Just another manic Monday

Just another manic Monday. Or el lunes loco, if you’re a Spanish teacher. I really don’t care for Mondays, and it’s not that typical “ugh, Monday, I hate going to work” trope. I don’t work a job; I have a career that I love and I enjoy it all days of the week. However, I’d be a liar if I said that Mondays weren’t the hardest day of the week. There’s just something about student behavior on Mondays that is harder for me to deal with – I don’t know if it’s the excitement of the weekend, trying to get back in the school routine after a whole two days off, or what. At my school, I much prefer Friday behavior to Monday behavior. (Tuesdays are my favorite, for the record.)

That being said, I am someone who believes in working smarter, not harder. I have always tried to align my teaching with the reality of students. For example, no assessments on Mondays. That’s just a great way to make sure everyone forgets (including me, honestly) and there’s a big panic – not worth it. This year, my big focus has been taking into consideration the student needs to walk and talk. Mixing what I’ve learned through CI trainings (the brain craving novelty) and Kagan (humans wanting to be mobile and socialize), I’ve tried to find some activities that I can especially use on Mondays that will keep learning happening without making me crazy with constantly trying to get student attention.

**Side note: my Spanish 1s this year are… a bit more squirrelly than my last few bunches. This means that my last few years of ‘here is a story, let us do it’ is NOT working. They can’t get through even a paragraph without me having to stop and regroup them. PQA tends to be a disaster. I am having to mentally adapt all my activities because as reflective teachers know, what works for one group of students does not necessarily work for the next, and we always need to adjust to that. Upon further reflection, (this post has been sitting in my draft queue for a long time) of my 17 students, I have at least 5 in this class who have been formally diagnosed with ADHD. On top of normal student silliness. Some of them are wonderful about taking their medication, if prescribed, others are not. Some days are a really rough go.

Anyway, if you are having the same issue with your students, here are some things that are working and some things that are NOT working for me.

Working well:

  • quiz-quiz-trade
  • numbered heads together
  • mix-pair-share
  • round-robin (depending on the task)
  • Señor Wooly puzzles
  • fan-n-pick

These activities all have a few key ideas in common. If you’re not familiar with the terms, just google them (most of them are Kagan structures). Number one and most importantly, these activities allow students to mostly work at their own pace or with a timer. This keeps students on task without making me, the teacher, go crazy by trying to keep a group together. Number two, these tasks are completed in pairs or small groups. Again, trying to keep a large group together on Mondays seems nearly impossible for me, so letting students work in much smaller groupings is easier on my ears and my patience. Finally, these activities also promote positive interdependence – the students have to work together to complete the task, which creates all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings like lowering the affective filter and strengthening relationships.

Not working:

  • Four corners
  • MovieTalks, PictureTalks, pretty much anything that introduces new vocab where I stand in the front and give input for more than 12 seconds
  • OWI

To reiterate, these activities are terrible for me on Mondays. Every other day, they’re fine – the squirreliness of students is just too much on Mondays. I’m not sure what causes these activities to break down. Four corners ends up with too much side chatter. MovieTalks, PictureTalks, OWIs, stories… any of those that require the whole group’s attention and circling, introduction of new vocabulary, etc. do not go well for me. These activities are easier with my upper level classes who have a higher level of focus, but I still find it easier on myself just to pick an activity from the first list. My second period would be comatose if I let them, so picking an activity that forces them to interact with each other and/or walk around keeps them from falling asleep on me.

As we head into the end of 2017, hopefully these ideas will help you have happier, more productive Mondays in 2018!

Stopping the shame game

So there is this practice that is somewhat prevalent among teachers, and I don’t like it.

I call it ‘The Shame Game’. We all know what the shame game is. Either we play it with our students, or had it played with us when we were students, and we have all DEFINITELY seen it played sometime in our lives. The shame game looks something like this:

Student comes to class. Student needs a pencil, but doesn’t have a pencil for whatever reason. Usually they forgot it or it got lost (somehow, magically, in the 10 steps between their last classroom and your classroom) but sometimes their friend took it and broke it in the seconds your back was turned to write something on the board, or maybe they dropped it and it rolled underneath your bookshelf and now they can’t get it, or they threw it up in the air and now it’s stuck in your drop-down ceiling. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

Anyway, so student comes to class, and they don’t have that pencil. Your job is to teach them responsibility, right! Why don’t they have that pencil! Why aren’t they prepared for class! And this is where many teachers start to play the shame game – they say those exact things to the student. The student, of course, feels so incredibly thankful that the teacher pointed out to the class that they were unprepared and that they are a dumb loser (maybe not in those words, but we can read between the lines here) who can’t even hang on to a stupid pencil, and never forgets their pencil again. Right?


