My AP syllabus: 2 years later

Two years ago, I started on my AP Spanish journey. If you’ve been reading recently, you have realized that my AP journey… has been a rocky one. Not going so well. That’s okay. In teaching years, two years is still baby steps. I know I didn’t feel like I sort of knew what I was doing at all as a teacher until my 3rd year, and I didn’t feel like a decent teacher until my 5th. Now, going into my 8th, I feel pretty confident that I got this. I don’t feel any nerves about this upcoming year, only excitement. (It definitely helps that I work in an awesome school, with an awesome staff, where I feel safe and supported, and I have the same students over and over, so I always know what to expect, which keeps my hates-the-unknown anxiety down to a manageable level.)

Anyway. One of the continually popular blog posts of mine is my AP syllabus. I’m sure it’s frequented by poor lost souls who are also teaching AP, probably for the first time, and have no idea what they got themselves into. If you’re one of those people: welcome! You’re not alone! Tengo un secreto: nobody knows what they’re getting themselves into when they say ‘sure, I’ll teach that AP class’. (In my case, I offered to do it – I know most teachers aren’t given the choice.) So I decided to look back at the original post and see if I would say anything different, given what I know now.

First off, you can reread the original post here to refresh your memory.

Writing your own syllabus… hmm. I still agree with everything I wrote. Especially if you’ve already taught a similar level class, why re-invent the wheel? If you are a brand new teacher, though, and you’re coming into a situation where the previous teacher already had a syllabus? USE IT. And then modify it to fit your needs/style.

Know what your students need – definitely. One big failure of mine is that I know what my students need to know to be successful… I just failed to, you know, teach it to them.

I still think the easiest way to plan a unit based on authentic resources (or any unit from scratch, really) is the grid shown to us by our trainer. I don’t know why I don’t use it more often. I should keep it in mind as I restructure my Spanish 3 this year. That way, you can be sure to hit many different types of input (and assess using different modes of output, if that is your desire). Plus, it’s really handy when you get to February and you’re thinking ‘man, I read that really cool article on [topic] that one time that would’ve been PERFECT… now where did I read it?’

Vertical curriculum – HUGE. I noted this as a big deal, and didn’t implement it myself. It hit me over the head again just a few weeks ago at iFLT, and I am going to try to slowly reorganize my lower levels to fit the AP themes better. Those essential questions? Yeah, that’s to try and figure out what theme(s) your unit would fit under – and also help drive some thoughtful questions to ask your students as you go along. I realized, I am doing all sorts of the right things, I just need to clean it up a bit. (For example, in Spanish 1, we watch Selena as part of the family unit. Not only does it fall perfectly to watch a movie around Thanksgiving/one act competition time when I am gone a lot, but it lends itself to appropriate family/identity related topics for novice speakers – but how can I better orient my questioning/activities to make it clear it’s related to an AP theme?)

The actual syllabus itself (still available here! check it out!) Oh my. My official syllabus… is beautiful. Look at all those resources. Look at my introductory paragraph. It’s gorgeous. So convincing that I’m gonna be successful.

The reality of my syllabus? If you somehow can teach everything in that beast AND have time to prepare your students for the test AND get around all the stuff that seniors miss school for… please let me know how you did it. I typically teach units 1, 2, and 3 (prehispanic cultures/gender roles/fashion) in the fall, and hit 5, 6, and 9 (La Guerra Sucia/immigration/mobile technology) in the spring. We also do FVR/blogging and Gran Hotel weekly, so I really am only teaching content from the syllabus 3 days a week. (This is up for potential change this year.) The units I pick are ones that have the most compelling content and the ones I feel most competent teaching. I might pull unit 8 (love and romance) or unit 10 (the return of measles) down to Spanish 3, with adaptations and time permitting. Things are really up in the air this year.

So overall, I think my original thoughts were on point. The reality of teaching, however, is not that easy. I always joke that I am THE BEST teacher on paper, which is true. Actually teaching real, live humans? Sometimes, not so much. I still think my syllabus is pretty darn great, and I don’t intend on changing it for the moment. It’s my in-class practices that need to change. But if you’re someone who is wanting to use units or the whole thing, feel free – just know that if you weren’t able to get through everything, that’s okay. I made the syllabus, and I couldn’t either. ­čÖé


iFLT 2017: Wrapup/changes in practice

When I arrived at iFLT, I felt pretty good about myself. I’d been teaching with CI for 3.5 years (notice the .5? Don’t do that. Don’t switch in the middle of the year, it will be bad. Maybe ADD one or two techniques to your practice, but don’t overhaul it entirely. Even if you are totally on board and can’t wait to get started. Trust me on this one.) Anyway, I’d been teaching with CI for 3.5 years, I knew the basics of pretty much all the standard CI techniques, I was able to help out lots of beginners and intermediates. So I was really hoping to get a little idea here, a tweak there, and so on.

