Carol Gaab TCI presentation thoughts

Last week, I was one of about 120-140 lucky teachers in the state of Nebraska who attended a two day workshop put on by the one and only Carol Gaab. The first thing I want to say is that it makes me kind of sad that language students in Nebraska don’t understand how awesome their teachers are. The kind of people who take two days out of their ‘summer’ to learn a technique – which was a new thing for the majority of teachers – are the kind that are teachers who care about their students. Who want the best for their students. I saw so many instances of these teachers being helpful, kind, and often just funny. Some of the people at my table traveled quite a ways to be in Lincoln last week, but I hope it pays off for their students.

The second thing I need to say is, of course, if you EVER have this opportunity, dooooo itttttt. Carol is a wonderful presenter and truly a master of her craft. Like many CI/TPRS workshops, she started with telling a story in a mystery language. She actually launched into the first verbal mini-story before doing any of the PQA, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I wasn’t sure if she was speaking a real language or just made-up sounds (cause after all, that’s all language is – a bunch of sounds strung together that we all agree means a certain thing). Then we went through and did the steps – establishing meaning, PQA, and telling of the story. By the time we got to the end of the hour (that’s it, just one hour) she retold the story again and it was completely comprehensible. I don’t know how anyone can go through that sort of experience and not say ‘Wow, that was amazing! This totally works!’ Then the afternoon of the first day and most of the second day was spent on going over the different ways to have this effect on our students. As an experienced, if not amazing, TPRS/CI teacher, I felt there was a lot of stuff I already knew, but at this point I was looking for the little tweaks to take me from ‘eh’ to ‘yeah!’ and Carol provided them. I will say, if you are brand new to the technique, an TPRS workshop (not conference) is also highly recommended, or practicing with a teacher who is already well-versed in the technique. In this case, we learned about techniques that we could use, but in the workshop I went to last year, we had the time to go through the entire process PLUS practicing how to circle PLUS practicing telling a story. So I felt that this conference was a good supplement to the workshop I went to last year.

I can’t summarize the entire two days worth of learning, but here is what I think is most key for me:

-I have said in previous posts that I don’t think I do a very good job of verbally story-asking. I think the problem is that like many new CI teachers, I am either way too focused on my target structures that I make the story less compelling, or I completely lose control of the structures and we don’t get the repetitions we need. I think an important step I am missing is the parallel story/going between the story I’m telling and PQA. In almost every instance, Carol would say only a sentence or two before asking a question (either to keep the story going, or a PQA question).

-My verbal stories became way too long. After we got past the initial vocabulary (quiere, tiene, puede, etc.) then my stories suddenly became over half a page long – that’s just too much input to be comprehensible. I need to keep it a reasonable level. Carol showed us how a story of only 6 sentences could take up half an hour’s worth of time because of all the question-asking and redoing of the sentence. (Tarzan sees Jane and calls, ‘Jane!’ Does Tarzan call romantically? Does Tarzan call loudly or quietly? Does Jane answer? How does Jane answer? – Even though the main sentence was ‘Tarzan sees Jane and calls ‘Jane!’, this sentence took 5 minutes to act out and get past, but with tons of repetition.)

-When doing readings (which again, were getting kind of ridiculously long in my class) the trick is to make your low readers forget that they’re reading. So you read a sentence… and then you ‘go off topic’ (you’re not really going off topic; you’re going into question-asking) to make them think you’re just having a conversation about what you just read. But you’re really steering them into, you guessed it, more repetitions of the target structures.