I have a student, who I love dearly, who is in my Spanish 3 class. He has struggled since day one to play the school game properly. He has gotten better over the years as we have found strategies for him to be prepared, be on time, to stay organized, and probably a little bit has to do with simple maturation. But the *very first day* of class this year, he somehow managed to leave his chemistry syllabus on my table. I don’t know how, we didn’t even need to open our binders that day, we just talked in Spanish about nothing in particular. Now, I could’ve played the shame game and thrown it away – ha ha, that’ll teach him responsibility to not leave his stuff lying around! – or I could’ve chosen to be the compassionate teacher, found him in the hallway and handed it to him with a smile, saying ‘Hey buddy, I think you forgot this.’ As I will with every. single. paper. he will leave in my room over the course of the year, as he has for the previous two years.

Because here’s the thing, fellow teachers. Playing the shame game helps no one. It doesn’t teach responsibility. We know this. That kid is still going to forget their paper, day after day after day. Or their pencil. Or their binder. Or their computer. Some teachers seem to take it personally. It is not personal. Sometimes the student has an undiagnosed problem with their executive function (aka, the part of your brain that controls decision making and organization.) Sometimes they just have a brain fart. Maybe the student is being bullied in a place where we can’t see and they start the day prepared, but someone is taking their stuff before they get to us. Some people are just plain ol’ forgetful. Playing the shame game only raises the affective filter, makes them more nervous, and paints us as jerks. We are not jerks… right? That’s not how we want to portray ourselves. We already have tv shows and movies for kids to do that for us.

To add insult to injury, these things do not happen in the adult world. As an adult, if I go to a meeting, paper and writing utensils are frequently provided for me. If they aren’t and I don’t have something, nobody asks me for a shoe or my planner for collateral. If I run out of dry erase markers in my classroom, my school has an entire closet of extra supplies in the office and I can take as much as I need and nobody ever asks why I didn’t plan ahead. It’s also far easier for me to keep my items where I need them because I’m not tromping around a building (and then to and from my house) with all my stuff – it stays where I put it in my room, mischievous students aside.

So here’s the point. The shame game does not teach responsibility. It doesn’t stop students from forgetting their whatevers. All it does is hurt our relationships with those students, make us look like jerks, and makes it seem like we care far more about a stupid 10 cent pencil than our students. I don’t know about you, but at this point in my career, I can always get more pencils. (They don’t pay me THAT little, or I can just get them from the aforementioned well-stocked closet.) I can’t always repair a damaged relationship with a student. The shame game is not worth it. Please, let it go. Compassion will take us much farther in our goal of educating all students.

Even if we have to grit our teeth as we smile and say ‘Hey buddy, I think you forgot this,’ for the seven hundred zillionth time.

Targeted vs non-targeted input

For those of us who have already made the switch to comprehensible input, apparently the new divide in camps is targeted vs. non-targeted. I didn’t realize I had an opinion on this until iFLT, but it turns out I do (I have so many opinions!) and this is my blog, so you’re stuck reading about them. If you’re not sure what I mean by targeted or non-targeted, targeted input is when you have your specific structures (frequently referred to as target structures – crazy, I know) that you want your students to be on the path to acquiring by the end of your activity/activities. Those structures could be single words or whole phrases, and the lesson could be a quick 15 minute discussion of a static picture, or it might be a 3 day series of everything you have in your comprehensible input toolkit. Non-targeted input, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like. Giving students input with no particular rhyme or reason, just conversing and discussing in the target language or about whatever you want to use as your launching point (pictures, a video clip, etc.)

Targeted input

The case for targeted input is pretty simple. As teachers, it helps to have some sort of plan to follow to know what our intentions for acquisition by the end of each course. (Does this mean our students have acquired the structures? Of course not. But at least we know the foundation has been laid.) For administrative purposes, it is hard to write a scope and sequence/curriculum plan based on non-targeted input. Honestly, I’m not really sure how that would look. Targeted input also makes it easier to stay “in bounds” since each level of a course, to a large extent, would stay on track with each other for those of us who teach multiple classes of the same level.

