Looking to the future

Hello, readers! I hope you are having a wonderful summer. For me, I’m down to the last week of vacation and decided I should probably catch up on some blogs. With the exception of my one tutoring session per week, I have managed to completely walk away from being a Spanish teacher and concentrate on being anything-but-a-teacher. I love my job, but thinking of Spanish education 24/7 gets pretty exhausting after 190 teacher days. I bought a house and discovered that I really enjoy gardening, even though I hate being hot, sweaty, dirty, or constantly attacked by bugs. Go figure.

I suppose this is when I should make some goals for this year or something, but instead, I am looking even farther to the future. The inspiration for this post came from something that Sara-Elizabeth recently shared on Musicuentos, the invention of the Babel Fish. She got a surprising amount of pushback on Twitter, because although she made me think about the topic (which is the point of blogs, right?)  I didn’t feel like she was attacking our profession. I have some disagreements, but I also think that she made an important point.

One thing that Sara-Elizabeth argues for is that Google Translate has gotten a lot better over the years. And it has. (I was in high school when the first internet translators appeared and I could only use them to get the gist of a passage.) However, I would argue that a practiced speaker of a language can still tell that it’s not normal speech almost immediately. For Spanish purposes, it will use the wrong past tense. It makes all ‘you’ into ‘usted’ even if the situation wouldn’t call for it. ‘Su’ is translated as ‘he’, even if the possessor is female. Every year, I have at least one student who writes ‘me gusta el partido’. A partido is a political party, not a fun-times party: that’s a fiesta. (And further baffling because seriously, who doesn’t know the word fiesta? I know they know it!!) In other words, translators are great for getting a basic message across… usually. I still wouldn’t trust one with say, my medical advice from a doctor. They’re still pretty terrible with slang, and they just can’t convey the same feeling, emotion, and flavor that a text does in its original language.

The other counterpoint I’d make is that, although I do believe teaching as we know it is going to disappear, I’m not overly concerned for language teaching disappearing altogether in my lifetime. It’s true that we finally have the first reasonably usable virtual reality headsets. (My friend has a VIVE and using it is really cool, but the user looks like a total dork.) My new phone has 70x more storage than my first computer from 1995. However, I am pretty sure I was promised a hoverboard and robotic cleaning servants by now. The so-called hoverboards that we have just catch fire and don’t even hover, and as for robotic cleaning servants, well…

So what I’m saying is… if we’re promised the technology by 2030, we’ll see some moderately usable form of it in 2050. I don’t know about you, but I plan to be retiring around then. The rate at which new technologies are created, tested, and applied can’t continue at a breakneck pace forever. On top of that, the biggest barrier is affordability.

Here’s the part where I agree 100% with Sara-Elizabeth: teaching as we know it is on its way out. I think traditional teaching methods where students are physically grouped into a building based on location are going to stick around much longer in urban areas, but in rural, less populated areas that are only shrinking… how much longer is it economically sustainable? When I started teaching at my school in 2010, I had a little over 90 students total. This year, I am currently sitting at 46. Our graduating class size, in just the last decade, has shrunk from about 30 to about 22. This year’s sophomore class only has 19 – assuming nobody moved over the summer. So it’s not that I’m scaring students off (in reality, I have far better retention rates than the Spanish teachers before me)… there’s just fewer kids to teach.

And that’s just the students. What about staff? I think that’s really the part that is going to be difficult. I work with a concentrated group of amazing veteran teachers. But in exchange for experience, I would say at least 1/3 of our staff is at or near retirement age, and I am honestly not sure what is going to happen if they all decide to leave at once. Who will replace them? Will we be able to get and keep quality teachers? What about the teachers who coach multiple activities? Our non-teaching staff is even more critical. I can’t imagine my school running without our three fantastic office ladies. We are in severe need of bus drivers and substitute teachers. It’s the typical small town scenario: everyone is aging out. Many of the kids are leaving and not coming back. It’s hard to face, but that’s the reality of the situation.

