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.

La persona especial

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

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

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



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

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

accidental IPA

I will be the first to tell you that I don’t really use IPAs (aka integrated performance assessments). I know, I know, they’re a great form of assessment but they require a level of strategy and pre-planning that is just not my strong suit. Except this year, I realized that I think one of my assessments is accidentally an IPA. It comes at the end of my Spanish 1 food unit, which has morphed over the years from a matching test with words and pictures to writing about favorite foods to now, preparing for a party and presenting it to the class. (If I had time, we’d also potentially pick our favorite party and then have it in class, but we had snow days this year so that didn’t work out.)

I originally got the idea to have a party plan assessment from Chris Pearce’s amazing teaching comic, Teachable Moments. (Side note: if you don’t regularly read Chris’s comic, you should.) One of the things that he did with his class is a Killing Mr. Griffin party project, and I thought it sounded super cool so I wanted to recreate a similar thing with my classes. I also wanted to be able to recycle my target vocabulary, and through some teaching wizardry, my party project accidental IPA was born.

The presentational mode

My students worked in groups to create a party theme with invitations, snacks, decorations, and activities. They were given 2 days in class to do this. On the 3rd day, they presented.

The presentational mode instructions and rubric

The interpretive mode

When the students were presenting, I didn’t want the rest of the class to be sitting around doing nothing. (In my experience, this means I have to ask every group to restate something at least once because I was busy telling the other members of the class to be quiet.) So I created an interpretive listening organizer with some very basic questions for them to fill out as the other groups presented. This kept them on task so I could focus on the presenters.

The interpretive graphic organizer (I have two pages since I have a different number of groups in each class)

The interpersonal mode

Finally, when the groups were presenting, I also warned them that they would be asked a question or two about their party. Since they’re novices, I stuck to pretty familiar topics that rehashed what they told me about their party – stuff like ‘So, was your group bringing chips or pizza? What kind of pizza?’ or ‘Wait, I forgot, is the party on Wednesday or Friday?’ Of course, I can push the limits by asking my more advanced students more difficult questions or follow-up questions, or lob an easy yes/no question at my strugglers.

I graded the overall project on two metrics: 5 points for their written product and for their interpretive paper. The major focus was on their speaking ability as assessed through the interpersonal and presentational mode, worth 15 points. Overall, the students did wonderfully and I think the project is finally how I like it.

Simple successes

Today marked day #13 of our calendar year. However, we’ve only really had about 7 days of normal bell schedule between assemblies, pep rallies, and NWEA testing already. In any case, I wanted to share some awesome things that are happening in my classes right now, with a possibly more detailed post to follow when it’s not 9 pm and I don’t already have a zillion other things to get done by tomorrow.

Cool thing #1:

My freshmen are totally rocking the story-asking-doing. They don’t understand how awesome it is that they’re on day 13 of Spanish learning and they can already read in paragraphs. Short, simple paragraphs, but paragraphs. For my students who struggle so mightily to read in their other classes, the smile on their face when I point out that they can do this!!! is the reason I teach. To a teacher, nothing says ‘you’re doing something right’ like that lightbulb going on when the students can see their own progress in just a few short weeks.

And in a super awesome bonus moment, my 4th period blew me away today. We finished our simple story about Fred wanting chocolate but not having chocolate, and his meeting a girl who also didn’t have any chocolate. She says bye and Fred is sad. A few of my students shouted ‘That’s ridiculous! Why don’t they just go buy some chocolate, I mean, they’re at the store already.’ My teacher heart about exploded. What’s that, children? You want to rewrite the ending to the story? Of course we can! So, with a little chaotic shouting, we worked on the beginning of a new ending that we’ll probably wrap up tomorrow.

Day 13. Kids shouting sentences at me. Sentences that make sense. In Spanish. (They were even accidentally following the story pattern of set up/try to solve problem, fail/solve problem.) If that doesn’t cement that comprehensible input is the strategy for me, then I don’t know what would. My students amaze me every single day.

