Reintroducing “the chart”

Today on twitter, a fellow teacher asked #langchat, ‘how do I introduce past tense without putting grammar first?’ Considering the topic of my last post, how my current Spanish 2 unit on imperfect is pretty irrelevant at the moment since I no longer really need it, I figured I could be of some help. We had a nice chat (along with Amy and a number of other wonderful helpful teachers – yay everyone!) and I hope she finds the path that is right for her.

This post, however, is about my AP Spanish. This year’s AP Spanish is one of my last ‘guinea pig’ classes. My first few graduating classes were while I was in survival newbie teacher mode. Let us not speak of them. Last year’s graduates were my original guinea pigs – the kids that started as freshmen during my second year of teaching, when I was still doing heavy teacher evolution. This year’s senior class started with me using grammar-based methods in Spanish 1, transitioning to CI-based methods during their Spanish 2 (and while mentoring a student teacher), using CI-based methods for Spanish 3, and now using CI-as-best-I-can-cause-it’s-AP Spanish now. So in Spanish 1, they were exposed to ‘the chart’ for various present tense verbs, but it was whisked away for the most part during… well, all the other verbs. Tomorrow we start imperfect subjunctive, which I (guilty teacher confession time) have not taught to any class so far, because my earlier classes never got to the point where they needed it. But we’re going to start reading La Guerra Sucia and there is all sorts of imperfect subjunctive in there, so we get to learn it now!

With this class, I knew it was time to really sit down and as John Baylor would say, ‘hammer the grammar’. I have three very grammar-focused students in this class of five, and they kept asking me conjugation-related questions, so that told me they were ready and willing to sit through a boring grammatical explanation of conjugation, because they NEEDED it to clean up their communication and WANTED to clean up their communication. So after the start of the new semester, I just took the last week and chunked out every tense we knew so far and we went over the charts for them, then played on to practice. Every single one of them also chose to use practice as their homework choice for the week. But I love the choice homework, because they all chose to work on the tenses they felt they needed the most practice in.

I feel there is a huge difference in introducing the charts first thing and the acquisition of verbs, versus acquiring the verbs first and showing the charts later. In the past, my non-word-nerd students would easily become overwhelmed and frustrated with the insane amount of irregular present tense verbs – between your 3 types of stemchangers + jugar, the -go verbs, the -zco verbs, the -yo verbs, and the ones that change where the accent falls, oh, and the ones that are just outright irregular… yeah, that’s ridiculous. Preterite is nearly as bad. When we got to subjunctive, there were so many steps to properly changing the verb that it was nothing less than a hot mess. But now, when students acquire first, showing the chart sheds a little light onto the mechanics of how verbs work. My students aren’t frustrated by them; they say, ‘Ooooooh, so that’s how it works!’ (They’re still annoyed by all the exceptions BUT, having heard/seen them for years, they just accept that’s the way it is and move on.) Rather than being the focus of the lesson, they are used as a tool in my students’ toolboxes for comprehension. I see now that using charts as the driving force of my instruction was like handing a full-sized hammer to a baby – they weren’t strong enough to use it yet. Upper level students are strong enough to use the hammer properly. I know that I’ve seen the results in my own classroom, and it’s enough to convince me that acquisition first, charts second is going to get me the best results in the least amount of time.

Creating and submitting my AP syllabus

I am super excited to announce that my Big Scary Project for the summer – completing and submitting my AP Spanish syllabus – is done! It’s actually been mostly-done for quite some time, but the perfectionist side of me was worried. Did I have enough authentic resources? Did I vary my types enough? I feel like I have way more readings than audio sources. Do my units go in a logical order? So on and so forth. I expect every teacher asks these questions as they go through the process. However, I apparently didn’t need to worry. I submitted my syllabus mid-day yesterday and checked my work email on a whim right before bed, and there was the acceptance message! (I guess there’s probably not too many people submitting their syllabus in July.) Here are some thoughts/tips as I went along:

You don’t actually have to write your own syllabus

And this is why you go to AP trainings. I learned that I can use a syllabus adopted from another teacher, as long as it has already been approved by the Board. You can adopt one of the example syllabi or borrow from another teacher in your school. I personally chose to write my own syllabus because I wanted to be in control of my content. I want topics that are interesting to my students and to me. I also chose to organize my units by topic rather than by the six content areas, just because I felt that my topics had so much overlap between them. For example, almost everything is connected at least marginally to the Identities area, because all of a person/culture’s perspectives and practices are a direct reflection on their identity.

