Simple successes

Today marked day #13 of our calendar year. However, we’ve only really had about 7 days of normal bell schedule between assemblies, pep rallies, and NWEA testing already. In any case, I wanted to share some awesome things that are happening in my classes right now, with a possibly more detailed post to follow when it’s not 9 pm and I don’t already have a zillion other things to get done by tomorrow.

Cool thing #1:

My freshmen are totally rocking the story-asking-doing. They don’t understand how awesome it is that they’re on day 13 of Spanish learning and they can already read in paragraphs. Short, simple paragraphs, but paragraphs. For my students who struggle so mightily to read in their other classes, the smile on their face when I point out that they can do this!!! is the reason I teach. To a teacher, nothing says ‘you’re doing something right’ like that lightbulb going on when the students can see their own progress in just a few short weeks.

And in a super awesome bonus moment, my 4th period blew me away today. We finished our simple story about Fred wanting chocolate but not having chocolate, and his meeting a girl who also didn’t have any chocolate. She says bye and Fred is sad. A few of my students shouted ‘That’s ridiculous! Why don’t they just go buy some chocolate, I mean, they’re at the store already.’ My teacher heart about exploded. What’s that, children? You want to rewrite the ending to the story? Of course we can! So, with a little chaotic shouting, we worked on the beginning of a new ending that we’ll probably wrap up tomorrow.

Day 13. Kids shouting sentences at me. Sentences that make sense. In Spanish. (They were even accidentally following the story pattern of set up/try to solve problem, fail/solve problem.) If that doesn’t cement that comprehensible input is the strategy for me, then I don’t know what would. My students amaze me every single day.

Cool thing #2

I started using preferred activity time this year. I used Class Dojo last year to keep track of points but I wasn’t very intentional with it, and I think that hurt its effectiveness. This year, I’m using Class Dojo to track participation and my phone to track minutes in Spanish and converting that to PAT (each minute in Spanish = 10 seconds of time, each class point = 1 second of time). I’ve only had one class choose to use their time (the whole 6 minutes of it, haha) so we’ll see how it goes. I only run the clock when we’re doing an actual story telling or reading, not during non-story related activities such as the bellringer, surveys, etc.

Cool thing #3

BLOGGING! For the past few years, I’ve done dialogue journals with my Spanish 3s and 4s. A dialogue journal is basically where the students journal to me in response to a prompt, and then I would respond back in Spanish. I love this activity because for the older students who DO have the skills for sensical output, this is an easy, low-stress way to get weekly writing practice in. The problem was, even with only 25 students, it took forever each week to read each person’s post and write back a short comment in Spanish.

This year, I switched to blogging. I’m using Kidblog for now. They still have to respond to a prompt, and this year I am trying to be more intentional in relating the prompt to what we’re studying in class to get more reps of our focused vocabulary. But instead of me responding to them, each student has to respond to one other in the class. This gives them more writing practice (and specifically, it helps them to express agreement/disagreement and justification) and it frees up some of my time. These students are also most likely going to college, and the discussion post+response format is everywhere now, so the skills of how to properly write a discussion post and thoughtful responses will serve them well in the future.

I have to say, I forgot what good writers my students are. And specifically, seeing the errors that my Spanish 3 students are making, and how by the start of AP Spanish, they have corrected themselves.

Of course, this post became longer than intended and I didn’t even give much detail, but I am so happy that these things are happening in my classroom. I am guiding them, but they’re doing these amazing things on their own. How is your school year going? Post about your own successes! I love reading them!

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Música miércoles/baile viernes

In my Spanish 1 and 2 classes, I always start the day with a bellringer that I call my ‘principio’. I like to use bellringers for a variety of reasons: we only have 2 minute passing periods, so students don’t really have time to get a drink or use the bathroom. It helps students get started right away with something to do in Spanish. It gives me time to wrangle the absentee slips, attendance, and all that other day-to-day stuff we have to manage before we can get to the teaching parts of our days. They have evolved over the years – last year, they mostly took the form of a few PQA questions to get our day started. They were great for that purpose, but doing them 5 days a week was kinda blah.

