bed, and am asleep by 9:12 or thereabouts. That being said, it is also the time of year where, in general, we’re tired. I was recharged yesterday by going to my state language association’s conference, but I decided to make a whole different post about that.

This post is actually about reflecting on my one word, PATIENCE, and more importantly, my one sentence, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, COURTNEY. And that grades are not punishment.

You see, my school is switching to the Power of ICU system. I’ve written about it here and there, I think, and it is finally, finally, FINALLY going to happen in January. You see, I’m the type of person who rushes headlong crazy into stuff without really planning. And then there are other people in the world who will plan for-EVER and never actually get around to the doing. It really takes both types, and although I am itching to get started with this plan that, I think, will do great things for my school’s achievement and more importantly, our school culture, we have to be ready on all fronts or it will fail. And not the First Attempt In Learning type of fail, I mean the Throw It Away and Claim It Will Never Work type.

The very first baby step of the ICU plan is that all students complete all work. Since I know this is coming, I am trying to get into some good habits already. For example, I already have a ‘Lista de ICU’ on my wall (I know, I know – I am choosing to sacrifice a very tiny piece of Spanish accuracy to keep consistency with terminology in the rest of the school) and it is effective in reminding me to remind the kids, hey, I need your stuff. And because I’m me, I am very open and honest with telling the students what’s up, and that there are no more points off for late work because points off for late work doesn’t tell us anything about how well students meet the standards, and how grades should reflect one thing: how well our students meet the standards of learning.

Okay. So that was me, on Thursday afternoon, having this big long fancy speech, right? Then I’m driving home from NILA yesterday, and I realize what a big fat hypocrite I was, the very next day on Friday. You see, I have this student in my 6th period class who somehow manages to fall asleep. I don’t know how she does it. It’s a pretty noisy class, we’re usually up and moving, or at least moving our pencils or mouths, and she probably zonks out 3 days a week. On a personal note, I don’t get angry – honestly, except for this year BECAUSE I have a boisterous Spanish 1, in the past I have always been extremely sleepy and a very boring teacher in 6th period. It’s right after lunch, my room is chilly, it’s just… the perfect time to nap. I get it. So anyway, the other day we were doing a listening activity and she slept right through it. I woke her up, she wrote her name on her paper, and immediately fell back asleep for the rest of the activity. So on Friday, I go to collect stuff, and she asks about the listening activity. You know what I told her? I said, ‘You slept through it, too bad.’

SKREEEEEEEEECH. [That’s the sound of my brain hitting the brakes.] Now fast forward to me, in my car on Saturday, reflecting on the great conversations I had with my peers, thinking about our foreign language standards, and then I realized what I said to my student. Without even THINKING, I had punished her for sleeping through the activity by basically saying ‘no, you cannot prove to me that you meet the standard, you must suffer’. It is so ingrained in us as teachers to use grades as punishment that even I, a teacher who considers herself enlightened and all about standards based grading and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah… told a student no, she couldn’t have the opportunity to get those points back. Even when SHE took the initiative to say, ‘Can I redo that?’

That was very wrong. The answer is yes. The answer should always be, ‘Yes, you have another opportunity to show me that you meet or exceed the standards.’ Who cares if she slept in class, and who cares if the activity is for a grade in the gradebook or not. It is not about me, and it is not about the number. It is about: did the learning happen?

So on Monday, I am going to apologize to that student, and I am going to arrange a time for her to come in and complete the activity.

A tale of two teachers

This year, I have the pleasure of seeing a lot of the work my colleagues do around the school. Like many schools around the area state country (globe?), we are suffering from a severe shortage of substitutes and paras. Thankfully, due to the extraordinarily low turnover of teachers in my school, we do NOT suffer from a shortage of amazing, qualified regular classroom teachers. However, many of our teachers are at or nearing retirement age and that worries me. But that’s a post for another time.

In any case, I am a team player and besides, like everyone else, we don’t really have a choice – so I’ve been covering for a lot of other teachers while they are gone. I also have an ELL student this year and as the designated “surprise! I’m an ELL teacher now because I’m the only one who speaks Spanish and I also happened to have a free period!” person, I get to see first-hand a lot of work that the other teachers assign (as opposed to just hearing the complaints through students, or peering over their shoulder in study hall). In addition to all of this, I have a wonderful coworker who uses my room during 8th period to teach 10th grade health.

