Last fall, I attended the annual NILA (Nebraska International Language Association) conference in Omaha. Unfortunately, I was sick, so I only ended up going to two sessions and leaving after lunch. However, one of the sessions was called Shine a New Light on the Classics: A Lazy Teacher’s Guide to a fun class. This session was hosted by my fellow UNL alum, Marcie Castillo, and some other teachers from Lincoln North Star. This session was built around taking two legacy staples of language teaching – the worksheet and the flash card – and making them into more engaging versions with little or no prep work on your part.

One of the games that they introduced to us was Brillo! (or Sparkle, if you’ve played the English version). While the original Sparkle game is apparently some sort of spelling game – I’ve never played – this one uses flash cards. I am going to take a moment here because yes, I know that flash cards are not always the best form of comprehensible input and they have no context. However, they are very simple to make, my students like competitive games, and sometimes it’s just nice to have an easy, fun day. I am okay with veering a little bit away from the paragraph-length input for a while if we’re still getting things done.


In any case, here’s how you play Brillo (or whatever word you want to substitute in your language).

  • Make some flash cards (or use old ones lying around).
  • Add some cards that say BRILLO. I have small classes, so 5 was a good number. If you have more than 15, you probably will want to add more.
  • You show the first student the card. They answer. If they’re right, they stay in. If they’re wrong, they’re out. Move on to the next student. So on and so forth.
  • When a student gets a BRILLO card, all they have to do is say BRILLO and the student AFTER them is out.
  • Continue until someone is the winner!

I really like the concept of the BRILLO card because it can be boring and disheartening for slower processors in a competitive game, especially if there’s a time component. It’s no fun for the same handful of students to win all the time. So the BRILLO card adds a bit of randomness into the process. Students who know more of the words will have a chance to stay in longer, but a BRILLO card can knock them out and let other students have a turn to shine.

This is a good activity to keep in the back of your mind for those days when your planned plans just aren’t working or you change your mind at the last minute.

Reintroducing “the chart”

Today on twitter, a fellow teacher asked #langchat, ‘how do I introduce past tense without putting grammar first?’ Considering the topic of my last post, how my current Spanish 2 unit on imperfect is pretty irrelevant at the moment since I no longer really need it, I figured I could be of some help. We had a nice chat (along with Amy and a number of other wonderful helpful teachers – yay everyone!) and I hope she finds the path that is right for her.

This post, however, is about my AP Spanish. This year’s AP Spanish is one of my last ‘guinea pig’ classes. My first few graduating classes were while I was in survival newbie teacher mode. Let us not speak of them. Last year’s graduates were my original guinea pigs – the kids that started as freshmen during my second year of teaching, when I was still doing heavy teacher evolution. This year’s senior class started with me using grammar-based methods in Spanish 1, transitioning to CI-based methods during their Spanish 2 (and while mentoring a student teacher), using CI-based methods for Spanish 3, and now using CI-as-best-I-can-cause-it’s-AP Spanish now. So in Spanish 1, they were exposed to ‘the chart’ for various present tense verbs, but it was whisked away for the most part during… well, all the other verbs. Tomorrow we start imperfect subjunctive, which I (guilty teacher confession time) have not taught to any class so far, because my earlier classes never got to the point where they needed it. But we’re going to start reading La Guerra Sucia and there is all sorts of imperfect subjunctive in there, so we get to learn it now!

With this class, I knew it was time to really sit down and as John Baylor would say, ‘hammer the grammar’. I have three very grammar-focused students in this class of five, and they kept asking me conjugation-related questions, so that told me they were ready and willing to sit through a boring grammatical explanation of conjugation, because they NEEDED it to clean up their communication and WANTED to clean up their communication. So after the start of the new semester, I just took the last week and chunked out every tense we knew so far and we went over the charts for them, then played on conjuguemos.com to practice. Every single one of them also chose to use conjuguemos.com practice as their homework choice for the week. But I love the choice homework, because they all chose to work on the tenses they felt they needed the most practice in.

I feel there is a huge difference in introducing the charts first thing and the acquisition of verbs, versus acquiring the verbs first and showing the charts later. In the past, my non-word-nerd students would easily become overwhelmed and frustrated with the insane amount of irregular present tense verbs – between your 3 types of stemchangers + jugar, the -go verbs, the -zco verbs, the -yo verbs, and the ones that change where the accent falls, oh, and the ones that are just outright irregular… yeah, that’s ridiculous. Preterite is nearly as bad. When we got to subjunctive, there were so many steps to properly changing the verb that it was nothing less than a hot mess. But now, when students acquire first, showing the chart sheds a little light onto the mechanics of how verbs work. My students aren’t frustrated by them; they say, ‘Ooooooh, so that’s how it works!’ (They’re still annoyed by all the exceptions BUT, having heard/seen them for years, they just accept that’s the way it is and move on.) Rather than being the focus of the lesson, they are used as a tool in my students’ toolboxes for comprehension. I see now that using charts as the driving force of my instruction was like handing a full-sized hammer to a baby – they weren’t strong enough to use it yet. Upper level students are strong enough to use the hammer properly. I know that I’ve seen the results in my own classroom, and it’s enough to convince me that acquisition first, charts second is going to get me the best results in the least amount of time.

A paradox of priorities

Even though I like to think of myself as a smarty smart pants, sometimes I am a really slow learner. I’ve been doing a TPRSish style of teaching for about 2 years now and the other morning, I was reflecting on something that the coach said during the workshop I attended. One of my fellow attendees asked if he used thematic units or just taught whatever happened to come up. He explained that you can do it either way (and it’s a matter of preference) but his focus was on the high frequency vocabulary, so his style was stories strictly based on trying to get students to learn said high frequency vocabulary.