Enter Allison Wienhold, who uses música miércoles and baile viernes in her classroom. I won’t give you the full explanation here, as she’s already done a wonderful job. (And if you don’t read her blog already, you should.) I incorporated these into my principios this week, and here’s how things went:

Spanish 1 música: Tengo Tu Love by Sie7e. Spanish 2 música: Celebra la Vida by Emir Sensini. Spanish 3 música (even though they don’t do a principio, I wanted to do a song that day for funsies): Pura Vida by Don Omar. AP Spanish, ironically, ended up studying some precolombian music as we prepped for our unit on precolombian cultures, so it was a very musical day in my classroom.

I picked Tengo Tu Love for my Spanish 1s since it’s the first week and Tengo Tu Love has a lot of references to brand names in English, and the chorus is Spanglish. As I am remembering very quickly, it is also REALLY important to have students to have a task to complete while listening to the song. If you just say ‘listen to the song’… they will not. But if they have a task to do, then they have to listen to the song in order to accurately complete the task. So I had them count how many times they heard the word ‘amor’. Amor is a high frequency noun, especially in songs, so it was worth the repetitions. I think the students enjoyed the song (the freshmen are still giving me a honeymoon period so it’s hard to read their mood) and I am really digging Tengo Tu Love and Sie7e’s songs in general – I can’t believe this is the first year I’ve used it!

I chose Celebra la Vida by Emir Sensini because he is the Justo Lamas Group‘s new singer, and we will be attending one of his concerts in October. Last year, I found out about the concert about 3 weeks before the show and tried to cram 5 or 6 songs into 2 week’s worth of lessons. Bad idea – kids like music, but they don’t want to do it every single day in the exact same way. (Mediocre teaching on my part.) This year, I wanted to get an earlier start so that they can enjoy the concert more. The song starts off a little slow but then picks up – the chorus is really catchy. I had students decode the chorus and we talked a little bit about what it means to celebrate life. I then used the song as a lead-in to a couple of days learning about quinceañeras. (I used Martina Bex’s awesome plans/level 2 reading for this – she includes an activity for the students to do while completing the reading which I chose not to have my students do… bad idea. That’s when I remembered that they ALWAYS need to have a task, as mentioned above. It was a rough day.)

For the Spanish 3s, we did Pura Vida because I like the song and the chorus is very easy to understand. I copied the lyrics and deleted words/phrases that were familiar to my students (baila, todo el momento, la vida, etc.) and the entire chorus. Then we filled them back in as we listened. I think it’s important when doing these kinds of activities to only delete words students have already acquired – unless they’re native speakers, trying to get their ears to hear the correct sounds if they don’t already know the word only ends in frustration. I know this because it happens to me, and I’ve been listening to native speaker Spanish for over a decade.

Baile viernes went… okay. I did The Ketchup Song as advised by Allison. My classes were pretty split. I normally will only do this for Spanish 1 and 2, but I offered it up to my 3s as well. (I don’t want my students to feel like they got into Spanish 3 and then there’s no fun anymore, especially since Spanish 3 is now ‘Pre-AP’ in my brain.) So I had 2 classes where I had about half participation, 2 where I had no participation, and 2 where I had half-hearted participation from 1 or 2 students. The ones that participated were fun and we had a good time. The others, well, it’s kinda weird dancing by yourself in front of a group of 10 kids. Peer pressure is a huge thing – if one kid could get their friend to do it, then I’d get a whole bunch. I also had to have a quick conversation on gender.. shaming? I don’t know what to call it. But I think I’m going to have to pull some of my male students aside and have a serious talk on why it’s offensive to use ‘does [X activity] like a girl’ as an insult.

In the end, I will keep doing música miércoles (and if I’m awesome, be able to tie it to my lesson for the day) and baile viernes. I hope that in time, I can get some more kids to participate in the dancing. Not only is dancing fun, but it’s good for both body and brain.

Back to school review activity

Here’s a quick one. It’s not very useful for anyone who’s already a week or more back to school, but for my colleagues who don’t go back until Labor Day, this might still be handy for you.

In years past, I would typically spend one of the first few days back to school having my returning students tell me about their vacation. Usually I would just ask questions to my level 2s, but then I had the problem of everyone who wasn’t that student totally tuning out. My Spanish 3s generally would have to write their story. The 4s would have to give a short verbal description and that was okay, but not great.

