Upcycle your output

One thing I am trying to do better this year is to ‘upcycle’ the output my students create. By that, I mean I am taking things that they wrote and reusing them the next day (or even a few weeks later). This is for two reasons: number one, it gives some students ownership of their work and lets other students see the awesome things their peers are doing. It’s different to write something just for me than it is for their peers, and since my class has gone digital/mostly paperless, I don’t have a lot of student work posted on my walls. For my lower ability students, knowing that someone else will see their work helps them push through to complete the task. For my higher ability students, it’s good practice on ‘staying in bounds’. There were fewer things that frustrated me more as a language learner in college than the student who had native speaker practice and told a really great story/gave a great presentation/whatever… or at least, according to the teacher, they did. Because the teacher was the only person who could understand them.

The second reason is that it saves me time. I’m not a particularly creative person (or at least, I’m not inherently a creative person. Using TPRS is forcing me to learn to be creative) and my students come up with way better ideas than I ever could. Even if their ideas aren’t particularly riveting due to the restrictions on their language level, 10 students can still come up with way more ideas than me by myself.

This also integrates some ideas from the blended classroom language workshop I attended last spring. The presenter showed us how you can differentiate by asking your students to complete different tasks. Your below-target students can work on remedial activities (working in a small group or one-on-one with the teacher, depending). Your on-target students can be working on an input activity. Your above-target students can be working on an output activity. But then you take the output activity and turn around and give it to your on-target students, to give them more input, which will then foster better output. I haven’t actually tried this system yet, but I think it has merit.

So how have I been using it this year? Here are two specific examples:

Example one: A few weeks ago, I had my Spanish 2 students write a story based around some pictures relating to our mini-unit on quinceañeras. It was a nice review activity to start the year – most of the vocabulary was review except for quinceañera and velas/candelas. Anyway, so they wrote the story in pairs in present tense. Last week, we started pushing into reading past tense, so I took the stories they wrote about the quinceañera and put them into past tense. Then I distributed the stories to the students, and had them complete a read and draw activity with the mini-stories. It was a good refresher of the vocabulary we’d learned, as well as using very familiar stories to introduce past tense.

Example two: On Friday, I had Spanish 3 write some stories in past tense. At this point, they’re very familiar with the most common verbs and can sometimes accurately produce preterite vs. imperfect. (They can definitely accurately interpret it, which is what I care about!) So the purpose of their writing activity was to work on descriptive past vs. action past. Then, again, I took a few of the student stories and fixed any errors, then redistributed them to the class today. Their task was to flip the past tense verbs back into the present tense.

In both these situations, I used output as a sneaky way to really introduce more input. Output is a formative assessment, and by Spanish 3 and AP it’s important to start including more output activities in the class structure, but I’ve been learning that you can never have enough opportunities for comprehensible, engaging input. The stories are comprehensible because I’ve fixed the grammatical mistakes and the students wrote them, so we know they stayed mostly ‘in bounds’. They’re engaging because the students want to see what their peers wrote – what kind of silly story did So-and-so write this time?

(There’s also the wonderful side benefit of student-created-output-turned-input being a REALLY easy way to throw together a lesson plan if you’re in a time crunch. You can also use them as makeshift sub plans for planned or unplanned absences! See this set of posts by Martina Bex for more details.)

An easy weather lesson

Even though I am a comprehensible input teacher, I still follow thematic units. These units tend to follow the pattern of Realidades, the text we used back when I still used one. The real key is comprehensible, engaging, repetitive input, but as a Mega Planner I’m someone who needs thematic units to keep me on track. Otherwise, I would literally just tell stories all day without any rhyme or reason, and I would get myself lost.

In Spanish 1, I still like to hit all the basics (time, weather, colors, etc.) at the beginning of the year because then they are words I know I can throw into stories, or offer as options when teaching new chunks. I only spend 1-2 days on each of these because of course, we are going to hit them pretty much every time we do PQA or a story in the class, and many students in my district come in knowing at least 1-10 and some colors, thanks to Dora.

One way of using authentic resources AND having students feel successful right away is to have them interpret a weather forecast. (I used to do the ‘make a weather’ forecast activity and it was always a mess, because I was asking for way too much output way too soon.) The lesson is really simple and requires little prep work on your end.

After introducing weather phrases (however you choose to do so), introduce a sample forecast. I always choose Brainard, the town where I teach. After that, the lesson might look a little different depending on your technology available. Some different ways of doing it are:

1 – If you have internet access AND the website is unblocked, have students look up cities on espanol.weather.com and browse the forecast. I usually have them do this in pairs or small groups. I also assign them capital cities – Tegucigalpa, Madrid, Mexico DF, Buenos Aires, etc. It’s also a good time to remind them of the seasonal switch in the southern hemisphere, and the time switch in Europe. (So for example, if you’re looking at the forecast at 2 pm your time and it’s the day forecast, it might already be 10 pm in Madrid and showing the evening forecast.)

2 – If you don’t have internet access, you can visit the website on a different computer and then screenshot the cities you want to use. I try to cut out all the ‘junk’ and focus on just the weather information. Since the website is inexplicably no longer loading from my work computer, I used my home computer to do the screencapping and uploaded the images to my Google Drive. Then I printed some copies of each of the cities to distribute to the students.


An example of a screenshot I took from espanol.weather.com.

