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.

A paradox of priorities

Even though I like to think of myself as a smarty smart pants, sometimes I am a really slow learner. I’ve been doing a TPRSish style of teaching for about 2 years now and the other morning, I was reflecting on something that the coach said during the workshop I attended. One of my fellow attendees asked if he used thematic units or just taught whatever happened to come up. He explained that you can do it either way (and it’s a matter of preference) but his focus was on the high frequency vocabulary, so his style was stories strictly based on trying to get students to learn said high frequency vocabulary.

When I did the switch, I still kept my thematic units – I just made stories to match. However, I figured out this year that it meant that I still have a hodgepodge of different strategies going on, and they’re not meshing very well anymore. I can’t focus on high frequency vocabulary AND all the bonus vocabulary at the same time, if that makes sense. There’s simply too many words. On top of that, when I taught thematic units, I could remember that in this unit in this class, we learned these words. Well, that doesn’t necessarily happen anymore, because some units are more story-focused and some are not nearly repetitive enough for students to acquire that vocabulary. I can tell you right now that my Spanish 2 students this year are not going to remember a thing from the recipes unit, and that is 10,000% my fault. I didn’t do the reps. I got lazy.

The Spanish 2 class is the one that is actually bringing my problem to light, because the recipe unit used to go in the spring. My problem was, however, that part of the unit involves cooking and sharing food (yay!) but it always landed during Lent and wrestling season. With a high Catholic population in my school plus very serious wrestlers (especially around conference and districts), I felt bad that some of the students couldn’t fully participate. I decided to move the cooking unit to the fall, and push the childhood unit to the spring.

So here I am in the spring, and about to teach this childhood unit. Except, it is not a good unit. My unit plan goes something like: PQA, PQA, PQA, some stories I guess, Pobre Inocente embedded reading+watch the episode of Modern Family. We did the Pobre Inocente story before Christmas (it’s a Christmas story, after all) and that’s really the only chunk of this unit worth keeping. You see, the childhood unit is a legacy unit left over from when I used to teach by grammar point – of course, it’s the unit where we introduce the imperfect tense. But… this year, my Spanish 2 students have been using imperfect and preterite together from the beginning. It makes no sense to have a unit where we focus on just one of the two past tenses. On top of that, after coming out of my fall semester black hole, I can’t remember what words we’ve focused on in preterite and which in imperfect. I know they can’t apply the rule to conjugate, but how many of our high frequency verbs did they really acquire? This is a problem. I don’t know. And if I don’t know what they don’t know, I can’t lead them to the next chunk of words.

This also affects part of my behavioral plan, the preferred activity time. The way I do it involves earning points for both time on task and individual points for participation (using ClassDojo). However, I only use this system when we are working through a story as a group. So if I do a lot of non-story specific or individual tasks then the students don’t earn any points and therefore have no minutes accrued when it comes to use their time on Fridays. It hasn’t become a problem… yet. But it could be, so I worry.

So this is my paradox of priorities. Do I stay with the thematic units, or do I restructure everything around stories and high frequency vocabulary? There’s always something that has to give if I’m going to take pieces of something else – I only have so many days to work with them. But it would certainly be easier if I knew exactly what basic structures I taught that EVERYONE knows and everything else is nice-to-know since I can’t control that anyway. But then should I just do random stories, or switch to a novel-based format? I don’t have the answers yet (and I probably will change my mind another 20 times in my teaching career, even if I do think I have AN answer). But I’m thinking hard about it.

Adolescent literacy learning #2 – vocabulary

Last Tuesday, some members from my school and I attended another Adolescent Literacy Learning conference in Norfolk. This workshop’s topic was on all about vocabulary instruction. As a foreign language teacher, this is kind of my thing. I will be the first to admit, though, that I am really great at vocabulary instruction in the lower levels (thanks to TPRS) but I am medicore in Spanish 3 and so far, an abysmal failure in AP Spanish. Ironically, I know that AP Spanish probably requires the most vocabulary instruction because of the level of materials we’re covering (for example, this week we’re attempting to tackle Sor Juana’s Hombres necios que acusáis) but as a teacher, the task is a little overwhelming.