This coworker is the polar opposite of my teaching style. My style is very.. um.. loosey goosey would be good term for it. I am laid back. Kids interrupt me all the time and it rarely bothers me. My room looks and sounds like organized chaos most days – students are frequently shouting out things in English and/or Spanish. We do a lot of hands-on practice with reading stories, acting out stories, asking and answering questions, talking about pictures on the screen, and so on. I use a lot of technology in my room. I am frequently open to discussion, and in some cases, am open to discussion that has nothing to do with Spanish class because I think it’s equally important to discuss things that students need to know for their well-being as future adults (some random things that come up are stuff like, a student got in trouble because she got a whole bunch of overdraft fees on her debit card and she didn’t understand how that happened – kids don’t know that banks will debit your largest purchase first, then ding you for each subsequent purchase AND slam you with a overdraft fee for each of those purchases. In her case, she had moved money from her savings to her checking but that hadn’t cleared before the large purchase went through, and then she made a series of smaller purchases the same day). And especially since, in one of my Spanish classes, I have said ELL student who is a recent immigrant, and I want her to know about how things work here in the US because she is extra likely to get taken advantage of.

My fellow coworker? He’s twice my age. He does not do group work. He does not do technology. He does not do games or papers or discussion. The bell rings, he opens his notes, he lectures from the first bell to the dismissal bell and that is his class. The kids are mostly silent and scribble notes on paper as fast as their hands can write. It is, in every sense, the most traditional style of class. The other day, he busted out a LASER DISC and generally scoffs good-naturedly at all the stuff us youngin teachers do. But here’s the thing: his class is useful and compelling. He teaches during my plan period but quite frankly, I get nothing done because half the time I shut my computer and just listen, because he makes everything seem so fascinating. For him, the lecture style of education works perfectly. He delivers the content in a way that works. He doesn’t just give notes, but he peppers them with personal stories that work as an emotional hook to draw the kids in. In my opinion, he is a great teacher and it is going to really hurt our school to lose him when he retires in the probably nearish future.

So the point of this post is, sometimes we teachers get really hung up on methods. I do it too. I love my TPRS, I love my Kagan. But the method isn’t always what makes great teaching. Great teaching is what makes great teaching. How do we define great teaching? It’s teaching that delivers our content in a way that actually gets through to the kids, right? But that definition says nothing about method. I think some methods work better in some areas than others (again – lecture, in world language, does not work very well. But that’s because language is procedural knowledge, a working skill, and not declarative knowledge, knowing facts) but teaching is an art. My coworker has the lecture down to an art, and I am so glad every day that he “had to impose” on my classroom this year.

Kagan conversion: why you should get training too

Something that I see over and over when I am on twitter (which I am reading far more frequently this year than last, for various reasons) are threads where I want to jump in and say ‘Need engagement strategies? There’s a Kagan structure for that!’ It’s kind of like the Portlandia sketch ‘Put a bird on it!’ only.. you know, for questioning kids. The most recent example was a thread on the ol’ worksheet debate: yay or nay. My take is that the debate is old and tired. Pieces of paper with words (aka worksheets) are not the problem; it is the tasks on the them that are the issue. And that isn’t even the underlying issue because 99% of the time, the task – in any subject – is asking students to solve a problem or answer a question. Our job, as teachers, is to have students solve problems and answer questions and we can either have them do that orally (enter: the lecture) or written (enter: the worksheet). For a long time, that was The Way Things Were Done because that was what we had available to us, and as our teachers were taught before us, and the teachers before them, and so on unto the beginning of time.

But it’s 2017. And this blog is all about Not Doing Things The Way They’ve Been Done, unless there’s a good reason, such as research-based evidence that it actually works. And I assume you (ustedes) read this blog because you are someone who wants to become a better teacher all the time. I can assume this because teachers who do not want to become better teachers don’t bother reading blogs. So here’s why I’m a Kagan convert, and you should be too.

In January of this year, I took day 1 of training thanks to my ESU. I loved it. I said, ‘Oh, this is stuff I do already.’ My favorite part was that day 1 stuff takes ZERO PREP. NONE. Okay, making your teams takes some prep but that’s it – the actual structures, the stuff you do in class? No work on your part. WHAT TEACHER DOESN’T LOVE THAT. I get MORE engagement from my students, LOWER affective filter, BETTER feelings of being part of the in-group, and I don’t have to do anything except what I’m already doing? Sign me up!!