3 – After the students look over their city, I had them present (en inglés) what they thought each section meant. This is a great time to also throw in super-bonus vocabulary like probabilidad de precipitación and humedad.

I really like this activity for two reasons. Number one, it reinforces cognates and the strategy of using what you already know (What does a weather forecast look like in English? How is it set up? What do the pictures represent?) to infer meaning, even if you’ve never seen the words before. Number two, it gives all students a high level of success reading a WHOLE PAGE! of native speaker Spanish within the first few weeks. That feeling of success can help keep them motivated when working through tougher material, so I try to foster it whenever I can.

You could also easily extend this activity in a number of ways. As the groups present, the other students could fill in a chart and then you could ask questions about the different cities. For multiple tenses, you could compare yesterday’s weather to today’s weather to tomorrow’s weather. You could probably even hit subjunctive, for languages that have it, by deciding if it’s possible that it might rain tomorrow, it’s possible it might snow, etc.

I think one of the most fun things about comprehensible input is the variety of ways you can work with just one simple piece of input. What do you think? How do you like to teach weather in your classroom?

Planting the seeds of language learning

Phew. We’ve made it into the second week of September. I had my day off on Monday, which I spent doing entirely lazy things (mostly playing a fun game called Card Hunter that is like Dungeons and Dragons meets Civilization. With cards). Now we’re well into the full swing of school. We even have parent-teacher conferences next week! I know that DEVOLSON is soon upon us, so I’m trying to enjoy the last vestiges of my honeymoon period with my freshmen. Unfortunately, this time of year also means softball, which means my 8th period is utterly destroyed. (4 of my 6 students are softball players.) It makes things tough, but, that’s the gig.

In any case, I don’t have any particular lessons to discuss at this moment. I’m mostly chugging along, trying to keep my lessons fresh using what I learned over the summer. (The brain craves novelty!) It’s hard, though – it’s so easy to slip back into old habits and forget to set a timer, to forget to PQA, to circle too long, etc. That’s just part of the growing process, I suppose.

Speaking of growing, that’s the whole point of this post. I’ve been trying to catch up on my backlog of blog posts. I was at 76 on Monday; I think I’ve gotten about 30 down. Somewhere in that gigantic pile of reading, someone mentioned the difficulty of being patient with TPRS/comprehensible input techniques. Amy Lenord also had a timely post today about how she restarted her year with last year’s accomplishments in mind. I think that’s one of the toughest things about the art of teaching – every new year, you have to start over. In my case, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m the only Spanish teacher, so I get to see my students grow over four years and that is AWESOME. On the other, I tend to get mixed up (for example, I planned an activity for this year’s Spanish 2s but was about to scrap it because I thought it was way too easy… when I realized in my head, I was thinking of the abilities of this year’s Spanish 3s). I also have a hard time remembering who has learned what. This is mostly an issue in the 2/3 levels, because Spanish 1’s essential vocabulary is pretty tightly controlled due to their low ability levels, and AP’s vocabulary is barely controlled at all due to their high ability levels. Whereas in 2 and 3, maybe last year I taught one class a ‘bonus’ word or phrase and not the other. Or maybe less students picked it up than I thought they did. Things like that.

But anyway, back to the growth thing. Whoever made this post – and it’s entirely possible that they were mentioning an idea from someone else – said that the first year of TPRS is like planting the seeds. We carefully plant the seeds of knowledge. We water them daily with regular review of previously taught words. (And if we don’t review them, were they really that necessary in the first place?) We fertilize our tender sprouts with a low-stress environment and sunny attitudes. But then, we mostly just have to wait. We won’t see the fruits of our labor until the next year, at the earliest. Decent production simply isn’t possible at the novice level, and that’s okay.

And when we see those fruits? Wow, what amazing fruit. I used to struggle so much trying to get my students to wrap their brains around the differences between the two past tenses, and how those look and sound different from present tense. All the days wasted analyzing stories, rather than reading them. All the worksheets to practice our irregulars, our boot-changers, our car-gar-zar verbs, trying to pick the right form of ‘was’. They were effective, sort of. My students could conjugate with the best of them. But they were utterly stumped when they ran into tenía in a story – and they lost the joy of Spanish, the reading, the listening, the cultural intonations that happen with different languages. This year, my Spanish 2 students are utterly unphased by switching quiere to quería. Tiene becomes tenía. It’s a lot less steps in their brain to look and say ‘hmm, quiere and quería have a lot of the same letters. They probably mean the same thing.’ than to do the whole conjugation rigamarole. I had students doing re-tells, in past tense Spanish, their first time seeing it. Accurately. That is some sweet, sweet fruit.

So when I’m bogging myself down and feeling like, how many times can I possibly recycle the forms of the most common verbs, and how can I stretch my language to use cognates and stay as comprehensible as possible (preferably 100%!), and how many ways can I re-tell a story without boring my students… I know it pays off. Their vocabulary seems so relatively narrow compared to before, but they have a pretty strong base by the time they are in Spanish 2, and by 3 and AP, their vocabularies go crazy with growth. Their flowers are blooming, so to speak. Readings that used to take 2 days to slog through now take 30 pain-free minutes. This year’s students aren’t any smarter, or inherently better at Spanish, or any of those things – it’s been my careful planning and hard work that prepares them to do their part of acquiring the language.

I guess in a way, over the years, the seeds of good teaching have been planted in me, and I’m now starting to see my own flowers blooming. Go figure.