Personal growth

Hello dear readers! It seems like ages since I’ve posted. One of my not-so-well-kept secrets is that, in addition to teaching Spanish by day, by night I am a fierce roller skating queen. Well… I don’t know about fierce, but I do play for the No Coast Derby Girls here in Lincoln. We’re currently prepping for our Saturday bout against Fargo/Omaha and it’s my first time playing with the newly formed Thunder Dames. We practice 3-4 times a week at 2-3 hours per practice, plus we go to the gym, so that usually leaves very little time for other stuff… like blogging or sleeping. I’m hoping to get back to a more regular pattern once things settle down again.

Anyway, I also spent some time this weekend with non-derby friends. One of them mentioned he wished he would have actually paid attention in high school Spanish because, as it turns out, speaking a foreign language is a useful life skill. Who knew? But he was frustrated because it would take him way too long. I told him, he’s wrong. Does it take time? Absolutely. Does it take dedication? You bet. But his goal is not to reach advanced levels, he just wants to have basic conversations. I’d say that’s an intermediate mid level by ACTFL standards, and I think that an adult who puts in 5 hours per week for 1 year, attending to all the modes (especially interpersonal)… he could easily achieve his goal. ‘But I’m really busy,’ he said, ‘I’ve got two kids.’ My response? Great! They can learn with you! Kids (and/or students) are a great motivator to keep pushing the boundaries of your language knowledge.

Which segues into the real meat of this post: what do I do to keep growing as a Spanish learner? I would argue that my Spanish grows more on a daily basis than it ever did in high school or even college. In high school, I did my 45 minutes a day plus homework, but my classes were grammar-based. That’s fine with me because I’m a grammar nerd, but I came into college still being more or less completely unable to hold a conversation in Spanish. I could read and write well enough, but even after 4 years, my interpersonal abilities were negligible. And I was arguably the top non-native Spanish student in my graduating class. Yikes! But how many of us can tell the same story?

In college, I grew even more, but I also had to balance my job, relationships, and other classes on top of my Spanish. It was difficult because the jump from grammar-based non-native speaker Spanish to literature-based native speakers is HUGE. So when I think about what I want my students to be able to do, I want them to not feel like they’re doing i+100 when going from high school to university and/or real life Spanish.

Now, I learn at least one new word/phrase/structure a day, if not more. I’ve been making a big push since Christmas to increase my Spanish use outside of work. At work, I am gaining new words all the time because I have to help my students, but I can handle lower level grammatical tasks with ease. My real work comes from the stuff I’ve decided to do outside of class.

-Listen to more Spanish radio. My local Spanish radio (97.7 El Lobo out of Omaha) plays pop music for a whopping one hour per day. But that one hour, 4-5 pm, is during my commute home. I like to listen for new songs that I like (just to listen to) and ones that could be used in class. Then I can use services like Pandora or Spotify to save those songs and find more artists that I like. Listening to radio ads also have really upped my ability to understand spoken Spanish without having the luxury of facial expressions and gestures. I find listening to numbers especially challenging, so I try to repeat them back to myself.

-Watch Spanish tv. I don’t watch a lot of tv in the first place, so this is a bit of a stretch for me. I mostly prefer comedies – something that Spanish television doesn’t really have. So I have to settle for telenovelas. Right now, I’m working my way through Santa Diabla, which has all the episodes posted on youtube. (They’re posted by Telemundo, so it’s okay! Too bad they’re totally not school appropriate.) It was scary at first to leave my beloved (Spanish) subtitles, but for the most part, I understand 95% of what they’re saying and 100% of what’s happening so… that works for me.

-Read Spanish literature, not just news. I’m finally working my way through Como agua para chocolate which I tried to read while in college, but I just didn’t have the skill. There was way too much cooking-related vocabulary that I didn’t have, and the language is very flowery. Lots of compound past perfects and whatnot. I prefer to work on microcuentos (stories that are only 1-2 pages long) or short stories, because I can reread them multiple times to note grammar usage or reinforce new words in the same amount of time it takes me to read one chapter of a novel.

Of course, these are all strategies we can use to help our students become more proficient in our chosen languages. The more we know, the more knowledge we can disperse! What kinds of things do you do to grow your own language proficiency? Any book recommendations for a sci-fi/fantasy nerd?


So after a lively #langchat discussion tonight, you would think I’d be out of thoughts to think.

You would be wrong. I always have thoughts to think!

One thing that has been sticking in my craw lately is how hard we are working to make our students successful.  (And by ‘we’ I am referring to the group of teachers that follow #langchat, are pushing for proficiency, so on and so forth – regardless of our personal beliefs.) Current hot topics include learning in the language vs. about the language, grammar vs. communication, vocab list or no. We are falling over ourselves to create the best curriculum that includes real-world proficiency assessments with topics that interesting and relevant to our students, using videos and music and anything we can find to get and keep them hooked.

