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.

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.)