An awesome dad

I originally had a different post I had drafted at the end of the school year, but it was a bit salty, as the kids would say. So I’m gonna table it for now and instead, share something that brightens my morning every day of my work year and I hope it brightens yours too.

There is this dad at my school who is an awesome dad. He loves his kids. Here is how I know: You see, he has this routine. While most parents just drop their kids off, shout an ‘I love you, have a good day!’ and drive off, he parks his truck. He gets out of the truck and rounds his daughters up on the sidewalk for a family pep talk. I am not sure what he says to them because at this point, I’m usually fighting to get out of the car with my stupidly oversized teacher bag but they are always smiling and nodding. Then he kisses each one on the head in turn – even the middle schooler who, at this point, is taller than I am – and tells him that he loves them. Then he waves to me, if I’m looking (at this point I am usually walking past them and trying to not look nosy) and goes about his business.

It’s such a little thing. The whole process takes maybe 2, 3 minutes out of his day. But that consistent affirmation tells me already that I know that I am never going to have to worry about those kids in my class. I wish I could clone that dad and distribute him to all my students who need a father figure like him.

September, checking in

Can you believe it? We’re already finishing the first week of September. For some schools, they are just now starting the year. My school is almost a full month in. I have a lot of things to write about, but I haven’t really taken the time and stop to talk about it. And I’m not going to do it now! I just wanted to check in to say that this year is off to a great start for me. Last spring, I wrote an honest post about my battle with depression and how it affected my teaching. Battle seems like an odd choice of word – chronic depression is a chemical imbalance in my brain that I have had for most of my life and will continue to have, but it’s not really a battle if I take my medication. This year, I can already tell the difference in starting a year without that nasty cloud hanging over my head. My lessons go much more smoothly. I get along better with my students. I not only updated my old word walls, but also added a new one of ‘random cognates you might need in a story’ which I haven’t taken a picture of yet. My body is also being much happier – I am no longer getting stress headaches, my skin isn’t breaking out like crazy, and I can sleep at night. So the point of all that is: if you are feeling like something just isn’t right, go see a doctor. Please. You owe it to yourself.

That being said, I am doing some great things in my classroom this year. I am doing La Persona Especial with my Spanish 1s rather than starting with stories right away. There are tons of benefits to the activity, but one thing I am finding is that students are acquiring high-frequency vocabulary that applies to them first thing in the year. Words like hermano, juega, abuelo, and so on that I normally don’t get into until later are becoming commonplace. I even have Spanish 1s spouting off short, self-created sentences! It is so amazing, you guys. It is my plan to record myself doing one of these in the near future… maybe within the next week! Then I can share it with you all for feedback/instructional purposes/etc. and we can all be better teachers!

In Spanish 2, we are starting to really hit the comparison of past and present tenses. This is really what sold me on storytelling/comprehensible input as a teaching method. I remember the absolute misery of trying to learn ALL preterite forms and ALL imperfect forms AND when to use them… within a few months. With storytelling, understanding the forms and differences seems natural. My students don’t seem to find it nearly as mind-melting as I ever did.

In Spanish 3 and AP, I started using Gran Hotel on Fridays this year. We’re only about 10 minutes in after 4 weeks of watching it. I am using the guides on Teachers Pay Teachers (so helpful – thanks to the contributors!) and we did 3 weeks of watching with me talking our way through it. Then last Friday, we rewatched the first page’s worth of video (from the study guide) without my talk-through, then completed said study guide page. I’ll probably assess them in some way eventually, but I don’t want the  threat of assessment to outstrip their enjoyment of the show. My class of 5 boys is not super thrilled yet, but I think they’ll be more interested once there is more action going on. The other two seem to be enthralled and really enjoy it. It is also an AWESOME opportunity to practice those really deep and complex grammatical patterns students will find in AP-level readings, especially ones that use the subjunctive.

I also looked at some of my goals from last year (big one: to do better with AP) and am working on those. I preloaded AP vocab this unit and it is making the rest of the teaching go much faster. 3 of the 4 students are in sports that keep leaving school early for events, though, so that is a continual challenge.

I hope everyone else is off to a great start of their school year! I will hopefully be able to post more of my ideas soon.