I saw a lot of things that I do well. Like the teachers in the language labs, I have words EVERYWHERE in my room. Word walls galore. Especially since I teach levels 1-AP. I try to construct a very positive atmosphere and am the touchy-feely teacher who is all sunshine and rainbows and is annoyingly cheerful most of the time. I do the basic CI techniques pretty well, I just need to toss in some other things here and there to keep them novel.

But the things I needed to change slowly developed like a snowball. It was a little inspirational quote here, a thought there, an off-hand comment by this presenter on the side, that slowly morphed into this big overarching THING in my brain.

Let me back up: Like I said, I am the teacher for Spanishes 1, 2, 3, AP. I posted somewhere in this giant slog o’ blogs that I am 0 for 9 of students taking the AP exam in 2015/2016 and getting a 3 or higher, and that it is a me-problem, not a student-problem. It is not a question of their dedication or intelligence, it is a question of what am I doing wrong to prepare them, and the lightbulb turned on Friday morning as I was standing at the hotel sink brushing my teeth. You know how your brain needs processing time, right, and that’s why you get all your really great thoughts or things finally make sense when you’re doing super mundane things like falling asleep, taking a shower, driving, etc? This was my processing time. (I was also grateful for my long, flat, boring 6 hour drive home to Nebraska because it gave me a ton of processing time from the conference. My brain was pinging like popcorn with ideas and thoughts.)

First of all, by this time, I knew my biggest problem is too much English, and that’s squarely on me. What happens is I want to share as much as possible with my students about life the universe and everything in a class period, and if I do that all in Spanish, there’s no time! Well, first off, I need to either figure it out in Spanish or shut my face. Second off, I have gotten better over the years but my inner grammarian still comes out sometimes and wants to go on long-winded explanations about how this word is related to that one and blah blah blah lost half the class already. In English. I am getting better, but still can improve at redirecting students who want to go way out of bounds with their Spanish. I am terrible at redirecting them back into Spanish if they wander out, BUT I think the fact that I switch into English and stay there tends to give them license to switch to English and stay there.

My secondary issue, that I didn’t realize when I was sitting in Darcy’s AP presentation (considering myself as an AP teacher who knew all the stuff she was talking about… not a Spanish 1-3 teacher who also needs to know about the AP exam) is that my Spanish 1-3 units? Not aligned to the AP themes. And as much as I claim that I have tossed my textbook and gone my own way, that is a falsehood. It’s true that I have tweaked everything to the point that you probably wouldn’t recognize the base units as being from Realidades if I didn’t tell you, but they still follow the thematic units presented in textbooks. Spanish 1 starts with greetings, goodbyes, numbers, weather, colors. Bo-ring. Last year, I struggled because I had this.. stuff.. that I knew I wanted to cover, but I also had these special person interviews that were way more compelling, and I didn’t know how to mix the two, so it ended up being really messy. Now, I’ve learned that I don’t even have to bother doing that stuff in a unit, just do it as time goes by. Start with special person and some really basic stories to get tiene/quiere/va/le gusta cemented and let’s roll.

This also helps me with my problem of my Spanish 3, because I really dislike most of what I teach in Spanish 3. I like my free reading and I like my blogging, and I like my art unit. I like some of my health and wellness unit. I like teaching the subjunctive part in my relationships unit. I love teaching Nos han dado la tierra.┬áBut a lot of it is cobbled together, seems contrived, and I otherwise dislike teaching it, and if I don’t like teaching it, then the kids definitely don’t enjoy learning it. So I was planning to redo a bunch of it this year anyway, and aligning it with the AP themes gives me much more of a direction (especially since there’s a lot of stuff in my AP syllabus that I don’t get to anyway; I might be able to use some of those units with minor adaptations.)

And my tertiary and final problem is the one that hit me, standing at the hotel sink. My AP students did not do well because I did not trust the CI process. I was basically doing some sort of half-CI half-traditional mashup. I did not properly preteach key vocabulary through a short TPRS story, picture, movie, anything. I did not do embedded readings. AP input relies heavily on reading and that’s fine (due to my school’s size we probably do more readings than many CI-based classes just because you can only PQA so much with a class of 4!) but I basically threw the original versions or slightly altered versions of things at my students and said “good luck!” And of course I helped them, but it took for-e-ver because I had to help them so much. (Of course, it did not help that my Spanish 3 could really use more input of conditional/future/perfect tenses.) Because I wanted to cover the content quickly, I didn’t stop to make it – did you guess it? – comprehensible. Teacher fail. And I know on the AP exam students will run into things that are not comprehensible but I want them to acquire as much as they can before said exam. Same with listening exercises. Ironically, looking back at last year, about the only thing I did bother to make comprehensible on a consistent basis is when we watched Gran Hotel, but Gran Hotel is extremely compelling so the students were willing to push through.

