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 conjuguemos.com to practice. Every single one of them also chose to use conjuguemos.com 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.

Hitting the 90% target for upper levels

Something that’s been on my mind as I progress through this school year is the ACTFL recommendation of 90% target language use by the teacher. Technically, in my undergraduate program, we went through all the ACTFL stuff (modes, proficiencies, and so on) but I don’t feel like I had enough background myself to fully understand what it all meant. Now, I know my proficiencies like the back of my hand and can tell a student instantly where I think they’re landing (and whether or not that is meeting our proficiency goal, and if not, what they can improve to get there). I can rattle off my Spanish standards without a second thought. (Nebraska’s are more or less exactly the same as ACTFL’s, so that helps.) So when I was a novice teacher, none of these things came to mind since I was mostly worried about surviving and not so much about thriving.

But now I’m at a point in my career where I’ve got the survival part down and I am now polishing my program to make it the best it can be. I am super proud to announce that I agreed to teach Advanced Placement Spanish at my school in the 2015-2016 school year. As far as I know, it will be the first Advanced Placement course offered at East Butler (although we offer a few other courses that are of equally high caliber for our high ability students, they just don’t have the designation). I am equal parts excited and terrified, because I want my students to do well on their AP exam but I also know that knowing Spanish does not necessarily equate to doing well on the exam. And also, holy smokes, I’m teaching an AP class!

The thing is, ACTFL recommends 90% target language use by the teacher. The AP designation asks you to specifically state in your syllabus that the teacher will speak 100% target language and encourage the students to do the same. However, I think it’s far more difficult to hit even the 90% target with upper level students than it is with younger ones.

In the lower level classes, especially if you’re a storytelling teacher, it’s actually very easy to hit the 90% goal. It’s easy to ‘stay in bounds’ because everyone is still mostly within the same vocabulary boundaries. If I do a story day or something that involves boatloads of input, the only time I really need to break TL use is for disciplinary purposes. (I make sure to do those in English, just to ensure there’s no ‘I didn’t understand I was in trouble’.)

But once we move into Spanish 3 and 4, I run into the problem of having wider and wider variations of ability. The very lowest self-select out of Spanish, but in this year’s Spanish 4, I have students ranging from intermediate-low to advanced-low. The vocabulary difference between those students is huge – but because I can’t climb into their heads and see exactly which words they’re comprehending, I don’t know how to stay in bounds for the lower students while still challenging the higher students.

There is also the difficulty of grammar explanation in the higher levels, because that’s when students have finally had enough input to make some minor focusing on grammar worth it. I have switched to pop-up grammar for the last 2 years, but my older students were started with the good ol’ worksheet method, which means their grammar is often less accurate because they spent less time seeing and hearing correct grammar in context and acquiring it. Yesterday, one of my high ability Spanish 3s asked me to grammatically explain nominal subjunctive to her. She’s someone who is to the point where teaching her the requirements (trigger word, ‘que’, change in subject) will improve her accuracy because her brain is ready to use that information – that’s why she asked. I guess I could’ve fumbled my way through telling her in Spanish, but it would’ve taken 20 minutes and she might not understand. Or I could take 5 minutes and explain in English, and be done with it.

And then there’s the actual teaching. Chris Pearce, who does teaching comics on his super cool blog that you should totally check out, Teachable Moments, posted a very timely comic that pretty much sums up my dilemma:

Due to the nature of Spanish 4, I don’t use a lot of target language. It’s because I don’t use a lot of language at all! Whereas at the novice level, I have to lead students through every little thing, by the time the majority of the students have reached intermediate and can create their own sentences, I’m not needed nearly as much. I go from telling a 30 minute story in 3rd period (Spanish 1) to asking my students to read the article and answer the questions, then sitting quietly at my desk (Spanish 4). I do use more target language when we do interpersonal mode stuff because their speaking is a little weak (my fault) but again, Spanish 4/AP Spanish is mostly student-led discussion. Is it cheating to hit your 90% because you literally only need to give directions and then occasionally circulate and ask students if they need help? (They usually don’t.) I actually feel somewhat lost during those classes, because I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t need to sit there and stare at them, but I also don’t want to appear to be ignoring my students if an administrator walks in. I usually do ‘fluffy’ things (check #langchat, read my blog feed, organize) but maybe there’s a better way. Or maybe it’s okay that I use such little Spanish because my students are getting their input from authentic resources, and not so much student-modified language from me.

What do you think?

Personal growth

Hello dear readers! It seems like ages since I’ve posted. One of my not-so-well-kept secrets is that, in addition to teaching Spanish by day, by night I am a fierce roller skating queen. Well… I don’t know about fierce, but I do play for the No Coast Derby Girls here in Lincoln. We’re currently prepping for our Saturday bout against Fargo/Omaha and it’s my first time playing with the newly formed Thunder Dames. We practice 3-4 times a week at 2-3 hours per practice, plus we go to the gym, so that usually leaves very little time for other stuff… like blogging or sleeping. I’m hoping to get back to a more regular pattern once things settle down again.

