2015-2016 Goals

I (officially) go back to work on August 10th. Students report on August 12th. I went to Colorado last week (it was amazing and fun and I climbed a mountain on my own two feet!) and as soon as I got back to Lincoln, my brain immediately turned to SCHOOL TIME! I both love and hate the few weeks leading up to the start of the school year. I love it because I am so enthusiastic and ready to get back to work. All those great ideas that I came up with in April, that were too late to implement during last school year, have waited patiently all summer and are now bursting forth from my brain. Plus, I miss my students. However, I hate these weeks because I mostly feel terribly impatient. I woke up at 4 am and can’t go back to sleep because my brain is in overdrive about all the things I want to do. It also makes it hard to spend my last week at home relaxing!

Instead of fighting it, I usually just decide to go with it. So, without further ado, here are some random goals I’ve come up with for this school year.

Read two novels per class level (except Spanish 3)

Free voluntary reading was a big hit in my upper classes last year. I may eventually start implementing a bit of FVR in Spanish 2 or even 1 at some point, but for now, I am happy with just having it in Spanish 3 and AP. The biggest change is that I am adding a novel per class, so now my reading schedule looks like this:

Spanish 1 – Brandon Brown quiere un perro (Q2), Pobre Ana (Q4)

Spanish 2 – La tumba (Q2, preferably around el día de los muertos if I can wing it), Casi se muere (Q4)

Spanish 3 – Mi propio auto (Q4)

AP Spanish – La Guerra Sucia (end of Q2 or start of Q3), Dónde está Eduardo (Q4)

Keep working towards my target of 90-100% Spanish

Like many teachers, this is a work-in-progress. Depending on the day and the activities, sometimes I meet my goal, and sometimes I come up way short. One of the double-edged parts of having easy access to technology is that I often have to show my students a new computer skill before we can do the Spanish part, and it’s usually less problematic to use English to teach the skill.

Use only Spanish the first day

My upper level students won’t have a problem (I hope!) but I have never tried a Spanish-only day one for my newcomers. I hope that we have a 1:30 out on the first day (some years we’ve had a 2:30 dismissal which makes for super awkward period lengths that are too long to just go over the syllabus, but too short to actually do a lesson). A 30 minute period would be just enough time to go through an introductory ‘me llamo’ lesson with Spanish 1. With the other levels, I’ll probably tell them about my trip to Colorado (or maybe just show the pictures and have them ask questions, or both!) then have them upload a picture of something they did this summer to a class Google Slideshow that we can talk about on the 2nd day. Even though I don’t think they’ll have their school laptops by day 2, they can use their devices to upload it (since they already have an account).

Become a Google Certified Teacher/continue being a Technology Encourager

This came up on a whim the other day when I decided I wanted a new project. I’m pretty familiar with Google and its various products, but I’d like to become really proficient in order to help the other teachers in my school. Our tech guy is really great with hardware, but he is not particularly fond of Google. We have a software expert available through the educational service unit, but that’s 45 minutes away and he only comes in about once a month. We also had an issue last year where our paras were issued school iPads, but not laptops, and some of the Google functionality is different on the iPads. (I hope they have actual laptops this year.) I am also going to make it a point during the workdays to pop into classrooms and ask if my less technologically-savvy coworkers have any questions or things I can help them with. I truly believe that if I show them a skill AND they know I’m right down the hall if they need me to show them again, or if they have a question or problem, they will be more likely to jump in and try something new.

Limit my days out of the classroom

This seems like a weird goal, but I felt like I missed a ton of work for conferences and such last year. I would say I missed 10 instructional days due to school-related extras. The problem is, I was so stressed out (I knew it was going to happen; that’s just how my body does things) that I also missed more school for illness than ever. So this year, I am going to scale back. I have two dates that are mandatory for my literacy strategies group, and I plan to attend NILA (which is on a Saturday). I might attend an edcamp or NETA again in the spring, but I am pretty much conferenced out for now. I need time to implement all the stuff I’ve learned.

Get someone else into my classroom

I decided after my first student teacher that I would be willing to take a teacher-learner in my room every other year, if one was offered to me. This would be a year that I am open to that option, so we’ll see if I get any offers from the local colleges. I would also like to have another language teacher or two come observe me and give me language-teacher-specific tips. Now that I’ve done some networking in the state, I think this is a much better prospect than in previous years. I am also open to visiting other language teachers and offering the same deal. Or if we can’t go in person, do some sort of video/Hangout/Skype exchange. I don’t know – it’s a work in progress. I feel like I can safely call myself a veteran teacher, but I’m not yet a master.

I’m sure I’ll come up with some more things when I haven’t woken in the middle of the night, but now maybe I can get some sleep! What goals do you have for the upcoming school year?