Non-targeted input

The case for non-targeted input is aimed at targeted input’s drawbacks. Chris Stolz discussed some thoughts of Ben Slavic in his own blog post here where Ben proposes that targeted input can get very boring very quickly, and I agree with that. If you are too heavy on circling, the kids stop “falling for the trick”, so to speak. It’s worse with PQA, especially since the form you’re going to be using in PQA (I/you forms) are not the forms kids are going to use in a story (he/she/they) – not inherently a problem, but sometimes the forms are very different from each other (Spanish preterite verbs, anyone?) and the jump might be too much for your slow processors. It also can become very stilted trying to form a question in just the right way to get your target structures in, especially for ones that aren’t quite so conversational but are common in writing.

The other problem I’ve found in practice with targeted input is that, some really useful language stuff just doesn’t work well in a targeted language setting. Rejoinders, for example. Rejoinders are used in conversation all the time – Oh really? That’s so interesting! No way. I can’t believe it! I don’t care. That’s ridiculous. That’s too bad. You poor thing. – but if I try to shoehorn them into a story or other manner of targeted input and I am not really cautious, it can often seem contrived and again, the kids pick up on that.

The solution

From watching the master teachers at iFLT and reflecting on my own practice and what I intend to do this next year… I think the best choice, as is it is in many things in life, is a little of both. I am a teacher who absolutely needs those targeted structures so I know where I’m going and what I’m doing, or else I will ramble the whole period about nothing and the kids’ acquisition will go nowhere. On the other hand, a lot of really great acquisition happens around the target structures – my students have picked up so many non-targeted words just from random class discussions (one class got really good at extraño because I always said one student was so strange, one class was big on apesta because one year their insult for everything was ‘that stinks’, another class is hardcore about caballo because it’s a student’s nickname, and so on). I have never explicitly taught rejoinders as more than a pop-up or things like saying salud after a sneeze, but my students can and do say them.

When I was watching Mark Mallaney, he noted that his target structures in his stories were all directed towards his final goal of having students being ready to read a novel. Since I read class novels in my classes, that’s how I’ve been doing things (though theoretically, with more intention this year. I do not read class novels with my Spanish 3 and maybe that’s why I feel so lost and blah when teaching that class.) But the rest of the stuff he did that day, either seemed to be non-targeted, or loosely targeted based on one word (deberías). But the way he was using deberías, it was hard to tell if it was specifically being targeted, or if he was putting it on the board as a reminder of a useful word to use when students were phrasing their answers. And I guess that’s why he’s a master teacher, because it’s totally conceivable that his students could bust out things like ‘You should visit the cave of the winds because it is beautiful and popular.’ after 1 year of Spanish.

So that’s my opinion on targeted vs. non-targeted. I don’t think there’s any right way or wrong way to do things. As far as the state of Nebraska is concerned, as long as I am teaching in Spanish and about Spanish-language culture things, they don’t care how I get it done.

iFLT 2017: Wrapup/changes in practice

When I arrived at iFLT, I felt pretty good about myself. I’d been teaching with CI for 3.5 years (notice the .5? Don’t do that. Don’t switch in the middle of the year, it will be bad. Maybe ADD one or two techniques to your practice, but don’t overhaul it entirely. Even if you are totally on board and can’t wait to get started. Trust me on this one.) Anyway, I’d been teaching with CI for 3.5 years, I knew the basics of pretty much all the standard CI techniques, I was able to help out lots of beginners and intermediates. So I was really hoping to get a little idea here, a tweak there, and so on.

I saw a lot of things that I do well. Like the teachers in the language labs, I have words EVERYWHERE in my room. Word walls galore. Especially since I teach levels 1-AP. I try to construct a very positive atmosphere and am the touchy-feely teacher who is all sunshine and rainbows and is annoyingly cheerful most of the time. I do the basic CI techniques pretty well, I just need to toss in some other things here and there to keep them novel.

But the things I needed to change slowly developed like a snowball. It was a little inspirational quote here, a thought there, an off-hand comment by this presenter on the side, that slowly morphed into this big overarching THING in my brain.

Let me back up: Like I said, I am the teacher for Spanishes 1, 2, 3, AP. I posted somewhere in this giant slog o’ blogs that I am 0 for 9 of students taking the AP exam in 2015/2016 and getting a 3 or higher, and that it is a me-problem, not a student-problem. It is not a question of their dedication or intelligence, it is a question of what am I doing wrong to prepare them, and the lightbulb turned on Friday morning as I was standing at the hotel sink brushing my teeth. You know how your brain needs processing time, right, and that’s why you get all your really great thoughts or things finally make sense when you’re doing super mundane things like falling asleep, taking a shower, driving, etc? This was my processing time. (I was also grateful for my long, flat, boring 6 hour drive home to Nebraska because it gave me a ton of processing time from the conference. My brain was pinging like popcorn with ideas and thoughts.)