-Everyone loves to quote Carol as saying ‘The brain craves novelty!’ which is true. By the end of the year, I was very predictable. Sometimes I would ask a story (rarely though, I had given up by then) but mostly we did readings. Everything I did was a thinly veiled repetition of reading in some format two or three times until the students started audibly groaning. What I learned from Carol is that the steps we’re doing are quite honestly, exactly the same every time. We just have to fool our students’ brains into thinking we’re not doing the exact same thing (even though we are). A lot of the ideas offered (act it out, using images, using video, reader’s theater, TPR, PQA, draw it, etc) are things I already do… I just need to mix them up. And apply them to the story rather than to my ‘not doing a specific story’ activities. Although if you want to get technical, almost everything we say is telling a story, so maybe I just need to change my thinking. I may outline my month’s worth of stories and decide what activities I’m going to do with each story so that I don’t repeat any during that month.

-Another caution from Carol is when using circling, it can become very boring and predictable very quickly. So you have to circle for a bit… then go do something else. Then circle a bit…. then go do something else.

-One really ‘duh’ teacher trick she taught us was about sentence strips. When doing a story, you can give them some sentences on strips of paper and ask them to put them in a logical order. This is a great activity, but takes sooooo much time to prepare. I usually only prep one set of strips per pair/group of 4 (depending on class size) but that’s still usually 5 or more sets of papers to cut out, and those of you with monster classes might have 10+ sets. So I don’t do it very often because, if the activity takes me longer to prepare than it does the students to complete it, then I’m going to opt out. Here’s Carol’s trick: instead of printing new strips for each story, get a set of differently colored strips (you can just use colored printer paper). Each group gets a set of the colored papers (1 of each color). Then project the sentences themselves on the board, each sentence highlighted in a color that matches one of the strips. Then the students arrange as usual, putting the colors in the order they think the sentences should be in.

There were so many more wonderful tips and tricks that Carol shared with me, but truly, there is no way to record them all here. You have to experience her teaching for yourself. You will not regret it!

P.S. We had a catered lunch by a local restaurant and it was amazingly delicious. I just wanted you all to know. Best conference ever. Super shoutout thanks to Janine Theiler, the NDE, and LPS for providing this opportunity for us!

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Summer standardization

Greetings and salutations from watery Nebraska! As a long-time listener to grunge, I can identify with the wet weather of Seattle, but I’m really not too interested in living in it. I’m well into my summer and it boggles my mind that some of you are still in your regular school year!

In any case, I have been doing the proper amount of panicking that it’s the summer and I need to have maximum laziness while simultaneously freaking out that I need to have the maximum amount of productivity/fun possible. So I end up having two really productive days per week… and the other five, I eat ice cream for breakfast and play video games all day. I am truly the most responsible of adults. (Don’t worry, I don’t have any kids that I’m neglecting.)

Here in my ‘summer’ of 2015, I’ve been doing a lot of professional development. The first week I went to a four day AP Spanish workshop; last week I went to a one day thing on adolescent literacy in Norfolk. The adolescent literacy name is a misnomer, in my opinion – this particular session was about engagement strategies. This Thursday and Friday I will get to meet the amazing Carol Gaab and try to do my best not to fangirl. I’m also headed to Columbus next week for a day with the teachers from the Mexican exchange group, just for fun.

I have two and a half takeaways from these workshops so far:

Takeaway 1: The AP workshop was very beneficial to me as a new AP Spanish teacher. I’m sure each presenter does things differently, but I was with the talented David Marlow and learning from 10 other equally talented Spanish educators. The entire seminar was conducted in Spanish, which really helped my confidence level in speaking Spanish. Even though I definitely had some moments where I know I said something wrong, I proved to myself that I am not a fraud, I can speak Spanish at an advanced proficiency (or maybe even superior, since we were talking about pedagogical implications which requires a specialized vocabulary) with native speakers for a lengthy period of time. And I had to employ the same strategies I always try to foist upon my students. It was good for me.

