Novels + paragraph shrinking + Kagan = success

This week, I am battling a severe case of summer slide. The kids are tired, the weather is nice, and I’ve been battling some health problems of my own that make it hard to be my best self. At this point, we still have 2 useable weeks left but trying to fight for attention when doing teacher-guided input is a losing battle. I spend more time redirecting the students than actually producing input.

So I decided to use my teacher brain to combine all of my best practices into one super lesson to save my sanity. In Spanish 2, we are reading Blaine Ray’s Casi se muere. Reading novels is the best way to increase vocabulary and is a generally awesome comprehensible input device. Then, I added paragraph shrinking. I learned this in my Adolescent Literacy Learning cohort but it’s very possible many of you are already familiar with it. If you’re not, paragraph shrinking is a simple summarizing technique where students read a paragraph, then try to distill the information of the paragraph into one single sentence. I loved this because it strengthens student paraphrasing skills as well as forcing them to create complex sentences to get all the relevant information into one sentence. Finally, I used the Kagan strategy of Round Robin + Coach/Consensus, however you want to call it. (It’s okay if you have no idea what a Kagan strategy is or how to use them; I’ve outlined it below.) So here’s what it looked like:

  • Students are in groups.
  • One student reads a paragraph/chunk aloud.
  • The whole group is responsible for interpreting the paragraph and coming up with a summary sentence.
  • Each student writes the group consensus sentence on their paper.
  • Move to the next student in the group and repeat.

One thing I emphasized to my students is that when they are done with a summary, it should still make sense. It should be a very short, to the point version of the story, but not missing any major action or details. I chose to have my students do their summaries in English (as a formative comprehension check for me) but you could also have them do it in the target language – just account for it taking waaaaaay more time. This technique did take a whole class period to get through 5 pages, but it could take less time if you don’t have the students read aloud, if you do the reading aloud or use a prerecorded reading, or if they’ve done this before.

Here is an example paragraph shrink from a group that struggles with reading comprehension in many of their classes:

It’s the first day of school and Ana saves a life. Pepe Ayala almost dies when he chokes on a piece of meat. Nobody helped Pepe because he had no friends. Teresa says how he has no friends. Someone tries to save his life and the meat falls out of his mouth and hits Jaime on the shirt. Pepe doesn’t care about Jaime but Ana does. Pepe thanks Ana for saving his life before Jamie yells at Pepe for making him look stupid. Then Ana tells the story in a letter.

Wasn’t that awesome?? It has lengthy sentences, it makes sense, and it’s in student-friendly language. My only regret is not implementing this strategy earlier. And the best part is, it works for any topic, any reading, any class! I plan to use this more frequently next year because I was extremely pleased with the results.

Playing for the NBA or getting an MBA?

A few days ago, I was listening to my usual morning radio show on my beloved local classic rock station (92.9 The Eagle) and the deejays were reading the news. I can’t remember what they were talking about – something sports related – but I remember one of them quipping that playing in the NBA was less work than getting an MBA.

As both a teacher and athlete, his off-hand statement really struck a chord with me. I think that our society’s worship of sports and competition is a little overblown, to be sure. (I’m one of those weirdos who would be all for eliminating sports being related to school at all, if it wouldn’t disproportionately affect students who already have limited opportunities.) But I also don’t agree with putting down professional athletes as having an easy job. I know how tired my body feels all the time, and my derby team only practices for two hours, three or four times a week. I only have to go to the gym once a week for 30 minutes, maybe an hour. But like a paid athlete, I still have to hustle for my team. We attend charity events and fundraisers to promote our league. We flyer. We run a junior derby league that also practices three times a week. We travel. Playing roller derby is really like having a second job that you pay to do rather than it paying you.

In contrast, getting an advanced degree is a similar amount of work. It just manifests in different ways. When I was working on my master’s degree, I was completing my ‘training’, that is, my reading, and that took me about three to eight hours a week, depending on the class and task. Then there was the constant flood of discussion board questions, theory papers, and case studies. All in all, I spent about as much time per week on my degree as I did on derby.