Now day 2, this is where we get to the worksheet part. Day 2 structures included strategies like quiz-quiz-trade, fan-n-pick, or numbered heads together. Day 2 structures do require a bit of prep work on the teacher’s part. But here’s the catch – that prep work? Is probably stuff you already have lying around. It’s taking the questions you were going to ask already (in a worksheet format), and putting them in a different format like on a powerpoint or on index cards. These structures are great for world language teachers who are stuck teaching from a textbook or assigned curriculum who would rather not, or PERFECT for social sciences. They’re a little bit trickier for subjects like math, but they can also be easily adapted for literature, any of the sciences, you name it!

I’m going to day 3 here in a few weeks and I don’t know what structures are up next, but I’m excited. I will use them when I learn them. This year, I honestly use Kagan structures… nearly every day, in every class.

Okay, the structures are the meat-and-potatoes of the system. I’ve mentioned them here and here before. I can’t possibly explain how they all work, because there is not enough space or time – that’s why you have to go to the training sessions. Or email/DM me if you have a specific question. But there are many other parts to the system, and they all work together. Students are placed in teams, which is important for building comraderie. We want that closeness, that ‘we’re in this together’. Each week, they recommend that you do classbuilding and teambuilding activities. They only have to take less than 5 minutes a piece. I, personally, don’t worry about this because in Spanish, we’re already doing that in the TL, all day, every day! That’s literally half of what Spanish class is about! There’s also the positive interdependence piece – since everyone is part of a team, everyone is important and everyone’s work counts. There is no hiding. Everyone has to put in their fair share. I like this for multiple obvious reasons. Number one, the slackers can’t slack, because the peer pressure is too strong. (It’s easy to be a slacker in a trio. It’s much harder to slack in a pair. And with Kagan, even if you are in a trio, it is very clear on who is doing what, so there is no arguments over what you’re supposed to be doing.) Number two, quiet students get heard and socially aggressive students don’t dominate. Now, some students are just quiet (physically) and not actually shy, but this helps the actually shy students – I have yet to meet someone who is cripplingly shy in just a one-on-one situation. Kagan, due to its clarity, also helps students with anxiety – it is clear who goes first, what their job is, and what everyone else should be doing when they’re not speaking. There are no surprises.

I’m actually really surprised that I don’t hear more language teachers talking about using Kagan because if you already use CI strategies and especially TPRS specifically, it fits right in with how we want things to work. The only real difference is, instead of the whole class reporting to us (the teacher) all the time, the students are reporting to each other and then to us. Does it slow things down? Yes, especially the first time you are using a structure. But my hope is to get other teachers at my school on board and then by the time kids get to me in 9th grade, they can know exactly ‘RoundRobin, 1 minuto, Persona 3 empieza’ means without any explanation, off we go. There are really NO downsides to this system. After my trip to iFLT this summer and my initial TPRS training with Craig Sheehy however many years ago, these Kagan trainings have probably been the most useful to my practice. If you can get the training, go. I hope you’ll become a Kagan convert too. (And if you just want free talk throughs, there’s always google and yours truly!)

Stopping the shame game

So there is this practice that is somewhat prevalent among teachers, and I don’t like it.

I call it ‘The Shame Game’. We all know what the shame game is. Either we play it with our students, or had it played with us when we were students, and we have all DEFINITELY seen it played sometime in our lives. The shame game looks something like this:

Student comes to class. Student needs a pencil, but doesn’t have a pencil for whatever reason. Usually they forgot it or it got lost (somehow, magically, in the 10 steps between their last classroom and your classroom) but sometimes their friend took it and broke it in the seconds your back was turned to write something on the board, or maybe they dropped it and it rolled underneath your bookshelf and now they can’t get it, or they threw it up in the air and now it’s stuck in your drop-down ceiling. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

Anyway, so student comes to class, and they don’t have that pencil. Your job is to teach them responsibility, right! Why don’t they have that pencil! Why aren’t they prepared for class! And this is where many teachers start to play the shame game – they say those exact things to the student. The student, of course, feels so incredibly thankful that the teacher pointed out to the class that they were unprepared and that they are a dumb loser (maybe not in those words, but we can read between the lines here) who can’t even hang on to a stupid pencil, and never forgets their pencil again. Right?


