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.

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.

Looking to the future

Hello, readers! I hope you are having a wonderful summer. For me, I’m down to the last week of vacation and decided I should probably catch up on some blogs. With the exception of my one tutoring session per week, I have managed to completely walk away from being a Spanish teacher and concentrate on being anything-but-a-teacher. I love my job, but thinking of Spanish education 24/7 gets pretty exhausting after 190 teacher days. I bought a house and discovered that I really enjoy gardening, even though I hate being hot, sweaty, dirty, or constantly attacked by bugs. Go figure.

I suppose this is when I should make some goals for this year or something, but instead, I am looking even farther to the future. The inspiration for this post came from something that Sara-Elizabeth recently shared on Musicuentos, the invention of the Babel Fish. She got a surprising amount of pushback on Twitter, because although she made me think about the topic (which is the point of blogs, right?)  I didn’t feel like she was attacking our profession. I have some disagreements, but I also think that she made an important point.

One thing that Sara-Elizabeth argues for is that Google Translate has gotten a lot better over the years. And it has. (I was in high school when the first internet translators appeared and I could only use them to get the gist of a passage.) However, I would argue that a practiced speaker of a language can still tell that it’s not normal speech almost immediately. For Spanish purposes, it will use the wrong past tense. It makes all ‘you’ into ‘usted’ even if the situation wouldn’t call for it. ‘Su’ is translated as ‘he’, even if the possessor is female. Every year, I have at least one student who writes ‘me gusta el partido’. A partido is a political party, not a fun-times party: that’s a fiesta. (And further baffling because seriously, who doesn’t know the word fiesta? I know they know it!!) In other words, translators are great for getting a basic message across… usually. I still wouldn’t trust one with say, my medical advice from a doctor. They’re still pretty terrible with slang, and they just can’t convey the same feeling, emotion, and flavor that a text does in its original language.

The other counterpoint I’d make is that, although I do believe teaching as we know it is going to disappear, I’m not overly concerned for language teaching disappearing altogether in my lifetime. It’s true that we finally have the first reasonably usable virtual reality headsets. (My friend has a VIVE and using it is really cool, but the user looks like a total dork.) My new phone has 70x more storage than my first computer from 1995. However, I am pretty sure I was promised a hoverboard and robotic cleaning servants by now. The so-called hoverboards that we have just catch fire and don’t even hover, and as for robotic cleaning servants, well…

So what I’m saying is… if we’re promised the technology by 2030, we’ll see some moderately usable form of it in 2050. I don’t know about you, but I plan to be retiring around then. The rate at which new technologies are created, tested, and applied can’t continue at a breakneck pace forever. On top of that, the biggest barrier is affordability.

Here’s the part where I agree 100% with Sara-Elizabeth: teaching as we know it is on its way out. I think traditional teaching methods where students are physically grouped into a building based on location are going to stick around much longer in urban areas, but in rural, less populated areas that are only shrinking… how much longer is it economically sustainable? When I started teaching at my school in 2010, I had a little over 90 students total. This year, I am currently sitting at 46. Our graduating class size, in just the last decade, has shrunk from about 30 to about 22. This year’s sophomore class only has 19 – assuming nobody moved over the summer. So it’s not that I’m scaring students off (in reality, I have far better retention rates than the Spanish teachers before me)… there’s just fewer kids to teach.

And that’s just the students. What about staff? I think that’s really the part that is going to be difficult. I work with a concentrated group of amazing veteran teachers. But in exchange for experience, I would say at least 1/3 of our staff is at or near retirement age, and I am honestly not sure what is going to happen if they all decide to leave at once. Who will replace them? Will we be able to get and keep quality teachers? What about the teachers who coach multiple activities? Our non-teaching staff is even more critical. I can’t imagine my school running without our three fantastic office ladies. We are in severe need of bus drivers and substitute teachers. It’s the typical small town scenario: everyone is aging out. Many of the kids are leaving and not coming back. It’s hard to face, but that’s the reality of the situation.