Cool thing #2

I started using preferred activity time this year. I used Class Dojo last year to keep track of points but I wasn’t very intentional with it, and I think that hurt its effectiveness. This year, I’m using Class Dojo to track participation and my phone to track minutes in Spanish and converting that to PAT (each minute in Spanish = 10 seconds of time, each class point = 1 second of time). I’ve only had one class choose to use their time (the whole 6 minutes of it, haha) so we’ll see how it goes. I only run the clock when we’re doing an actual story telling or reading, not during non-story related activities such as the bellringer, surveys, etc.

Cool thing #3

BLOGGING! For the past few years, I’ve done dialogue journals with my Spanish 3s and 4s. A dialogue journal is basically where the students journal to me in response to a prompt, and then I would respond back in Spanish. I love this activity because for the older students who DO have the skills for sensical output, this is an easy, low-stress way to get weekly writing practice in. The problem was, even with only 25 students, it took forever each week to read each person’s post and write back a short comment in Spanish.

This year, I switched to blogging. I’m using Kidblog for now. They still have to respond to a prompt, and this year I am trying to be more intentional in relating the prompt to what we’re studying in class to get more reps of our focused vocabulary. But instead of me responding to them, each student has to respond to one other in the class. This gives them more writing practice (and specifically, it helps them to express agreement/disagreement and justification) and it frees up some of my time. These students are also most likely going to college, and the discussion post+response format is everywhere now, so the skills of how to properly write a discussion post and thoughtful responses will serve them well in the future.

I have to say, I forgot what good writers my students are. And specifically, seeing the errors that my Spanish 3 students are making, and how by the start of AP Spanish, they have corrected themselves.

Of course, this post became longer than intended and I didn’t even give much detail, but I am so happy that these things are happening in my classroom. I am guiding them, but they’re doing these amazing things on their own. How is your school year going? Post about your own successes! I love reading them!

Música miércoles/baile viernes

In my Spanish 1 and 2 classes, I always start the day with a bellringer that I call my ‘principio’. I like to use bellringers for a variety of reasons: we only have 2 minute passing periods, so students don’t really have time to get a drink or use the bathroom. It helps students get started right away with something to do in Spanish. It gives me time to wrangle the absentee slips, attendance, and all that other day-to-day stuff we have to manage before we can get to the teaching parts of our days. They have evolved over the years – last year, they mostly took the form of a few PQA questions to get our day started. They were great for that purpose, but doing them 5 days a week was kinda blah.

Enter Allison Wienhold, who uses música miércoles and baile viernes in her classroom. I won’t give you the full explanation here, as she’s already done a wonderful job. (And if you don’t read her blog already, you should.) I incorporated these into my principios this week, and here’s how things went:

Spanish 1 música: Tengo Tu Love by Sie7e. Spanish 2 música: Celebra la Vida by Emir Sensini. Spanish 3 música (even though they don’t do a principio, I wanted to do a song that day for funsies): Pura Vida by Don Omar. AP Spanish, ironically, ended up studying some precolombian music as we prepped for our unit on precolombian cultures, so it was a very musical day in my classroom.

I picked Tengo Tu Love for my Spanish 1s since it’s the first week and Tengo Tu Love has a lot of references to brand names in English, and the chorus is Spanglish. As I am remembering very quickly, it is also REALLY important to have students to have a task to complete while listening to the song. If you just say ‘listen to the song’… they will not. But if they have a task to do, then they have to listen to the song in order to accurately complete the task. So I had them count how many times they heard the word ‘amor’. Amor is a high frequency noun, especially in songs, so it was worth the repetitions. I think the students enjoyed the song (the freshmen are still giving me a honeymoon period so it’s hard to read their mood) and I am really digging Tengo Tu Love and Sie7e’s songs in general – I can’t believe this is the first year I’ve used it!