First of all, by this time, I knew my biggest problem is too much English, and that’s squarely on me. What happens is I want to share as much as possible with my students about life the universe and everything in a class period, and if I do that all in Spanish, there’s no time! Well, first off, I need to either figure it out in Spanish or shut my face. Second off, I have gotten better over the years but my inner grammarian still comes out sometimes and wants to go on long-winded explanations about how this word is related to that one and blah blah blah lost half the class already. In English. I am getting better, but still can improve at redirecting students who want to go way out of bounds with their Spanish. I am terrible at redirecting them back into Spanish if they wander out, BUT I think the fact that I switch into English and stay there tends to give them license to switch to English and stay there.

My secondary issue, that I didn’t realize when I was sitting in Darcy’s AP presentation (considering myself as an AP teacher who knew all the stuff she was talking about… not a Spanish 1-3 teacher who also needs to know about the AP exam) is that my Spanish 1-3 units? Not aligned to the AP themes. And as much as I claim that I have tossed my textbook and gone my own way, that is a falsehood. It’s true that I have tweaked everything to the point that you probably wouldn’t recognize the base units as being from Realidades if I didn’t tell you, but they still follow the thematic units presented in textbooks. Spanish 1 starts with greetings, goodbyes, numbers, weather, colors. Bo-ring. Last year, I struggled because I had this.. stuff.. that I knew I wanted to cover, but I also had these special person interviews that were way more compelling, and I didn’t know how to mix the two, so it ended up being really messy. Now, I’ve learned that I don’t even have to bother doing that stuff in a unit, just do it as time goes by. Start with special person and some really basic stories to get tiene/quiere/va/le gusta cemented and let’s roll.

This also helps me with my problem of my Spanish 3, because I really dislike most of what I teach in Spanish 3. I like my free reading and I like my blogging, and I like my art unit. I like some of my health and wellness unit. I like teaching the subjunctive part in my relationships unit. I love teaching Nos han dado la tierra. But a lot of it is cobbled together, seems contrived, and I otherwise dislike teaching it, and if I don’t like teaching it, then the kids definitely don’t enjoy learning it. So I was planning to redo a bunch of it this year anyway, and aligning it with the AP themes gives me much more of a direction (especially since there’s a lot of stuff in my AP syllabus that I don’t get to anyway; I might be able to use some of those units with minor adaptations.)

And my tertiary and final problem is the one that hit me, standing at the hotel sink. My AP students did not do well because I did not trust the CI process. I was basically doing some sort of half-CI half-traditional mashup. I did not properly preteach key vocabulary through a short TPRS story, picture, movie, anything. I did not do embedded readings. AP input relies heavily on reading and that’s fine (due to my school’s size we probably do more readings than many CI-based classes just because you can only PQA so much with a class of 4!) but I basically threw the original versions or slightly altered versions of things at my students and said “good luck!” And of course I helped them, but it took for-e-ver because I had to help them so much. (Of course, it did not help that my Spanish 3 could really use more input of conditional/future/perfect tenses.) Because I wanted to cover the content quickly, I didn’t stop to make it – did you guess it? – comprehensible. Teacher fail. And I know on the AP exam students will run into things that are not comprehensible but I want them to acquire as much as they can before said exam. Same with listening exercises. Ironically, looking back at last year, about the only thing I did bother to make comprehensible on a consistent basis is when we watched Gran Hotel, but Gran Hotel is extremely compelling so the students were willing to push through.

So here is my list of changes for this upcoming school year.

  • Adiós, bellringers as I currently do them. I will still do opener activities of varying sorts but right now, they are more of a distraction and end up a huge use of English than accomplishing what I want. I normally end up taking this time to ask kids about their day/sports/whatever (hello, PQA) so might as well do it in Spanish.
  • I am making an inglés/español sign. For me.
  • I am redesigning Spanish 3 and maybe the other levels to align with the AP themes. (I might end up with 2 plan periods this year, but our scheduling is currently a mess due to some factors outside of anyone’s control, so I won’t know for sure until school starts. But that would be pretty sweet. If not this year, then next year.)
  • Add back in brain breaks/brain bursts. I only did them really well one year, but they’re fun, the kids like them, and they’re able to focus better.
  • Stay in Spanish, me.
  • Add emoji faces to my emotions poster. (It’s colorful and has QR codes, but I think the faces will help.)
  • More novelty from all the cool tips I picked up at iFLT.
  • Spanish!!! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
  • Hit the thrift store after this heat wave and get some props for my prop box. For real, this time.
  • Properly preteach vocab in AP, even though it means we might go more slowly on the front end, it means things will go more quickly on the back end AND they will actually acquire more.
  • Spanish. All the time. Seriously. My students can do it and it’s kind of insulting to their intelligence to use English as if they can’t.

