Mini-reflection on TPRS/CI

It’s finals week here at my school. I always finish the year with a novel study (though I will be adding more to each class next year, hooray!) and the final project the last few years is to create some sort of thing that shows me understanding. (You can see my requirements/rubric for Spanish 1 here. The other levels have a similar instruction sheet.) Here are some things that have happened this year that I think are due to a full year of TPRS/CI:

Me le gusta– An interesting grammatical error that I’ve never dealt with before is ‘me le gusta’. It seems like my students are properly acquiring te gusta – there is never any confusion that one. They can also explain the difference between me gusta and le gusta when specifically asked. But when they produce it on their own, a number of students produce it as ‘me le gusta’. Hmm.

Enhanced storytelling abilities – This one is not so puzzling. In the past, almost all my students preferred to do a booklet-type summary (with more time spent on the pictures and only 1-2 sentences of Spanish per page, of course!) or a video using Powtoon or other software. This year, almost all my students were evenly split among the written summaries and creating a Kahoot. The summaries themselves were often very high quality, much higher than in previous years. Most students far exceeded the minimum length requirement. I even had one student do a diary-entry style retell where she had to do a horizontal conjugation and put everything into the yo form. She did a great job with it! Sadly, I also had a few students who chose to have Profesor Google do their work. I was hoping this would be the first year I didn’t have to have The Talk (I didn’t have any other issues this year!) but I guess the summer slide was too irresistible.

Enhanced questioning abilities – So as I said, many of my students also made Kahoots. For the most part, these also turned out fantastically. Kahoot is fun because it forces students to create questions – which is a solidly intermediate skill. It did mean that I spent most of the last 3 days saying ‘you don’t need hacein your question, Spanish puts ‘does’ there automatically’ but it was very good practice. The intermediate level students had better quality questions, but the novices were able to put together reasonably comprehensible questions. I think the extreme questioning that happens through CI methods really helped push them to that next level.

Conjugation – Interestingly enough, even though I spent approximately 1 hour total per level on explicit grammar instruction (and almost always per student request), I received far more text that was 1) conjugated correctly or 2) conjugated at all than I ever have before. I am interested to see how this pans out over 4 years of education with me. Instead of having Spanish 2s who can teeechnically sooooorta write in all the other tenses, but it’s generally a mess, I have Spanish 2s who tend to stick to present… but when they venture into other tenses, it’s more likely to be correct. This is consistent with the intermediate level that we are working towards.

Given this information and my prior reflection posts, I think I have a good idea of where I want to steer my teaching for next year. Of course, I won’t be taking much of a break this summer. I have AP training on June 1-4, a literacy conference on June 12, a workshop with Carol Gaab on June 18-19, and an ESU-sponsored exchange with Mexican teachers at the end of June. I’ll be taking July off and then it’s back to school on August 10! Onwards and upwards!

It’s an interpersonal blitz!

A while back, the wonderful and talented Amy Lenord shared her interpersonal blitz powerpoints and ideas. I am so grateful that she shared this information, because I think it’s one of the best ways to practice informal interpersonal speaking. Interpersonal speaking is probably the most useful of the modes for real life usage, but I think it’s also the hardest to master (at least for Romance languages). It’s very easy to get caught up in trying to make each sentence perfect rather than just getting words out there and communicating. Although I agree that input is vital for language acquisition, practice is also necessary for production. Many of my students are intimidated and won’t speak Spanish unless I give them a bit of a push. So, the interpersonal blitz activity is that push. It’s perfect for speaking practice on typical topics – hobbies, favorites, significant others, family members. I also love that the activity can be used/modified for any level of speaker by giving just enough guidance to narrow things down, but more proficient speakers tend to naturally elaborate more.

So here’s how I use it:

  • I project Amy’s pre-made slideshow on the projector.
  • Depending on the speaker levels, I give prep time. For my novices, I like to give them 1 minute of prep after posting the topic where they can write questions and potential answers on a sheet of scratch paper. That way, even if they’re not pushing into intermediate where they can ask questions, they can still have something to talk about without spending the whole time thinking of what they’re going to say. Intermediates don’t really need the prep time; they’re proficient enough in asking basic questions (with the help of my word wall) that they can be spontaneous.
  • Give students time to talk. I keep it around 1 minute for novices, 1:30-2 for intermediates (depending on that particular class’s strength).
  • We normally only do about 10 rounds (20ish minutes) – any more and they start to shut down.
  • A modification I sometimes make is to do it speed-date style where some of the students rotate, so everyone can talk to a different partner each time.

