A tale of two teachers

This year, I have the pleasure of seeing a lot of the work my colleagues do around the school. Like many schools around the area state country (globe?), we are suffering from a severe shortage of substitutes and paras. Thankfully, due to the extraordinarily low turnover of teachers in my school, we do NOT suffer from a shortage of amazing, qualified regular classroom teachers. However, many of our teachers are at or nearing retirement age and that worries me. But that’s a post for another time.

In any case, I am a team player and besides, like everyone else, we don’t really have a choice – so I’ve been covering for a lot of other teachers while they are gone. I also have an ELL student this year and as the designated “surprise! I’m an ELL teacher now because I’m the only one who speaks Spanish and I also happened to have a free period!” person, I get to see first-hand a lot of work that the other teachers assign (as opposed to just hearing the complaints through students, or peering over their shoulder in study hall). In addition to all of this, I have a wonderful coworker who uses my room during 8th period to teach 10th grade health.

This coworker is the polar opposite of my teaching style. My style is very.. um.. loosey goosey would be good term for it. I am laid back. Kids interrupt me all the time and it rarely bothers me. My room looks and sounds like organized chaos most days – students are frequently shouting out things in English and/or Spanish. We do a lot of hands-on practice with reading stories, acting out stories, asking and answering questions, talking about pictures on the screen, and so on. I use a lot of technology in my room. I am frequently open to discussion, and in some cases, am open to discussion that has nothing to do with Spanish class because I think it’s equally important to discuss things that students need to know for their well-being as future adults (some random things that come up are stuff like, a student got in trouble because she got a whole bunch of overdraft fees on her debit card and she didn’t understand how that happened – kids don’t know that banks will debit your largest purchase first, then ding you for each subsequent purchase AND slam you with a overdraft fee for each of those purchases. In her case, she had moved money from her savings to her checking but that hadn’t cleared before the large purchase went through, and then she made a series of smaller purchases the same day). And especially since, in one of my Spanish classes, I have said ELL student who is a recent immigrant, and I want her to know about how things work here in the US because she is extra likely to get taken advantage of.

My fellow coworker? He’s twice my age. He does not do group work. He does not do technology. He does not do games or papers or discussion. The bell rings, he opens his notes, he lectures from the first bell to the dismissal bell and that is his class. The kids are mostly silent and scribble notes on paper as fast as their hands can write. It is, in every sense, the most traditional style of class. The other day, he busted out a LASER DISC and generally scoffs good-naturedly at all the stuff us youngin teachers do. But here’s the thing: his class is useful and compelling. He teaches during my plan period but quite frankly, I get nothing done because half the time I shut my computer and just listen, because he makes everything seem so fascinating. For him, the lecture style of education works perfectly. He delivers the content in a way that works. He doesn’t just give notes, but he peppers them with personal stories that work as an emotional hook to draw the kids in. In my opinion, he is a great teacher and it is going to really hurt our school to lose him when he retires in the probably nearish future.

So the point of this post is, sometimes we teachers get really hung up on methods. I do it too. I love my TPRS, I love my Kagan. But the method isn’t always what makes great teaching. Great teaching is what makes great teaching. How do we define great teaching? It’s teaching that delivers our content in a way that actually gets through to the kids, right? But that definition says nothing about method. I think some methods work better in some areas than others (again – lecture, in world language, does not work very well. But that’s because language is procedural knowledge, a working skill, and not declarative knowledge, knowing facts) but teaching is an art. My coworker has the lecture down to an art, and I am so glad every day that he “had to impose” on my classroom this year.

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One word + one sentence

It’s the beginning of a new school year, and around this time, many #edutwitter and #langchat bloggers do a post about their #oneword. (I promise I’ll stop with the hashtags now.) I never bothered before now, because I didn’t really have one word that could sum up my goal for the year. I’m quite terrible at setting year-long goals: my goals tend to come up organically, something to adjust as the year goes along. So when I set one in August or September, I’ve usually forgotten it by November because something else has cropped up that needs more immediate tweaking. But by tweaking little things throughout the year, it ends up addressing a larger goal I didn’t know I had, which is usually some variation on be a better teacher.

But this year, I have a word! And it’s a marvelous word. My word is PATIENCE. You see, last summer, I bought a house. It’s a wonderful house that is slightly too big for me and my four cats with a giant fenced-in yard for my non-existent dogs. I love my house. But my house is 117 years old. It has been well-maintained and updated, but like any house, it has things that always need to be repaired or changed to my liking. So, like all teachers, I’ve spent my summer slowly chipping away at the gigantic list of home repairs that accrues throughout the year (because any project that takes more than about 2 hours and $20 is not happening during the school year) and I have learned… patience. Because if I am impatient and sloppy with how I do things, especially considering I am extremely clumsy and have poor manual dexterity, I am going to have a poor end result. And then I am either going to have to live with that poor end result (which will irritate me to the end of time) or I’m going to have to redo it. With patience.