I have a student, who I love dearly, who is in my Spanish 3 class. He has struggled since day one to play the school game properly. He has gotten better over the years as we have found strategies for him to be prepared, be on time, to stay organized, and probably a little bit has to do with simple maturation. But the *very first day* of class this year, he somehow managed to leave his chemistry syllabus on my table. I don’t know how, we didn’t even need to open our binders that day, we just talked in Spanish about nothing in particular. Now, I could’ve played the shame game and thrown it away – ha ha, that’ll teach him responsibility to not leave his stuff lying around! – or I could’ve chosen to be the compassionate teacher, found him in the hallway and handed it to him with a smile, saying ‘Hey buddy, I think you forgot this.’ As I will with every. single. paper. he will leave in my room over the course of the year, as he has for the previous two years.

Because here’s the thing, fellow teachers. Playing the shame game helps no one. It doesn’t teach responsibility. We know this. That kid is still going to forget their paper, day after day after day. Or their pencil. Or their binder. Or their computer. Some teachers seem to take it personally. It is not personal. Sometimes the student has an undiagnosed problem with their executive function (aka, the part of your brain that controls decision making and organization.) Sometimes they just have a brain fart. Maybe the student is being bullied in a place where we can’t see and they start the day prepared, but someone is taking their stuff before they get to us. Some people are just plain ol’ forgetful. Playing the shame game only raises the affective filter, makes them more nervous, and paints us as jerks. We are not jerks… right? That’s not how we want to portray ourselves. We already have tv shows and movies for kids to do that for us.

To add insult to injury, these things do not happen in the adult world. As an adult, if I go to a meeting, paper and writing utensils are frequently provided for me. If they aren’t and I don’t have something, nobody asks me for a shoe or my planner for collateral. If I run out of dry erase markers in my classroom, my school has an entire closet of extra supplies in the office and I can take as much as I need and nobody ever asks why I didn’t plan ahead. It’s also far easier for me to keep my items where I need them because I’m not tromping around a building (and then to and from my house) with all my stuff – it stays where I put it in my room, mischievous students aside.

So here’s the point. The shame game does not teach responsibility. It doesn’t stop students from forgetting their whatevers. All it does is hurt our relationships with those students, make us look like jerks, and makes it seem like we care far more about a stupid 10 cent pencil than our students. I don’t know about you, but at this point in my career, I can always get more pencils. (They don’t pay me THAT little, or I can just get them from the aforementioned well-stocked closet.) I can’t always repair a damaged relationship with a student. The shame game is not worth it. Please, let it go. Compassion will take us much farther in our goal of educating all students.

Even if we have to grit our teeth as we smile and say ‘Hey buddy, I think you forgot this,’ for the seven hundred zillionth time.

One word + one sentence

It’s the beginning of a new school year, and around this time, many #edutwitter and #langchat bloggers do a post about their #oneword. (I promise I’ll stop with the hashtags now.) I never bothered before now, because I didn’t really have one word that could sum up my goal for the year. I’m quite terrible at setting year-long goals: my goals tend to come up organically, something to adjust as the year goes along. So when I set one in August or September, I’ve usually forgotten it by November because something else has cropped up that needs more immediate tweaking. But by tweaking little things throughout the year, it ends up addressing a larger goal I didn’t know I had, which is usually some variation on be a better teacher.

But this year, I have a word! And it’s a marvelous word. My word is PATIENCE. You see, last summer, I bought a house. It’s a wonderful house that is slightly too big for me and my four cats with a giant fenced-in yard for my non-existent dogs. I love my house. But my house is 117 years old. It has been well-maintained and updated, but like any house, it has things that always need to be repaired or changed to my liking. So, like all teachers, I’ve spent my summer slowly chipping away at the gigantic list of home repairs that accrues throughout the year (because any project that takes more than about 2 hours and $20 is not happening during the school year) and I have learned… patience. Because if I am impatient and sloppy with how I do things, especially considering I am extremely clumsy and have poor manual dexterity, I am going to have a poor end result. And then I am either going to have to live with that poor end result (which will irritate me to the end of time) or I’m going to have to redo it. With patience.