Become really, really, really familiar with what your students will need from you

Thankfully, the College Board has a very clear set of standards of what to put in your syllabus. I’m converting my Spanish 4 to AP Spanish, and a lot of what I was already doing is transferrable to one of their six main themes. The other stuff – discussing products, perspectives, and practices, as well as the three modes of communication – is all part of following ACTFL guidelines, so I was doing that anyway. Please note that nowhere in any part of the syllabus creation process does it say you need to work on specific grammar points. However, when you look at the standards for rating the actual test, it’s clear that the students need to be able to function at a high level in present tense, be able to comprehend other tenses (and attempt to use them when appropriate), use a few idiomatic expressions, and switch between formal and informal register. This is all in line with what I would consider a general intermediate-high using the ACTFL scale. So there’s a lot of information to keep in your brain while you design your syllabus. I’m a big fan of backwards design, but in this case, I am not the one designing the ultimate exam, so it’s absolutely critical that I’m familiar with it and what my students will have to do. All of the information you need is located on the College Board’s website, and I also got a huge tome at my training of the information in print form.

Be organized

When designing your syllabus, you have to have some sort of plan. I actually rewrote my plans in three different ways – one in my ‘day to day’ unit plan document, one in my official syllabus, and then after attending my AP training this summer, a third way. Ultimately, the way that David Marlow showed me was the best way to make sure I was hitting a variety of sources for each unit. He recommends setting up a grid like this for each unit:


You really only need one source per area, and some topics lend more to one type of resource than others. One of my units has to do with vaccinations, so there are no literature sources, but tons of non-fiction news sources.

You can also use this type of grid to make sure each unit hits every mode of output (written presentational, spoken presentational, written interpersonal, and spoken interpersonal). I chose not to do it, simply because we tend to hit every mode a little bit each day as we work with each source on top of our usual weekly activities like blogging and free reading. Of course, the problem with having multiple ways of planning means that now I have to reconcile my official syllabus with my day-to-day plans, which have had sources added or changed.

Vertical curriculum backwards planning

This applies more to singleton teachers like myself, but it’s also something to consider for those of you who have to work within a larger department. By ‘vertical curriculum backwards planning’ I mean that from day one of Spanish 1, I have to consider the students that will some day take the AP Spanish exam. By setting a strong foundation of using Spanish in class, practicing constantly so my students are very familiar with high frequency vocabulary, exposing my students to native speaker speech, and pushing our proficiency from the very beginning, I can ensure my students will be as ready as I can make them before the end of their senior year. But this also especially affects my Spanish 3 planning, because a good number of students who bother with Spanish 3 usually do so with the intention of taking AP Spanish. So for example, I chose not to do a unit on the environment in AP… but I am going to modify a different unit in Spanish 3 to have more of an environmental focus, juuuust in case they need that vocabulary.

Closing thoughts

I suppose I can’t end this post without sharing my own syllabus now! This is my official syllabus, although it’s not the full bread and butter of my course. (For example, the Guerra Sucia unit looks a little bare, but the focus of that unit is actually the TPRS novel La Guerra Sucia which isn’t technically an authentic resource, though I feel that it is of appropriate difficulty and quality to include in my unit.) You can find my official syllabus here. Feel free to modify or use whatever part might be handy in your own classes (AP or otherwise).

I also want to give a shoutout to Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell and Mike Peto, whose syllabi I pored over when trying to set up my own, as well as Angie Wagoner from Crete and Laura Chambers from Omaha South for their syllabi and units while at the workshop in Omaha.

Summer standardization

Greetings and salutations from watery Nebraska! As a long-time listener to grunge, I can identify with the wet weather of Seattle, but I’m really not too interested in living in it. I’m well into my summer and it boggles my mind that some of you are still in your regular school year!

In any case, I have been doing the proper amount of panicking that it’s the summer and I need to have maximum laziness while simultaneously freaking out that I need to have the maximum amount of productivity/fun possible. So I end up having two really productive days per week… and the other five, I eat ice cream for breakfast and play video games all day. I am truly the most responsible of adults. (Don’t worry, I don’t have any kids that I’m neglecting.)

Here in my ‘summer’ of 2015, I’ve been doing a lot of professional development. The first week I went to a four day AP Spanish workshop; last week I went to a one day thing on adolescent literacy in Norfolk. The adolescent literacy name is a misnomer, in my opinion – this particular session was about engagement strategies. This Thursday and Friday I will get to meet the amazing Carol Gaab and try to do my best not to fangirl. I’m also headed to Columbus next week for a day with the teachers from the Mexican exchange group, just for fun.