So that’s what I want to work on. There’s probably another 10 things that I thought about and promptly forgot because there is always room for improvement. I have my work cut out for me but I love a challenge!

iFLT 2017: Language lab recaps

One of the really cool things about iFLT is the language labs. These are opportunities to see real life teachers in action with real life students doing typical activities you might see in their classroom. Originally, I wasn’t even sure I was going to see a language lab – I was all about the sessions. I ended up watching three language labs with three different teachers in three different levels (though all in Spanish). Next time I go to iFLT (because there will definitely be a next time), I might just spend all of my mornings in language labs and go to sessions in the afternoons, because for me, they are THAT instructional. They are great for beginning teachers to see ‘oh, this is what it looks like.’ For intermediates, it’s more about picking up a full technique here or there. For me, as an experienced teacher, it was little tweaks that I can do to make my teaching just a bit more effective here and there.

I do think some teachers were a little put off – I mean, these kids are probably the super whiz kids because who would come to school in the summer, right? I didn’t ask the lab teachers, but I don’t agree. I saw some kids in Annabelle’s session that had a serious cases of the wiggles. There were a few kids in Grant’s session that I think he had a hard time reading and drawing into the conversation, and one of them was hilarious but also kept going on English tangents. Mark’s session was special – he teaches in Denver, so he was teaching an intermediate Spanish with his own regular students! (They had Spanish 1 with him this past year.) But there were students that in that hour and fifteen minutes, that followed him with their eyes and participated with gestures and chorally but never volunteered a singleton response. Probably not his superstars, but they were there regardless.

Unless stated otherwise, for these writeups, assume the teacher is speaking in the TL.

Elementary novice language lab – La Maestra Loca

Annabelle started the class by reviewing what the students knew about John, their magdalena (muffin) one word image from the previous day. I was amazed at the huge vocabulary these elementary students already knew from just a few hours of language instruction. She then very quickly switched to English and explained how they were going to tell a story using the storycubes. She then went back to Spanish and told AND MODELED how to draw pictures for the different categories on the storycubes, then put the kids in the groups and let them get to work.

She was about to start the story but realized she needed to explain to her class artist what to do, so she sent the students to their coloring spots (coloring sheets posted around the room) to color SILENTLY while she explained to the artist what his job was as she told the story. When she was ready, she called them back to their seats and told the story, having a student roll a cube as necessary for the details. They were able to finish the story and then moved into a MovieTalk. Since MovieTalks were new to this class, she quickly switched to English, established rules with the class, and then my notes stop so either 1) we ran out of time or 2) I got too involved with her teaching and didn’t take any more notes. (Probably #2. That happened a lot.)

Special notes about Annabelle’s session

  • Whenever she had to address a student behavior, she didn’t address it out loud (like we might do in high school classes), she whispered in the student’s ear. But she also sometimes gave a single student a specific set of directions in English, also in a whisper, so it was hard to tell when it was a direction and when it was behavior correction. I think this was on purpose.
  • She uses the teacher vs. student game. There’s various variations of this, but she’s blogged about her version here.
  • When doing the story, a student was already showing comprehension by responding with boo-hoos at a sad thing, so Annabelle pulled her up to play the part of John the magdalena.
  • Brain breaks, brain bursts, more brain breaks!
  • Near the end, the response rate was getting pretty sad, so she paused and did a quick survey. Were they tired? Yes. Were they understanding? Yes. Was she going too fast? A few said yes, most said no. This told her that the response rate was not due to the Spanish, just the tiredness factor. (And to be fair, 2 1/2 hours of Spanish class a day is exhausting as an adult, much less when you’re in elementary school!)

Middle school novice language lab – Grant Boulanger

Grant chose to start the class I watched with some PQA. He was working with middle schoolers, who I don’t teach (my program starts in grade 9) but MS kids are… an interesting bunch. After greeting each other, asking how students are doing (one student said he wasn’t doing well, and when asked why, said ‘because I’m here’ and everyone laughed – Grant used it as a moment to reinforce ‘qué lástima / what a shame’) then they moved into a reading on the board about one of the students in the class. In the debrief afterwards, Grant noted that he chose this particular student for the reading, since she came a day late into the class and didn’t know anyone previously (some of the students go to school together), and it was important for her to feel like part of the group. However, Grant didn’t just read the reading straight through, he continued to stop and weave PQA throughout the reading.