This year, I decided to do something different, and it was brilliant and worked exactly the way I wanted it to. Using Google Slideshow, I made a really basic slideshow with a student’s name on each slide, and the rest was blank. Then I posted it to Google Classroom and allowed everyone editing access. All they had to do was put one picture from their summer (or a stand-in from the internet) on the slide with their name. I previewed the slides before class and prepped some possible new vocabulary needed based on their pictures (feria/parque de atracciones/equipo were the most useful). Then the next day, I showed the slideshow and asked them questions about their picture.

Like I said, it was brilliant and perfect (except for the one kid who didn’t put a picture, of course, but that’s life). The visual gave something for everyone to reference as we talked, and it was COMPELLING because in many cases, other students in the class were in the pictures and wanted to hear about themselves, or added details to the story. I did the question-asking, because it kept our vocabulary in bounds and allowed me to prepare a vocab list ahead of time. Since I was asking the questions, I controlled whether we spoke in present tense or past tense as appropriate. It also gave tons of reps on question words.

This activity is definitely a keeper in my book. It was engaging, it was repetitive without being boring, and required about 3 minutes of prep on my end. If you’re not a Google school, you could easily modify it by sharing out a Google Slideshow through the kids’ school email and using that, you could have them each bring in a printed picture to show as you talk, or worst case scenario, have them draw something to represent their summer and go from there. Whatever works for you and your classroom.

Make it easy (part two)

With it being the start of the new school year, I was a participant in a number of professional development sessions. One of our sessions was about going over the ever-present data accountability assessment teacher words jargon… stuff. Anyway, one of our presenters was going over vocabulary terms. We were presented with one and then asked, ‘Does anyone know what this means?’ There were many figurative crickets as everyone looked around awkwardly. Maybe someone tentatively ventured an answer in the back, but it was a weak answer at best – you know, the one that the one person might mutter under their breath as an attempt to participate but not wanting to be publicly wrong. And that is the response from a bunch of well-educated teachers. It’s not very different from the response from a bunch of still-learning teenagers.

So here’s how you can make your life easy in your classroom: know what kind of a question you are asking when you ask it. There are questions with expected correct or incorrect answers, and then there are questions with personal, individual answers. These two different kinds of questions have different purposes as well. The first type is a formative assessment to gauge if students understood the material or not, and the second is to check for background knowledge or add depth to a lesson.

It is okay to ask the second kind of question if you aren’t sure how students might answer. In a language classroom, these could easily be all sorts of questions – ‘Who has visited Nebraska?’ ‘Who wants a cookie?’ ‘Who has a dog? ‘Who prefers cats?’ In these cases, it doesn’t really matter what the students answer; there are no right or wrong statements and you can work with whatever the students give you.

When it comes to the first type, however, to gauge understanding of material, you have to make it easy on the students to be correct. You have to give them the answer, somehow, before asking them the question. In my example above, the presenter made a mistake in asking us to supply a definition of a term… while in the midst of a vocabulary lesson. Nobody answered because we had no idea; that’s why they had a vocabulary section in their lesson. What’s worse is that it’s easy to feel like students are being defiant by not participating, when they’re really just not participating because they don’t want to look stupid. Of couse, we can alleviate some of that fear by making our classrooms safe spaces where we discourage put-downs, but only the bravest of outgoing students will venture an answer if they have no clue. ‘Giving them the answer’ takes different forms in different disciplines – this could be having the notes in front of them, a list of vocabulary terms, different types of pictures to identify, whatever it is. As a side note, if you want students to be able to correctly recall information from a lengthy passage, it is far more helpful to supply some kind of comprehension questions/graphic organizer to highlight what information is most important and will be discussed. Again, I think in many cases it might look like students didn’t complete the work but in reality, they just didn’t know which information was going to be prioritized so everything got categorized as equally memorable (or forgettable) in their brains.

In the language classroom, remembering to give the answer first can sometimes be a problem in storytelling if you’re coming back from the summer and do a terrible job of informing your 1st period Spanish 1 that the sentence on the board has established the facts of the story (not that this happened to me today or anything, ahem…) and that they should answer accordingly when you start your circling questions. If you fix yourself for 4th period Spanish 1 and make it clear what the answer is supposed to be, then you will be more likely to get the participation level you were expecting and a lot less confusion on the parts of the students. Confused students are not students who are learning.