Close reading examples with Spanish 2

One of the things I really enjoy about Spanish 2 (and also that is a hard step for the students) is the slow transition from materials created by me or other language educators for language learners, to sources from native speakers for native speakers. We use authentic resources in Spanish 1, but the task is heavily modified for their novice level selves. Beginning in Spanish 2, as we start pushing towards and into intermediate, I start introducing native speaker sources, though sometimes I modify them or use the embedded reading strategy to make them more comprehensible.

The first unit my students really start to see native-level work is in my disasters chapter. It’s very easy to find news reports for all sorts of disasters online, and their difficulty level tends to be pretty low. This year, I continued using a resource that’s a little old at this point but has so many vocabulary terms and cognates, plus the fact that the story is a little crazy (two hurricanes hit Mexico at the same time) makes it comprehensible and compelling. This year, I used my recently acquired close reading strategies to enhance the reading for my students.

  • First, I gave my students the reading only, on paper. (You can find the article and accompanying comprehension questions here.) This can also be done digitally but for the ease of my visual ability to check on them and to discourage translator abuse, I printed them.
  • Then, I asked my students to read it and draw a box around words or phrases they didn’t know.
  • As they read, I also asked them to underline the 3 key points of the article.
  • After the reading, I asked them to compare their underlined sections with their table partner to see if there were any differences. It was interesting for me to see that the majority of students tended to underline the same items, independent of the unknown words they boxed in, and even though they were working individually on this reading.
  • After we did all THAT, I finally handed out the page with the comprehension questions on it, which they completed and then we went over it together. I pointed out that even if they didn’t know a lot of words in the reading, they were still able to comprehend enough to accurately get a basic understanding of the reading, which is really the most they’ll be able to do as novice-high/intermediate-low learners.

Close reading is a strategy that does take some time, but it’s time well spent. It forces students to re-read the passage multiple times and to actually think about and process what they read, rather than just glossing over the text and claiming they understood it. This way, if there actually is a break down of understanding, I can find it and address it.

I hope you find this example helpful and consider ways to use close reading strategies in your own classroom!

Fighting the good fight

Hey, cómo estás? Cuenta conmigo.

Sappy Emir Sensini/Justo Lamas lyrics aside: it’s November. To other people, November means Thanksgiving, fall, pumpkin spice lattes, football. To teachers, it means: ONLY TWO MORE MONTHS UNTIL CHRISTMAS SLASH WINTER BREAK. For me, we are about to enter competitive one act season which is basically code for me potentially losing my mind. One act is stressful enough for me, but this year both our volleyball and football teams have made it into district playoffs, which requires a lot of juggling between me, the other coaches, and the students we all share.

So this post is about the students. I am definitely a touchy feely feelings kind of teacher. I care about my kids, and I want to fight for what’s healthy and sane. Not just for me, but for them too (which, not so mysteriously, tend to be the same things). When I think back to my high school days, my only question is: how in the world did I ever do it all? My senior year, I was in marching band, jazz band, regular choir, show choir, one act, the musical, and the spring play – all on top of my normal class load (including AP physics) and having a job. There were nights when I was at school by 7:30 am and left around 9 or 10 pm. When I didn’t have practice, I was usually working from 5 to 10 pm, plus weekends. When did I ever sleep or eat? (Spoiler alert: I didn’t, really, and it affected my mental and physical health.)

That was in 2004. The world has only gotten more frenetic and more overwhelming since I was a high school graduate. I thought college was, for the most part, far easier than high school because I only had class 15 hours a week, and a job that had very flexible hours. I could even take a nap most days! It was awesome!

So I worry. I look at my students who are (and this is a real example): in a fall sport, winter sport, FFA officers, play production actors, NHS, student council, and compete in speech, parliamentary procedure, and quiz bowl, oh, and many of these students just started working at various jobs.  I worry when there are other coaches and directors who will ask their students to practice in the morning AND after school. Some ask for weekends. Some might schedule a practice, and then go way over time. Some teachers assign mountains of homework. The ‘rule’ that we should theoretically follow is 10 minutes of homework per grade level. But assuming high school teachers follow this – which many don’t – that still means that seniors ‘should’ have 120 minutes – 2 HOURS of homework per night! Are you kidding me? Where are they going to find the time? Even with a study hall in school, that still leaves over an hour of work for students to complete at home, on top of their other activities and jobs and stuff like applying for college.