As they were reading, they got to a sentence with a lot of cognates and he stopped and did a really cool cognate-recognition activity. He held up his ‘íngles’ sign, switched to English for this short explanation, and then it was right back to Spanish. Whenever he got to a word that was a cognate, he would yell BEÍSBOL, the students said BASEBALL, then he would say the word in question like TELEVISIÓN and the kids would say it in English like TELEVISION. I thought that was a really neat trick and instead of taking a whole day to teach cognates like I normally do at the beginning of Spanish 1, now I can take 30 seconds for explanation, 2 minutes for hardcore practice, then sprinkle in practice throughout the rest of the year.

Then Grant went back to finishing the reading, again sprinkling in PQA. As the students talked, he taught a few rejoinders as appropriate such as ‘no puede ser! (it can’t be!)’ after learning that a student had a black belt in tae kwon do. After this, they transitioned into a quick recap of talking about Fred, their intelligent but irresponsible 5 year old with a beard from the day before, and then transitioned into a story from there. I stopped taking notes because, and I quote, “stopped taking notes cause I got sucked into the story, sorry – door kid was great tho”. Sorry for anyone in that session with me, I was laughing annoyingly loudly the entire time.

Special notes about Grant’s session

  • Grant teaches the alphabet, but in context. During the reading portion, he took maybe 30 seconds with his laser pointer, and said ‘I’m going to point to a letter, you tell me its name.’ That was it. Later, when he was putting up bonus vocabulary on the board (in this case, película) he had a student spell the English equivalent, movie, in Spanish as he wrote it on the paper. Brilliant! Because really, the Spanish alphabet is pretty easy except for g/h/i/j/ñ/x/y/z.
  • Grant only used one brain break, but it was a class builder – it was a mix-pair-share (he didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was if you’re familiar with my beloved Kagan strategies) and describe a connection that two students have with each other (in the TL). So for example, Grant, the profe’s name is Grant, but there was also a student named Grant. Connexión! This was something that apparently came up 100% organically in this language lab but when your kids give you something awesome as a teacher, you run with it.
  • Grant beautifully deflected questions that would require a lengthy translation/explanation in English with ‘let’s talk about that at the break’. I am terrible at this and waste a lot of class time.

High school intermediate language lab – Mark Mallaney

As I type this up, I realize that there are very few actual notes on this session. I watched for an hour and fifteen minutes and this class did PQA and a story. That’s it. Their PQA centered around what one of the kids was doing that weekend (he was doing to a party) and what should we, all these teachers, do while we are in Denver. Then they moved into a pretty typical storytelling scenario and I took absolutely no notes because I was too busy watching and laughing about Shrektuga and his…her? (Shrektuga was played by a girl) love, who had a beautiful smile of 3 teeth and the backroom deal with a character whose name I forget to get more teeth from the tooth fairy.

Special notes from Mark’s session

  • Mark stayed 100% in the TL.
  • Because Mark was working with his school year students, his session was full of in-jokes and personal touches that make our jobs, specifically, as world language teachers so fun. I have a bunch of kids that I can walk up to and say ‘ji ji ji’ (with the English j) and or ‘hey, you guys, I learned to speak crouton this summer!’ and that’s OUR thing and nobody else shares that with us. That sense of community is vital.
  • He did not stop for comprehension checks nearly as much as Annabelle or Grant. One, his kids did a magical job of keeping eyes on him, even if they were not verbally offering any output. Two, Mark is a funny guy and when students were laughing along, or even just smiling that told him that they were understanding what was going on.
  • Even though I knew the wonder of using CI, the speaking ability of his students blew me away. I thought by ‘intermediate’ they meant kids going into year 3 or maybe even year 4 of Spanish. Nope. I asked them at break and they said they had taken one year and these kids were saying stuff I could read and produce grammatically in writing (definitely not SAY in a sentence) in COLLEGE. I was astounded.
  • I could tell Mark’s students were intermediates because a few times they made up words (esprinkles, haha) but that shows they were trying to create with the language with the schema they had in their head, and that’s awesome.