So, I worry. We can’t really consolidate our school anymore – we already encompass about 100 square miles. Some of our students live upwards of 20 miles away from our main building. I am pretty sure it’s just a matter of time before schools like mine disappear and are turned into online-only education. I am against that for kids for a variety of reasons, but if that happens, will there be a place for me? What would I do if I couldn’t teach Spanish there any longer? I have plenty of talents but… I like what I do now. I like my students. I like my coworkers. I don’t want that to change. But, and I think this is the whole point Sara-Elizabeth was trying to make, is that we need to be prepared when – not if – it does.

An experimental curriculum

In my school, I’m a department of one. I teach Spanish 1-3, then AP Spanish. We have only 3 native speakers of Spanish in my district, and they attend elementary school in our other building. So many of my students don’t know anything besides hola, amigo, and taco before walking into my room in 9th grade. I am very, very happy to be a high school teacher (elementary and middle school require a skill set that I’m not sure I have) but sometimes I wonder, if I designed a middle school 9 week exploratory Spanish class, what would it look like?

And you know, I would like to see if I could do it with minimal creation of activities on my part. I mean, there are so many awesome ideas and programs out there, and 9 weeks really isn’t a lot of time to cover material. I can help out other teachers by paying for their services, and save myself a ton of time in the process.

Here is my experiment: armed with only La Persona Especial, Señor Wooly, and a few cultural units from The Comprehensible Classroom… I bet I could get students proficient enough in the really big main verbs (es/está/tiene/quiere/va/puede/le gusta) in that time. But I don’t have a classroom to test out my theory. So if any of you suddenly find yourself with an exploratory Spanish class… feel free to use this idea and tell me how it goes!

The far-reaching effects of depression

Hello, dear readers! Things are slowing down here at school but picking up in my personal life. As we enter the last month of the school year, I have some time to reflect on how things went this year and use those reflections to guide my smattering of lesson plans. However, when I’m trying to plan, I find that I have an elephant in the room. Well, more of a donkey, really. A grumpy, mopey donkey named Eeyore.

Without going into too many specifics, I am someone who has suffered from various levels of depression and anxiety throughout my life. Over the years, I’ve come up with various strategies to help me cope. But this past fall, my strategies were no longer working. I was a frazzled, grouchy mess. I cried nearly every day over things that I knew were absolutely ridiculous – and a whole bunch of other things that weren’t ridiculous, but was an overreaction to the situation. And it also affected my teaching. Yeah, I was that teacher. The one who is on auto-pilot, who was in survival mode, putting together very mediocre lessons just to get through the day. I don’t feel any guilt – it’s what I needed to do to get through.

In December, I finally went to the doctor and got back on track. I’m feeling like my old self again – better, really – but now that I can look back and peer into the dark hole that was the fall semester… I am finding myself in a bit of trouble. I have three related problems: number one, there were some units that really should’ve been overhauled or found themselves in the chuck it bucket. (I also still feel like I try to teach too much vocabulary at once.) Number two, I did a horrendous job of getting my repetitions in, so my students have a huge gap in their vocabularies. Number three, I was all over the place in terms of what I asked students to do rather than using best practices so the stuff they did pick up is not quite the quality I would like.

Let’s not even talk about AP Spanish. AP Spanish’s class structure is getting a complete renovation next year. They did everything I asked;  the lack of awesome is all on me.

So I guess the question is… uh, now what? I can do a little damage control in the remaining days, but that doesn’t make up for weeks of survival teaching. It’s already frustrating enough to limit vocabulary. I just want my students to know all the Spanishes already! So now I have to control it even more until I can somehow squeeze our lost words back into the curriculum. I have this terrible habit where it is very input/story based in first semester and not so much the second. Guess when they make the most gains in proficiency. I’ve got myself trapped in a double-whammy of having better plans in the fall, though I taught them in a not-so-awesome manner, and having better teaching in the spring with more mediocre planning.

I’m not going to let it get me down. These ups and downs are part of the normal teaching flow. I’ll figure it out next year. It’s just something for me to think about.