Here’s the big difference between the NBA and an MBA, though. In education, the only person in your way is you. In most sports, there’s another team or person that is trying to mess up your ability to get your job done and score the points. Whichever team does their job better is the winner. Education isn’t like that (for the most part – this isn’t a post to get into the ingrained problems of the American education system). When it comes to school, it’s just the student and the knowledge. No other person is actively sabotaging their ability to get work done. No one else is pushing the book out of their hand. Nobody else is tackling them, preventing them from writing an essay. School is more like golf, running, or shooting free throws. At the end of the day, it’s you vs. yourself.

So, though I love my morning deejays, I’m going to have to disagree. Playing basketball for the NBA is not easier than getting an MBA. They’re not comparable. They’re just different.

Kagan strategies and TPRS

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop hosted by my ESU on Kagan strategies. (I keep telling myself I’m going to take a break from going to workshops/conferences, but I apparently can’t help myself.) I’m also planning to attend iFLT in Denver this summer and Kagan day 2 through the ESU, even though I said I wasn’t going to work this summer. I first heard of Kagan strategies from a friend I met through the AP Spanish workshop a few summers ago. Her classes were gigantic compared to me. My current biggest class is 14 and my largest ever was 23. For my friend, 23 would be absurdly small – hers usually were in the 30s. She swore up and down by the power of Kagan grouping and Kagan strategies, so when I saw the workshop on the calendar, I signed up.

After the workshop, I am a Kagan convert. And you should be too. Here is why: there is nothing about Kagan that you are incapable of doing. When teachers attend workshops, we want strategies that we can implement TOMORROW with no preparation or extra work. Kagan does that for you. What Kagan strategies do is give you a structure to work within that seems fun to the students (because they get to work together) but increases learning because nobody can ‘hide’ and not contribute without it being super obvious to you, the teacher. (And then you can use your other teacher strategies to get them back on track.) I also like that it helps me to be more organized – if all “2” students in each group are called on to answer, I know who should be responding by their physical organization. And for the world language teachers in the crowd, it encourages teambuilding and lowering of the affective filter, which is extremely important in our classrooms.

I’m not going to take the time to explain the actual strategies here other than to say that for the most part, literally, they are structured turn-taking. That’s it. No magic, no tricks, just structured turn-taking and clear expectations of what each student should be contributing. If you’re interested in learning more about it, you can look at this short overview, or visit youtube or google. I have faith in you.

In the two weeks since I’ve completed the training, my goal has been to use Kagan strategies with intention (rather than my usual ‘oh, that would be a good idea…’ planning that I tend to do). I have learned that whoops, a lot of the ones I would LIKE to do, I can’t currently do because I haven’t put my students in teams, one of the key parts of the Kagan strategy. However, I have been using RallyRobin and RallyCoach when possible in my class and they have been phenomenal.

RallyRobin+Consensus was especially wonderful when I paired them with a TPRS story. One problem I have when I story-ask is that I am really awful at handling all the answers thrown at me. Invariably what happens is that there are a handful of really creative students whose answers I always like the best, and then everyone else stops responding and that defeats the whole purpose of the ASK part of a story-ask. Instead of everyone shouting in controlled chaos, I selected a few parts ahead of time that I would get student responses for. Then, I used RallyRobin (brainstorming in a pair, alternately sharing responses) to come up with names, places, foods, whatever I wanted. Then each pair came to a consensus on their favorite brainstormed name and wrote it on a piece of paper. At the end of class, then I was able to collect all their brainstormed ideas and be able to hear EVERY student’s ideas and contributions. Since I didn’t have to pick something on the spot, I could take the time to use as many different groups’ ideas as possible, so that everyone could say ‘oh hey, she picked mine!’
I could ramble about Kagan strategies for another zillion blog posts, but I’ll spare you. And I’ve only been to one day of five total days of Kagan training! I highly recommend you go to a training, whether your classes are tiny or gigantic, you teach math or French, elementary or college. Kagan strategies just give a name and a structure to stuff you already do, because good teaching is good teaching.

El Mundo en Tus Manos: Best resource ever?

Ironically, as our semester winds down here at school, I finally remembered to blog. This is a short one, but important as we consider what activities to keep and toss for the upcoming semester. I am here to plug Martina Bex’s Mundo en Tus Manos (which I am shortening to MeTM for brevity’s sake), a short newspaper for Spanish language learners.