So, I worry. We can’t really consolidate our school anymore – we already encompass about 100 square miles. Some of our students live upwards of 20 miles away from our main building. I am pretty sure it’s just a matter of time before schools like mine disappear and are turned into online-only education. I am against that for kids for a variety of reasons, but if that happens, will there be a place for me? What would I do if I couldn’t teach Spanish there any longer? I have plenty of talents but… I like what I do now. I like my students. I like my coworkers. I don’t want that to change. But, and I think this is the whole point Sara-Elizabeth was trying to make, is that we need to be prepared when – not if – it does.

An experimental curriculum

In my school, I’m a department of one. I teach Spanish 1-3, then AP Spanish. We have only 3 native speakers of Spanish in my district, and they attend elementary school in our other building. So many of my students don’t know anything besides hola, amigo, and taco before walking into my room in 9th grade. I am very, very happy to be a high school teacher (elementary and middle school require a skill set that I’m not sure I have) but sometimes I wonder, if I designed a middle school 9 week exploratory Spanish class, what would it look like?

And you know, I would like to see if I could do it with minimal creation of activities on my part. I mean, there are so many awesome ideas and programs out there, and 9 weeks really isn’t a lot of time to cover material. I can help out other teachers by paying for their services, and save myself a ton of time in the process.

Here is my experiment: armed with only La Persona Especial, Señor Wooly, and a few cultural units from The Comprehensible Classroom… I bet I could get students proficient enough in the really big main verbs (es/está/tiene/quiere/va/puede/le gusta) in that time. But I don’t have a classroom to test out my theory. So if any of you suddenly find yourself with an exploratory Spanish class… feel free to use this idea and tell me how it goes!

Too many materials! (part 2- post overflow)

Continuing with last week’s post about too many materials, here is another set of ideas you can use to supplement your teaching.

Reader resources

There is loads of research that demonstrates that reading comprehensible input is the #1 way to foster language acquisition among language learners. If your students are literate in one language, you can use that literacy to cultivate learning in a different language. (It’s a little harder for elementary teachers who have pre-readers.)

  • Blaine Ray – The original set of readers, they have offerings for middle school through upper levels in a variety of languages. I think these tend to be a little drier and predictable, but offer specific cultural lessons in each book.
  • TPRS Publishing – TPRS Publishing is another novel powerhouse (and they have great customer service!) I personally prefer these novels, as they are more interesting to my students while keeping vocabulary in-bounds.
  • Mira Canion – Mira’s works are available from a few different places. Hers are mostly appropriate for lower levels.
  • Santillana Publishing – I haven’t actually used these readers yet, but I plan to add this publisher’s books to my library in the coming months. They are a little pricier, but come with a CD of the audio to save your voice.

Curriculum guidance

I have to preface this section by saying that I make my own curriculum guidelines/scope/sequence/can-do statements/whatever as a department of one. I have previewed these materials but not followed the entire curriculum to use in my classes. However, if you are a new teacher or someone who is making the switch to CI, these materials will be very helpful in making the transition.

  • Cuéntame (TPRS Publishing) – This series starts geared more towards elementary learners, but the beauty of stories is that they can be adapted to any level. (Also available in French.)
  • Look, I Can Talk!/Fluency through TPR Storytelling (Blaine Ray) – This series takes an eclectic approach to teaching. Rather than teaching in any particular order, this series works on high frequency vocabulary. A good start to learning to story-ask, circle, and embedded readings.
  • Somos (Martina Bex) – I haven’t used this, but Martina’s stand-alone products are amazing, so I can’t help but recommend it.

Teachers Pay Teachers

There is sometimes some controversy over teachers marketing their work for payment rather than sharing for free. However, I am a big believer that time is money, friend, and if someone has gone through the trouble of making something so that I don’t have to, I have no problem throwing a fellow teacher $5 here and there. These need no explanation – just check them out!