I worry, when my friend’s son is failing Spanish (in a different district), and of course I offer to look at his work to see where it could be improved. And that’s when he shows me a packet including a copy of every worksheet from the Realidades chapter they’re working through. And I was so sad, because I used to be that teacher. I used to ask my Spanish 1 students to learn 50 words every 2 weeks and be able to apply grammatical constructs that they wouldn’t remember anyway, because their brains weren’t ready to acquire them. My teaching was wide but very shallow, and my students left being able to use Spanish in spite of my methods, not because of my methods. My friend’s son hates Spanish and it’s his least favorite class, because the work is so overwhelming.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I want for my students. If students don’t like school because they’re unmotivated or they are so far behind (for whatever reason) that the work is not appropriate for their level, well, those are challenges that we always have to deal with. But I don’t want my students to feel like school is a trap for their time. I don’t want students to dislike school because they are constantly overwhelmed. I want my students to have free time, to see their friends, to have other hobbies where THEY get to dictate when and how and for how long and with whom they work.

It is hard, as a teacher, to fight this fight. It’s hard to fight the expectation that students should have homework, and they should have lots of it. It’s hard to fight the expectation that students should have every moment of their lives controlled by an adult. It’s hard to fight the expectation that students will receive a number grade for every move they make. Foreign language teachers have particular fights, like how much vocabulary is appropriate to introduce at any given time. How much grammar should be introduced at a level. How much should we really expect our students to be able to acquire and do within the time that we have them.

But by the same token, we must also reach a middle ground. There is a wide space between ‘no homework’ and ‘tons of homework’.  There’s a huge leap between ‘no grades’ and ‘grade everything’. As teachers, there are certain expectations that we need to uphold for ourselves and our students. It’s also hard not to be a zealot for our particular causes. Any teacher I’ve spoken to believes wholeheartedly in school reform, and with the technological availability nowadays, we are the ones to push forward. Schools aren’t meeting the needs of our students in terms of what is taught, how it’s taught, and how much time we take of our students’ lives, but how do we move forward? I’ve seen some downright blowouts happening in the online edu-sphere, and it makes me cringe. How can we be effective models for change and expect our students to respond reasonably, when we can’t do it ourselves?

So I don’t know about you all, but I’m tired. It’s November. But giving up the struggle for a reasonable work-life (or school-life, for the kids) balance is giving up on any hope that one day, schools will more effectively meet the needs of our students. So I will push on. I know you’re tired too, but we’re all in this together. One day at a time, right?

Tracking school questions and answers

If you’re like me, one of the problems you run into (no matter how you teach, what you teach, or grade level you teach)… how do you keep student brains from flittering away the moment you open your mouth to teach? One of the things that I really like about comprehensible input strategies, and ones that are becoming more commonplace in trainings and workshops, is the idea of  ‘everyone does everything’. Our students should be making their learning visible as often as possible whether it’s through a think-pair-share, a writing activity, a survey, clickers, or however else we want to assess their participation. By requiring students to make their learning visible, there is no hiding. Some may process more and faster than others, but everyone has to do SOMETHING to improve.

There are many varieties of strategies, but one I’ve been employing a lot this year at all levels is the PQA + quick quiz format. PQA can be about whatever the topic is that I’m trying to repeat. (Bryce Hedstrom’s ‘special person’ series is a good example of the power of PQA.) However, as Carol Gaab notes, circling becomes pretty repetitive pretty quickly (the brain craves novelty!) so I have to give them something to do while other students are responding. This is especially important in the 1:1 environment because it is just so, so, so tempting to look at last week’s football highlights on Hudl or check out those new fall scentsy holders on Pinterest rather than listening to teachers and other classmates (even though they really need to, to get in those reps!)

