When past and present collide

Observing my student teacher today, we ran into a little problem. She’s been creating about half her materials own her own and borrowing half of my previous materials. Unfortunately, she met me at a very strange time in my life (to quote Fight Club) and I’ve been switching from grammar-heavy to more proficiency-based teaching since the beginning of the year.

So today, we’re working on our house unit, which also conveniently incorporates o-ue stemchangers like poder and dormir. Originally, that was how the unit worked: teach rooms in the house, then teach o-ue stemchangers, then teach whatever other grammar points, take the test. Since this year is trying to be more organic, my student teacher came up with a wonderful contextual activity where students had to write about the rules in their house (using ‘no puedes’).

But then she followed up with a worksheet from previous years. In a grammatically based class, the worksheet was great! It was drill practice with all learned stemchangers. The first half of the exercise used words that are on their ‘cheat sheet’, and the second half were words that weren’t on the sheet but followed the same pattern! That way I could assess informally whether or not the kids could take the situations they know and apply them to a new situation.

The problem was… now, with working more phrases and chunks rather than teaching them ‘First, you take the o and change it to a ue. Then you need to match it to your subject and choose your ending appropriately’… they couldn’t do the second half.  In Spanish 1, we really focus on yo/tú interpersonal exchanges and él/ellos retellings as appropriate and less on the usual drill-and-kill practice. They balked. They stalled. I stepped in to explain the situation to my student teacher and showed where we went wrong. After a brief explanation, the students were able to understand what we wanted from them but it really broke the flow of class and put up a huge brick wall in their learning – exactly what we’re trying to NOT do this year.

But it’s okay. It was a learning experience, because my student teacher is also stuck between methods. It’s hard to teach in a manner completely different from how you learned, especially in a situation where you have pretty much no idea what you’re doing in the first place. It’s also an unpleasant reminder that I’m going to have to cull my activities at the end of the year (again) to remove items that are no longer appropriate for my teaching style. But that’s fine – I’m making room for more important things.

Adventures in TPRS

I think this post could really be titled Adventures in TPRS: Faking It Til I Make It. I didn’t start using TPRS until this semester. I have zero formal training, only what I’ve gleaned from websites and youtube videos. I’m also picking up a bit from my student teacher, whose methods teacher seems to be heavy on the TPRS, but… she’s a student teacher, so she’s still learning all the basics of pacing, planning, student management, etc.

My student teacher is currently teaching my Spanish 1s and 2s in the morning, and I take my 3s and 4s in the afternoon. So I’ve been experimenting with my Spanish 4s.

A side note about my Spanish 4s: They are my babies. They were my first group of freshmen when I was a brand new teacher. We have gone through all our growing pains together – breakups, makeups, my painful attempts at classroom management in a hot mess of a Spanish program, the explosion of awesome that I see every day. I always look at my kids and think that they started with Spanish that consisted of ‘taco, burrito, hola, gracias’. Now they can read books and listen to songs and it just blows my mind that they take the bits of language I give them and turn them into something amazing.

Okay. So, I’ve been trying this TPRS thing. There are parts of it that I like. I like that it forces me to stay in Spanish. I like that it incorporates structures that are easier if they’re just memorized, like with indirect objects (‘le dijo’) or reflexives (‘se cayó’). I like that it requires very little preparation on my part. All I need is a markerboard and the vague idea of what I want to talk about.

Of course, there are parts that I don’t like. I don’t like how teacher-centered it is. I am one of those teachers who prefers to give the directions and get out of the way. I always tell the kids, ‘I already know how to speak Spanish, I don’t need the practice.’ I want them to be the ones who are manipulating the language. Now, with novice learners, I know that I have to drive the conversation (since novice learners struggle with forming questions) but they certainly can answer simple questions. They can make simple statements. They’re not going to be perfect, or even understandable sometimes, but unless we push them out of the nest, they’re never going to fly. But with some basic scaffolding and cognates, you can start pushing them out of the nest on the first day.