Okay, to preface, I am completely biased because I love what Martina’s done. But if you haven’t purchased a license yet, let me try to convince you.

It’s great input for the students. Okay, first and foremost, this is most important. Martina does a wonderful job of paring down news stories and putting them in simple terms that high level novices and above can understand with little or no scaffolding. I also like that she includes footnotes of new vocabulary terms, and often tries to repeat these new words from week to week or within the same issue to get those precious repetitions for acquisition.

It keeps me updated on current news of interest to hispanohablantes. I have taken a pretty heavy duty self-imposed news moratorium since shortly before the election. I just can’t handle the negativity and anger coming from… well, lots of places. By reading MeTM, I can stay updated on what’s going on without having to put my anger filter in place. I also can have just a quick overview – reading the articles takes me about 5 minutes. (And for those of us who are distractible, I can’t fall into a news clicking rabbit hole.)

MeTM allows us to practice close reading. When it comes to in-depth reading, with special attention given to text type, headlines, and topic sentences, I find it much easier to work with non-fiction sources. MeTM is the perfect level of difficulty to make close reading potentially necessary, but short enough that the task isn’t overwhelming.

Reading the news expands our students’ minds and allows for further discussion of the topics. Many young people are relatively ignorant of the world around them – not because they’re intentionally sheltered, but because of their life circumstances. They’re young and without many resources of their own. I teach in a rural area of Nebraska. Many of my students have barely left the state, much less the country. (And if they have, they go to resorts and the like, which is not an accurate representation of the culture.) In addition, my personality leads me to expand on the basic ideas presented in the text and allow students to express their views on the topic. I love that the news stories give us some basic understanding and background knowledge of a topic, and I can expand the lesson to fit my students.

It’s a really easy addition to your reading library. For only a couple of dollars per issue, MeTM is one of the best bargains to add to any reading library. Plus, you don’t even have to go to a store or pay shipping! You just have to walk down to the printer. It’s that easy!

Finally, and one of my favorites, it is perfect to use as a backup activity or brain break. Gone from work and need something for your sub? Leave your students an issue with a simple graphic organizer. (See an example here.) Finish your lesson way too early? Grab some issues and have students summarize what they read. Having a rough day and need to plan something that’s not work-intensive for you? There are tons of no or low-prep activities that you can come up with in a pinch to save your sanity. These are especially great lifesavers for newer teachers whose pacing is still in progress and don’t have many tools in their toolkit yet.

So to sum up, there are six great reasons to buy Martina’s Mundo en Tus Manos package for the spring, and I’m sure other teachers could come up with more. I can only hope that eventually some enterprising teacher does a similar thing for other world languages.

(In full disclosure, Martina did not at any point ask me to write this review. This is 100% my own love of her products.)

On writing and grammar

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend not one but TWO of Anita Archer’s trainings through the Adolescent Literacy Learning program. I was able to learn from Anita the summer after my first year teaching. Like any workshop worth attending, I was able to pull different ideas and strategies to use in my classroom after six years of teaching to supplement the ones I implemented after my first. The first time I went focused on reading, but this year had one day of reading strategies and one day of writing. While I was at these workshops, two (two and a half?) big ideas stuck with me enough concerning the area of world languages that I wrote them down.

Thought #1: Explicit teaching

Okay, so, we know that explicit teaching of grammar at the high school level (in world languages) is not useful. Students have to know the rule, be concerned about applying the rule, and then have the time to accurately apply said rule. At the novice and intermediate levels where our students are learning, we are pretty much only working on step #1: learn the rule. And you can’t learn the rule, you must acquire it through practice and repetition. Learning grammar is only useful once a speaker has reached the advanced level and is ready to edit their speaking and writing. But to be honest, how many of our students are native English speakers who are still working on acquiring and applying the rules of English?

However, research shows that explicit vocabulary instruction DOES improve cognition and performance. So this caused a little bit of a disturbance in my brain-force. Explicit grammar instruction not so good, explicit vocab instruction great. Huh. Because it’s all related, right? How can one be true but not the other?