To combat that temptation, I have students take notes during the PQA. An example from a few weeks ago is Spanish 2, where we are recycling class information and adding new chunks like arrived late, forgot, brought (or didn’t bring), is/was ready, etc. To recap what we knew from last year, I created a simple chart in Google Spreadsheet and pushed it out to my students through Google Classroom. (If you don’t have access, obviously students can easily make their own charts.) Then I asked each student if they had X class. If they did, then I assigned that class to them. Of course, I could pick anyone for core classes, but only certain students take art, ag, cooking, etc.

After getting repetitions of the question, I then settled in to the meat and potatoes – each student was interviewed about their particular class and the other students had to fill in the information on their chart. On this particular day, we ran out of time, but then I could give a quick quiz. My quick quizzes are similar to other CI teachers’ accountability options – a 10 point, cierto/falso listening quiz about our topic for the day. I use them as a formative grade as part of our daily activities.

Taking notes isn’t necessarily the most exciting or engaging way to keep students active, but it’s a good standby for days when even your most enthusiastic storytelling skills aren’t keeping them as focused as you’d like. I also try not to use it too often – once a week at most. Again, the brain craves novelty, so I’m always trying to cook up new ways to keep students listening and busy so they focus on those ever-important repetitions.

Gender and sexual orientation in the classroom

In honor of Women’s History Month and gay marriage being almost legalized in Nebraska (so close!), I’ve been kicking around this post in my head for a while.

Wording and phrasing about gender and sexual orientation is something I struggle a lot with in my classes. On the one side, I am someone who believes that a person should be able to express their identity however they please. Truly, it makes no difference to me if a student is GLBT. (Not that I don’t care – I very much do, but I only get to make decisions about my life, not anyone else’s.) I try very hard to make it clear through my statements and actions that I am welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions – probably even more than my students even realize exist. I know that some of my students have to be GLBT; that’s just statistics. But I also don’t want to out them before they’re ready, and I want them to know that I am 212% an ally. I freely discuss my friendships with lesbians (mostly through roller derby) and gay men (mostly through college), and I also have some transpeople and a few gender free friends in my life. In other words: I try not to assume that everyone is straight and their gender matches their biological appearance.

However, my sticking point is that regardless of my personal beliefs on gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation, many of my students’ life experiences are based on their gender. Society is really, really good at enforcing gender roles, even if those roles have expanded slightly over the years. When I was a little girl (elementary age), I truly thought that I was weird because I was a girl and good at math. Everyone knew that boys were good at math and science and sports, and girls were good at reading and doing house stuff and taking care of babies. Duh.

Obviously, as I got older I reconciled my incorrect assumptions about who is naturally good at what. What I still struggle with is that boys appear to be naturally better at some things than girls, and vice versa. One of my favorite Mythbusters episodes looked at who was better at throwing a baseball, males or females. It turns out that males are dominant… until they have to throw with their non-dominant arm, in which case the results are very similar between the two sexes. Rather, it appears that males are better at throwing because they are more likely to practice throwing a ball from a young age, as ‘playing catch’ is a stereotypical male activity. When Jamie and Adam compare world-class pitchers, their form is the same.

As a teacher of teenagers, the differences between genders become more pronounced. My female students do not have the same life experiences as my male students, and vice versa. Socially, there are different images being pounded into their brains of what is socially acceptable as beautiful and what’s not. There are different expectations of behavior. Different expectations of career choice. Different expectations of everything, really. And then there are the unpleasant statistics about male behaviors towards females.

Another major issue is that I teach Spanish. Spanish in itself is a gendered language; you can’t get away from it. Even if you can avoid using pronouns thanks to Spanish’s subject-verb ambiguity, you get stuck on the adjectives. Do you just pick the default masculine? I have no idea.

So at the end of the day, I always try to figure out, how can I best meet the needs of all my students? How do I acknowledge that there are major differences in the perceptions of men and women, and that most people ascribe to the gender binary, without feeling like I might be excluding that one kid who says ‘no, this doesn’t describe me’? How do I show, not just tell, my students that my room is a safe space for freedom of gender expression and sexual orientation? How do I reliably keep my room a safe space for those students?

I don’t have the answers, but at least I’m thinking about them.