One of the problems teachers might run into is not knowing what words to pull. My friend, the science teacher, scoffed at this assertation. In other content areas, it’s a little easier to decide what words students will need for the topic. For foreign language, we’re tasked with teaching all the words, but there is no way we can actually teach all the words, so after we cover the most frequent 100 or 1000… then what? Where do we go from there? It seems like in foreign language, we don’t realize we don’t know a word until we need it… and then explicit instruction is a little too late. I also find it really hard to keep up with the words we need to cover for each piece of input. (I teach all 4 levels, so 4 levels times prepping 1-3 pieces of input per class can quickly add up, even over the course of just one school day.)

The workshop started with an anticipatory guide with some questions about vocabulary learning and instruction. Me being the so-called expert I like to think I am, I was about half wrong (although two were on a technicality!!) about the research. What we did cover was that explicit vocabulary instruction is worth the time it takes. As a language teacher, I had to do a bit of exploratory thinking here, because I know that explicitly teaching grammar for foreign language, at least at the novice and intermediate levels, is not the best use of my time. But what about vocabulary? Then I realized that the very first step of TPRS and other comprehensible input strategies is to establish meaning. And establishing meaning is another way of explicitly teaching vocabulary. But just like in TPRS, this workshop showed that it’s not enough to just say the word once and go on; we need to have students do something with that language. And not just do something, but do something engaging and repetitive. As Dr. Feldman said, ‘get the words in their mouths’. No matter what discipline we teach in, students need to be making connections!

There were a number of strategies that we went on to discuss, such as having a vocabulary log, prioritizing words to teach, using academic language on our own and providing strategies and opportunities for students to respond using academic language, and using mnemonics. (You can view all the items from this workshop for free on the wikispace.)

The biggest takeaway for me was my whole philosophy on education and conducive to a growth mindset. Dr. Feldman mentioned ‘You have to be wrong to be right. It’s okay to be wrong, that means you’re in the game.’ This greatly echoes our keynote speaker from NILA, Linda Egnatz, who said that anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first. And me, I named this blog Making Good Mistakes for the exact same reason. Once kids are on the field and willing to play the game, that’s when we can work our teacher magic.

I wish I could find the link to a video that shows how including some of his simple strategies, like providing sentence frames, can turn mumbles, grumbles, and one word answers into collegiate, scholarly language in a snap. I think that was the most impressive part of the workshop. But since I can’t find it, you’ll just have to take Dr. Feldman’s advice and go for it! Are you in the game?

Upcycle your output

One thing I am trying to do better this year is to ‘upcycle’ the output my students create. By that, I mean I am taking things that they wrote and reusing them the next day (or even a few weeks later). This is for two reasons: number one, it gives some students ownership of their work and lets other students see the awesome things their peers are doing. It’s different to write something just for me than it is for their peers, and since my class has gone digital/mostly paperless, I don’t have a lot of student work posted on my walls. For my lower ability students, knowing that someone else will see their work helps them push through to complete the task. For my higher ability students, it’s good practice on ‘staying in bounds’. There were fewer things that frustrated me more as a language learner in college than the student who had native speaker practice and told a really great story/gave a great presentation/whatever… or at least, according to the teacher, they did. Because the teacher was the only person who could understand them.

The second reason is that it saves me time. I’m not a particularly creative person (or at least, I’m not inherently a creative person. Using TPRS is forcing me to learn to be creative) and my students come up with way better ideas than I ever could. Even if their ideas aren’t particularly riveting due to the restrictions on their language level, 10 students can still come up with way more ideas than me by myself.

