iFLT 2017: Language lab recaps

One of the really cool things about iFLT is the language labs. These are opportunities to see real life teachers in action with real life students doing typical activities you might see in their classroom. Originally, I wasn’t even sure I was going to see a language lab – I was all about the sessions. I ended up watching three language labs with three different teachers in three different levels (though all in Spanish). Next time I go to iFLT (because there will definitely be a next time), I might just spend all of my mornings in language labs and go to sessions in the afternoons, because for me, they are THAT instructional. They are great for beginning teachers to see ‘oh, this is what it looks like.’ For intermediates, it’s more about picking up a full technique here or there. For me, as an experienced teacher, it was little tweaks that I can do to make my teaching just a bit more effective here and there.

I do think some teachers were a little put off – I mean, these kids are probably the super whiz kids because who would come to school in the summer, right? I didn’t ask the lab teachers, but I don’t agree. I saw some kids in Annabelle’s session that had a serious cases of the wiggles. There were a few kids in Grant’s session that I think he had a hard time reading and drawing into the conversation, and one of them was hilarious but also kept going on English tangents. Mark’s session was special – he teaches in Denver, so he was teaching an intermediate Spanish with his own regular students! (They had Spanish 1 with him this past year.) But there were students that in that hour and fifteen minutes, that followed him with their eyes and participated with gestures and chorally but never volunteered a singleton response. Probably not his superstars, but they were there regardless.

Unless stated otherwise, for these writeups, assume the teacher is speaking in the TL.

Elementary novice language lab – La Maestra Loca

Annabelle started the class by reviewing what the students knew about John, their magdalena (muffin) one word image from the previous day. I was amazed at the huge vocabulary these elementary students already knew from just a few hours of language instruction. She then very quickly switched to English and explained how they were going to tell a story using the storycubes. She then went back to Spanish and told AND MODELED how to draw pictures for the different categories on the storycubes, then put the kids in the groups and let them get to work.

She was about to start the story but realized she needed to explain to her class artist what to do, so she sent the students to their coloring spots (coloring sheets posted around the room) to color SILENTLY while she explained to the artist what his job was as she told the story. When she was ready, she called them back to their seats and told the story, having a student roll a cube as necessary for the details. They were able to finish the story and then moved into a MovieTalk. Since MovieTalks were new to this class, she quickly switched to English, established rules with the class, and then my notes stop so either 1) we ran out of time or 2) I got too involved with her teaching and didn’t take any more notes. (Probably #2. That happened a lot.)

Special notes about Annabelle’s session

  • Whenever she had to address a student behavior, she didn’t address it out loud (like we might do in high school classes), she whispered in the student’s ear. But she also sometimes gave a single student a specific set of directions in English, also in a whisper, so it was hard to tell when it was a direction and when it was behavior correction. I think this was on purpose.
  • She uses the teacher vs. student game. There’s various variations of this, but she’s blogged about her version here.
  • When doing the story, a student was already showing comprehension by responding with boo-hoos at a sad thing, so Annabelle pulled her up to play the part of John the magdalena.
  • Brain breaks, brain bursts, more brain breaks!
  • Near the end, the response rate was getting pretty sad, so she paused and did a quick survey. Were they tired? Yes. Were they understanding? Yes. Was she going too fast? A few said yes, most said no. This told her that the response rate was not due to the Spanish, just the tiredness factor. (And to be fair, 2 1/2 hours of Spanish class a day is exhausting as an adult, much less when you’re in elementary school!)

Middle school novice language lab – Grant Boulanger

Grant chose to start the class I watched with some PQA. He was working with middle schoolers, who I don’t teach (my program starts in grade 9) but MS kids are… an interesting bunch. After greeting each other, asking how students are doing (one student said he wasn’t doing well, and when asked why, said ‘because I’m here’ and everyone laughed – Grant used it as a moment to reinforce ‘qué lástima / what a shame’) then they moved into a reading on the board about one of the students in the class. In the debrief afterwards, Grant noted that he chose this particular student for the reading, since she came a day late into the class and didn’t know anyone previously (some of the students go to school together), and it was important for her to feel like part of the group. However, Grant didn’t just read the reading straight through, he continued to stop and weave PQA throughout the reading.

As they were reading, they got to a sentence with a lot of cognates and he stopped and did a really cool cognate-recognition activity. He held up his ‘íngles’ sign, switched to English for this short explanation, and then it was right back to Spanish. Whenever he got to a word that was a cognate, he would yell BEÍSBOL, the students said BASEBALL, then he would say the word in question like TELEVISIÓN and the kids would say it in English like TELEVISION. I thought that was a really neat trick and instead of taking a whole day to teach cognates like I normally do at the beginning of Spanish 1, now I can take 30 seconds for explanation, 2 minutes for hardcore practice, then sprinkle in practice throughout the rest of the year.