Creating and submitting my AP syllabus

I am super excited to announce that my Big Scary Project for the summer – completing and submitting my AP Spanish syllabus – is done! It’s actually been mostly-done for quite some time, but the perfectionist side of me was worried. Did I have enough authentic resources? Did I vary my types enough? I feel like I have way more readings than audio sources. Do my units go in a logical order? So on and so forth. I expect every teacher asks these questions as they go through the process. However, I apparently didn’t need to worry. I submitted my syllabus mid-day yesterday and checked my work email on a whim right before bed, and there was the acceptance message! (I guess there’s probably not too many people submitting their syllabus in July.) Here are some thoughts/tips as I went along:

You don’t actually have to write your own syllabus

And this is why you go to AP trainings. I learned that I can use a syllabus adopted from another teacher, as long as it has already been approved by the Board. You can adopt one of the example syllabi or borrow from another teacher in your school. I personally chose to write my own syllabus because I wanted to be in control of my content. I want topics that are interesting to my students and to me. I also chose to organize my units by topic rather than by the six content areas, just because I felt that my topics had so much overlap between them. For example, almost everything is connected at least marginally to the Identities area, because all of a person/culture’s perspectives and practices are a direct reflection on their identity.

Become really, really, really familiar with what your students will need from you

Thankfully, the College Board has a very clear set of standards of what to put in your syllabus. I’m converting my Spanish 4 to AP Spanish, and a lot of what I was already doing is transferrable to one of their six main themes. The other stuff – discussing products, perspectives, and practices, as well as the three modes of communication – is all part of following ACTFL guidelines, so I was doing that anyway. Please note that nowhere in any part of the syllabus creation process does it say you need to work on specific grammar points. However, when you look at the standards for rating the actual test, it’s clear that the students need to be able to function at a high level in present tense, be able to comprehend other tenses (and attempt to use them when appropriate), use a few idiomatic expressions, and switch between formal and informal register. This is all in line with what I would consider a general intermediate-high using the ACTFL scale. So there’s a lot of information to keep in your brain while you design your syllabus. I’m a big fan of backwards design, but in this case, I am not the one designing the ultimate exam, so it’s absolutely critical that I’m familiar with it and what my students will have to do. All of the information you need is located on the College Board’s website, and I also got a huge tome at my training of the information in print form.

Be organized

When designing your syllabus, you have to have some sort of plan. I actually rewrote my plans in three different ways – one in my ‘day to day’ unit plan document, one in my official syllabus, and then after attending my AP training this summer, a third way. Ultimately, the way that David Marlow showed me was the best way to make sure I was hitting a variety of sources for each unit. He recommends setting up a grid like this for each unit:


You really only need one source per area, and some topics lend more to one type of resource than others. One of my units has to do with vaccinations, so there are no literature sources, but tons of non-fiction news sources.

You can also use this type of grid to make sure each unit hits every mode of output (written presentational, spoken presentational, written interpersonal, and spoken interpersonal). I chose not to do it, simply because we tend to hit every mode a little bit each day as we work with each source on top of our usual weekly activities like blogging and free reading. Of course, the problem with having multiple ways of planning means that now I have to reconcile my official syllabus with my day-to-day plans, which have had sources added or changed.

Vertical curriculum backwards planning

This applies more to singleton teachers like myself, but it’s also something to consider for those of you who have to work within a larger department. By ‘vertical curriculum backwards planning’ I mean that from day one of Spanish 1, I have to consider the students that will some day take the AP Spanish exam. By setting a strong foundation of using Spanish in class, practicing constantly so my students are very familiar with high frequency vocabulary, exposing my students to native speaker speech, and pushing our proficiency from the very beginning, I can ensure my students will be as ready as I can make them before the end of their senior year. But this also especially affects my Spanish 3 planning, because a good number of students who bother with Spanish 3 usually do so with the intention of taking AP Spanish. So for example, I chose not to do a unit on the environment in AP… but I am going to modify a different unit in Spanish 3 to have more of an environmental focus, juuuust in case they need that vocabulary.

Closing thoughts

I suppose I can’t end this post without sharing my own syllabus now! This is my official syllabus, although it’s not the full bread and butter of my course. (For example, the Guerra Sucia unit looks a little bare, but the focus of that unit is actually the TPRS novel La Guerra Sucia which isn’t technically an authentic resource, though I feel that it is of appropriate difficulty and quality to include in my unit.) You can find my official syllabus here. Feel free to modify or use whatever part might be handy in your own classes (AP or otherwise).

I also want to give a shoutout to Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell and Mike Peto, whose syllabi I pored over when trying to set up my own, as well as Angie Wagoner from Crete and Laura Chambers from Omaha South for their syllabi and units while at the workshop in Omaha.