General language lab thoughts and observations

  • All three teachers stressed that community, a sense of belonging and caring, is very important to them and their classroom. There was a time in my teaching career where I was not so good at this in general. There was a very specific time with a specific group of students in my career where I outright destroyed my own classroom community. A snide comment here, a sharp tone there. That’s all it took. And not only did I lose the trust of those students, I lost their friends, I lost their parents, I lost their siblings. (Well, I hope I didn’t totally lose all their siblings because I have a few coming up as freshmen this year and I hope I have proven I can right my wrongs.)
  • All three had clear lines of when English use was appropriate and when it was not, and they enforced those lines for their students and themselves.
  • All three were compelling, competent, and fun to watch, but had their own style of teaching. Annabelle is like me – wacky, energetic, goofy, running around with high-fives, and really good at being hugely dramatic for effect. Grant is hilarious but low-key (which I expect a guy like Bryce Hedstrom is in his class, too). He’s not bouncing off the walls, and even taught for a bit sitting down! But don’t confuse that for being low-energy, because his class was definitely energetic. And then Mark was somewhere in between. His class was able to contribute more to the discussion since they have more language, which means he didn’t have to pour as much of his own energy into the class to keep it running smoothly.
  • I liked seeing that yes, I do a lot of the same things these master teachers do in my own classroom, so I am using the CI techniques in the correct manner. (Not playing the comparison game, though! Everyone loses when you play the comparison game.) However, I can take little ideas like Grant’s alphabet thing or Annabelle’s storycubes to make what I do even better and easier.

So if you have a chance to make it to iFLT, do yourself a favor and watch a language lab or five. There really is no substitute for being able to observe a master teacher in action, especially if you teach out in the boonies like me. You won’t regret it!

iFLT 2017: Day 4

On day 4, I watched yet another language lab session and finished with probably the most useful, thought-provoking presentation of the week. It was called In Good Times and Bad: Staying in the TL 95%+ by Paul Kirschling. Not only was Paul comical, he really knows his stuff.

Teacher confession time: I do not stay in the TL 95% of the time. Or 90% of the time. I am really okay with about 80% of the time as a target (especially since, as Sara-Elizabeth notes here, that the 90% statement from ACTFL is really an arbitrary number made up that sounded pretty good to a bunch of teachers). My problem is… I like to tell personal stories. No problem, right? But then I run into something I can’t describe in Spanish. Or it’s a long story, because I’m me, and I ramble. So I switch to English. And then Kid 1 wants to tell a story, and I let them, because I care and I’m interested, but they have to use English to tell me all the details. And then Kid 2 wants to tell a story. And so on.

And then we technically did PQA. Just… all in English and now we’re 15 minutes into a 45 minute class and there was no language acquisition. Epic teacher fail.

So I decided to go to this session because the thing is, I am totally capable of staying in the TL 95% of the time or more, and the slow realization had dawned on me throughout the week. (But I’m going to say more about that in my wrap-up post so, no more here.) Here is what Paul had to say before he gave us squazillions of examples of how to stay in the TL:

  • Why do we need to stay in the TL? Because we have limited time with our students and there are no shortcuts.
  • What keeps us from using it? Classroom management issues, verbose verbiage, and most commonly YOU THE TEACHER (I bolded this with lots of exclamation points because I am the problem in my classroom.)
  • Two big ideas: layer in the language, and teach the phrases you need to be able to teach (directions, common phrases like What are you doing? / Do you need help? / Eyes on me / Is it true or false / etc)



This was the meat and potatoes of his session. It was the most obvious and also most enlightening sentence of the entire week for me. He said, kid has to go to the bathroom? Use it for input. Kid tries to speak English? Time for input. A visitor interrupts class? More input. I suppose if you are a control freak (I used to be one, but I am in recovery) then it will be very hard to let go of your lesson plan, but if you treat every moment as an opportunity to teach language, then it doesn’t really matter what kind of random stuff happens in class… it’s all a rich gold mine for teaching language, especially conversational language (lots of “should” and “what if” type language.) He also opened my eyes to taking rote input that I spent a lot of time teaching at the beginning of Spanish 1 and… not doing that anymore. Stuff like greetings, saying goodbye, basic courtesies… you know, things you teach the first two weeks of school in a big flurry and the kids immediately forget except for their favorite? Yeah, I’m not going to do that this year. Instead of doing that, just greet them in the same way for a few days until they either get it or get super tired of it, then mix it up. For example:

  • Good morning.
  • Good morning, class.
  • Good morning, my students.
  • Good morning, my dear students.
  • Good morning, my dear students who are always on time.

As you can see, you just keep layering on more and more new language – that’s how we acquire, right? By taking things we have already acquired and just putting a liiiiittle bit more on it.  As the year progresses, mix it up.

  • Good morning, Tigers. [our mascot]
  • Hello, young students and old students.
  • Good day, citizens.
  • Good afternoon, students wearing green shirts and black shorts.

One I came up with myself was a mishmash of an idea from La Maestra Loca, who names her classes, and this one. Name each class after a country, then greet them by their demonym – Hola peruanos, hola argentinos, hola candienses, etc.