I’ve also been playing a lot of video games this summer that require patience. I am a pretty impulsive gamer – shoot first, die, then ask ‘What are we doing?’ later. (My boyfriend, bless his heart, is very good about reviving my stupid self when I blunder face first into a pack of enemies, guns a-blazin’.) I’ve been working on Darkest Dungeon, where it autosaves. If you mis-click, if your character dies, it’s permadeath. No going back to a previous save. You have to have patience. Calm. Cool.

As teachers, we all know, we need patience. So much patience. In my years of teaching, I have found untold depths of patience I didn’t know I had. I need patience with my students and their needs. I need patience with other colleagues who might not understand what I’m doing and why I’m so darn cheerful all the time (and why my classroom is so noisy. All the time. There is a lot of laughter in my room). I need patience with other language teachers who are not so sure about this whole comprehensible input thing. I need patience with my school leaders, who are often pulled in 72 different directions and 71 of those don’t agree with what I think is best. I need patience with parents who sometimes don’t understand that my class doesn’t look like a traditional classroom, but we’re still doing lots of learning in there. I need even MORE patience with my students and their language growth. Language acquisition is a process that takes foorreeevvverrr. And just as importantly, I need patience with myself. I can only do so much.

This brings me to my sentence of the year. I might write it on big paper and post it in the back of the room where I can see it every day. It’s going to say:


with maybe some squiggles and exclamation points to really drive that point home. I listened to some of the president’s recent speech to the Boy Scouts at their Jamboree and I was so angry. He took a thing, a celebration of the scouts and their accomplishments and what the scouting stands for, and made it about him. But it shouldn’t have been about him. Scouting is about the kids.

And so it is in our classrooms. My school is planning to switch to the Power of ICU type plan for dealing with our chronic low quality and missing work. (For reference, our grade 7-12 population is about 120, and we have approximately 25% of those students failing one or more classes at any given time. That is unacceptable to us, and the things we’ve been trying have been utterly failing, so we’re gonna do this new thing. I think it’ll work.) Basically, every student completes every assignment. No arguing, that’s just the way it is now. It is a cultural shift. The first quarter of trying it is going to be an absolute nightmare. The kids are going to push. Some teachers will be upset because part of it is that you accept all work, no matter how late it is. Another part is that if students don’t turn in work, it goes on the ICU list (where everyone can see it) and if it’s not a quality assignment, then eventually people are going to start dropping hints about maybe reevaluating what kind of assignments that teacher is giving.** And as much as teachers hate that, it’s not about us. It’s about the kids and what they need, and they need quality assignments that are not just rote memorization. It is going to be an awful quarter, I think, and we’re going to have some kids who never do get on board. But if we stick firm, most kids will adapt, and it will be easier from there on out. (I also like the Power of ICU because it takes away the shame/power struggle part of missing work – it is simply, “Who do you owe? What do you owe? How can I help you?”. As someone who prefers to keep things positive in her room, even during study hall or advisory time, the neutrality of the questions makes me happy.)

This thought also dribbled into my brain at iFLT. My overuse of English? Keeps me comfortable, lets me talk about whatever I want with the kiddos, but it’s not allowing their Spanish to grow at the pace it could be. But the class is not about me.

And – going back to patience – when students complain about things in class, I like to frame it as, they’re trying to communicate to me that they are unhappy about something and would like a change, but their underdeveloped teenage brains don’t know how to appropriately state their feelings and a plan of action. So if my students are saying “ugh, stories are so boring, we do them all the time,” I don’t need to get upset. It’s not about me. What my student is trying to say is, “I feel like we do stories frequently, perhaps we could mix it up a bit with some other activities?” Or something that definitely happens in Spanish 3: “Reading, AGAIN? Let’s just get this over with. Why don’t we do any of the fun stuff we used to do like in Spanish 1?” Translation: “We used to listen to more music and play more games, where did they go? I enjoyed that part of class.” Because guess what! Not about me. (Also, they’re right. Something I intend to fix in my overhaul of Spanish 3 this year.)

So those are my two interrelated ideas for 2017-2018. Patience, and it’s not about me. It is about the kids and their needs, and sometimes figuring out those needs requires patience. Meeting those needs definitely requires patience.

**I just finished Tom Rademacher’s book It Won’t Be Easy and as an English teacher, he makes his assignments pass the Google test. If his kids can Google the answers to his assignment, then he needs to come up with something more challenging. I agree with this test. Especially if you are a 1:1 district.