Different teachers, different classes, different goals

This spring and summer, I was able to get out of my classroom and speak with other Spanish teachers across the state. One of my personal things to work on is not being a zealot about my point of view regarding teaching and foreign language acquisition. I want to be kind, open, and willing to help, without making others feel like they’re inferior, wrong, or stupid. Sometimes I am not very good at that, but it bothers me to see other people make sweeping judgments about the way teachers teach in their own classroom, and I feel like a jerk when I realize I’ve been doing it too.

I learned that although being a department of one is sometimes difficult, I am pretty lucky that I get to make all my decisions myself. I am the Spanish teacher, Spanish department chair, language department head, and my own curriculum specialist. I get to make the decisions for myself regarding my own classroom. Other teachers are not so lucky. If they have all those sorts of administrators who are trained foreign language teachers, great! But that’s not usually the case, and so they have to listen to ideas that make no sense. I spoke to teachers who are fighting the acquisition vs. learning battles in their schools. I talked to people whose curriculum is chosen by someone who is monolingual. I heard from teachers who were told they used too much Spanish. (Yeah, figure that one out.)

I am also blessed that my administration respects my expertise and does what they can to get me what I need to be successful. I don’t have to worry about having to use the same outdated textbooks (or being required to use a textbook at all) – if I can present a reasonable argument on why something isn’t working for me, I am either granted the funds, or steered in the direction of someone that can help. The East Butler Foundation has been instrumental in adding novels to my classroom, and I am forever grateful for their help. But not every school has a foundation that offers educational grants. Not every school has an administration who is willing or able to support teachers fully in their classrooms. My school also helps me with trainings, provides professional leave days, and offers tuition reimbursement for qualifying degrees. Not every teacher is so lucky.

Technology availability is another huge difference between schools. My school is 1:1, and although I know I am a very effective teacher wtihout tech, it helps me be a more efficient teacher. With Google Classroom, I no longer have to carry stacks of paper home. With Duolingo, I have a quick go-to activity if my actual lesson finishes way earlier than I intended. With Youtube, my students have numerous opportunities to find target language videos that interest them. Even before we were 1:1, everyone had Promethean boards, projectors, or TVs connected to the teacher computer. It is frustrating to me that some teachers are forced to use slower, more tedious methods of doing things, just because they don’t have the technology, through no fault of their own. I am a staunch supporter of the idea that technology in itself does not make a lesson, but it is a great way to enhance and differentiate your lessons. I can get more done in less time, thanks to technology.

Another ridiculous difficulty that many other schools face is large class sizes. Class size is an interesting quirk because the research appears to be unclear on class size vs. achievement. Some studies say that it is a huge component, others say that it isn’t. What I can say is that class size absolutely does have an effect on the relationship you can have with your students, and how much personal attention you can give them. My usual yearly class load has been about 60 between all four levels. I expect it to hover between 50-70, probably closer to 50 as our enrollment drops. I usually have 8-10 students that I am with for all four years of high school. We have time to build some really close relationships, which is one of my favorite parts of working at a small school. In other schools, there are teachers out there who see 200 or more students per marking period. If you have elementary, it’s even more ridiculous. A friend of mine who teaches elementary art between two schools sees over 600 students. Six hundred. How many of her students will slip under the radar because they don’t demand attention? Or another teacher, who taught middle school Spanish on a block schedule, who received less classroom time with more students – and those students still had to pass the Spanish 1 exam given at the high school so they could get credit? That sets their students up to fail.

A final comparison I have to make is foreign language specific. This summer, I attended trainings on two completely different ends of the learner spectrum. Something that really finally set in my brain is that different teachers have different goals for different classes. I’m the same teacher for all of my students, but I cannot teach my AP Spanish students who are pushing into intermediate high and advanced low proficiences in the same manner that I teach my novices. The idea of comprehensible input and acquisition vs. learning still holds true, but once my students have the high frequency vocabulary down in a wide variety of tenses, I have to back off from TOTALLY comprehensible input. They have to deal with ambiguity, just like in English, since there are many words they still don’t know. (Like the word ambiguity.) By AP Spanish, my students have acquired enough language to be able to edit themselves in a basic way. They have enough words to guess the meaning of unknown words in a familiar context. They know the patterns well enough to puzzle out a new verb when they know the root, but maybe have never seen that particular form before. Spanish 3 is my real difficulty here – they have acquired enough language that totally comprehensible input is no longer needed, but they still need tons of support before they’re ready to rely on context clues. I expect that other teachers are in the exact same boat, and there are no easy answers. It can be a frustrating place to be, with people on both sides of the comprehensible input camp telling you you’re doing it wrong.

I know it’s very likely I looked sort of snobby in some of my conversations because I didn’t stop to consider other people’s situations compared to my own. I work in an ideal school, and it bothers me that other schools have to deal with stupid things like overcrowded classes, low funding, or lack of autonomy. In the end, we are all working towards the same goal: to provide the best education we can for our students, and sometimes I need a reality check that it’s not so easy for other teachers, and it’s not fair to criticize the decisions of others because their goals are different from mine.