I chose Celebra la Vida by Emir Sensini because he is the Justo Lamas Group‘s new singer, and we will be attending one of his concerts in October. Last year, I found out about the concert about 3 weeks before the show and tried to cram 5 or 6 songs into 2 week’s worth of lessons. Bad idea – kids like music, but they don’t want to do it every single day in the exact same way. (Mediocre teaching on my part.) This year, I wanted to get an earlier start so that they can enjoy the concert more. The song starts off a little slow but then picks up – the chorus is really catchy. I had students decode the chorus and we talked a little bit about what it means to celebrate life. I then used the song as a lead-in to a couple of days learning about quinceañeras. (I used Martina Bex’s awesome plans/level 2 reading for this – she includes an activity for the students to do while completing the reading which I chose not to have my students do… bad idea. That’s when I remembered that they ALWAYS need to have a task, as mentioned above. It was a rough day.)

For the Spanish 3s, we did Pura Vida because I like the song and the chorus is very easy to understand. I copied the lyrics and deleted words/phrases that were familiar to my students (baila, todo el momento, la vida, etc.) and the entire chorus. Then we filled them back in as we listened. I think it’s important when doing these kinds of activities to only delete words students have already acquired – unless they’re native speakers, trying to get their ears to hear the correct sounds if they don’t already know the word only ends in frustration. I know this because it happens to me, and I’ve been listening to native speaker Spanish for over a decade.

Baile viernes went… okay. I did The Ketchup Song as advised by Allison. My classes were pretty split. I normally will only do this for Spanish 1 and 2, but I offered it up to my 3s as well. (I don’t want my students to feel like they got into Spanish 3 and then there’s no fun anymore, especially since Spanish 3 is now ‘Pre-AP’ in my brain.) So I had 2 classes where I had about half participation, 2 where I had no participation, and 2 where I had half-hearted participation from 1 or 2 students. The ones that participated were fun and we had a good time. The others, well, it’s kinda weird dancing by yourself in front of a group of 10 kids. Peer pressure is a huge thing – if one kid could get their friend to do it, then I’d get a whole bunch. I also had to have a quick conversation on gender.. shaming? I don’t know what to call it. But I think I’m going to have to pull some of my male students aside and have a serious talk on why it’s offensive to use ‘does [X activity] like a girl’ as an insult.

In the end, I will keep doing música miércoles (and if I’m awesome, be able to tie it to my lesson for the day) and baile viernes. I hope that in time, I can get some more kids to participate in the dancing. Not only is dancing fun, but it’s good for both body and brain.

Using novels in the classroom

As I wind down my 5th year of teaching, I am entering my 3rd year of teaching novels. I originally wrote a grant to get enough money to purchase 1 class set of books, 1 for each level that I teach. I hadn’t yet heard of TPRS Publishing, so I ended up getting all of mine from Blaine Ray. Over the years, I have changed the way I teach novels and how I use them in the classroom.

Year one

Let’s be clear here: I had NO idea what I was doing. Even though I received CI training during my undergrad, my little novice teacher brain just wasn’t ready for it. So my first two years of teaching, I was strict by-the-book with a few extras thrown in. Any CI was purely incidental. But I knew reading novels was good, so I asked for the money and received it thanks to the wonderful people in my school’s foundation. We read Pobre Ana when I was in high school, so I figured that was a good place to start. I ordered my texts and figured I would start reading them in 4th quarter because then the students would have learned all the things they need to know!

So technically the first year was a success because we made it through the books. In many ways, it was not a success.

-I didn’t differentiate techniques for different levels because I didn’t really have any idea how to structure questioning (in English or Spanish – remember, I’d been trained on how to teach vocabulary, grammar, and culture separately, not all three at once!)

-I tested the fun right out of the kids. Pre-test, post-test, vocab and comprehension quizzes every other day.

-I tested over WAY, WAY, WAY too much vocabulary. My thought was, ‘if we haven’t used it before, it must appear on the vocab sheet’.

-Everyone had the same final product (a vocabulary/comprehension behemoth test) regardless of proficiency level or interest.