So here is my list of changes for this upcoming school year.

  • Adi├│s, bellringers as I currently do them. I will still do opener activities of varying sorts but right now, they are more of a distraction and end up a huge use of English than accomplishing what I want. I normally end up taking this time to ask kids about their day/sports/whatever (hello, PQA) so might as well do it in Spanish.
  • I am making an ingl├ęs/espa├▒ol sign. For me.
  • I am redesigning Spanish 3 and maybe the other levels to align with the AP themes. (I might end up with 2 plan periods this year, but our scheduling is currently a mess due to some factors outside of anyone’s control, so I won’t know for sure until school starts. But that would be pretty sweet. If not this year, then next year.)
  • Add back in brain breaks/brain bursts. I only did them really well one year, but they’re fun, the kids like them, and they’re able to focus better.
  • Stay in Spanish, me.
  • Add emoji faces to my emotions poster. (It’s colorful and has QR codes, but I think the faces will help.)
  • More novelty from all the cool tips I picked up at iFLT.
  • Spanish!!! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
  • Hit the thrift store after this heat wave and get some props for my prop box. For real, this time.
  • Properly preteach vocab in AP, even though it means we might go more slowly on the front end, it means things will go more quickly on the back end AND they will actually acquire more.
  • Spanish. All the time. Seriously. My students can do it and it’s kind of insulting to their intelligence to use English as if they can’t.

So that’s what I want to work on. There’s probably another 10 things that I thought about and promptly forgot because there is always room for improvement. I have my work cut out for me but I love a challenge!

iFLT 2017: Day 3

On day 3, I chose to start my day by observing Grant Boulanger’s language lab. As promised in day 2, I am going to write up my language lab observations in a different post. (I ended up watching a THIRD language lab on Friday because they are just so fun and informative to watch.) So we’ll start with my second session.

Session 2 – Embedded Reading Part 2 – Michele Whaley/Laurie Clarcq

I originally was going to go embedded reading part 1 the day before, but I ended up trading it in for La Maestra Loca’s language lab which turned out to be a fine decision. I have a good grasp on the basics of embedded readings and how they work. This presentation, like many parts of iFLT, was mostly a target-language demo of what it looks and feels like (this time, in Russian!) but some salient points the presenters made are these:

  • Remember to leave thinking time!!! As teachers (of any sort) we frequently want students to answer the question before we’re done even asking, when that’s not how questioning and answering happens in normal conversation.
  • We have to remind students to tell us if things aren’t clear – that’s a normal part of communication. (True story: I was talking to native speakers yesterday and getting into unknown vocabulary, and they were starting to talk very quickly, so I had to ask the woman to repeat herself. Lo and behold, she wasn’t offended or angry, she slowed down, repeated herself, and changed her language slightly so I could get it and we could solve her problem! That’s how language works in reality!!!)
  • Big important note: why did students read before comprehensible input? To get ready for the test. What are they doing? Trying to find the bits they understand. How much do they understand? About 30%.
  • In a CI classroom, why do students read? To get information. What are they doing? Focusing on the message. How much do they understand? Depends on purpose and who’s doing the leading. 85% gets you comprehension, 90-95% with teacher support leads to acquisition, 95-100% alone leads to acquisition. That being said, we were shown examples of gibberish plus English to show the different percentage levels and anything under 95 is really unpleasant. (Later, in the BVP/Krashen talk, Dr. Krashen hypothesized that higher interest would lead to higher tolerance of ‘noise’.)

Then we went into a typical embedded reading scenario reading about a penguin who swims from Argentina to Brazil every year to visit a man who washed him off when he was a baby penguin. We did a short TPRS story to introduce the vocabulary, then about a 5-line version one of the story while Michele read. (Yes, she put the actual Russian up there while she read aloud.) For the next version, she had a few of us go up and act it out. Another way to possibly do this is to have the kids do a read-and-draw type activity, but leave a few extra boxes at the bottom. That’s where the NEW information they find out from the subsequent readings goes.

Another idea they suggested is to quickly smash kids into small groups (a director + actors) and have them act out the story SILENTLY while the director films on their phone. Then they submit their silent movies to you, and you can use their movies as a potential MovieTalk. I love this idea because 1) less work that I have to do, 2) kids love seeing themselves, 3) moooooorrreeee input!