My favorite part, though, is watching my students have fun AND use Spanish in the classroom. We did this with my Spanish 3s the other day and it made me so happy to see my students laughing and joking in the language. The slideshow is also great filler for a lesson that ends up being too short, or a no-prep activity on a day where you’re pressed for planning time. As we start to wrap up the year, we often end up with not enough time to do a full unit but too much time before prepping for final assessments, and this activity fills that gap nicely.

The testing beast

As we wrap up the year, all schools are embattled with our ultimate nemesis: the standardized test. Thankfully, at my school, we only proctor 2 sets of tests. We administer the NWEA, a diagnostic test in reading, language arts, math, and science in the fall and spring. We also administer the NeSA (Nebraska state tests) to 4th, 8th, and 11th graders in the spring. Overall, the actual testing schedule isn’t particularly disruptive – the NeSA is given during a normal class period and the NWEA involves a couple of late starts. I am forever thankful, compared to many schools who lose entire days or even weeks of instruction to the testing machine. When using words like ‘beast’, ‘nemesis’, and ‘testing machine’, it’s probably no surprised that I am not a huge fan of standardized tests. I have all the usual teacher complaints: it encourages teaching to the test, it takes from actual teaching time, it forces students to find only one right answer for a problem, and so on. Ironically, as a student, I loooooooved testing because I am really, really, really good at taking standardized tests. And then we didn’t have homework. (In elementary school, they even gave us all sorts of snacks and breaks that we didn’t normally get.) Not exactly a ringing endorsement for compliance on testing. As a teacher, I can see the value of NWEA – it breaks down student scores into various categories so we can more easily identify areas of weakness. But as a world language teacher, the scores are pretty meaningless to me. How someone performs in English has very little to do with how they perform in a second language. Well, eventually it does, but not at the novice and intermediate levels where my students are.

I’m going to pick on the NWEA since that’s the one I proctored. As I monitored, I had to ask myself the biggest question of all: how are the questions on these tests actually related to what we do in class? You see, I keep hearing about ’21st century skills’ and ‘use of technology’ and ‘critical thinking’ and ‘project based learning’ and so on (in all areas, not just Spanish). But how are the questions asked on these tests applicable to any of those things? The tests do not ask our students to create, simply to answer trivia questions. I’m particularly harsh on the English/grammar tests, because I wonder – and maybe it’s different in primary languages versus secondary – if the data shows that specific grammar instruction in secondary languages is fairly useless as students will acquire structures when and if necessary for communication, why are we spending time on it in class? How many students do we correct saying ‘me and my friends’ because it sounds wrong according to some arbitrary grammatical rules, when ‘me and my friends’ communicates meaning perfectly well? And I’m not saying that we need to abandon grammar entirely since there is the distinction between formal and informal speech where grammar is a huge component in that distinction, but in casual conversation, who cares if you say ‘me and my friends’ or ‘my friends and I’? What is the point of identifying the topic sentence in paragraph? Why should you need to identify where to put commas in a paragraph someone else wrote?

My thing is, these tests are asking students to interpret… but assessing them in a presentational manner. If I want to know if my students understand the rules of grammar, I think it’s far more useful to assess through them writing or speaking a passage of their own creation. If I’ve learned nothing in the past few years, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter one tiny bit if students know the proper names of things – direct objects, past participles, pronoun-antecedent agreement – it only matters that they can use them correctly. And when it comes to things like writing and grammar, the rules can be and are broken all the time in literature! And don’t even get me started on basic vocabulary questions where students are asked to identify a potential definition, when I know they don’t know some of the words in the choices! And that’s conveniently ignoring the extra difficulties for students with learning disabilities or ELLs.

I guess it matters way more to me that my students learn to do that higher order thinking – the thoughtful analysis, the creation of a new product, or just outright enjoyment of what they’re doing, than to be able to regurgitate answers. But actions say more than words: if we’re told that we’re supposed to care about critical thinking and project based learning, but our students are going to be assessed with basic trivia facts on the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy and the results of that assessment can affect the funding for our schools and the retention of our jobs… we know where the importance really lies. In the meantime, though, I am still going to be working on that critical thinking, those group projects, pushing my students to be creators, not just consumers. I will be teaching AP Spanish next year, so the standardized test monster will be directly looming over me for the first time in my teaching career. I hope my students do well on it, but I would be satisfied if they leave my class with a working knowledge of Spanish and enrichment in their lives. My students are not defined by a multiple choice test.

NETA 2015

As the year begins to wind down here in Nebraska, I finally have time to update my blog! The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of conferences and track meets. In this post, I want to tell you about my trip to NETA – the Nebraska Educational Technology Association. This year, it was held at the lovely CenturyLink Center. I’d been to concerts there before, but never on the conference room side. It was very nice!