-I had every class read more or less at the same time, and because we weren’t very good readers, I had to read the chapter aloud. For 7 periods of the day. I didn’t want to use just a recording because I wanted to be able to stop and ask questions when necessary. This was a terrible choice.

-I did the novels all at once. Quite frankly, 7 periods of doing nothing but novels for 2 weeks at the end of the year was nothing short of torture for both me and the kids.

-I had the teacher’s guides, but hadn’t had TPRS training so I had no idea what a parallel story was, why some of the questions asked about things that clearly were not mentioned in the story, and so on, so I didn’t utilize them very effectively.

Year two

Last year, I taught novels again, but I made some adjustments. Last year went much better, but there were still some problems to resolve.

-My students were better prepared to read, but we still struggled a lot, especially in the classes that were reading in past tense.

-I had found out about TPRS Publishing and realized that the Blaine Ray stories are pretty rote (there is a person/they go to a Spanish speaking country/something related to the title happens/they go home and are a better person). I think part of the problem was lack of interest, but it was too late to order new titles. I feel that the other publishers do a better job of writing more creative stories, especially for novices.

-I did order teacher sample packs of various books to browse over the summer and to use as potential free reading in my classroom.

-I changed my study guide. I cut the vocabulary down to a few key terms per chapter, and also refocused the questions in it to just be about the story. I asked personal questions during class.

-I allowed my upper level classes to choose to read on their own or as a group.

-I still was very stupid and had ALL my students read ALL at the same time ALL at the end of the year. Again, it was a terrible idea and I regretted it as soon as I realized I had planned my unit that way, but I was out of time.

-My biggest and best change was adding choice to their final projects. I ended up getting some really amazing stuff, including a trivia game about the book, many cartoons using Powtoon or Moovly, a fantastic BitStrip, and even a student who loves computers who coded his own multiple-choice quiz in BASIC.

Year three

So this year, I have 2 years of using novels under my belt. I also added free reading to my Spanish 3 and 4 classes this year, as well as primarily using storytelling in levels 1 and 2. This means this year’s students are way more prepared to read than any students I have had, and it shows. I’ll have a separate post on my FVR program (it’s extraordinarily simple) but for this one, suffice to say: it has been working for me.

This year, I am also working on a grant to add more novels to my classroom. I plan to add Brandon Brown quiere un perro to my Spanish 1s, La tumba for Spanish 2, Spanish 3 is when students start FVR and I’d rather have them have maximum time for choice reading, and in AP Spanish I intend to add La guerra sucia as part of a unit on the Dirty War. I also asked for money to add to my FVR library, although I think after this year I’ll be set up enough to use my regular discretionary funds to maintain it.

In any case, I am just now starting my novels for the year, and here’s the changes I’ve made.

-I plan to read aloud with my two classes that have the most difficulty with reading (mostly due to learning disabilities), but the other classes get to pick. The best part is, I can be confident that the students who read alone have the ability because we have been practicing all year long.

-No more study guides except as an optional guide to help them for their final project. In the classes where read together, we stop and talk every paragraph or so (in English or Spanish, depending on the purpose of my questioning) so everyone understands. For those who read alone, I have them fill out my FVR log. The point is for them to get the main idea of the story, not every single word.

-No more vocab. I don’t need to, because we have practiced es/está/tiene/quiere/puede/etc. so much during the rest of the year that they are much better equipped to use context clues and identify cognates as they read. I can help them with the occasional ‘out of bounds’ word or phrase. I also pre-teach new vocabulary I want them to acquire (not just comprehend momentarily for the sake of the story).

-The best change is that each class is reading throughout the 4th quarter, and each level reads on a different day. This keeps the reading from becoming tedious (for them and me) and also helps me be more flexible in my planning, since so many of my students are gone for school activities in the spring. It also leaves plenty of time for them to complete their final project, rather than having to rush it because we’ve only got 1 day of school left.

