Novels + paragraph shrinking + Kagan = success

This week, I am battling a severe case of summer slide. The kids are tired, the weather is nice, and I’ve been battling some health problems of my own that make it hard to be my best self. At this point, we still have 2 useable weeks left but trying to fight for attention when doing teacher-guided input is a losing battle. I spend more time redirecting the students than actually producing input.

So I decided to use my teacher brain to combine all of my best practices into one super lesson to save my sanity. In Spanish 2, we are reading Blaine Ray’s Casi se muere. Reading novels is the best way to increase vocabulary and is a generally awesome comprehensible input device. Then, I added paragraph shrinking. I learned this in my Adolescent Literacy Learning cohort but it’s very possible many of you are already familiar with it. If you’re not, paragraph shrinking is a simple summarizing technique where students read a paragraph, then try to distill the information of the paragraph into one single sentence. I loved this because it strengthens student paraphrasing skills as well as forcing them to create complex sentences to get all the relevant information into one sentence. Finally, I used the Kagan strategy of Round Robin + Coach/Consensus, however you want to call it. (It’s okay if you have no idea what a Kagan strategy is or how to use them; I’ve outlined it below.) So here’s what it looked like:

  • Students are in groups.
  • One student reads a paragraph/chunk aloud.
  • The whole group is responsible for interpreting the paragraph and coming up with a summary sentence.
  • Each student writes the group consensus sentence on their paper.
  • Move to the next student in the group and repeat.

One thing I emphasized to my students is that when they are done with a summary, it should still make sense. It should be a very short, to the point version of the story, but not missing any major action or details. I chose to have my students do their summaries in English (as a formative comprehension check for me) but you could also have them do it in the target language – just account for it taking waaaaaay more time. This technique did take a whole class period to get through 5 pages, but it could take less time if you don’t have the students read aloud, if you do the reading aloud or use a prerecorded reading, or if they’ve done this before.

Here is an example paragraph shrink from a group that struggles with reading comprehension in many of their classes:

It’s the first day of school and Ana saves a life. Pepe Ayala almost dies when he chokes on a piece of meat. Nobody helped Pepe because he had no friends. Teresa says how he has no friends. Someone tries to save his life and the meat falls out of his mouth and hits Jaime on the shirt. Pepe doesn’t care about Jaime but Ana does. Pepe thanks Ana for saving his life before Jamie yells at Pepe for making him look stupid. Then Ana tells the story in a letter.

Wasn’t that awesome?? It has lengthy sentences, it makes sense, and it’s in student-friendly language. My only regret is not implementing this strategy earlier. And the best part is, it works for any topic, any reading, any class! I plan to use this more frequently next year because I was extremely pleased with the results.

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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.

Declarative vs. procedural knowledge

Right now, I am in the midst of teaching my novels and this year has been so easy. Some of my upper level students have completed 3 or 4 novels this year and I only plan to add more. Of course, the trouble is deciding what to take out! But as I see my students’ abilities soar, I know I can’t go back. My students don’t believe me when I say they are way better at Spanish than I was at their age – after all, I became a Spanish teacher, so I must’ve been some sort of wizard. That’s not true at all, because I was taught Spanish in a declarative knowledge way.

Speaking a foreign language is procedural knowledge, but we used to teach them like declarative knowledge. If you’ve never heard these terms before, declaritive knowledge is facts: the atomic number of hydrogen is one. Cats are felines. The sky is perceived as blue. The kinds of facts that you can google. And I was taught Spanish like that. The yo form of tener is tengo. The tú form is tienes. The él form is tiene, and so on. And then there is this problem where I was taught in a declarative knowledge sort of way (facts, statements) and then asked to do procedural knowledge task. Procedural knowledge is basically doing stuff. Like describing how to ride a bike. How do you ride a bike? I mean, you can tell someone how to do it: you put your foot on the pedals and your butt on the seat, and then you kinda just… go. But you can’t teach the actual skill of riding a bike to them; they have to figure it out on their own. And language is the same way. It’s a skill, not a statement.