As luck would have it, at the time of posting, TPT is hosting a TEACHER APPRECIATION SALE!  (Yes, I just realized it was site-wide. I’m a little slow.) Use the code CELEBRATE on May 3rd and 4th to get 28% off everything! Protip: grab some pre-made lessons to keep your sanity during the end of the school year!

I hope all of these materials help you discover a new amazing resource to use in your classroom at the end of this year or during the next.

Too many materials!

I started teaching in 2010. The 2010s are a great time to be a language teacher. We’ve got youtube, google drive/classroom, twitter, LCD projectors, smartboards, and more leveled readers and stories than you can shake a stick at. And because there are so many options to choose from, it can be extremely overwhelming! It used to be that language teachers had to look through a handful of textbooks and decide which one they preferred, they ordered it, and then they taught it. But now there’s so many options, how do you even know where to start? I mean, curating videos from youtube and making lessons from them could be a full-time job. The upside and downside of the availability of language materials is that literally anything could be used for a lesson, as long as you can make it comprehensible for your students.

With that in mind, many new teachers are looking to graduate and compile ideas for their future classrooms. Veteran teachers are looking forward to another fresh start in the fall. However, none of us have time to comb all the websites for all the potentially useful ideas for all levels and all topics. So in this post, I’m going to share some of my favorite teaching materials to help narrow down the field for both newcomers and veterans. Unfortunately, these materials tend to focus on Spanish language so I hope that all the other language bloggers out there find someone who will do the same for them! I also have easy access to technology in my room, though I know many schools still do not, so your mileage may vary.

Video resources

  • VideoEle – a youtube series designed for Spanish learners. I like it because it designates topics by difficulty level (using the European A/B/C) and has subtitles. The creator has also started going through and remastering some videos with Latin American Spanish as well as the original Spain Spanish, so that’s cool.
  • Señor Wooly – Señor Wooly recently recreated his site from the ground up and it is awesome. The PRO version, though mildly expensive, has been totally worth it in my opinion. Doing one video can easily take a class period or two, and if you do a large number of the included stories, nuggets, and other activities, you could easily stretch one video into a week’s worth of comprehensible input with very little work on your part. Señor Wooly does all the work for you! And, because music is fun, the students don’t even realize they’re learning.
  • Señor Jordan – Even though I have backed off heavily from grammar explanations, there still comes a time when I need to explain a grammatical point to clean up my students’ speech or writing. Señor Jordan has a number of grammar videos with great examples of the concept.

Audio resources

  • Audio-lingua – Audio-lingua is a great resource for all teachers, but especially if you’re a teacher who is full-on comprehensible input only, with no particular thematic units. I love that you can search by length, speaker region, difficulty, or any variety of other parameters. It’s just people talkin about stuff.
  • Spanish Obsessed Podcast – Relatedly, the Spanish Obsessed podcast is also people talkin about stuff. They do a nice job of splitting their podcasts into different levels. I’ve only used a few samples from the intermediate section. As a non-native speaker teacher, I also like that Rob is a non-native speaker conversing with Liz, a native speaker. It helps students distinguish from different accents and emphasizes that you can have an accent and still be perfectly comprehensible.
  • University of Texas listening exercises – For listening exercises, this website is my bread and butter. You can choose to have English, Spanish, or no subtitles available when viewing. I personally like to set it to no subtitles while listening, then going over the full clip together with the Spanish available. Oh, and they’re organized by difficulty level, topic, and have a variety of speakers from different countries to practice those different dialects!

Interpersonal practice

  • Let’s Chat by Patti Lozano – I ordered this book through Teacher’s Discovery. It is chock full of games and other speaking types of activities, written in English with examples in Spanish, French, and sometimes German (but of course, you can always adapt if you teach something else!) One trick is to make sure if the activity itself doesn’t lend to comprehensible input from the students, use their responses and turn it into comprehensible input yourself!
  • Cuéntame Cards – These are another valuable resource. They are the kinds of questions I might ask a student, only… I didn’t have to think of them. I just have one set that I pull cards from to make the set appropriate for whatever level of students. The guide that comes with the card has multiple ways to use the cards. You could also make your own for free, but I’m lazy.
  • Hablemos: 25 Guided Dialogues – I didn’t use this resource as much this year as I would’ve liked, but the premise is good. It’s actually rather similar to the conversational portion of the AP exam. Rather than having students translate or memorize a conversation, these guided dialogues tell students what to say in general (‘greet your friend’ or ‘make plans for the weekend’), and the students have to do the work. It provides a sample conversation for students to check their work against, and also includes some things like crosswords or word searches that might be appropriate for fast finisher activities.