In the future

If my grant is approved, that leaves me with 2 class novels per year in each level besides Spanish 3, plus FVR in Spanish 3 and AP Spanish. I think that’s a pretty healthy number. I have samples of all of the novels from Blaine Ray, TPRS Publishing, and Mira Canion, but there are always more series starting to crop up on Amazon and other places. Even if you don’t use the other parts of TPRS, I think that attending a workshop is beneficial to learning to teach a novel because in my workshop, we explicitly discussed it, and even if yours doesn’t, learning how to question through a book makes it so much easier to teach. Maybe someday, I’ll even do literature circles… but I only get 185 contact days with the students, so I have to pick and choose.

Do you have any other novel recommendations? I also hope this post provides some guidance to newer teachers who are just starting to teach novels for the first time. Like anything else, it’s a bit of a mess the first time around but it gets easier from there!

Reflections on storytelling (part 2)

On Tuesday, I posted the first half of my reflections on using storytelling in the classroom. I documented my success, but there are still some things about storytelling that give me pause.

Stuff to work on!

1) I learned very quickly that my original intent of two stories per week at the Spanish 1 and 2 levels was not going to work for my kiddos. Even if the two stories were very similar, it was just story overload for them. This also upset my mode balance – I was doing all interpretive, all the time, and their output skills suffered. After Christmas, I cut back to one story per week. If I do a story on two days, then I do different activities with the same story for more reps.

2) Another big issue with story overload is that I was doing the same activities every single time. After a well-meaning whine from a student, I decided to do something about it rather than getting mad. After all, my students are people-in-progress and what my student was REALLY trying to say was ‘Miss Johnson, we do the same things all the time and I would like to learn in a different way.’ So in addition to cutting down the number of stories we did, I remembered to add in different ways of getting reps besides tell story – ask questions – choral response – timed write. They really enjoy drawing, and it gives them confidence when I ask them to do a retell in Spanish. Sometimes we act the stories out. Sometimes we work in pairs, sometimes in larger groups. However, it’s important to also mix up the new activities as well, or I end up with the same problem all over again!

3) Maybe this is a personal teaching failure, but I really do not like doing verbal stories. I have a hard time keeping a grip on not losing the story while handling classroom management at the same time. I figure it’s okay to do mostly written stories (or if I do a verbal story, the kids HAVE to have something to do like draw it) since I use videos, music, and other sources of audio input. And I almost always read the story to the students anyhow for that dual channel learning.

4) Sheltering vocabulary is hard. Really hard. In my first post, I implored to you not underestimate your students. When it comes to sheltering vocabulary, you also cannot overestimate your students. They can only learn so much at one time. But I struggle with how much they don’t know yet – I want them to learn so much stuff so they can love Spanish the way I do! If I only do one story a week, that means I’m really only focusing on 3-5 new structures per week. I have to fight the tendency to give them 20 new words per story. One way I combat this is by introducing an extra ‘flavor’ phrase into a story (this week in Spanish 1 it was ‘se ríe’ and in Spanish 2, it was ‘estaba preocupado’) and recycle that through a few stories. So rather than hitting an intense practice of it for one week, it just kinda keeps showing up over and over and eventually will get acquired. I hope.

5) I need to use ClassDojo more consistently, and next year, with my Spanish 2s. I made the mistake, of course, of believing that my sophomores had matured enough to not need some sort of accountability system to participate. One of my classes is. The other class is not. My Spanish 1s absolutely need it to stay on track, and they enjoy trying to beat their participation record from the week before. Because I am not above bribery, if we hit our goal for 3 weeks in a row, then the 4th week we get a free day. I figure the good work I get out of them on the 3 story days makes up for it, rather than mediocre-to-terrible work for 4.

6) I need to do timed writes more consistently. I didn’t end up using them for an assessment grade (just their daily participation points) but either way, my students really need regular practice to keep up their writing skills. It’s also hard to judge when it’s appropriate to start going from writing-for-practice to writing-with-accuracy. I’m still working on figuring out that line.