As language teachers, the kinds of activities we have students do reflect whether we are asking them to enact procedural knowledge or declarative knowledge. When I was learning Spanish, we did the workbooks and the grammar sheets and all that, and that meant by the time I got to college, I had a hard time actually using my Spanish. I could read and write at a decent level but I couldn’t speak very well. I was always very nervous. My grammar was all over the place. And I realize now it was a two prong problem: #1, I spent so much time working on grammar through worksheets that I didn’t have enough enriching input and repetitions to actually acquire what I was learning. Anecdotal evidence and research studies tell us the grammar will fix itself, for the most part. There are times where we need to step aside and point out grammatical errors, but for the most part, grammar and pronunciation will fix itself with enough input. My knowledge of Spanish was very wide but also very shallow. Yes, technically I had seen and ‘learned’ nearly every grammatical facet of Spanish from present to past subjunctive, from direct objects to the personal a. But I couldn’t apply most of it without major help from Profesor Systranet (the only translator that was even half-decent back in 2002), my gigantic paper dictionary, and the 501 Spanish Verbs.

A wonderful example happened just today when I was working through Pobre Ana with my Spanish 1 students. The sentence is something like ‘-¿Tienen amigos? ¿Estudian en su escuela?- les dice Ana.’ I asked, ‘Okay, so we know le dice very well. Why is it les dice here?’ And when I asked that, one of my students very confidently answered, ‘Because she’s talking to more than one person.’ This is a student that, teaching the declarative way, I would’ve lost after the first quarter. But here she is at the end of the year, confidently and accurately using indirect object pronouns. I couldn’t do that until I had been studying Spanish for years.

Problem #2: I was taught in a declarative way and then asked to do a procedural task. So we learned about Spanish and then asked on the test to do something in Spanish. As you can imagine, this did not go well. The only book I ever read in class was Pobre Ana, and we read it in Spanish 2. And some very capable students still couldn’t do it. Yikes. Maybe we read a little bit more in Spanish 3 and 4. I remember writing a speech, but I don’t remember reading any longer stories. It’s probable that we read some short stories, but I don’t really remember. When my sister took Spanish, we had the same Spanish 1 teacher and different teachers after that. They didn’t read very much either until they read an adaptation of Don Quixote in Spanish 4. So you have these kids who have not read much of anything in Spanish except maybe Pobre Ana, and then ask them to read Don Quixote. Now, Kayla isn’t as naturally talented at languages as I am, but she didn’t have a clue. There were maybe 2 kids who could barrel their way through it, but that wasn’t really learning. They didn’t have the background knowledge. It wasn’t comprehensible. They hadn’t had nearly enough reading practice to tackle something like that successfully.

So this is just another call for comprehensible input, and that you have to teach your kids like you’re going to assess them. But the real life assessment of Spanish is: can you use it to communicate? Ironically, I keep having this problem where I forget to formally assess my students because I assess them informally multiple times a day. If I ask a question and they can’t answer, then I know they’re not at the level where I want them to be. But the vast majority of students have a far greater working knowledge of Spanish than I had at their age. For example, I asked my Spanish 2 students the other day (after reading a story in past tense) ‘¿El doctor recomendió que Chester tomara la medicina?‘ This was their first time EVER hearing or seeing past subjunctive, but they were able to understand the question and respond appropriately. Even though they’ve never heard tomara but we’ve seen tomó la medicina and toma la medicina so tomara la medicina must have something to do with taking medicine.

If we want our students to do a procedural task like read and speak Spanish, they have to practice with lots of reading and speaking. We cannot teach a procedural task in a declarative way and then expect our students to perform well. The more comprehensible input we give them now, and more practice we give them with completing tasks that require them to communicate with their language (not just about their language), the better we are preparing them to use their language outside of the classroom.

Using novels in the classroom

As I wind down my 5th year of teaching, I am entering my 3rd year of teaching novels. I originally wrote a grant to get enough money to purchase 1 class set of books, 1 for each level that I teach. I hadn’t yet heard of TPRS Publishing, so I ended up getting all of mine from Blaine Ray. Over the years, I have changed the way I teach novels and how I use them in the classroom.

Year one

Let’s be clear here: I had NO idea what I was doing. Even though I received CI training during my undergrad, my little novice teacher brain just wasn’t ready for it. So my first two years of teaching, I was strict by-the-book with a few extras thrown in. Any CI was purely incidental. But I knew reading novels was good, so I asked for the money and received it thanks to the wonderful people in my school’s foundation. We read Pobre Ana when I was in high school, so I figured that was a good place to start. I ordered my texts and figured I would start reading them in 4th quarter because then the students would have learned all the things they need to know!

So technically the first year was a success because we made it through the books. In many ways, it was not a success.

-I didn’t differentiate techniques for different levels because I didn’t really have any idea how to structure questioning (in English or Spanish – remember, I’d been trained on how to teach vocabulary, grammar, and culture separately, not all three at once!)

-I tested the fun right out of the kids. Pre-test, post-test, vocab and comprehension quizzes every other day.