Then Grant went back to finishing the reading, again sprinkling in PQA. As the students talked, he taught a few rejoinders as appropriate such as ‘no puede ser! (it can’t be!)’ after learning that a student had a black belt in tae kwon do. After this, they transitioned into a quick recap of talking about Fred, their intelligent but irresponsible 5 year old with a beard from the day before, and then transitioned into a story from there. I stopped taking notes because, and I quote, “stopped taking notes cause I got sucked into the story, sorry – door kid was great tho”. Sorry for anyone in that session with me, I was laughing annoyingly loudly the entire time.

Special notes about Grant’s session

  • Grant teaches the alphabet, but in context. During the reading portion, he took maybe 30 seconds with his laser pointer, and said ‘I’m going to point to a letter, you tell me its name.’ That was it. Later, when he was putting up bonus vocabulary on the board (in this case, película) he had a student spell the English equivalent, movie, in Spanish as he wrote it on the paper. Brilliant! Because really, the Spanish alphabet is pretty easy except for g/h/i/j/ñ/x/y/z.
  • Grant only used one brain break, but it was a class builder – it was a mix-pair-share (he didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was if you’re familiar with my beloved Kagan strategies) and describe a connection that two students have with each other (in the TL). So for example, Grant, the profe’s name is Grant, but there was also a student named Grant. Connexión! This was something that apparently came up 100% organically in this language lab but when your kids give you something awesome as a teacher, you run with it.
  • Grant beautifully deflected questions that would require a lengthy translation/explanation in English with ‘let’s talk about that at the break’. I am terrible at this and waste a lot of class time.

High school intermediate language lab – Mark Mallaney

As I type this up, I realize that there are very few actual notes on this session. I watched for an hour and fifteen minutes and this class did PQA and a story. That’s it. Their PQA centered around what one of the kids was doing that weekend (he was doing to a party) and what should we, all these teachers, do while we are in Denver. Then they moved into a pretty typical storytelling scenario and I took absolutely no notes because I was too busy watching and laughing about Shrektuga and his…her? (Shrektuga was played by a girl) love, who had a beautiful smile of 3 teeth and the backroom deal with a character whose name I forget to get more teeth from the tooth fairy.

Special notes from Mark’s session

  • Mark stayed 100% in the TL.
  • Because Mark was working with his school year students, his session was full of in-jokes and personal touches that make our jobs, specifically, as world language teachers so fun. I have a bunch of kids that I can walk up to and say ‘ji ji ji’ (with the English j) and or ‘hey, you guys, I learned to speak crouton this summer!’ and that’s OUR thing and nobody else shares that with us. That sense of community is vital.
  • He did not stop for comprehension checks nearly as much as Annabelle or Grant. One, his kids did a magical job of keeping eyes on him, even if they were not verbally offering any output. Two, Mark is a funny guy and when students were laughing along, or even just smiling that told him that they were understanding what was going on.
  • Even though I knew the wonder of using CI, the speaking ability of his students blew me away. I thought by ‘intermediate’ they meant kids going into year 3 or maybe even year 4 of Spanish. Nope. I asked them at break and they said they had taken one year and these kids were saying stuff I could read and produce grammatically in writing (definitely not SAY in a sentence) in COLLEGE. I was astounded.
  • I could tell Mark’s students were intermediates because a few times they made up words (esprinkles, haha) but that shows they were trying to create with the language with the schema they had in their head, and that’s awesome.

General language lab thoughts and observations

  • All three teachers stressed that community, a sense of belonging and caring, is very important to them and their classroom. There was a time in my teaching career where I was not so good at this in general. There was a very specific time with a specific group of students in my career where I outright destroyed my own classroom community. A snide comment here, a sharp tone there. That’s all it took. And not only did I lose the trust of those students, I lost their friends, I lost their parents, I lost their siblings. (Well, I hope I didn’t totally lose all their siblings because I have a few coming up as freshmen this year and I hope I have proven I can right my wrongs.)
  • All three had clear lines of when English use was appropriate and when it was not, and they enforced those lines for their students and themselves.
  • All three were compelling, competent, and fun to watch, but had their own style of teaching. Annabelle is like me – wacky, energetic, goofy, running around with high-fives, and really good at being hugely dramatic for effect. Grant is hilarious but low-key (which I expect a guy like Bryce Hedstrom is in his class, too). He’s not bouncing off the walls, and even taught for a bit sitting down! But don’t confuse that for being low-energy, because his class was definitely energetic. And then Mark was somewhere in between. His class was able to contribute more to the discussion since they have more language, which means he didn’t have to pour as much of his own energy into the class to keep it running smoothly.
  • I liked seeing that yes, I do a lot of the same things these master teachers do in my own classroom, so I am using the CI techniques in the correct manner. (Not playing the comparison game, though! Everyone loses when you play the comparison game.) However, I can take little ideas like Grant’s alphabet thing or Annabelle’s storycubes to make what I do even better and easier.

So if you have a chance to make it to iFLT, do yourself a favor and watch a language lab or five. There really is no substitute for being able to observe a master teacher in action, especially if you teach out in the boonies like me. You won’t regret it!