Then he threw in some GREAT ideas for languages like Spanish. Want to teach your level ones some subjunctive?

  • I am thrilled you came today.
  • I am disappointed you are late.
  • It’s my pleasure to teach you today.
  • I’m so happy it’s Monday.

Emotions + subjunctive is a super common construction in Spanish, but I don’t normally introduce any of that until Spanish 3. The last one could even introduce ‘sea’ which is very important, being a form of ‘is’ and also being irregular. The modifier ‘tan’ for ‘so’ is also super handy. See? So much rich language in ONE simple sentence. And obviously you would write it on the board, explain the first day you say it, and all that good stuff. You can repeat this process with ways to ask how are you or say goodbye or any other typical routine courtesies.

Then Paul moved on to modeling various student interactions when a student has a routine request, like going to the bathroom, asking to charge a device, asking for a pencil, whatever. Going to the bathroom might include questions like:

  • Where are you going?
  • Is it near or is it far?
  • Is it dangerous to go?
  • What do you need to go?
  • Do you need your phone/a pass/money/your computer/etc?
  • How do you get there?
  • Class, should I let them go?
  • [after the student leaves] Do you think they’re really going to the bathroom? Will they text? Will they play games on their phone? Will they talk to Fiona in the bathroom? Will they be back in 5 minutes?

Obviously, you can’t do this every time and not all the questions every time, but it could be fun, especially if you have frequent fliers for certain things. Or hey, even have a kid do a set-up where they will specifically ask you for something (even though they don’t actually need that thing), because, why not?

This session opened my eyes to the possibility of easy input that is present in every single class if I would just look for it, and especially lots of conversational input that doesn’t necessarily sound stilted or forced (which can be a problem once you get into the higher levels and are trying to work in ways to use conditional or future tenses and such). Since these are tasks that are repeated frequently, you will get your repetition a few reps over a period of time rather than 20+ reps in one day like we might do with a specific CI activity, but students will pick that stuff up. And now I can save myself time at the beginning of Spanish 1 to get to more interesting things than practicing saying hola and buenos días.

iFLT 2017: pause for teaching

Originally, I wasn’t going to blog tonight because I am dead tired. My brain is so full of thoughts and ideas and just… kaboom, ya know? I think everyone is feeling the same way. But I have been talking to many people here and something that has really kind of been a recurring theme is that many of the people who are on the beginner track (and some intermediates) feel like… okay, we got the basic idea of this whole “comprehensible input” thing, we have buy-in, we’ve seen it as students, we’ve been shown what the end product looks like… now what? A lot of them feel as if they are missing a huge middle step, which, technically they are: lots of practice. But I know I didn’t feel like I REALLY got how to do CI until I went to a 3 day TPRS workshop where we spent those entire days practicing circling with a single sentence, then moving up to a paragraph, and then moving on to storyasking small parts of a story as a group, then individually, all under the guidance of a well-trained TPRS teacher. We never did have time to storyask a whole story (there were only 7 of us in that conference but storyasking 7 stories would be a brainsplosion, I think) but we did receive the updated version of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk. Ironically, after a year of teaching TPRS, I didn’t really need the book anymore because I got the pattern down, but the first few chapters are very good about literally scripting every. single. question. you might want to ask as you attempt to ask a story (not even including any of the other potential comprehensible input pieces that you might choose to do along with said story!)

Anyway, after today’s sessions, I was standing near the books with one of my new conference friends and she was looking at them, and I held up Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro and said that I loved teaching it, and she said, “My kids can’t read.” I was very confused, and she clarified that her students have approximately no literacy skills in Spanish though and she has no idea where to start. I told her that for the first chapter, you only need to teach quiere, tiene, perro, stuff I tend to teach within the first week. How? And I launched into a random demo of my PQA lesson where I ask students about their pets in preparation for reading Brandon Brown. To an experienced CI teacher, this is the simplest of simple language, but I realized today that for a newbie, this is terrifying stuff!

And so for my friend Taylor, and any other person who is still not entirely sure what PQA looks or sounds like, here is a pretend script of what it might look like in my class. I found that the best way to start, honestly, was to write out everything I was going to say for my story or PQA. Every sentence, every question. Was it clunky? Oh yeah. Did I have flow? No way. Did I get lost? All the time. But you have to be bad at something first to eventually get better, right?

So without further ado, here is a link to my google doc of a sample script (in English, so any language teacher can see what it would look like) of what PQA about pets might look like.  I hope it helps break down what the language looks like for anyone who got lost along the way.