What I have yet to see be addressed is… what happens when they’re not hooked? It seems to me, at this moment, that the best way to teach foreign language is to use rich vocabulary, attend to grammar when necessary, actually use the target language, and be enthusiastic. I am a huge fan of Benny Lewis’s blog Fluent in 3 Months. He is very clear that he is a language learner, not a linguist – but he wasn’t always one. He took numerous languages throughout his compulsory and university educations, and even lived in Spain for 6 months… but still couldn’t communicate in an immersion situation. Now he speaks more languages than you can shake a stick at. How?

A mixture of vocabulary, studying grammar when not knowing something interfered with communication, and plain old hard work.

Benny lists a number of excuses that we language teachers probably hear on a daily basis. I had a student today try to convince me that 4 year olds were smarter than she is. Really? Kids who are barely potty trained and you think they’re smarter than you? This sets up my argument for this post.

Let me  give you a short tale of two classes. I have two sections of Spanish 3, juniors. For some weird reason, our junior class is ENORMOUS. Most of our graduating classes hover around 25 students; the juniors are over 40. And due to some scheduling limitations, it never fails that when I have two sections of a class, one has a higher general proficiency level than the other. Most of my 6th period students are solidly intermediate-mid, pushing into high. The high flyers in that class are frequently nudging into advanced low. My 8th period class mostly hovers in intermediate-low, with a number of them still floundering in novice-high in numerous areas. (Which is kind of ridiculous, considering I have more than a handful of Spanish 1s who I would consider novice-high.) So what’s the difference? I only have two juniors with IEPs, and they are on-target with their learning goals, so that’s not it. I have an even mix of males and females, so we can’t claim the false excuse of ‘Girls are better at language than boys.’ None of my students are heritage speakers or have native speaker friends. I teach them all the same way… sort of. Obviously, I have to differentiate and bring my lesson plan’s goals down a bit for 8th period and coach them through much more vocabulary. So what gives?

With a little reflection, I am fairly certain that the difference is not me. We all have students who will soak up every drop of language, regardless of our technique. But we will also have students who only do the barest of the minimum to get by. Some of them just don’t care, and no matter what crazy teaching technique I use, I can’t reach them all. It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s a reality I need to be at peace with.

However, I don’t think laziness is the entirety of the uninvolved student puzzle. I also notice that many of my 8th period students have far lower self-esteem than their 6th period counterparts, even though they are equally able to complete tasks. They shut themselves down before we even get started. While working on interpretive skills with some handy videos from UT Austin, they were finished before I pressed play on the first exercise. ‘What? We’re going to watch videos in Spanish??’ [As if we never do this.] ‘You want us to understand what they say?’ [Yes, that is the purpose of this exercise.] ‘But they talk so fast! I can’t understand anything!’ [Yes, that is why we are doing this. We’re practicing so we get better at understanding native speakers.] I made the choice not to tell them that we were actually working with advanced-level videos, though I told my other class. 6th period feels energized and empowered by knowing they’re handling a task that is a challenge. 8th period throws up their hands and claims stupidity, even though I know it’s not true.

So I guess it is my worry that we teachers are going to burn ourselves out, spinning our wheels to reach students who are only taking our class because it beats taking business law. They have no interest in actually learning the language and are those unfortunate students who stop caring about education at an early age. It goes without saying that my 6th period also tends to have parents who place an emphasis on education and are more involved in their children’s lives. We can try to interest the uninterested students as much as we can, but they have to make the choice to put in the effort it takes to become proficient.  For these students, technique really doesn’t matter because they’re not invested in the first place. They have to be the ones to put in the time, to make themselves respond in the TL, to seek out other sources in order to go above and beyond what we can fit in our tiny little pockets of language during the school day. I truly believe 100% that we can make students proficient in basic skills (intermediate-mid or higher) in our 2-4 years with them in high school. But only if they’re willing to take a chance with us. To do that, they need to believe in themselves first.

Reflections on student teaching

I recently finished a 7-week stint with a student teacher. She was my first student teacher, and I was a little nervous. I’ve only been teaching for 4 years and my teaching style has shifted significantly each year. I decided to undergo another major overhaul, mostly ditching the text and going full-steam ahead into comprehensible input/authentic resources shortly before Christmas, so she started with me right when I had no idea what I was doing at the Spanish 1 and 2 levels. (I have Realidades for Spanish 1-3 and Imagina for Spanish 4.) I do use the text for Spanish 3 and 4, but only because there are more level-appropriate videos and reading passages in those texts. The level 1 and 2 books treat my students like they’re idiots, and I don’t like that.

Anyway, I don’t feel like I’m a completely different teacher than when I first set foot into Crete High School for my own student teaching in 2009, but after observing my student teacher, I can see the differences I’ve made over the years that really help me to manage my classroom efficiently. So, in no particular order, here are some pieces of advice for newer language teachers or student teachers.