Personal problems aside, I thought the workshop did an appropriate job of attempting to prepare us to prepare our students. There’s no way to truly be 100% ready for the test. It’s big and it’s scary. Part of the training was to sit down and actually take portions of the test. I scored much better on the interpretive than I expected, especially the audio sections. (I was worried because if I bombed it, how in the world was I supposed to prep my students??) After taking each portion at different intervals throughout the course, we then looked at the exemplars and discussed why they were rated the way they were. Since I teach 100% non-native speakers, I will be happy if my students earn 3s and ecstatic if they get 4s. I am not sure how a non-native speaker with normal amounts of preparation is supposed to earn a 5, but that’s the nature of the beast, I guess. This portion of the course was nice, but since I had already gone over the requirements and materials on my own, it was mostly repetition of stuff I already knew.

The real meat of the course, though, is that David was kind enough to create a unit that we slowly worked on throughout the week that clearly met the standards of the AP requirements in terms of authentic resources, rigor of materials, etc. One of my weakest areas is the transition from TPRS/heavy CI with my novices/intermediate-lows to the ambiguity that comes with intermediate and advanced levels, and working through a well-refined unit helped give me some ideas on how to handle that transition. We also worked in groups to create a bare-bones unit for each of the six themes, so at worst, we all have seven total units that we can flesh out/adapt for our own classrooms. Some of the teachers were also experienced teachers taking a refresher course, so they were happy to share their own syllabuses with us. If nothing else, I know I am going to have a really good syllabus! (And of course, once it is accepted by the College Board then I will be happy to share it.)

Takeaway 2: I picked up some good engagement strategies from the conference I went to on Friday. It’s part of a year-long project that I will be completing with other teachers in the building, and then I assume the eventual long-term plan is to disseminate the strategies we’re learning into the whole teacher population, and see how that affects our teaching as a group. The presentation was by Kevin Feldman, and I enjoyed his presentation. His strategies are hand-in-hand with those of Anita Archer (who I was lucky enough to see my first summer as a teacher – totally worth it) although some have a little twist. I have three strategies I’d like to share with you all that will work in any classroom, not just foreign language:

Strategy 1 – The 2 to 10 – At the high school level, never go more than 2-10 minutes without asking the students to do something. Hopefully while you were teaching, they were thinking about the topic, but we need to stop frequently and require a visual check of their internal brain processes. The actual step of showing their thinking can take many forms (write it down, tell a partner, report to the class, use a clicker system, etc.) but there shouldn’t be any time to just space out and not do anything.

Strategy 2 – Precision partnering – When working in pairs (or small groups, but usually pairs – no one can hide in a group of two!) designate one partner as A and one as B. Be clear what you want the As to do and what you want the Bs to do. Alternate who answers the question first – this helps when you have partners who want to dominate the conversation. The other super important key is give both partners a job to do. If partner A is explaining something, partner B’s job shouldn’t be ‘sit there and wait until A is done talking’.

Strategy 3 – Active listening – So if partner B isn’t supposed to space out, what can they do? Some potential jobs are to paraphrase/restate what partner A said, to agree/disagree with a justification, to provide an example or non-example of what A said, make a connection to previous information, or elaborate/add details to what partner A said. In foreign language, partner B’s job might be to help correct obvious pronunciation errors.

What I really like about these strategies is that they are all based around ‘everyone does everything’. There’s no hiding. Every student has to do the same amount of work (or at least, we are trying to get them to do the same amount of work) rather than having the class dominated by the same 5 students all the time. Are students still going to get by doing the least amount of work they can? Absolutely! But if we make the minimum very, very high… then that’ll be okay. And will it solve all of our engagement problems? Of course not! But they are small tweaks for a proficient teacher to make things go that much better in their classroom, and they might be life-saving strategies for a novice who feels like they’re drowning. These strategies fit very well within the cooperative learning framework of foreign language and the group-answer techniques of circling.

Half a takeaway: As I look through all the #langchat logs that I’ve been missing, and going to all these workshops, I see a lot of us moving away from standardized units and textbook work. But it’s interesting, because the more we collaborate, and go to the same workshops with the same presenters, and use the same techniques – in a way, we’re restandardizing ourselves. Hopefully it’s to a new, higher standard that serves our students better.