Before outlining things I think might be useful for fellow language teachers, I have to say – it was nice to be around My People. In every session, people had tablets and phones and laptops for note taking. People took copious amounts of pictures. During the keynote, it was not just allowed, but expected and encouraged to tweet/blog/whatever about anything that came to mind. The two keynote speakers (Adam Bellow and George Couros) were fantastic. Adam made us laugh, George made us cry. But through the whole conference, it just felt nice to be around people who said, ‘We can do it! We have the technology!’ and then laugh because I don’t look old enough to get the reference. There were novice teachers and veteran teachers. There were digital natives and digital immigrants. Some were there because they wanted to learn how to use tech in the first place, some were there to push their tech use further. I also like how the presentations were by fellow teachers and techies that are in schools, in the classrooms, that run into the same problems that we all do – and maybe have a solution. I loved seeing everyone working together – the kind of stuff we dream of for our classrooms.

The first session I went to was on Minecraft. I don’t play it, nor do my students (this year’s big thing is Clash of Clans) because I’m pretty sure it’s more of an elementary thing. However, world language is weird teaching universe where we are essentially using elementary-level tactics to teach to a secondary-level group. The teacher demo’d some sample lessons for us. One involved exploring different biomes and then taking a ‘quiz’ through Minecraft using locked doors. Another sample lesson had students creating a setting for different civilizations. Since I teach an ancient civilizations unit in AP, I could easily adapt this to my class. I just don’t know if seniors would be interested. (They probably would… as long as nobody knew they were playing a kiddo game.) Another potential use is to have students design a house. In the language classroom, you could have a student describe the house they want and the second student has to build it to their specifications, then give feedback. Although my Parade of Homes activity isn’t going to be repeated (at least not in AP Spanish,) that would be a perfect unit to pair it with. If Minecraft sounds interesting to you, a good resource is MinecraftEDU.

Another session I went to was run by my amazing cooperating teacher, Janet Eckerson. She was fantastic to work with when I was still learning the ropes, and it was just as fun to see her teach again. She just has that shining enthusiasm and exuberance when she teaches, no matter which language she’s teaching in. As a veteran-ish teacher, I can now see how lucky I was to learn under her guidance. In any case, she touched a bit on Google Forms/Flubaroo for formative assessment, then on Google Voice to do speaking assessments that are low-stress and can be reviewed at the teacher’s convenience. Google Voice is a free internet telephone number that students can call if you are a lower tech environment. Personally, since I have the tech, I will probably choose to things like Vocaroo where students can re-record if they totally mess it up, but I think it’s a useful alternative for people who aren’t 1:1. Janet’s sneaky trick here was to push students into practicing their speeches. Most of us will ask our students to do some sort of presentation in their time with us, and this is a way to have them practice AND give the teacher evidence of said practice.

On the second day, I hit a session Zondle. Zondle came up in my blended learning conference a few weeks ago, but this was a bit more in-depth. Zondle is essentially a smashup of 123TeachMe/Duolingo/Kahoot. In it, teachers create assessments or activities, and students can play various games to practice. A nice thing about Zondle is that it tracks student progress. It’s a bit late to add Zondle to my repertoire this year, but it might be handy next year.

The final session worth noting was a session on videosmashing – how to make watching videos more interactive or interesting for students. The first part discussed the differences between Edpuzzle, Educanon, and Zaption. All three are basically video programs that allow you to stop and ask questions as you go. Edpuzzle seems like the most adaptable for our use. The other one I really liked but never heard of before was This app is attached to Google Drive and it’s super cool – the student loads the video on the left, and take notes on the right. The notes are automatically timestamped, so when students go back and select that particular note, the video also jumps to that spot. I do a lot of video+’write down what you hear’ activities to work on listening comprehension – novices certainly aren’t going to catch EVERY word, but they can catch a lot! Sadly, we found out that if Youtube is blocked at your school, is unable to load the video as well. Maybe next year.

There were a few other sessions I visited, but the only other one I really took something from was the women in tech conversation session run by Beth Still. Long story short, things are not always so rosy for women in technology. I am very lucky that my administration has been supportive and I haven’t received any discrimination from my coworkers, but I was joined by a help desk operator at a local community college, and three women who worked as IT support in a large school system who all had some disgusting stories of sexism directed at them in the workplace. Although we didn’t cover any new territory – we’ve all been down that road – it was nice to share some moral support with other women and a hope that someday, our work will lead to a different future for the women who follow behind us.

I really enjoyed my time at NETA and although I’m not sure I’ll go next year (I don’t like missing so much school), it was a worthwhile experience and I would encourage you to visit tech conferences, whether in Nebraska or any other state. And of course, blog about your findings! Let’s share our knowledge!