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.

New year, minor updates

Today is my last work day before students come into the building tomorrow. Since I don’t have to share rooms, move rooms, or otherwise do anything over the summer, I can leave everything more or less how it is when I finish in May. I am a major creature of habit, but I did make a few minor changes this year and I just want to show everyone what my room looks like. It’s nothing fancy – I’m no pinterest fiend – but it’s functional.

Updated word walls!

Ever since I switched to comprehensible input, I’ve had some version of word walls up. This is the third time I’ve done them and I hope the kids are nice to these, because cutting out all those words took a lot of time! (My prior versions were handwritten and I don’t have particularly nice handwriting.) A problem we also had in the past was that students couldn’t read the words when the lights were off, so I’m hoping that the white bubbles around black letters will help them stand out while still allowing for color on my bulletin board areas. (I also felt really proud of myself when I realized that with the whiteboard between the two word walls, I could use the green and red to make a Mexican-flag-like display.)

Useful phrases!

helpful words

I put an image of this on twitter a while back, but I added the green poster last year. (See what I mean about the handwriting? I can’t write in a straight line to save my life.) These posters are super duper handy when pushing students into intermediate and helping them use connecting and organizational words in their speaking and writing. This year, I am considering adding a bunch of various nouns (with pictures) in that blank space above the posters as inspiration. Not in the sense that they’re inspirational pictures, but rather to help students if we’re trying to story-ask or write something and they can’t think of something interesting to happen in the story. Maybe animals or something that can function as both a character in the story or a prop – I haven’t gotten that far yet.

New books!

studentwishlistbooks

Most of these were either specific student requests from my end-of-year survey about the offerings of my class library or Spanish versions of popular books that I know my students like in English. I hope the students attempt some of the harder ones – I think that The Fault in Our Stars will be popular. I also got a handful of new novels from TPRS Publishing as well as expanding my collection of ones that were popular last year (Problemas en Paraíso and Rebeldes de Tejas, if you were wondering.) However, it seems that with every novel I buy, two more are released! But that’s a good problem to have, I think.

Other random stuff

In the past, I have usually placed my tables in groups of 4 to facilitate easier pair work and conversation. This year, I decided to put the tables into a horseshoe shape. #1, it will be easier for everyone to see the whiteboard/projector screen comfortably. #2, students can still easily work in pairs or small groups. #3, nobody will complain about so-and-so kicking them from across the way cause their legs are too long. #4, I think a horseshoe shape works better for discussion and storytelling. #5, I can easily get to every student without having to navigate the narrow in-between-groups spaces. My projector is still currently on a cart but hopefully it will be in the ceiling by the end of the month, which will make things even easier for me.

The other big additions this year are more curriculum based. I decided as of yesterday to add the show Gran Hotel to my Spanish 3 and AP classes on Fridays. We run a shortened schedule anyway, and it’s a nice way to end the week. I am probably going to use the guides provided by Mike Peto and Kara Jacobs to help me out.

Reading and blogging are staying around for Spanish 3 and AP. I am seriously considering expanding FVR to my Spanish 2s, though in a more limited way. (We already read 2 novels in the year.) For reading, however, I am adding Martina Bex’s Mundo en tus manos news stories to my Monday plans. Between a short reading or two and weekend chat, my Mondays are set! (Mundo en tus manos is also a fantastic addition to any FVR library. Last year’s students felt they were an easy, comfortable read at level 3.)

First days

We only have 24 minute periods tomorrow and 35 minute periods on Friday, so my plans are pretty simple. Due to the nature of my school, I know all of my returning students and I am pretty familiar with my incoming freshmen, so I get a VERY short honeymoon period. I think I am going to have ‘Relax’ by Sie7e playing as students come in. I love Sie7e because he’s got that chill summer vibe, and Relax is a very appropriate song for first-day Spanish students who are probably super nervous! I’ll say hi. Spanish 1 will do a simple me llamo/te llamas/se llama game and that’s all we’ll have time for. With the other levels, we will do a quick refresher on the syllabus and procedures, then maybe chill while listening to some favorite Spanish songs from last year. Day 2 is when I will hit that stuff with Spanish 1, and the other levels will do some conversational stuff about their vacation (or just listen to me ramble about mine which is also great). And that’s it. Nothing too fancy. Next Monday, we hit the ground running.

