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.

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.