This also integrates some ideas from the blended classroom language workshop I attended last spring. The presenter showed us how you can differentiate by asking your students to complete different tasks. Your below-target students can work on remedial activities (working in a small group or one-on-one with the teacher, depending). Your on-target students can be working on an input activity. Your above-target students can be working on an output activity. But then you take the output activity and turn around and give it to your on-target students, to give them more input, which will then foster better output. I haven’t actually tried this system yet, but I think it has merit.

So how have I been using it this year? Here are two specific examples:

Example one: A few weeks ago, I had my Spanish 2 students write a story based around some pictures relating to our mini-unit on quinceañeras. It was a nice review activity to start the year – most of the vocabulary was review except for quinceañera and velas/candelas. Anyway, so they wrote the story in pairs in present tense. Last week, we started pushing into reading past tense, so I took the stories they wrote about the quinceañera and put them into past tense. Then I distributed the stories to the students, and had them complete a read and draw activity with the mini-stories. It was a good refresher of the vocabulary we’d learned, as well as using very familiar stories to introduce past tense.

Example two: On Friday, I had Spanish 3 write some stories in past tense. At this point, they’re very familiar with the most common verbs and can sometimes accurately produce preterite vs. imperfect. (They can definitely accurately interpret it, which is what I care about!) So the purpose of their writing activity was to work on descriptive past vs. action past. Then, again, I took a few of the student stories and fixed any errors, then redistributed them to the class today. Their task was to flip the past tense verbs back into the present tense.

In both these situations, I used output as a sneaky way to really introduce more input. Output is a formative assessment, and by Spanish 3 and AP it’s important to start including more output activities in the class structure, but I’ve been learning that you can never have enough opportunities for comprehensible, engaging input. The stories are comprehensible because I’ve fixed the grammatical mistakes and the students wrote them, so we know they stayed mostly ‘in bounds’. They’re engaging because the students want to see what their peers wrote – what kind of silly story did So-and-so write this time?

(There’s also the wonderful side benefit of student-created-output-turned-input being a REALLY easy way to throw together a lesson plan if you’re in a time crunch. You can also use them as makeshift sub plans for planned or unplanned absences! See this set of posts by Martina Bex for more details.)

Carol Gaab TCI presentation thoughts

Last week, I was one of about 120-140 lucky teachers in the state of Nebraska who attended a two day workshop put on by the one and only Carol Gaab. The first thing I want to say is that it makes me kind of sad that language students in Nebraska don’t understand how awesome their teachers are. The kind of people who take two days out of their ‘summer’ to learn a technique – which was a new thing for the majority of teachers – are the kind that are teachers who care about their students. Who want the best for their students. I saw so many instances of these teachers being helpful, kind, and often just funny. Some of the people at my table traveled quite a ways to be in Lincoln last week, but I hope it pays off for their students.

The second thing I need to say is, of course, if you EVER have this opportunity, dooooo itttttt. Carol is a wonderful presenter and truly a master of her craft. Like many CI/TPRS workshops, she started with telling a story in a mystery language. She actually launched into the first verbal mini-story before doing any of the PQA, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I wasn’t sure if she was speaking a real language or just made-up sounds (cause after all, that’s all language is – a bunch of sounds strung together that we all agree means a certain thing). Then we went through and did the steps – establishing meaning, PQA, and telling of the story. By the time we got to the end of the hour (that’s it, just one hour) she retold the story again and it was completely comprehensible. I don’t know how anyone can go through that sort of experience and not say ‘Wow, that was amazing! This totally works!’ Then the afternoon of the first day and most of the second day was spent on going over the different ways to have this effect on our students. As an experienced, if not amazing, TPRS/CI teacher, I felt there was a lot of stuff I already knew, but at this point I was looking for the little tweaks to take me from ‘eh’ to ‘yeah!’ and Carol provided them. I will say, if you are brand new to the technique, an TPRS workshop (not conference) is also highly recommended, or practicing with a teacher who is already well-versed in the technique. In this case, we learned about techniques that we could use, but in the workshop I went to last year, we had the time to go through the entire process PLUS practicing how to circle PLUS practicing telling a story. So I felt that this conference was a good supplement to the workshop I went to last year.