In any case, I’m still fiddling around with my technique. Last week, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to tell my Spanish 4s a story about a girl who had a boyfriend who was bad, but she wanted a boyfriend who was good. It was great – they now know how to say ‘he cheated on her’ and I very slyly introduced the next thing we’re going to be learning for grammar (subjunctive with wanting an unknown thing) with the structure ‘quiere un novio que sea’. I quickly learned why TPRS becomes less effective with older students. Since my Sp4s are mostly hanging out in intermediate mid or higher, they are perfectly capable of making complete sentences. So as we went through the story, I got through the first handful of sentences – basically, I set up the story – and… they ran away with it! I originally intended to do a comprehension check/mini-quiz the next day, but since they started sharing their own ideas, there was no way I could circle for them to remember what even happened.

But you know what, that’s okay. The kids told a ridiculous story (the main girl ends up dating Calvin Klein, but Calvin Klein is married… but he’s married to the person that the boyfriend is cheating with! So the girl goes with Calvin Klein, and the ex-boyfriend goes with his lover, and everyone is happy) but it was great. Kids were shouting things, I was rephrasing things for those who didn’t understand, everyone was making silly comments and adding on. It was controlled chaos – but exactly what I’m looking for when I teach. I’m sure if my principal walked in, he would wonder what in the world was going on, but as far as I’m concerned, I met my goals. Did my kids speak Spanish? Yes. Did their Spanish make sense? Yes. Did we have fun? Yes. Mission accomplished.

Making good mistakes – a new beginning

Hello, internet! I figured it was time for me to finally start a legitimate Spanish teaching blog. I have been kicking around the idea in my head for a while, and now that I have a student teacher, I actually have time! (For now.) You can learn about me under the about tab, but this is more of an informal greeting post.

For my readers, I must stress the word informal. I like to keep a casual tone when I write – I write like I talk – and I am a rambler (twitter is painful for me). You have been warned. This blog is also realistic. By that, I mean, I sometimes will post about situations in my classroom that didn’t go so well. Sometimes my students irritate me. One of the purposes of this blog is to reach out to language teachers, especially new teachers, who might feel lost and isolated. I know I sure felt that way a lot. I want teachers to know that if your classroom isn’t perfect – maybe your kids talk a lot, maybe they are resistant to your efforts, maybe some are just plain mean – that’s normal and you’re doing okay.

However, most of this blog will be about stuff I’m trying in the classroom. I named it ‘Making Good Mistakes’ because that’s my theme for this whole year of teaching. I am trying to make good mistakes, and encourage good mistakes among my students. By that, I mean I want my students to stop feeling so scared to make mistakes. Mistakes show that they’re learning. In language learning, if you aren’t making mistakes… it means you probably aren’t saying anything at all!

For me, making good mistakes means tripping my way through teaching Spanish. In undergrad, I was taught to use CI and we were introduced to a bit of TPRS, but like many novice teachers, I wasn’t comfortable using my Spanish in front of the class. When you’re new, you’re so busy drowning under classroom management that the first thing to go is the Spanish and it’s very easy to revert to the grammar-heavy way I was taught in the 90’s and 2000’s when I was first learning. On top of that, I am the only Spanish teacher in my district and I came into a situation where I was the 5th Spanish teacher in 4 years. The curriculum hadn’t been updated in a decade. You can imagine how things went.

But now I’m in my 4th year and I have a good rapport with my students. I was doing well enough with grammar instruction and have, in my opinion, ridiculously high retention rates in my classes considering how small my school is. But I’m still having students who are in Spanish 4 and asking what tener means. I have students in Spanish 3 that are still struggling with querer. My first year, I got through the whole year and couldn’t figure out why my students had no idea what hacer meant or how to use it, before realizing that hacer was only casually mentioned (at best) in the text. I felt like Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, aka @musicuentos, in her recent post about too much content. I taught them all the things, why couldn’t they use them??

So this year, thanks to a grad professor who forced me into twitter, I found my new love: #langchat. I don’t get to participate as much as I’d like, but it’s always the highlight of my Thursday when I can. The amazing collaborators of #langchat really push me to consider new ideas and challenge myself and my students. I am slowly changing my grammar-heavy ways thanks to them (and their beautiful collections of useful ideas and resources that make my life so much easier). Is it going perfectly? Of course not. One of my future posts will be about trying to find balance in my teaching. But I’m on my way. I hope you all enjoy coming on this crazy ride with me.