Like I said in my last post, if you make it easy for students to participate, you will make teaching easier on yourself. And who doesn’t want that?

Make it easy

One of the things I do outside of teaching is roller derby. I used to skate for the No Coast Derby Girls, but I decollarbonexraycided last season was going to be my last season as a full-time skater. Somewhat ironically, I ended up breaking my collarbone in an away game, right before the last home game of the season. Yep, I’m that hardcore. I love roller derby, but No Coast is an internationally competitive league. Even the B team requires a ton of work – practicing 3 times a week, hitting the gym at least once a week, promotion, special events, and so on. And being a contact sport, it hurts. A lot. I decided I wanted to step back from derby to focus on my career, but I still wanted to be involved. So I chose to remain as a coach for our junior derby league and as a non-skating official (NSO) who does stuff like keep score, run the penalty box, etc.

But after two sessions of coaching the juniors in 2015, I’ve decided that I will simply be an NSO next year. It’s not that I don’t love working with our junior skaters – I really do – but trying to volunteer is a hassle. I’m not kept in the loop. I don’t know what my job is going to be on any particular day. I don’t know if they need me at games to coach, to NSO, or not at all. If I don’t initiate contact, I have no idea what’s going on. It makes volunteering feel like a chore, not something I am choosing to do to enrich the lives of young skaters in Lincoln. After hosting a home game this weekend where communication broke down on multiple levels and led to an event that should’ve been 3 hours took over 5, I’m a bit fed up.

So what does this have to do with a teaching blog? With the new school year, a lot of people are posting about rules, routines, and expectations. I agree with every single post that says that it’s worth the few days at the beginning of the year to establish what you want your students to do at any given moment. You have to make it easy. Especially for those of us who teach high school, you have to make participating seem like the path of least resistance for your students. Are we still going to have students who refuse to participate? Absolutely. And I am, in no way, arguing that you should make your content easier. But most students will go along with your wacky schemes if participating at a basic level will make you otherwise leave them alone. (And remember, the trick is to make participating at the most basic level still require a lot of participation, but easy participation – watching, listening, responding when appropriate. We want the content to be enriching, but the tasks cognitively simple, so they can focus on the meaning, not the form.) By establishing specific routines, students will know what you want from them and most of them are happy to comply. I truly believe that children, for the most part, really want to please the adults in their life and earn validation. All we have to do is let them know how.

This also applies to giving instructions. One criticism I have of the AP Spanish workshop I attended this summer was when we would do the ‘student version’ of things (usually completing a graphic organizer of some sort based on a source of input). We were working with a master teacher, but many times his verbal instructions were unclear and written instructions didn’t exist – maybe he assumed we knew what we should do, since we’re all teachers ourselves? But we didn’t know what we were supposed to do with this sheet full of pictures. Were we supposed to match vocabulary words, describe the pictures verbally, describe them in writing, what? We were happy to do what he asked – once we knew what the task was. I think that consistently giving clear instructions is one of those tweaks that makes a good teacher into a great teacher.

Some teachers prefer to take a few days at the beginning of the year to outline all their routines at once. I, personally, prefer to get the basics out of the way on the first day (which is even easier now since we are adopting a school-wide motto/ruleset of safe-respectful-responsible) and then teach routines as they come up during the first few weeks of school. No matter how you do it, it’s an extremely important step in setting the tone for the year, whether you teach Spanish or PE, elementary or high school, fresh out of college or 30 years experience. How will you establish your classroom routines this year?

Imposter syndrome

First, I want to say hey to all my worldly readers out there! I love that wordpress shows me the metrics of my site. Did you know that earlier today, I had a visitor from India? Wow! I remember being a kid, maybe 8, and visiting my friend’s house. She had a much older sister who would’ve been about 16 at the time, and they just got the internet at their house. I remember the sister saying ‘Look at this! I’m talking to someone in England!’ And even though my family got the internet shortly thereafter and making friends from around the world has been a huge part of my life, it still sometimes amazes me that I can press keys on a keyboard in Lincoln to make text appear that can be read by someone anywhere in the world.