7) My students totally rock the yo, tú, and especially él/ella forms. Nosotros and ustedes/ellos… eeeeeh. They can recognize them, but I’ve done a pretty awful job of getting reps in with those two particular forms. That’s a personal problem, though, that I can easily fix.

Final thoughts

Overall, I am digging the storytelling technique and I am glad I switched. My students are able to handle almost anything I put in front of them. I am always amazed that I can hand all but my novice-mids a page-length story and they are able to read it with ease. It’s also making the transition to more authentic resources much easier. Since we know so many of the little words and are much better at using our context clues to understand passages, my older students are now tackling things like reading TPRS novels without hesitation or complaint. It’s a really great position to be in. There are still some tweaks to be made, but I would encourage anyone who is wondering if they should take the plunge to do it. (At this point, I would probably wait until next year because student resistence to change can be very unpleasant to manage.) I am very excited to see what my program looks like in 2 years when my students have had 4 years of storytelling-transitioning-to-full-authres under their belts.

Reflections on storytelling (part 1)

Here at East Butler, we’re wrapping up the third quarter and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the storytelling techniques that I’ve picked up and used over the last year. I started using TPRS-like elements this time last year, but this school year was the first that I made the complete switch to using comprehensible input strategies as my main focus. As a whole, I think using storytelling has been a major success in my classroom, but there are still some things that could use some work.

The original post ended up being a behemoth, so I will split this into two parts: successes and stuff to work on.


1) My students have acquired way, way, way more at this time of year than my previous students. The difference isn’t so noticible in Spanish 1, but my 2s and 3s are clearly ahead of the game. A huge amount of this has to do with the amount of input students are receiving. I plan to do a much more in-depth post on this in the near future but basically, I feel that my first few rounds of students had lower abilities because they spent more time doing activities to try to artificially push along their acquisition, rather than doing activities to increase input – which will increase acquisition naturally. That’s how I ended up with students who could reproduce vocabulary flawlessly on a discrete word translation quiz, or correctly conjugate the forms of tener in present perfect… but couldn’t actually read or write them in context.

2) Speaking of acquisition, certain forms that used to be my bane are now easy. Instead of explaining ‘le’ (and how indirect objects work) and ‘dice’ (and how e-i conjugations work), I just teach them ‘le dice  = h/she says to him/her’. Done. Acquired. Same thing with reflexives. Since I no longer explain how conjugations work before the students see and hear them a million times, I also no longer get weird things like ‘yo tieno’ or ‘él poda.’ The kids just know it. They also are much faster at answering questions because they have acquired question words much, much earlier.

3) Instead of wasting my students’ time on taking notes (which again, loses valuable input time) I can do grammar pop-ups to speed acquisition. When students are ready, then they will ask more in-depth questions. Today I had a Spanish 2 student ask me why my story said ‘buena comida’ and not ‘comida buena’. Which is awesome because it shows that he acquired that adjectives have to match, and generally go behind the thing they’re describing. I’m actually going to do a bit of conjugation practice on Friday with my Spanish 1s because we’re far enough into the year that even my average processors are asking me how the whole matching pronoun-verb thing works (not in that wording, of course).

4) I don’t have to follow ‘the script’. You know, the one that says in Spanish 1 you teach present tense (and if you’re really fancy, one of the past tenses). Spanish 2 is all the other main tenses. Spanish 3 is subjunctive. Spanish 4 is review of everything. I personally prefer to stay mostly in present tense for Spanish 1, and Spanish 2 focuses on the past tenses for the first semester. But right now we’re hitting present perfect because our stories call for it, and I even threw in past subjunctive the other day. So for those who are hesitating, I implore you: do not underestimate your students. If your students know that  ‘toma la medicina = he takes the medicine’ and ‘tomó la medicina = he took the medicine’, they can understand ‘tomara la medicina’ with no trouble.