The irony of technology

It’s no surprise that I am a huge fan of technology. I’m on twitter, I’ve got this blog, I have a blended classroom, and so on. I am literally a child of technology: I wasn’t exactly the most popular girl in middle school. (For some reason, people don’t really care for nerdy, obnoxiously smart and snarky young women. Hmm.) So I turned to this new-fangled internet thing and wow! There were losers like me on there! We could be losers together! And so began some of my life-long friendships; people that I have never met in person but I have known longer than any ‘real life’ friend I spend time with. Suffice to say, I am a little biased towards the good that technology can do for people. Don’t get me wrong, there is an incredibly unpleasant downside (online bullying, #gamergate, doxxing, etc.) but the internet is also a wealth of amazing information, opinions, and ideas that can revolutionize what we do in our lives. The internet helped me through the worst parts of my social development when I was utterly shut down to the rest of the world around me. It taught me how to build my own computer. It continues to help me with developing my expertise as a teacher.

I also feel that technology in the educational world is a very divisive issue. I am struggling with this in my own school. We recently went 1:1 with laptops and I am loving it. There are challenges, to be sure, but I have the skills and tenacity to overcome them. I have my room set up in fashion that encourages communication (both face-to-face and online) and where I can freely move about the room. I understand that my students, for the most part, have used technology as an entertainment device for most of their life and not as an educational device. In this 21st century skills world (or as I like to call it, the world), I consider it a part of my job to teach students to use technology appropriately. And like with any other new skill, they aren’t very good at it. I have to correct my students a lot. But I have to correct my sophomores less than the freshmen, the juniors less than the sophomores, and I pretty much let my seniors make their own decisions because: holy smokes, they’re almost full-fledged adults who need to know how to make the right decision without my hovering. I also understand that there are teachers who struggle with all of these things, and I can be a leader to show them how to manage behavior in a digital world. [Edited to add: After I originally wrote this post, I spent a portion of my day helping another teacher who is, in her own words, ‘terrible with technology but needs to learn about it’. I was happy to spend the 15 minutes it took to walk her through how to set up stuff on planbook.com. I like helping others have a good experience – I practice what I preach.]

But then there are things that outright irritate me, and this cartoon is one of them. I saw this posted on my twitter feed a few weeks ago, and it made me think.

cellphonesuntanThe irony of that cartoon, of course, is that it was shared on a social media platform. It probably wasn’t shared from a beach, but it was very possibly shared from a phone or tablet (considering that 80% of twitter’s users use a mobile device to access it). The people depicted in the cartoon are kids and teenagers, even though 90% of American adults have a cellphone, 58% have a smartphone, and approximately 50% or higher use their phone for entertainment purposes. For some reason, even though the vast majority of Americans have access to technology, using it frequently is considered something for ‘kids these days.’ The perception of people – especially young people – using their cellphones to do something besides make an actual phone call is widely negative. I often hear things like ‘lazy’ ‘only motivated by games’ ‘can’t function without technology’ or ‘why don’t they read a book?’

Here’s the reason this cartoon really bothered me: if I were a person, sitting on the beach, reading a traditional book, no one would make a comic about that. If I was reading a book on my beloved kindle, that’s probably not comic-worthy either. But being on the beach, reading a book on my phone? That’s worth making a comic about; the tragedy of being unable to function without my smartphone. And while we’re at it, why is reading books considered a more worthy pastime than playing a game, or watching tv? I think we should judge media by the story that it tells and the thoughts it provokes, rather than the platform by which it is consumed. It would be pretty difficult to explain to me how 50 Shades of Grey is superior to Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of story and pro-social ideas, even though 50 Shades of Grey was originally a book (and Guardians of the Galaxy a comic – possibly the only art form more widely derided than video games).

Although this issue is more pronounced at my school due to our heavily veteran staff, I expect other schools are experiencing the same push and pull of technology in the classroom. That’s normal; it’s how progress is made. But by depicting mobile tech users as clueless and crippled by their need to have their phone at all times, we’re doing our students a disservice. Like it or not, this is the world they – and we – live in. We need to put away the prejudices and meet the challenge with an open mind. That doesn’t mean using tech for tech’s sake, but rather using it in a directed and meaningful way. What can you do to show your students how to use their technological powers for good and not evil? How can you encourage your students to make good tech choices?