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.