For funsies, I’ve included a copy of my EXTREMELY simple syllabus piktochart (again, not a lot to explain in a small school) and the image I use to explain the AP exam to my AP students. Feel free to use either of them in whole, in part, or inspirationally.

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!

Adolescent literacy learning #3 – comprehension and critical thinking

The other week, my colleagues and I attended another Adolescent Literacy Learning session with Dr. Kevin Feldman. This session focused on comprehension strategies and critical thinking skills. As always, I’d like to share my important takeaways. These ideas work for all subjects across all grade levels, not just for foreign language.

  • Before we can even work on comprehension, students have to be in the game. We should be pushing them into active cognitive processing – students should always be doing SOMETHING mentally (not spacing out) and just as importantly, they need to be able to show us, the teachers, what they’re thinking. This could consist of responding verbally to a question, responding to a written prompt, creating a product, or any other kind of way of making their thinking visible. We were asked to self-evaluate and I rated myself very highly in this regard because with TPRS/CI strategies, active participation is the name of the game.
  • We talked about how comprehension consists of extracting and reconstructing. There are many pitfalls for students in both areas. Students might have trouble extracting the information they need due to deficiencies in vocabulary, or they might be able to understand the information but have difficulty justifying or qualifying their responses.
  • One thing that makes a huge difference is background knowledge. This is probably the key hurdle to comprehension. For example, my students tend to come from farming backgrounds. Sometimes they talk about problems with their farm equipment, and even though I technically know the words they’re saying, they might as well be speaking Russian. If we were being assessed on a reading passage about farm equipment, my kids would destroy me because their background knowledge is much deeper than mine. I also think this is an easy, easy pitfall for teachers to run into – to assume that because it was technically taught in a previous grade or class, that students will correctly remember that information. I try not to make that mistake. So that’s why, for example, I take a day and talk about fascism vs. communism and the Spanish Civil War when starting my art unit in Spanish 3. On the surface, economic systems have nothing to do with art, but when we look deeper, students need to understand the personal lives and beliefs of the artists to understand their art and contributions. Another difficulty related to background knowledge is a student’s ability to make inferences. If they don’t have sufficient understanding of the key points of the passage, they can’t read between the lines to understand a more subtle point that the author is trying to make.

Okay, so after discussing the background information that WE needed to be able to discuss the particular strategies, we delved more deeply into the strategies themselves.

  • Summarize – this one is pretty self explanatory, since every teacher since the beginning of time has asked for summaries. Some specific strategies included paragraph shrinking (write a gist statement in 10-15 words) or RAP (read, ask what’s the main idea, put in your own words).
  • One really cool summary strategy that would be awesome for literature circle type work is reciprocal teaching. In this strategy, students are in small groups where each person is assigned a role. The roles are predict, clarify, question, summarize. We also watched a video illustrating the strategy where the teacher switched out ‘clarify’ for ‘read aloud’ as the students worked through The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t find the exact video we watched, but this similar video gives a great walkthrough of the concept.
  • Teach students metacognition. Frequently stop to reflect and ask/answer questions. (For those of us in foreign language, this is also great practice to push students into the intermediate level where they can create their own questions rather than copying ours!) If they can’t answer the question on the first read-through or listen, how can they go back into the reading or audio and find it?
  • The one that I’ve been focusing on in my class is close reading. I think the concept of close reading is probably more familiar to reading teachers or elementary interventionists, but I hadn’t heard of it before the last ALL session. However, it’s possible that you already do a form of it and just don’t know it! Close reading is used for difficult readings – you know, the like the kind teachers have students do, not for fun and easy reading. In a close reading, students are asked to complete different tasks like underline the 3 most important ideas, draw a shape around words they don’t know, draw a shape around essential vocabulary, put a ?  by things they don’t understand, etc. Basically, it requires them to annotate and again, justify their thinking. They have to do multiple, thorough reads in order to accurately complete the work. Of course, after having them annotate, it’s very easy to segue into active cognition by having them share their ideas with a partner and then share out some ideas with the whole class for discussion.
  • Something that is particularly important for foreign language is teaching the vocabulary for having a good discussion – I agree because, I disagree because, I have a different opinion, I’d like to add, please explain, etc. It’s much easier for students to stay in the target language if they have the language tools to do so!