I’ve also been playing a lot of video games this summer that require patience. I am a pretty impulsive gamer – shoot first, die, then ask ‘What are we doing?’ later. (My boyfriend, bless his heart, is very good about reviving my stupid self when I blunder face first into a pack of enemies, guns a-blazin’.) I’ve been working on Darkest Dungeon, where it autosaves. If you mis-click, if your character dies, it’s permadeath. No going back to a previous save. You have to have patience. Calm. Cool.

As teachers, we all know, we need patience. So much patience. In my years of teaching, I have found untold depths of patience I didn’t know I had. I need patience with my students and their needs. I need patience with other colleagues who might not understand what I’m doing and why I’m so darn cheerful all the time (and why my classroom is so noisy. All the time. There is a lot of laughter in my room). I need patience with other language teachers who are not so sure about this whole comprehensible input thing. I need patience with my school leaders, who are often pulled in 72 different directions and 71 of those don’t agree with what I think is best. I need patience with parents who sometimes don’t understand that my class doesn’t look like a traditional classroom, but we’re still doing lots of learning in there. I need even MORE patience with my students and their language growth. Language acquisition is a process that takes foorreeevvverrr. And just as importantly, I need patience with myself. I can only do so much.

This brings me to my sentence of the year. I might write it on big paper and post it in the back of the room where I can see it every day. It’s going to say:

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, COURTNEY

with maybe some squiggles and exclamation points to really drive that point home. I listened to some of the president’s recent speech to the Boy Scouts at their Jamboree and I was so angry. He took a thing, a celebration of the scouts and their accomplishments and what the scouting stands for, and made it about him. But it shouldn’t have been about him. Scouting is about the kids.

And so it is in our classrooms. My school is planning to switch to the Power of ICU type plan for dealing with our chronic low quality and missing work. (For reference, our grade 7-12 population is about 120, and we have approximately 25% of those students failing one or more classes at any given time. That is unacceptable to us, and the things we’ve been trying have been utterly failing, so we’re gonna do this new thing. I think it’ll work.) Basically, every student completes every assignment. No arguing, that’s just the way it is now. It is a cultural shift. The first quarter of trying it is going to be an absolute nightmare. The kids are going to push. Some teachers will be upset because part of it is that you accept all work, no matter how late it is. Another part is that if students don’t turn in work, it goes on the ICU list (where everyone can see it) and if it’s not a quality assignment, then eventually people are going to start dropping hints about maybe reevaluating what kind of assignments that teacher is giving.** And as much as teachers hate that, it’s not about us. It’s about the kids and what they need, and they need quality assignments that are not just rote memorization. It is going to be an awful quarter, I think, and we’re going to have some kids who never do get on board. But if we stick firm, most kids will adapt, and it will be easier from there on out. (I also like the Power of ICU because it takes away the shame/power struggle part of missing work – it is simply, “Who do you owe? What do you owe? How can I help you?”. As someone who prefers to keep things positive in her room, even during study hall or advisory time, the neutrality of the questions makes me happy.)

This thought also dribbled into my brain at iFLT. My overuse of English? Keeps me comfortable, lets me talk about whatever I want with the kiddos, but it’s not allowing their Spanish to grow at the pace it could be. But the class is not about me.

And – going back to patience – when students complain about things in class, I like to frame it as, they’re trying to communicate to me that they are unhappy about something and would like a change, but their underdeveloped teenage brains don’t know how to appropriately state their feelings and a plan of action. So if my students are saying “ugh, stories are so boring, we do them all the time,” I don’t need to get upset. It’s not about me. What my student is trying to say is, “I feel like we do stories frequently, perhaps we could mix it up a bit with some other activities?” Or something that definitely happens in Spanish 3: “Reading, AGAIN? Let’s just get this over with. Why don’t we do any of the fun stuff we used to do like in Spanish 1?” Translation: “We used to listen to more music and play more games, where did they go? I enjoyed that part of class.” Because guess what! Not about me. (Also, they’re right. Something I intend to fix in my overhaul of Spanish 3 this year.)

So those are my two interrelated ideas for 2017-2018. Patience, and it’s not about me. It is about the kids and their needs, and sometimes figuring out those needs requires patience. Meeting those needs definitely requires patience.

**I just finished Tom Rademacher’s book It Won’t Be Easy and as an English teacher, he makes his assignments pass the Google test. If his kids can Google the answers to his assignment, then he needs to come up with something more challenging. I agree with this test. Especially if you are a 1:1 district.

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.