My AP syllabus: 2 years later

Two years ago, I started on my AP Spanish journey. If you’ve been reading recently, you have realized that my AP journey… has been a rocky one. Not going so well. That’s okay. In teaching years, two years is still baby steps. I know I didn’t feel like I sort of knew what I was doing at all as a teacher until my 3rd year, and I didn’t feel like a decent teacher until my 5th. Now, going into my 8th, I feel pretty confident that I got this. I don’t feel any nerves about this upcoming year, only excitement. (It definitely helps that I work in an awesome school, with an awesome staff, where I feel safe and supported, and I have the same students over and over, so I always know what to expect, which keeps my hates-the-unknown anxiety down to a manageable level.)

Anyway. One of the continually popular blog posts of mine is my AP syllabus. I’m sure it’s frequented by poor lost souls who are also teaching AP, probably for the first time, and have no idea what they got themselves into. If you’re one of those people: welcome! You’re not alone! Tengo un secreto: nobody knows what they’re getting themselves into when they say ‘sure, I’ll teach that AP class’. (In my case, I offered to do it – I know most teachers aren’t given the choice.) So I decided to look back at the original post and see if I would say anything different, given what I know now.

First off, you can reread the original post here to refresh your memory.

Writing your own syllabus… hmm. I still agree with everything I wrote. Especially if you’ve already taught a similar level class, why re-invent the wheel? If you are a brand new teacher, though, and you’re coming into a situation where the previous teacher already had a syllabus? USE IT. And then modify it to fit your needs/style.

Know what your students need – definitely. One big failure of mine is that I know what my students need to know to be successful… I just failed to, you know, teach it to them.

I still think the easiest way to plan a unit based on authentic resources (or any unit from scratch, really) is the grid shown to us by our trainer. I don’t know why I don’t use it more often. I should keep it in mind as I restructure my Spanish 3 this year. That way, you can be sure to hit many different types of input (and assess using different modes of output, if that is your desire). Plus, it’s really handy when you get to February and you’re thinking ‘man, I read that really cool article on [topic] that one time that would’ve been PERFECT… now where did I read it?’

Vertical curriculum – HUGE. I noted this as a big deal, and didn’t implement it myself. It hit me over the head again just a few weeks ago at iFLT, and I am going to try to slowly reorganize my lower levels to fit the AP themes better. Those essential questions? Yeah, that’s to try and figure out what theme(s) your unit would fit under – and also help drive some thoughtful questions to ask your students as you go along. I realized, I am doing all sorts of the right things, I just need to clean it up a bit. (For example, in Spanish 1, we watch Selena as part of the family unit. Not only does it fall perfectly to watch a movie around Thanksgiving/one act competition time when I am gone a lot, but it lends itself to appropriate family/identity related topics for novice speakers – but how can I better orient my questioning/activities to make it clear it’s related to an AP theme?)

The actual syllabus itself (still available here! check it out!) Oh my. My official syllabus… is beautiful. Look at all those resources. Look at my introductory paragraph. It’s gorgeous. So convincing that I’m gonna be successful.

The reality of my syllabus? If you somehow can teach everything in that beast AND have time to prepare your students for the test AND get around all the stuff that seniors miss school for… please let me know how you did it. I typically teach units 1, 2, and 3 (prehispanic cultures/gender roles/fashion) in the fall, and hit 5, 6, and 9 (La Guerra Sucia/immigration/mobile technology) in the spring. We also do FVR/blogging and Gran Hotel weekly, so I really am only teaching content from the syllabus 3 days a week. (This is up for potential change this year.) The units I pick are ones that have the most compelling content and the ones I feel most competent teaching. I might pull unit 8 (love and romance) or unit 10 (the return of measles) down to Spanish 3, with adaptations and time permitting. Things are really up in the air this year.