In a way, that sense of amazement brings me to today’s topic: imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is pretty self-explanatory: a feeling like your success, whatever it is, is a sham and you don’t really deserve the accolades. (It is interesting to know that imposter syndrome is more frequently found among women than men, but that’s a post for a different blog.)

Yesterday, I went to Nebraska’s first play production workshop/conference. All summer, I had been attending trainings on language teaching, but you know – I feel like I’m a pretty good Spanish teacher. Not a master yet, but I’d give myself a solid 7.25 out of 10. Now, play directing… yuck. I love the opportunity to create really strong bonds with my one-act kiddos, but it’s very stressful on me (mostly because it requires 12+ hour days, since I live too far from my district to go home between school and practice) and our program is not very strong. Play production is particularly tough because the judging is so subjective – something that one judge loves and gives high marks for might be something that another judge hates. There are certain tweaks to get high marks (which is why I went to this conference) but at the end of the day, how you place in a tournament has as much to do with the feelings of 3 judges as it does with the hard work of everyone involved in my production. And let’s be honest here: winning is not everything, but winning feels really, really good. Coming in 9th out of 8 plays because you went over time does not feel good. It feels really, really bad. I have zero problems with my students receiving a low rating if they’ve given me low effort, which has happened some years. I do have problems with my students receiving a low rating because of something under my control.

Okay, so here I am at this conference, and I am surrounded by directors who have kicked my butt for the last 5 years. Malcolm. Louisville. Stanton. Hardington. The director from Auburn sat next to me, because I was a friendly face. (Last year was their first year in our conference, and they were AWESOME. I made it a point to go over, say hi, and congratulate them because I know how scared I was the first year I entered the conference because I was the new kid, and how the director from Mead was very welcoming to me.) The presenters were from schools who have repeatedly gone to state competition. Wausa. Laurel-Concord-Coleridge. York. David City, who is right up the proverbial street from us. So I was basically surrounded by the champions and superstars of my state in this particular activity. I was there to learn, for sure, but here’s the kicker: everyone there expressed that they don’t have any super powers, they’re just doing what they do. I am pretty sure they have some sort of creative thing that happens in their brain that I don’t have, but at the end of the day, they’re just people. People who work really, really hard to make a good show for their kids.

Imposter syndrome also leaks over to the language world, I think. Amy Lenord, who was one of the first language blogs I read and one of the first people I connected with on #langchat, expressed her self-doubts in this blog post in July. Or Sara-Elizabeth, with her recent post on the very quick evolution of syllabus practices. I feel weird when I’m linked to or quoted by other teachers with an awesome internet presence – I think they’re so much better than me, how can they POSSIBLY think that my work is good enough to share on their space? I mean, I’m just a Spanish teacher doing my thing. It’s not THAT great.

But maybe it is. Maybe I am great. One of the interesting side effects of social media/the internet is that it allows people to fluff up their life to look better than it really is. But it also allows previously ‘inaccessible’ figures to be easily accessible. For example, earlier today, Stephen Krashen tweeted a joke he made about his dental filling falling out. Stephen Krashen, revered linguistic researcher… teller of dad jokes. I’ve had a favorite author email me personally (which isn’t so weird, but he initiated the conversation). I have a group of friends whose band got a short-lived record deal and went on international tours… but to me, they’re just my friends who make music. Good music, sure, but they’re not like the Foo Fighters or anything. But you know what, I bet if I met Dave Grohl, he would say the same thing. Shrug. He’s just a guy making music that a lot of people happen to like. Would we still do what we do without the ‘fame’? I know I would. But being able to connect with others helps shore up our weak points, give us new ideas, and push us farther than we thought we’d go.

So anyway, what I’m trying to say with this set of incoherent morning ramblings is: you know, we’re all faking it. We all have things to contribute to the discussion, and we all have moments where we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing. Nobody in my personal ‘celebrity’ bubble have ever acted like they thought they were better than someone else, and I suspect that people who do were jerks before they ever achieved anything to get that ‘celebrity’ status. When I’ve reached out to other language teachers, I have received friendly responses. So I think maybe this year, I need to stop being so star-studded by the amazing directors in my conference (or especially David City, since I could easily drive over to watch one of their practices) and send that email, asking for help. If I want to get better, I have to actually ask questions – especially because they’re willing to listen.