5) For the most part, my students are far more willing to participate. I still get the occasional ‘I don’t want to do this’ or ‘Do we really have to tell another story?’ but it’s few and far between. Since I’m a department of one, I can see the differences between class levels. I recently asked this year’s Spanish 3 do a very simple task (read an authentic blog post with lots of infographics and summarize what they read in English). Last year, the students had an outright meltdown when I asked them to do it. This year, they said ‘okay’ and got to work. It was no big deal, because they’ve spent a goodly portion of their Spanish experience reading lengthier Spanish passages.

6) Storytelling is highly customizable. I mean, that’s part of the whole appeal to students! Although I do have the Blaine Ray book, I stopped using it after the first month. The Look, I Can Talk curriculum is based entirely on input of high-frequency verbs and not much on thematic units. Since I still much prefer to have units to work within (and especially as I create my AP Spanish course, which is required to hit on certain themes), I don’t find it as useful as other teachers might. However, it provides a good framework for the beginning TPRS teacher and is even more invaluable for beginning-teaching teachers because it gives sentence-by-sentence directions on how to do everything. But once I figured out how to pattern a story, it became easy to create one that hits the vocabulary and grammatical concepts I want to cover at a specific point in my program. It is also very easy to differentiate for different levels of learners through different difficulties of readings or verbal questions.

Stay tuned for part 2 (stuff to work on) in a few days!

One a year

When I was a young college student, part of my teacher preparation courses required me to observe 5 different teachers for a class period and report on my findings. I met many different kinds of teachers – some older, some younger, some effective, some not as effective. Something one of those teachers said to me has stayed with me over the years. As we observed his upper level Spanish students working on interpreting a poem of some sort, he turned to me and said, “You know, sometimes I wonder what we do all this for. If we graduate one student a year that can actually do something with their Spanish after high school, we’re doing pretty good.”

Even as a painfully naïve pre-service teacher, something about his statement bothered me. Obviously, it bothered me enough to think about over 5 years later. Now that I would consider myself an intermediate-level teacher, I finally figured out what it was. This teacher taught in a school that graduates well over 600 students a year, and he felt that if ONE of those 600 was able to be conversational in Spanish, that was GOOD? Pretending that 50 of those students went on to complete 4 years of Spanish, in what other situation would a 2% success rate be considered a good thing? And more importantly, that says to me that there is something wrong with the program. My students come to me with very little background knowledge of Spanish and are originally quite intimidated, but I point out that they all learned to communicate in English. They are at different levels of proficiency in English, but everyone can make scribbles and noises that are recognized as words by other people.

The reason this came to mind most recently is because, well, I’ve broken his barrier for “good”. I hope that when my students graduate after a 2 year comprehensible input program, all of my students are capable of holding a basic conversation. After 4 years, they should be that much more prepared to enter the world and use their Spanish. Since it’s November, most of my seniors have been chosen their college and are working on scholarship applications. I found out last week that one of my students was planning to become a translator. Another is going into engineering, but is trying to figure out how to fit in some Spanish courses so she can continue her studies. And in an odd twist, I found out that a former student of mine will be transferring to a 4 year college next fall and intends to be a Spanish minor, if not an outright Spanish major.

My school graduates about 25 students per year. After my first anemic Spanish 4 class (made up of students who started Spanish before I arrived), I’ve had 10 and 8, respectively. Considering my own high school Spanish 4 class (in a graduating class of 300) had 12, I feel pretty good about those numbers. The question is, what do I do differently than the teacher I observed so long ago? The students graduating now didn’t start with CI, and I’m certainly a better teacher in general now than I was 4 years ago. Am I really a better teacher? Do I speak better Spanish? Is my class more fun? Do my kids just have less choices? Or am I just an optimist?

My personal theory is the last idea. One of my favorite quotations in the world is, “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.” If I believe that my students are never going to be good at Spanish then of course they won’t. I won’t lie – I was pleasantly surprised to hear that these students were considering careers in Spanish, and I hope the others find it useful as the Hispanic population grows in the US and they enter the working world. But if none of my students are able to use their Spanish after they leave my class, then I am probably not being a very effective teacher and I need to reexamine what I’m doing.