My theory is – and I could be entirely wrong and would love discussion in the comments or via twitter – that the establishing meaning portion of CI/TPRS is teaching the implicit acquisition of grammar through explicit vocabulary instruction. The sorts of strategies Anita outlined for explicit vocabulary teaching, such as defining examples and non-examples, using it in a sentences and then a short reading, and showing how it is related to other words is the exact same sort of strategies we use in foreign language. In addition, she talked about how you should really only pick 3-5 big ideas for each vocabulary chunk (which mysteriously coincides with the recommended 3-5 target structures for most CI activities). On top of that, words that students already have a passing familiarity with or a simple definition should be given the ‘light touch’ – this would be like our quick translation into English.

Another big idea I took from the reading presentation was about pronunciation. Some language teachers are all about practicing pronunciation, others give it barely more than a passing glance. But we learned that students who are unsure of a word’s pronunciation are less able to keep the word in their working memory and therefore it is less likely to be put into long term memory. Which makes sense, if you think about it – it’s hard to make a connection to a word if you don’t remember how to say it!

Thought #2: Content vs. writing processes

The second training focused all on writing, and I was pleased that some of my strategies for learning to write better sentences (to push from novice to intermediate) are the same ideas that Anita’s research supports. However, I ran into another mental conundrum. We know that for students to be able to write well, they need to write frequently with plenty of feedback and support. That takes up a LOT of time, even if we’re only writing paragraph level discourse. And if we teachers are going to provide multiple opportunities for clear and structured writing practice… how are we going to have time to teach content? The obvious answer is to have students read, then use that content to write, but for acquisition, students need to have a heavy dose of input first. And for native language teachers (English language arts, or heritage language teachers), students still need input of ideas and knowledge and thoughts before they can have an opinion on something to write about. We can’t write all the time. The brain craves novelty.

Another language-related thought (the half idea) is about how this affects storywriting in TPRS classrooms. I tend to commit ‘assumicide’ which is where I figured, hey, we’ve read a zillion stories, surely students know how to write one now. And unsurprisingly, those stories were not so great. If I want students to write good stories, I have to show them how to script them. (The easiest way being ‘there is a [whatever], it has a problem, it goes here, it doesn’t solve the problem, it goes somewhere else, it solves the problem’ format suggested by Blaine Ray.) But doing that also takes time, time that we have to split between all the different activities and cultures and knowledge we want to share with our students.

As always, I feel like I don’t have all the answers, or any answers, really. I’m just a regular teacher doing the best I can. But it’s important to ask the questions.

La persona especial

Okay, so, here it finally is: my persona especial post.

This year, instead of starting with stories right away, I decided to mix in my usual beginning-of-Spanish activities (Brown Bear, counting games, TPR, etc.) with La Persona Especial. I used Bryce’s handy guide to give me an idea of what I was going to do, but since I am well acquainted with PQA, it wasn’t that hard for me as a teacher. Really, it’s just PQA focused all on one student. Today, we had a bit of a weird schedule so I asked a student to be a volunteer for this. Not only did I have a student volunteer, it was one who hadn’t previously been an interview candidate, so that was great! In this clip, we speed through the introductory stuff because my students have it down pretty well. Rewatching it, I could’ve spent a little more time verbally verifying that the rest of the class was understanding what was going on, but I was “teaching to the eyes” and their eyes told me that yes, they got it. (You can see in the video when I appear to be staring into space. I’m actually checking in on the other students while my interviewee is thinking of his response.) They also were great about responding when I asked for a class response, even though they were sparse.)