I hope you find these strategies as useful as I have. Again, these ideas are simple tweaks that make good teachers into great teachers. Stay tuned for a post about how I’ve implemented close reading strategies in my Spanish 2 class in the near future!

Useful advice for teachers

Earlier this week, I posted Useless Advice for Teachers. Since I try to be a positive person, I thought I’d share some advice that actually was useful in my career. Most of these involve the phrase, ‘Time is money, friend.’ from the goblins of World of Warcraft. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you only live once. Being a miserable is not worth it, and teaching is a job that can quickly cause burnout if you’re not careful. So here are my bits of helpful advice:

  • Take care of yourself first. By now, you’ve probably heard the phrase or seen the meme that says ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’ This is definitely true for teachers, which is exhausting in a multitude of ways. Even a day where students are mostly self-directed requires a ton of multitasking and decision making on the part of the teacher. If you are tired, hungry, sick, or grumpy, it will affect your ability to teach well. Obviously, you can’t just skip work every time you don’t feel well, but it’s super important for us to be taking care of our physical and mental health. Get enough sleep. Eat decent food. See a doctor if you’re sick – yes, even if you have to take a day off and your students will probably not make a lot of progress on the day you’re gone. The students will learn a lot less if you have to take multiple days off to recover from a more severe illness! Martina Bex just had a fantastic post for those kinds of days where you literally can’t even – you can find it here. (While this post was sitting in draft-land, I also ran across this wonderful article called “When is it okay to say you’ve done ‘enough’ for a student?” which discusses the pressure put on teachers to give 110% to every student every day, regardless of the personal repercussions.)
  • Grade only what you have to. In the same vein of taking care of yourself, one thing that keeps many teachers up late at night and working through their lunch break is grading. Some advice that I received in college that is part of my teaching mantra is to grade only what I have to. From the get-go, I have only put in 2-3 weekly formative assessment grades and a summative grade every few weeks. In fact, my biggest problem is forgetting to do summative assessments. I am constantly informally assessing students. With every question I ask, I am wondering, ‘Do you get it?’ If a student can’t answer, then I know we need to back up and try again. Even such minimal grading with only a pool of about 65 students still takes me hours each week. And I know it’s much worse for most other teachers. Grading is also something that can wait. Truly, your students will not suffer if you take another day to return daily classwork. (However, the caveat is that you need to return graded-for-accuracy or graded-for-content work within a reasonable amount of time so that students have adequate time to self-evaluate and improve before the summative assessment.) But if the choice is skipping lunch to grade papers, or to take a brain break and eat a legitimate meal? Eat the meal.
  • Pick your battles. In any kind of situation where there is an inherent power imbalance, there are going to be power struggles. Let the small stuff go. Kids are going to sneak peeks at their cell phone. They’re going to eat candy even if they’re not supposed to. And then there are the students who will, intentionally or not, attempt to bait you into a fight for whatever reason. One of the most important skills to being a successful classroom manager is knowing when to push and when to back off. However, we all get it wrong from time to time. Don’t fight yourself over that, either.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. In most cases, you’ll need to adapt lessons to fit your particular class and their needs. However, there are plenty of materials available (for cheap or free) that are good enough, especially if you’re hurting for downtime. (See point #1!) Any lessons that I post on here are free for use or adaptation by others, and many other bloggers follow a similar policy. With the advent of the internet, you can spend your entire career looking for or building ‘the perfect plan’ without ever taking the time to teach it! So use what you can, adapt what you need, and keep some of your own sanity.
  • You control the atmosphere of your classroom. Although we cannot control what our students choose to do, we are completely in control of what the atmosphere of our room is like. Is it going to be noisy or quiet? Are students going to be working individually or in groups? Is it going to be a safe space, or a place where students have to be on guard? I think the biggest point here is that we also control the overall tone of the room, which goes way back to point #1 of this post. If you lose your cool and let your room turn into a pit of despair, the students will take that and run. I make it a point to be annoyingly cheery, even if I don’t feel that way, because if I’m grouchy, then the students take it as a cue that they can be grouchy too. And then I get even grouchier because I have to deal with disrespectful behavior, and it’s a terrible cycle. As the adult in the room, it is our job to break that cycle. We are professionals. We are not perfect, for sure, but it is on us to do our best to ensure that our classes are positive centers for learning.

What about you? Any other advice that you would contribute as useful advice for the classroom? We could all use a mental pick-me-up right about now!

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?