-I tested over WAY, WAY, WAY too much vocabulary. My thought was, ‘if we haven’t used it before, it must appear on the vocab sheet’.

-Everyone had the same final product (a vocabulary/comprehension behemoth test) regardless of proficiency level or interest.

-I had every class read more or less at the same time, and because we weren’t very good readers, I had to read the chapter aloud. For 7 periods of the day. I didn’t want to use just a recording because I wanted to be able to stop and ask questions when necessary. This was a terrible choice.

-I did the novels all at once. Quite frankly, 7 periods of doing nothing but novels for 2 weeks at the end of the year was nothing short of torture for both me and the kids.

-I had the teacher’s guides, but hadn’t had TPRS training so I had no idea what a parallel story was, why some of the questions asked about things that clearly were not mentioned in the story, and so on, so I didn’t utilize them very effectively.

Year two

Last year, I taught novels again, but I made some adjustments. Last year went much better, but there were still some problems to resolve.

-My students were better prepared to read, but we still struggled a lot, especially in the classes that were reading in past tense.

-I had found out about TPRS Publishing and realized that the Blaine Ray stories are pretty rote (there is a person/they go to a Spanish speaking country/something related to the title happens/they go home and are a better person). I think part of the problem was lack of interest, but it was too late to order new titles. I feel that the other publishers do a better job of writing more creative stories, especially for novices.

-I did order teacher sample packs of various books to browse over the summer and to use as potential free reading in my classroom.

-I changed my study guide. I cut the vocabulary down to a few key terms per chapter, and also refocused the questions in it to just be about the story. I asked personal questions during class.

-I allowed my upper level classes to choose to read on their own or as a group.

-I still was very stupid and had ALL my students read ALL at the same time ALL at the end of the year. Again, it was a terrible idea and I regretted it as soon as I realized I had planned my unit that way, but I was out of time.

-My biggest and best change was adding choice to their final projects. I ended up getting some really amazing stuff, including a trivia game about the book, many cartoons using Powtoon or Moovly, a fantastic BitStrip, and even a student who loves computers who coded his own multiple-choice quiz in BASIC.

Year three

So this year, I have 2 years of using novels under my belt. I also added free reading to my Spanish 3 and 4 classes this year, as well as primarily using storytelling in levels 1 and 2. This means this year’s students are way more prepared to read than any students I have had, and it shows. I’ll have a separate post on my FVR program (it’s extraordinarily simple) but for this one, suffice to say: it has been working for me.

This year, I am also working on a grant to add more novels to my classroom. I plan to add Brandon Brown quiere un perro to my Spanish 1s, La tumba for Spanish 2, Spanish 3 is when students start FVR and I’d rather have them have maximum time for choice reading, and in AP Spanish I intend to add La guerra sucia as part of a unit on the Dirty War. I also asked for money to add to my FVR library, although I think after this year I’ll be set up enough to use my regular discretionary funds to maintain it.

In any case, I am just now starting my novels for the year, and here’s the changes I’ve made.

-I plan to read aloud with my two classes that have the most difficulty with reading (mostly due to learning disabilities), but the other classes get to pick. The best part is, I can be confident that the students who read alone have the ability because we have been practicing all year long.

-No more study guides except as an optional guide to help them for their final project. In the classes where read together, we stop and talk every paragraph or so (in English or Spanish, depending on the purpose of my questioning) so everyone understands. For those who read alone, I have them fill out my FVR log. The point is for them to get the main idea of the story, not every single word.

-No more vocab. I don’t need to, because we have practiced es/está/tiene/quiere/puede/etc. so much during the rest of the year that they are much better equipped to use context clues and identify cognates as they read. I can help them with the occasional ‘out of bounds’ word or phrase. I also pre-teach new vocabulary I want them to acquire (not just comprehend momentarily for the sake of the story).

-The best change is that each class is reading throughout the 4th quarter, and each level reads on a different day. This keeps the reading from becoming tedious (for them and me) and also helps me be more flexible in my planning, since so many of my students are gone for school activities in the spring. It also leaves plenty of time for them to complete their final project, rather than having to rush it because we’ve only got 1 day of school left.

In the future

If my grant is approved, that leaves me with 2 class novels per year in each level besides Spanish 3, plus FVR in Spanish 3 and AP Spanish. I think that’s a pretty healthy number. I have samples of all of the novels from Blaine Ray, TPRS Publishing, and Mira Canion, but there are always more series starting to crop up on Amazon and other places. Even if you don’t use the other parts of TPRS, I think that attending a workshop is beneficial to learning to teach a novel because in my workshop, we explicitly discussed it, and even if yours doesn’t, learning how to question through a book makes it so much easier to teach. Maybe someday, I’ll even do literature circles… but I only get 185 contact days with the students, so I have to pick and choose.