When I did the switch, I still kept my thematic units – I just made stories to match. However, I figured out this year that it meant that I still have a hodgepodge of different strategies going on, and they’re not meshing very well anymore. I can’t focus on high frequency vocabulary AND all the bonus vocabulary at the same time, if that makes sense. There’s simply too many words. On top of that, when I taught thematic units, I could remember that in this unit in this class, we learned these words. Well, that doesn’t necessarily happen anymore, because some units are more story-focused and some are not nearly repetitive enough for students to acquire that vocabulary. I can tell you right now that my Spanish 2 students this year are not going to remember a thing from the recipes unit, and that is 10,000% my fault. I didn’t do the reps. I got lazy.

The Spanish 2 class is the one that is actually bringing my problem to light, because the recipe unit used to go in the spring. My problem was, however, that part of the unit involves cooking and sharing food (yay!) but it always landed during Lent and wrestling season. With a high Catholic population in my school plus very serious wrestlers (especially around conference and districts), I felt bad that some of the students couldn’t fully participate. I decided to move the cooking unit to the fall, and push the childhood unit to the spring.

So here I am in the spring, and about to teach this childhood unit. Except, it is not a good unit. My unit plan goes something like: PQA, PQA, PQA, some stories I guess, Pobre Inocente embedded reading+watch the episode of Modern Family. We did the Pobre Inocente story before Christmas (it’s a Christmas story, after all) and that’s really the only chunk of this unit worth keeping. You see, the childhood unit is a legacy unit left over from when I used to teach by grammar point – of course, it’s the unit where we introduce the imperfect tense. But… this year, my Spanish 2 students have been using imperfect and preterite together from the beginning. It makes no sense to have a unit where we focus on just one of the two past tenses. On top of that, after coming out of my fall semester black hole, I can’t remember what words we’ve focused on in preterite and which in imperfect. I know they can’t apply the rule to conjugate, but how many of our high frequency verbs did they really acquire? This is a problem. I don’t know. And if I don’t know what they don’t know, I can’t lead them to the next chunk of words.

This also affects part of my behavioral plan, the preferred activity time. The way I do it involves earning points for both time on task and individual points for participation (using ClassDojo). However, I only use this system when we are working through a story as a group. So if I do a lot of non-story specific or individual tasks then the students don’t earn any points and therefore have no minutes accrued when it comes to use their time on Fridays. It hasn’t become a problem… yet. But it could be, so I worry.

So this is my paradox of priorities. Do I stay with the thematic units, or do I restructure everything around stories and high frequency vocabulary? There’s always something that has to give if I’m going to take pieces of something else – I only have so many days to work with them. But it would certainly be easier if I knew exactly what basic structures I taught that EVERYONE knows and everything else is nice-to-know since I can’t control that anyway. But then should I just do random stories, or switch to a novel-based format? I don’t have the answers yet (and I probably will change my mind another 20 times in my teaching career, even if I do think I have AN answer). But I’m thinking hard about it.

New year, old me

It’s been quite some time since I posted. Well, actually, I had a post written before Christmas break but it was not a good post. I mean that in a literal way – it was a post that was full of negativity and frustration. Like many other teachers this year (what is it with this year?) I’ve been struggling with my teaching. In my case, it was affecting my life so badly that I was not enjoying my job very much anymore. One major step that I took was to resign as director of play production. I tried it for 5 years and the very particular challenges and stresses that come with it are simply not for me. I think of October, November, and December as a giant black hole where all I did was worry and work. My teaching was mediocre at best, and I was not in a good place. So when it comes to a new year and starting over, I don’t really want to start over – I want to go back to prior semesters where I felt capable, where I felt confident, where my lessons were interesting, and I was able to be the wonderful teacher I know I am.

In that vein, rather than complaining about all the things that make me miserable, I’m going to talk about some wonderful opportunities I had in December. As part of the Adolescent Literacy Learning group (you can read about part one and part two), one of the things we had to do was observe each other in the classroom and informally evaluate our teaching using the rubric. Even doing observations the last week before finals, I was really astounded by the skills that my peers have. Our students here have no idea how excellent their teachers really are – most of them haven’t ever known any other way.

One of the things we look for in our observations is clarity of directions, group/choral work (everyone does everything), and use of academic language. I watched my colleagues use graphic organizers to break down tasks into bite-sizes pieces that were digestible by all students. I watched them ask for partner sharing, and the students all knew the drill. In every case, I watched the teacher break down the task for a student who needed a little bit of prompting – some students needed more, some needed less, but I loved watching my colleagues coach other students.

It’s also interesting to compare other teachers’ classroom management and dynamics to my own. Some teachers prefer to address the whole class, others like to break it down into small groups and help each group separately. In all cases, my room is way louder than everyone else’s! (I don’t know if that’s because everyone was extra quiet because I was there, or if I just have terrible classroom management, but I think most of it is due to the noisy nature of language learning.) It’s also interesting to see how different students interact with different teachers. We all have cases where we have students who are perfectly fine for us, but are disengaged or outright disrespectful to other teachers. Thankfully, I only saw wonderful work from the students as well.

Even though I wasn’t having the best semester of my teaching career, being able to observe the experience and abilities of my colleagues was very refreshing to me. I look forward to observing different teachers in the future. And as always, I love the glimpses into other classrooms through teacher blogs. I hope the spring semester goes better for all of us. Remember, we’re all in this together!