My process generally follows that of Bryce’s. I do an interview with one student (I set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, just to keep myself from wandering) while the rest of the class listens and watches. They do not take any notes; I write anything I need to on the board. After the interview, I will do some sort of recap activity. Students can tell a partner what they remember, I might make true/false statements, or whatever. Then they open their laptops and actually add to their notes. The first few interviews, I then had everyone share something and I typed it up in proper Spanish. We’re about halfway through now, so at this point, I just look at their screens while they’re working and correct any errors that impede comprehensibility. After three interviews, we took a quiz. (My classes are small, so I have sections of 10 and 9 respectively – you may want to have more in each quiz grouping.)  I picked some examples to show you all as a sample of their work. Sample #1 comes from a student that has no prior Spanish knowledge but I suspect will go all 4 years with me. Sample #2 is from an average student with average mistakes. Sample #3 is from another potential superstar student who has studied a bit of Spanish through Rosetta Stone. However, as you can see, her prior knowledge doesn’t really make her writing leaps and bounds better than the others. Each student is very comprehensible. These samples are after about 25 days of Spanish class. I normally let students keep their assessments, but tonight we have parent-teacher conferences and I kept these to show parents what their students are able to do in my class. It is super cool to show a parent that their child, after a little over a month, can read and write simple paragraphs.

personaespecial1

personalespecial2personalespecial3

So there it is! I am more than happy to answer any questions or offer any help that I can. I’m no expert by any means, but La Persona Especial is so easy, any of us can do it!

PS: Here is a link to a blank copy of my quiz/rubric. Feel free to make a copy of it, change it, whatever you need to do to fit your class and philosophy.

September, checking in

Can you believe it? We’re already finishing the first week of September. For some schools, they are just now starting the year. My school is almost a full month in. I have a lot of things to write about, but I haven’t really taken the time and stop to talk about it. And I’m not going to do it now! I just wanted to check in to say that this year is off to a great start for me. Last spring, I wrote an honest post about my battle with depression and how it affected my teaching. Battle seems like an odd choice of word – chronic depression is a chemical imbalance in my brain that I have had for most of my life and will continue to have, but it’s not really a battle if I take my medication. This year, I can already tell the difference in starting a year without that nasty cloud hanging over my head. My lessons go much more smoothly. I get along better with my students. I not only updated my old word walls, but also added a new one of ‘random cognates you might need in a story’ which I haven’t taken a picture of yet. My body is also being much happier – I am no longer getting stress headaches, my skin isn’t breaking out like crazy, and I can sleep at night. So the point of all that is: if you are feeling like something just isn’t right, go see a doctor. Please. You owe it to yourself.

That being said, I am doing some great things in my classroom this year. I am doing La Persona Especial with my Spanish 1s rather than starting with stories right away. There are tons of benefits to the activity, but one thing I am finding is that students are acquiring high-frequency vocabulary that applies to them first thing in the year. Words like hermano, juega, abuelo, and so on that I normally don’t get into until later are becoming commonplace. I even have Spanish 1s spouting off short, self-created sentences! It is so amazing, you guys. It is my plan to record myself doing one of these in the near future… maybe within the next week! Then I can share it with you all for feedback/instructional purposes/etc. and we can all be better teachers!

In Spanish 2, we are starting to really hit the comparison of past and present tenses. This is really what sold me on storytelling/comprehensible input as a teaching method. I remember the absolute misery of trying to learn ALL preterite forms and ALL imperfect forms AND when to use them… within a few months. With storytelling, understanding the forms and differences seems natural. My students don’t seem to find it nearly as mind-melting as I ever did.

In Spanish 3 and AP, I started using Gran Hotel on Fridays this year. We’re only about 10 minutes in after 4 weeks of watching it. I am using the guides on Teachers Pay Teachers (so helpful – thanks to the contributors!) and we did 3 weeks of watching with me talking our way through it. Then last Friday, we rewatched the first page’s worth of video (from the study guide) without my talk-through, then completed said study guide page. I’ll probably assess them in some way eventually, but I don’t want the  threat of assessment to outstrip their enjoyment of the show. My class of 5 boys is not super thrilled yet, but I think they’ll be more interested once there is more action going on. The other two seem to be enthralled and really enjoy it. It is also an AWESOME opportunity to practice those really deep and complex grammatical patterns students will find in AP-level readings, especially ones that use the subjunctive.

I also looked at some of my goals from last year (big one: to do better with AP) and am working on those. I preloaded AP vocab this unit and it is making the rest of the teaching go much faster. 3 of the 4 students are in sports that keep leaving school early for events, though, so that is a continual challenge.

I hope everyone else is off to a great start of their school year! I will hopefully be able to post more of my ideas soon.