So overall, I think my original thoughts were on point. The reality of teaching, however, is not that easy. I always joke that I am THE BEST teacher on paper, which is true. Actually teaching real, live humans? Sometimes, not so much. I still think my syllabus is pretty darn great, and I don’t intend on changing it for the moment. It’s my in-class practices that need to change. But if you’re someone who is wanting to use units or the whole thing, feel free – just know that if you weren’t able to get through everything, that’s okay. I made the syllabus, and I couldn’t either. 🙂

Targeted vs non-targeted input

For those of us who have already made the switch to comprehensible input, apparently the new divide in camps is targeted vs. non-targeted. I didn’t realize I had an opinion on this until iFLT, but it turns out I do (I have so many opinions!) and this is my blog, so you’re stuck reading about them. If you’re not sure what I mean by targeted or non-targeted, targeted input is when you have your specific structures (frequently referred to as target structures – crazy, I know) that you want your students to be on the path to acquiring by the end of your activity/activities. Those structures could be single words or whole phrases, and the lesson could be a quick 15 minute discussion of a static picture, or it might be a 3 day series of everything you have in your comprehensible input toolkit. Non-targeted input, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like. Giving students input with no particular rhyme or reason, just conversing and discussing in the target language or about whatever you want to use as your launching point (pictures, a video clip, etc.)

Targeted input

The case for targeted input is pretty simple. As teachers, it helps to have some sort of plan to follow to know what our intentions for acquisition by the end of each course. (Does this mean our students have acquired the structures? Of course not. But at least we know the foundation has been laid.) For administrative purposes, it is hard to write a scope and sequence/curriculum plan based on non-targeted input. Honestly, I’m not really sure how that would look. Targeted input also makes it easier to stay “in bounds” since each level of a course, to a large extent, would stay on track with each other for those of us who teach multiple classes of the same level.

Non-targeted input

The case for non-targeted input is aimed at targeted input’s drawbacks. Chris Stolz discussed some thoughts of Ben Slavic in his own blog post here where Ben proposes that targeted input can get very boring very quickly, and I agree with that. If you are too heavy on circling, the kids stop “falling for the trick”, so to speak. It’s worse with PQA, especially since the form you’re going to be using in PQA (I/you forms) are not the forms kids are going to use in a story (he/she/they) – not inherently a problem, but sometimes the forms are very different from each other (Spanish preterite verbs, anyone?) and the jump might be too much for your slow processors. It also can become very stilted trying to form a question in just the right way to get your target structures in, especially for ones that aren’t quite so conversational but are common in writing.

The other problem I’ve found in practice with targeted input is that, some really useful language stuff just doesn’t work well in a targeted language setting. Rejoinders, for example. Rejoinders are used in conversation all the time – Oh really? That’s so interesting! No way. I can’t believe it! I don’t care. That’s ridiculous. That’s too bad. You poor thing. – but if I try to shoehorn them into a story or other manner of targeted input and I am not really cautious, it can often seem contrived and again, the kids pick up on that.

The solution

From watching the master teachers at iFLT and reflecting on my own practice and what I intend to do this next year… I think the best choice, as is it is in many things in life, is a little of both. I am a teacher who absolutely needs those targeted structures so I know where I’m going and what I’m doing, or else I will ramble the whole period about nothing and the kids’ acquisition will go nowhere. On the other hand, a lot of really great acquisition happens around the target structures – my students have picked up so many non-targeted words just from random class discussions (one class got really good at extraño because I always said one student was so strange, one class was big on apesta because one year their insult for everything was ‘that stinks’, another class is hardcore about caballo because it’s a student’s nickname, and so on). I have never explicitly taught rejoinders as more than a pop-up or things like saying salud after a sneeze, but my students can and do say them.

When I was watching Mark Mallaney, he noted that his target structures in his stories were all directed towards his final goal of having students being ready to read a novel. Since I read class novels in my classes, that’s how I’ve been doing things (though theoretically, with more intention this year. I do not read class novels with my Spanish 3 and maybe that’s why I feel so lost and blah when teaching that class.) But the rest of the stuff he did that day, either seemed to be non-targeted, or loosely targeted based on one word (deberías). But the way he was using deberías, it was hard to tell if it was specifically being targeted, or if he was putting it on the board as a reminder of a useful word to use when students were phrasing their answers. And I guess that’s why he’s a master teacher, because it’s totally conceivable that his students could bust out things like ‘You should visit the cave of the winds because it is beautiful and popular.’ after 1 year of Spanish.

So that’s my opinion on targeted vs. non-targeted. I don’t think there’s any right way or wrong way to do things. As far as the state of Nebraska is concerned, as long as I am teaching in Spanish and about Spanish-language culture things, they don’t care how I get it done.