I have two and a half takeaways from these workshops so far:

Takeaway 1: The AP workshop was very beneficial to me as a new AP Spanish teacher. I’m sure each presenter does things differently, but I was with the talented David Marlow and learning from 10 other equally talented Spanish educators. The entire seminar was conducted in Spanish, which really helped my confidence level in speaking Spanish. Even though I definitely had some moments where I know I said something wrong, I proved to myself that I am not a fraud, I can speak Spanish at an advanced proficiency (or maybe even superior, since we were talking about pedagogical implications which requires a specialized vocabulary) with native speakers for a lengthy period of time. And I had to employ the same strategies I always try to foist upon my students. It was good for me.

Personal problems aside, I thought the workshop did an appropriate job of attempting to prepare us to prepare our students. There’s no way to truly be 100% ready for the test. It’s big and it’s scary. Part of the training was to sit down and actually take portions of the test. I scored much better on the interpretive than I expected, especially the audio sections. (I was worried because if I bombed it, how in the world was I supposed to prep my students??) After taking each portion at different intervals throughout the course, we then looked at the exemplars and discussed why they were rated the way they were. Since I teach 100% non-native speakers, I will be happy if my students earn 3s and ecstatic if they get 4s. I am not sure how a non-native speaker with normal amounts of preparation is supposed to earn a 5, but that’s the nature of the beast, I guess. This portion of the course was nice, but since I had already gone over the requirements and materials on my own, it was mostly repetition of stuff I already knew.

The real meat of the course, though, is that David was kind enough to create a unit that we slowly worked on throughout the week that clearly met the standards of the AP requirements in terms of authentic resources, rigor of materials, etc. One of my weakest areas is the transition from TPRS/heavy CI with my novices/intermediate-lows to the ambiguity that comes with intermediate and advanced levels, and working through a well-refined unit helped give me some ideas on how to handle that transition. We also worked in groups to create a bare-bones unit for each of the six themes, so at worst, we all have seven total units that we can flesh out/adapt for our own classrooms. Some of the teachers were also experienced teachers taking a refresher course, so they were happy to share their own syllabuses with us. If nothing else, I know I am going to have a really good syllabus! (And of course, once it is accepted by the College Board then I will be happy to share it.)

Takeaway 2: I picked up some good engagement strategies from the conference I went to on Friday. It’s part of a year-long project that I will be completing with other teachers in the building, and then I assume the eventual long-term plan is to disseminate the strategies we’re learning into the whole teacher population, and see how that affects our teaching as a group. The presentation was by Kevin Feldman, and I enjoyed his presentation. His strategies are hand-in-hand with those of Anita Archer (who I was lucky enough to see my first summer as a teacher – totally worth it) although some have a little twist. I have three strategies I’d like to share with you all that will work in any classroom, not just foreign language:

Strategy 1 – The 2 to 10 – At the high school level, never go more than 2-10 minutes without asking the students to do something. Hopefully while you were teaching, they were thinking about the topic, but we need to stop frequently and require a visual check of their internal brain processes. The actual step of showing their thinking can take many forms (write it down, tell a partner, report to the class, use a clicker system, etc.) but there shouldn’t be any time to just space out and not do anything.

Strategy 2 – Precision partnering – When working in pairs (or small groups, but usually pairs – no one can hide in a group of two!) designate one partner as A and one as B. Be clear what you want the As to do and what you want the Bs to do. Alternate who answers the question first – this helps when you have partners who want to dominate the conversation. The other super important key is give both partners a job to do. If partner A is explaining something, partner B’s job shouldn’t be ‘sit there and wait until A is done talking’.

Strategy 3 – Active listening – So if partner B isn’t supposed to space out, what can they do? Some potential jobs are to paraphrase/restate what partner A said, to agree/disagree with a justification, to provide an example or non-example of what A said, make a connection to previous information, or elaborate/add details to what partner A said. In foreign language, partner B’s job might be to help correct obvious pronunciation errors.

What I really like about these strategies is that they are all based around ‘everyone does everything’. There’s no hiding. Every student has to do the same amount of work (or at least, we are trying to get them to do the same amount of work) rather than having the class dominated by the same 5 students all the time. Are students still going to get by doing the least amount of work they can? Absolutely! But if we make the minimum very, very high… then that’ll be okay. And will it solve all of our engagement problems? Of course not! But they are small tweaks for a proficient teacher to make things go that much better in their classroom, and they might be life-saving strategies for a novice who feels like they’re drowning. These strategies fit very well within the cooperative learning framework of foreign language and the group-answer techniques of circling.

Half a takeaway: As I look through all the #langchat logs that I’ve been missing, and going to all these workshops, I see a lot of us moving away from standardized units and textbook work. But it’s interesting, because the more we collaborate, and go to the same workshops with the same presenters, and use the same techniques – in a way, we’re restandardizing ourselves. Hopefully it’s to a new, higher standard that serves our students better.