I hope that teacher, if he’s still teaching, has since reflected on his practices and worked with the other teachers in the building to increase the effectiveness of their program. Believing in the abilities of his students would be a great way to start.

Real world homework: real results

Like many teachers, I have always struggled with homework. On the one hand, I feel that extra practice is always helpful and in language learning particularly, essential to a student’s continuing success. Language isn’t something you can ‘sit and get’ – you have to have someone else involved. Considering we now have a whopping ONE native speaker of Spanish in my school (who isn’t old enough to take Spanish yet), my students don’t have the opportunity to practice their language like kids in more colorful districts might.

On the other hand, homework presents so many problems. One, the homework has to be easy enough for students to complete without my help but challenging enough to be useful practice. (Most homework didn’t meet that criteria in the first place, so we were already starting in a negative way.) Two, the students who did the homework found it easy and probably didn’t need the extra practice. Three, the students who did the homework but found it difficult probably did it incorrectly, which meant they had reinforced a mistake that we now had to work extra hard to undo. Four, then there are the students who didn’t do it at all. Some copied, some just turned in mostly blank pieces of paper. Many didn’t turn anything in at all.

So after trying various versions of traditional homework that was doing more harm than good, I dropped it. I felt better after reading Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth which provides research support to my disposal of a technique that wasn’t working for me. I gave no homework last year.

And then I found my darling #langchat. And on #langchat, language teachers were trying something new. A ‘real world’ homework, they called it. This homework was based on real activities using real language. I decided to give it a try this year.

You guys. Seriously. Do it. I used to hate grading homework. It was the bane of my life. I hated putting in all those zeros. I hated chasing after students to hand me something, anything. I hated having to teach and reteach the material because it just wasn’t clicking. Real world homework changes (most of) that. I still have to remind students to get it in, but grading it now makes me smile.

Here’s how my system works:

  1. Homework is due on a specific day for each class. Spanish 1 on Tuesday, Spanish 2 on Wednesday, etc. I don’t have homework turn-in on Monday so that I can do a class reminder. Hopefully, as the year goes on, their brains will adapt to the pattern and I won’t have to remind so much.
  2. Students are given many choices of tasks to do. Giving students a choice helps them feel empowered and therefore more compliant with requests. The catch is that they can only do the same task 2 times per quarter. (Otherwise all they would do is listen to music and I want them to stretch their brains.)
  3. Higher level classes have to do the task for more time, but they don’t necessarily have to choose harder tasks.
  4. Students ‘turn in’ their homework using a simple Google Form. On it, they enter their name, choose what they did (using the single-choice buttons), and then tell me what they learned, what was easy/they liked, and what was hard/they disliked. I keep a spreadsheet for myself that tracks who did what and then I fill in the color if they’ve completed their 2 for the quarter.

The one caveat that many teachers ask is… how do you know they’re not ‘cheating’? The answer is I don’t, but I also don’t get myself in a kerfluffle about it. The purpose of the homework is to enhance their interpretive skills while promoting enjoyment of Spanish – not something I can truly measure. It’s worth a whopping 10 formative assessment points per week, far less than what we acquire through class activities, and formative assessment as a whole is weighted less than summative. The form is just enough to give me an idea if they are doing it (and so far, I have every reason to believe they are).

I actually had to tell some students that they wrote too much and google was cutting them off. What a great problem to have, right? Here are some of my favorite student homework turn-in quotes:

“It was easy.” “It was fun.” “Listening to music is fun because I can do it while driving. It doesn’t take much time.” “I can learn the words I want to.” (after attempting to talk with a parent in Spanish) “My mom is horrible at Spanish and should never speak it again.” “It was hard because I don’t know many words, but I will learn them.” “I can recognize lots of words from class.” “They talk really fast!!!” “It was hard because they used some slang, but it was cool to see it.”

Convinced yet? Here’s a link to my Spanish 1 options – feel free to adapt them for your own purposes.