Anyway, I also spent some time this weekend with non-derby friends. One of them mentioned he wished he would have actually paid attention in high school Spanish because, as it turns out, speaking a foreign language is a useful life skill. Who knew? But he was frustrated because it would take him way too long. I told him, he’s wrong. Does it take time? Absolutely. Does it take dedication? You bet. But his goal is not to reach advanced levels, he just wants to have basic conversations. I’d say that’s an intermediate mid level by ACTFL standards, and I think that an adult who puts in 5 hours per week for 1 year, attending to all the modes (especially interpersonal)… he could easily achieve his goal. ‘But I’m really busy,’ he said, ‘I’ve got two kids.’ My response? Great! They can learn with you! Kids (and/or students) are a great motivator to keep pushing the boundaries of your language knowledge.

Which segues into the real meat of this post: what do I do to keep growing as a Spanish learner? I would argue that my Spanish grows more on a daily basis than it ever did in high school or even college. In high school, I did my 45 minutes a day plus homework, but my classes were grammar-based. That’s fine with me because I’m a grammar nerd, but I came into college still being more or less completely unable to hold a conversation in Spanish. I could read and write well enough, but even after 4 years, my interpersonal abilities were negligible. And I was arguably the top non-native Spanish student in my graduating class. Yikes! But how many of us can tell the same story?

In college, I grew even more, but I also had to balance my job, relationships, and other classes on top of my Spanish. It was difficult because the jump from grammar-based non-native speaker Spanish to literature-based native speakers is HUGE. So when I think about what I want my students to be able to do, I want them to not feel like they’re doing i+100 when going from high school to university and/or real life Spanish.

Now, I learn at least one new word/phrase/structure a day, if not more. I’ve been making a big push since Christmas to increase my Spanish use outside of work. At work, I am gaining new words all the time because I have to help my students, but I can handle lower level grammatical tasks with ease. My real work comes from the stuff I’ve decided to do outside of class.

-Listen to more Spanish radio. My local Spanish radio (97.7 El Lobo out of Omaha) plays pop music for a whopping one hour per day. But that one hour, 4-5 pm, is during my commute home. I like to listen for new songs that I like (just to listen to) and ones that could be used in class. Then I can use services like Pandora or Spotify to save those songs and find more artists that I like. Listening to radio ads also have really upped my ability to understand spoken Spanish without having the luxury of facial expressions and gestures. I find listening to numbers especially challenging, so I try to repeat them back to myself.

-Watch Spanish tv. I don’t watch a lot of tv in the first place, so this is a bit of a stretch for me. I mostly prefer comedies – something that Spanish television doesn’t really have. So I have to settle for telenovelas. Right now, I’m working my way through Santa Diabla, which has all the episodes posted on youtube. (They’re posted by Telemundo, so it’s okay! Too bad they’re totally not school appropriate.) It was scary at first to leave my beloved (Spanish) subtitles, but for the most part, I understand 95% of what they’re saying and 100% of what’s happening so… that works for me.

-Read Spanish literature, not just news. I’m finally working my way through Como agua para chocolate which I tried to read while in college, but I just didn’t have the skill. There was way too much cooking-related vocabulary that I didn’t have, and the language is very flowery. Lots of compound past perfects and whatnot. I prefer to work on microcuentos (stories that are only 1-2 pages long) or short stories, because I can reread them multiple times to note grammar usage or reinforce new words in the same amount of time it takes me to read one chapter of a novel.

Of course, these are all strategies we can use to help our students become more proficient in our chosen languages. The more we know, the more knowledge we can disperse! What kinds of things do you do to grow your own language proficiency? Any book recommendations for a sci-fi/fantasy nerd?

When past and present collide

Observing my student teacher today, we ran into a little problem. She’s been creating about half her materials own her own and borrowing half of my previous materials. Unfortunately, she met me at a very strange time in my life (to quote Fight Club) and I’ve been switching from grammar-heavy to more proficiency-based teaching since the beginning of the year.

So today, we’re working on our house unit, which also conveniently incorporates o-ue stemchangers like poder and dormir. Originally, that was how the unit worked: teach rooms in the house, then teach o-ue stemchangers, then teach whatever other grammar points, take the test. Since this year is trying to be more organic, my student teacher came up with a wonderful contextual activity where students had to write about the rules in their house (using ‘no puedes’).

But then she followed up with a worksheet from previous years. In a grammatically based class, the worksheet was great! It was drill practice with all learned stemchangers. The first half of the exercise used words that are on their ‘cheat sheet’, and the second half were words that weren’t on the sheet but followed the same pattern! That way I could assess informally whether or not the kids could take the situations they know and apply them to a new situation.

The problem was… now, with working more phrases and chunks rather than teaching them ‘First, you take the o and change it to a ue. Then you need to match it to your subject and choose your ending appropriately’… they couldn’t do the second half.  In Spanish 1, we really focus on yo/tú interpersonal exchanges and él/ellos retellings as appropriate and less on the usual drill-and-kill practice. They balked. They stalled. I stepped in to explain the situation to my student teacher and showed where we went wrong. After a brief explanation, the students were able to understand what we wanted from them but it really broke the flow of class and put up a huge brick wall in their learning – exactly what we’re trying to NOT do this year.

But it’s okay. It was a learning experience, because my student teacher is also stuck between methods. It’s hard to teach in a manner completely different from how you learned, especially in a situation where you have pretty much no idea what you’re doing in the first place. It’s also an unpleasant reminder that I’m going to have to cull my activities at the end of the year (again) to remove items that are no longer appropriate for my teaching style. But that’s fine – I’m making room for more important things.