Do you have any other novel recommendations? I also hope this post provides some guidance to newer teachers who are just starting to teach novels for the first time. Like anything else, it’s a bit of a mess the first time around but it gets easier from there!

Getting the hang of it – a successful lesson

Hello, dear readers! I have been spending most of my last week preparing for (and then going to) my roller derby bout in Minnesota against the Minnesota Rollergirls. Unfortunately, my team got utterly destroyed, but MRG is a very hospitable team and the people in general were exceptionally nice. (Maybe it’s because they’re so close to Canada?) So if any of you are up near the Twin Cities, do yourself a favor and go see the Minnesota Rollergirls at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. It’s a good time.

In any case, last week I had a fairly successful lesson. It was a lesson-within-a-lesson, if you will. My Spanish 3s were working in their employment unit and I had been sneaking in present perfect under the context of ‘what have you done to prepare for your job.’ While brainstorming, I remembered a very important short story I read in my Mexican Literature class I took when I studied in Mexico. It’s called ‘Nos han dado la tierra’ by Juan Rulfo. I loved his work so much that I chose to write my mid-term essay on his stories, which I still have posted on my fridge because I was so proud of my A in Mexico. ‘Nos han dado’ is only about 6 pages long, and Rulfo wasn’t a serial writer (he released a short novel and a collection of short stories, that’s all) but he wrote a lot about the Mexican Revolution, poverty, work or the lack thereof… see where I’m going here? What a great way to smash a cultural topic, advanced vocabulary, and the target grammar structure all into one lesson!

The unit took about 5 days total, but I think they were 5 well-spent days. Because my students had no background knowledge of the Mexican Revolution, we watched a short video about that. The video I chose is a good source of information, but we also get to have a short discussion on bias, because it is clearly angled from a revolutionary’s point of view.

The second day, we read a short biography that I summarized for my students about Juan Rulfo. His life experiences weren’t as influential in his work as some artists’ lives are, but I still think it’s good for students to know about it. It provides more necessary background knowledge to fully understanding the work.

Finally, the last three days were focused on actually going through the story. I adapted it to fit my class levels. Since my Spanish 3s have such a varying difference in ability, I actually made two adaptations. One thing I found difficult was keeping enough of the original language for my students to understand the flavor and emotion that Rulfo was injecting into his words while still keeping it comprehensible. For this reason, I also wanted them to think in Spanish as much as possible – so much of the beauty of language gets lost in translation. The first day, we grabbed laptops (we will be going 1:1 with laptops next year which will be both awesome and frustrating at the same time) and I had them look up words I had underlined as essential vocabulary. Then I gave the option to write a definition in Spanish for 5 words, or draw a picture for 10. Everyone opted to draw the picture.

The second day was working on pronunciation and our skim-reading. Something I often have students do is just read the article out loud (in groups, in Spanish) with a focus on pronouncing the words correctly. This is a great time to listen for common errors (like my personal pet peeve, speaking wonderful Spanish until running into a number which is instantly put into English – especially dates) and then address them together at the end. Then I handed out the comprehension questions and asked students to get the main gist of each section. I always do my comprehension in English because I want to know whether or not my students truly understand what they’re reading. Otherwise, I often find that they can find and copy the answer, but have no idea what it says.

The last day of the unit, we went over the story together as a class, completely in Spanish. This time, I acted out some parts and put other passages into simpler Spanish to help everyone along. I think next year, I might make little cue cards and have students be my actors as I read through the story. (I didn’t think of that until after we were done with it, of course.) I also decided to give them a quick vocabulary quiz a few days later, but it was intended to be a check for me, not for them. I picked the 10 vocabulary words that were often chosen by the kids to draw, found some images, and had them put the Spanish word with the picture. All but 3 students aced it, so I know that part of my lesson was a success.

Next year, there are a few minor tweaks and changes I’d like, and having full-time access to laptops will change things a bit, but this was a good unit and I’m glad I stopped to take the time to do it. It was far more fun to teach and use present perfect verbs in context (plus mountains of rich vocabulary – which, by the way, included words like tierra, contra, and gobierno that they are now running into when talking about the Venezuela protests which will then lead into our work with the Cuban Revolution later this week.) It sure beats going through yet another worksheet of verb drills.

If you’re someone who is trying to teach with literature and not sure how, hopefully this lesson setup and outline is helpful to you!