As usual, I have way more resources to share but I’ll save them for a later post. Happy shopping!

The far-reaching effects of depression

Hello, dear readers! Things are slowing down here at school but picking up in my personal life. As we enter the last month of the school year, I have some time to reflect on how things went this year and use those reflections to guide my smattering of lesson plans. However, when I’m trying to plan, I find that I have an elephant in the room. Well, more of a donkey, really. A grumpy, mopey donkey named Eeyore.

Without going into too many specifics, I am someone who has suffered from various levels of depression and anxiety throughout my life. Over the years, I’ve come up with various strategies to help me cope. But this past fall, my strategies were no longer working. I was a frazzled, grouchy mess. I cried nearly every day over things that I knew were absolutely ridiculous – and a whole bunch of other things that weren’t ridiculous, but was an overreaction to the situation. And it also affected my teaching. Yeah, I was that teacher. The one who is on auto-pilot, who was in survival mode, putting together very mediocre lessons just to get through the day. I don’t feel any guilt – it’s what I needed to do to get through.

In December, I finally went to the doctor and got back on track. I’m feeling like my old self again – better, really – but now that I can look back and peer into the dark hole that was the fall semester… I am finding myself in a bit of trouble. I have three related problems: number one, there were some units that really should’ve been overhauled or found themselves in the chuck it bucket. (I also still feel like I try to teach too much vocabulary at once.) Number two, I did a horrendous job of getting my repetitions in, so my students have a huge gap in their vocabularies. Number three, I was all over the place in terms of what I asked students to do rather than using best practices so the stuff they did pick up is not quite the quality I would like.

Let’s not even talk about AP Spanish. AP Spanish’s class structure is getting a complete renovation next year. They did everything I asked;  the lack of awesome is all on me.

So I guess the question is… uh, now what? I can do a little damage control in the remaining days, but that doesn’t make up for weeks of survival teaching. It’s already frustrating enough to limit vocabulary. I just want my students to know all the Spanishes already! So now I have to control it even more until I can somehow squeeze our lost words back into the curriculum. I have this terrible habit where it is very input/story based in first semester and not so much the second. Guess when they make the most gains in proficiency. I’ve got myself trapped in a double-whammy of having better plans in the fall, though I taught them in a not-so-awesome manner, and having better teaching in the spring with more mediocre planning.

I’m not going to let it get me down. These ups and downs are part of the normal teaching flow. I’ll figure it out next year. It’s just something for me to think about.

 

 

Close reading retell

In my last post, I talked about doing close readings with my Spanish 2s. I decided to combine the idea of a close reading and a retell all into one activity. The students read a story about a girl, Barbara, who was really clumsy and had a lot of accidents. (This was for the injury unit.) After reading the story and doing various comprehension activities, I asked the students to work in pairs. Borrowing a close reading technique, I asked them to pick out the 10 most important sentences of the story – no more, no less – and their story still had to make sense with those 10 sentences. In other words, I tricked them into summarizing (without calling it summarizing, which elicits moans and groans). Then, I asked them to illustrate each of their Spanish sentences from the story with a picture. This is how I was able to check for comprehension (again). This was an easy plan with no preparation required on my part, but I got some really great results. Here are just a few of the interesting – if a bit gruesome – retells I received.

photoretell1

A good example of what I asked students to do.

photoretell2photoretell3

This group amused me by pasting their ‘Barbara’ face into every one of their photos.

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!