I can’t summarize the entire two days worth of learning, but here is what I think is most key for me:

-I have said in previous posts that I don’t think I do a very good job of verbally story-asking. I think the problem is that like many new CI teachers, I am either way too focused on my target structures that I make the story less compelling, or I completely lose control of the structures and we don’t get the repetitions we need. I think an important step I am missing is the parallel story/going between the story I’m telling and PQA. In almost every instance, Carol would say only a sentence or two before asking a question (either to keep the story going, or a PQA question).

-My verbal stories became way too long. After we got past the initial vocabulary (quiere, tiene, puede, etc.) then my stories suddenly became over half a page long – that’s just too much input to be comprehensible. I need to keep it a reasonable level. Carol showed us how a story of only 6 sentences could take up half an hour’s worth of time because of all the question-asking and redoing of the sentence. (Tarzan sees Jane and calls, ‘Jane!’ Does Tarzan call romantically? Does Tarzan call loudly or quietly? Does Jane answer? How does Jane answer? – Even though the main sentence was ‘Tarzan sees Jane and calls ‘Jane!’, this sentence took 5 minutes to act out and get past, but with tons of repetition.)

-When doing readings (which again, were getting kind of ridiculously long in my class) the trick is to make your low readers forget that they’re reading. So you read a sentence… and then you ‘go off topic’ (you’re not really going off topic; you’re going into question-asking) to make them think you’re just having a conversation about what you just read. But you’re really steering them into, you guessed it, more repetitions of the target structures.

-Everyone loves to quote Carol as saying ‘The brain craves novelty!’ which is true. By the end of the year, I was very predictable. Sometimes I would ask a story (rarely though, I had given up by then) but mostly we did readings. Everything I did was a thinly veiled repetition of reading in some format two or three times until the students started audibly groaning. What I learned from Carol is that the steps we’re doing are quite honestly, exactly the same every time. We just have to fool our students’ brains into thinking we’re not doing the exact same thing (even though we are). A lot of the ideas offered (act it out, using images, using video, reader’s theater, TPR, PQA, draw it, etc) are things I already do… I just need to mix them up. And apply them to the story rather than to my ‘not doing a specific story’ activities. Although if you want to get technical, almost everything we say is telling a story, so maybe I just need to change my thinking. I may outline my month’s worth of stories and decide what activities I’m going to do with each story so that I don’t repeat any during that month.

-Another caution from Carol is when using circling, it can become very boring and predictable very quickly. So you have to circle for a bit… then go do something else. Then circle a bit…. then go do something else.

-One really ‘duh’ teacher trick she taught us was about sentence strips. When doing a story, you can give them some sentences on strips of paper and ask them to put them in a logical order. This is a great activity, but takes sooooo much time to prepare. I usually only prep one set of strips per pair/group of 4 (depending on class size) but that’s still usually 5 or more sets of papers to cut out, and those of you with monster classes might have 10+ sets. So I don’t do it very often because, if the activity takes me longer to prepare than it does the students to complete it, then I’m going to opt out. Here’s Carol’s trick: instead of printing new strips for each story, get a set of differently colored strips (you can just use colored printer paper). Each group gets a set of the colored papers (1 of each color). Then project the sentences themselves on the board, each sentence highlighted in a color that matches one of the strips. Then the students arrange as usual, putting the colors in the order they think the sentences should be in.

There were so many more wonderful tips and tricks that Carol shared with me, but truly, there is no way to record them all here. You have to experience her teaching for yourself. You will not regret it!

P.S. We had a catered lunch by a local restaurant and it was amazingly delicious. I just wanted you all to know. Best conference ever. Super shoutout thanks to Janine Theiler, the NDE, and LPS for providing this opportunity for us!

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!