Even though I consider myself a pretty okay embedded reading user (two of my favorite stories to teach are authres stories embedded-reading-ified down for students), this session helped me realize that the reason that these SUPER AMAZING STORIES unfortunately tend to fall flat with my kids is because we just read the stories, check for comprehension, and that’s it. I don’t put in other activities with them, which is a note for this year.


On Thursday, there was an hour Q&A with Bill VanPatten and Dr. Krashen, which I have zero notes on because I was enraptured with their presence. (Seriously. I sat 4th row, dead center, and it was the only thing I was EARLY to this entire week.) They were knowledgeable and hilarious and I really wish they had time for more questions. But I’ve always got my Tea with BVP!

Session 3 – Reader’s Theatre – Karen Rowan

I chose this session for two reasons. One, because I sort of do reader’s theatre but I’m not great at it. Two, because I coach drama at my school but I’m not great at it. ┬áThe basics of reader’s theatre aren’t terribly difficult: find an entertaining passage in what you’re reading, usually a novel, and act it out. However, after watching Karen’s session, I realized why I’m not so great at it. To have a good reader’s theatre, you have to be adequately prepared with the right kinds of props. #1, I said last year “Oh, I’m going to start a prop box” (I even have a 3-drawer rolling cart with 2 empty drawers for props!) but I never got around to it and #2, I never went through and specifically said THIS WILL BE THE DRAMATIC SECTION (even though we do, for example, Casi Se Muere and we absolutely should act out the part where Pepe is choking and Ana saves his life and then Jaime stomps over). I usually just decided that morning if the kids had enough energy. As a side note, I also think that even if you’re thinking, eeeeh I don’t think my kids would really be into this, having the right kind of ridiculous props will help. In my case, my problem is small numbers due to our enrollment so I usually don’t have enough bodies after Spanish 1.

We acted out a scene from Don Quijote (the version written by Karen Rowan herself so it was exceptionally fun and entertaining) and here are my notes during our experience and on her post-experience talk:

  • We are not teaching students to decode words, we are teaching them to make pictures in their head.
  • The students technically have their books but they’re not really looking at them. (This made me felt better because I always had an internal conflict between, we’re supposed to be reading, but how can they watch the acting and read at the same time.) Some teachers might type out scripts instead and some novel teacher guides even include reader’s theatre scripts that are easier to hold than the book.
  • Karen had written out the dialogue on big pieces of cardboard on BOTH sides so the actor could hold it up and read it and the audience could also see and read it. She later suggested using markerboards too.
  • It’s important for the class to keep the energy up or you, the teacher, have to provide all the energy and that is exhausting.
  • You can redo chunks of the story in rewind, fast forward, slow-mo – just don’t overdo it.
  • Designate a photographer to take pictures as you go, then use those pictures in a retell.
  • Project a photo as a backdrop!
  • Use chairs and tables as staging, just make good decisions.
  • Stop at the moment of maximum interest to get those language reps in. (Should he yell at the bully? Will she ask the cute boy on a date? etc.)
  • Then, once you get to the actual reading of the chapter, just read it. You’ve already acted it out; the kids know what happens.

Session 4 – AP through a CI Lens – Darcy Pippins

The final session of the day on a very long Thursday was focused on preparing students for the AP exam and how CI can do that just as effectively as traditional programs. AP scores just came in for the last school year, and well. I’ve got 2 years of AP under my belt and I am 0-for-9 of students receiving passing scores. Let me be clear: this is a me-problem and not a student-problem but I will address this more in my wrap-up/changes for 2017-2018 post. Darcy had a great presentation but I didn’t take a whole ton of notes because I felt her target audience wasn’t necessarily current AP teachers, but rather teachers who were part of programs that feed into AP and how to get those students prepared from the bottom up. A lot of the information was on the six themes of the AP exam and stuff I was already familiar with due to my AP training a few years ago. One thing I did NOT know that will certainly be useful is that apparently you can ask for your students’ materials back? It costs something or other, but if I can see what my students did on the test, that would be very helpful in saying “Oh. Yeeeeeah this is what I need to fix.” (Right now, that answer is: all the things.)

One thing that it did trigger in my brain is that I can do a much better job aligning my lower level Spanish units to the 6 AP themes. Which is good, because I really dislike my Spanish 3 units and I want to trash a lot of them this year and do something completely different.

Notes to self aside, Arianne Dowd did a much better job actually writing up what Darcy talked about over on the CI Peek blog so if you are interested in that, head over and check it out.

My last session gets a whole post all to itself because it was probably the most enlightening of all the sessions I went to (and again, I went to it on a whim. Best decision ever.) But it will probably be a lot shorter. Yay!

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.