1) Use the TL as much as possible. This one is kind of a ‘duh’, but I know it is extremely intimidating to stand up in front of a class and teach in your non-native language… especially if there are native speakers present. Doubly so if your cooperating teacher uses heavy TL and you aren’t sure you’re up to the task. That’s okay! Try it anyway! You’re going to make mistakes – most of the time, the kids won’t notice. (After all, they don’t speak it very well; that’s why they’re in your class.) It’s also good modeling for the students. If the teacher isn’t willing to take a risk in their language use, why should they? The best part is, speaking in front of the class will improve your abilities as well. I probably improved my spoken Spanish more by being forced to speak it for 16 weeks in the classroom than 6 weeks in Mexico (where most of the friends I made wanted to speak in English).

2) SLOW DOWN. The corrollary to #1 is to slow down. No, I mean it, SLOW DOWN. Now, I don’t believe we need to go word-by-word slow, but it’s very important to maintain a reasonable speed and to leave space between chunks for students to process. I’m someone who speaks very quickly in both English and Spanish, doubly so if I get excited. If I’m blathering away at breakneck speed, there’s no way my students can understand me, and I just defeated the point of telling my story, directions, or whatever it is. That’s when students get frustrated and complain that you don’t speak English. Make it understandable to them, and things will go much more smoothly.

3) Leave wait time. This is a second corrollary to #1. It’s very easy to get in a rush, but it’s incredibly necessary to leave think time for your students. I do a lot of choral response in my class, so I find it important to remind students ‘piensan, piensan, piensan‘ to let everyone process my question before shouting out the answer. This is doubly important after giving directions, regardless if you choose to give your directions in English or the TL. Give an instruction, wait, let the kids figure it out and follow it. Then give your second instruction. If you give them 3 instructions in a row, then start the activity without any sort of wait time for them, they’re going to be upset that you started without them, and you’re going to be upset that they’re not ready. Chunk it up, and you will have less problems.

Classroom example:

Okay, estudiantes, Uds. necesitan las actividades en clase. (Okay students, you guys need your activities in class.) Wait. They take out their activities paper.

Por favor, llamen esto “La ropa y la moda”. (Please, call this “clothing and fashion”.) Wait. They head the activity with the title.

Vamos a describir las fotos. Uds. necesitan describir las fotos. ¿Qué llevan ellos? ¿Qué ropa llevan ellos? Escriben en las actividades en clase, por favor. Okay, just to check, what did I say? (We’re going to describe the photos. You guys need to describe the photos. What are they wearing? What clothes are they wearing? Write it in your activities, please.) If I give lengthy instructions in Spanish, I always check with a medium-level student to make sure they were comprehensible.

4) Routine, routine, routine. A major factor in a successful language classroom is routine. We use routines every day so that our brains can take a breather and not have to process every single bit of information that enters it. Routines are essential in the language classroom, because it helps our students with comprehensible input. Even if they don’t catch every word you say, building a routine will help even your lowest language learners follow along. My lower levels know that we start with el principio (my word for bellwork) while I take care of non-teaching business, then we take out our actividades en clase and do 2-3 of those before finishing the period. It’s also important to have routines for non-teaching stuff, like how you store your graphic organizers/texts, where you keep extra copies, when you update a website/info board/whatever, etc. A little organization on the front end will save you tons of time on the back end.

5) Have a clear attention getting device. When it comes to classroom management, which all new teachers struggle with, having an attention getting device is probably the #1 key to not going crazy on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes I have to use my attention device every 2 minutes, but 2 minutes of peace at a time is still better than 0. In my room, I stand front and center and say loudly and clearly, Señores y señoritas, necesito su atención, por favor. Then I give them 5 seconds of wait time. Sometimes I even visually count down on my hand. This gives them the necessary time to finish up finding their paper, writing their sentence, talking to their friend, or whatever they were doing and focus on me. If I still don’t have all eyes on me, I repeat the phrase and countdown. If I still have stragglers after the repeat, then I call them out by name. This generally does the trick – if not, we move into warnings and potential detentions. I find that by giving a solid 10-15 seconds of clear wait time, I save myself minutes of ‘Bobby, sit down. Jessica, I need your eyes here. Liz, stop talking. No, I’ll sign that later. That’s nice, Jeff, I can’t listen to your story right now, I’m teaching.’ For those of you who have students at the elementary level, I think the whole brain teaching technique is fabulous. (I wanted to link to a blog about a teacher who teaches elementary and teaches whole brain in English at first, but then can pretty much use Spanish only from thereon out. I can’t remember who wrote it though, so if anyone knows which one I’m talking about, please let me know!)

I could probably think of many more pieces of advice for new teachers (be flexible! test technology before using it! don’t trust lyrics sites for Spanish songs because they never seem to use accent marks which is annoying!) but these are the top five ideas that I discussed often with my student teacher and I think will make the most difference for novice teachers.