iFLT 2017: pause for teaching

Originally, I wasn’t going to blog tonight because I am dead tired. My brain is so full of thoughts and ideas and just… kaboom, ya know? I think everyone is feeling the same way. But I have been talking to many people here and something that has really kind of been a recurring theme is that many of the people who are on the beginner track (and some intermediates) feel like… okay, we got the basic idea of this whole “comprehensible input” thing, we have buy-in, we’ve seen it as students, we’ve been shown what the end product looks like… now what? A lot of them feel as if they are missing a huge middle step, which, technically they are: lots of practice. But I know I didn’t feel like I REALLY got how to do CI until I went to a 3 day TPRS workshop where we spent those entire days practicing circling with a single sentence, then moving up to a paragraph, and then moving on to storyasking small parts of a story as a group, then individually, all under the guidance of a well-trained TPRS teacher. We never did have time to storyask a whole story (there were only 7 of us in that conference but storyasking 7 stories would be a brainsplosion, I think) but we did receive the updated version of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk. Ironically, after a year of teaching TPRS, I didn’t really need the book anymore because I got the pattern down, but the first few chapters are very good about literally scripting every. single. question. you might want to ask as you attempt to ask a story (not even including any of the other potential comprehensible input pieces that you might choose to do along with said story!)

Anyway, after today’s sessions, I was standing near the books with one of my new conference friends and she was looking at them, and I held up Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro and said that I loved teaching it, and she said, “My kids can’t read.” I was very confused, and she clarified that her students have approximately no literacy skills in Spanish though and she has no idea where to start. I told her that for the first chapter, you only need to teach quiere, tiene, perro, stuff I tend to teach within the first week. How? And I launched into a random demo of my PQA lesson where I ask students about their pets in preparation for reading Brandon Brown. To an experienced CI teacher, this is the simplest of simple language, but I realized today that for a newbie, this is terrifying stuff!

And so for my friend Taylor, and any other person who is still not entirely sure what PQA looks or sounds like, here is a pretend script of what it might look like in my class. I found that the best way to start, honestly, was to write out everything I was going to say for my story or PQA. Every sentence, every question. Was it clunky? Oh yeah. Did I have flow? No way. Did I get lost? All the time. But you have to be bad at something first to eventually get better, right?

So without further ado, here is a link to my google doc of a sample script (in English, so any language teacher can see what it would look like) of what PQA about pets might look like.  I hope it helps break down what the language looks like for anyone who got lost along the way.

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Kagan strategies and TPRS

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop hosted by my ESU on Kagan strategies. (I keep telling myself I’m going to take a break from going to workshops/conferences, but I apparently can’t help myself.) I’m also planning to attend iFLT in Denver this summer and Kagan day 2 through the ESU, even though I said I wasn’t going to work this summer. I first heard of Kagan strategies from a friend I met through the AP Spanish workshop a few summers ago. Her classes were gigantic compared to me. My current biggest class is 14 and my largest ever was 23. For my friend, 23 would be absurdly small – hers usually were in the 30s. She swore up and down by the power of Kagan grouping and Kagan strategies, so when I saw the workshop on the calendar, I signed up.

After the workshop, I am a Kagan convert. And you should be too. Here is why: there is nothing about Kagan that you are incapable of doing. When teachers attend workshops, we want strategies that we can implement TOMORROW with no preparation or extra work. Kagan does that for you. What Kagan strategies do is give you a structure to work within that seems fun to the students (because they get to work together) but increases learning because nobody can ‘hide’ and not contribute without it being super obvious to you, the teacher. (And then you can use your other teacher strategies to get them back on track.) I also like that it helps me to be more organized – if all “2” students in each group are called on to answer, I know who should be responding by their physical organization. And for the world language teachers in the crowd, it encourages teambuilding and lowering of the affective filter, which is extremely important in our classrooms.

I’m not going to take the time to explain the actual strategies here other than to say that for the most part, literally, they are structured turn-taking. That’s it. No magic, no tricks, just structured turn-taking and clear expectations of what each student should be contributing. If you’re interested in learning more about it, you can look at this short overview, or visit youtube or google. I have faith in you.

In the two weeks since I’ve completed the training, my goal has been to use Kagan strategies with intention (rather than my usual ‘oh, that would be a good idea…’ planning that I tend to do). I have learned that whoops, a lot of the ones I would LIKE to do, I can’t currently do because I haven’t put my students in teams, one of the key parts of the Kagan strategy. However, I have been using RallyRobin and RallyCoach when possible in my class and they have been phenomenal.

RallyRobin+Consensus was especially wonderful when I paired them with a TPRS story. One problem I have when I story-ask is that I am really awful at handling all the answers thrown at me. Invariably what happens is that there are a handful of really creative students whose answers I always like the best, and then everyone else stops responding and that defeats the whole purpose of the ASK part of a story-ask. Instead of everyone shouting in controlled chaos, I selected a few parts ahead of time that I would get student responses for. Then, I used RallyRobin (brainstorming in a pair, alternately sharing responses) to come up with names, places, foods, whatever I wanted. Then each pair came to a consensus on their favorite brainstormed name and wrote it on a piece of paper. At the end of class, then I was able to collect all their brainstormed ideas and be able to hear EVERY student’s ideas and contributions. Since I didn’t have to pick something on the spot, I could take the time to use as many different groups’ ideas as possible, so that everyone could say ‘oh hey, she picked mine!’
I could ramble about Kagan strategies for another zillion blog posts, but I’ll spare you. And I’ve only been to one day of five total days of Kagan training! I highly recommend you go to a training, whether your classes are tiny or gigantic, you teach math or French, elementary or college. Kagan strategies just give a name and a structure to stuff you already do, because good teaching is good teaching.

La persona especial

Okay, so, here it finally is: my persona especial post.

This year, instead of starting with stories right away, I decided to mix in my usual beginning-of-Spanish activities (Brown Bear, counting games, TPR, etc.) with La Persona Especial. I used Bryce’s handy guide to give me an idea of what I was going to do, but since I am well acquainted with PQA, it wasn’t that hard for me as a teacher. Really, it’s just PQA focused all on one student. Today, we had a bit of a weird schedule so I asked a student to be a volunteer for this. Not only did I have a student volunteer, it was one who hadn’t previously been an interview candidate, so that was great! In this clip, we speed through the introductory stuff because my students have it down pretty well. Rewatching it, I could’ve spent a little more time verbally verifying that the rest of the class was understanding what was going on, but I was “teaching to the eyes” and their eyes told me that yes, they got it. (You can see in the video when I appear to be staring into space. I’m actually checking in on the other students while my interviewee is thinking of his response.) They also were great about responding when I asked for a class response, even though they were sparse.)

My process generally follows that of Bryce’s. I do an interview with one student (I set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, just to keep myself from wandering) while the rest of the class listens and watches. They do not take any notes; I write anything I need to on the board. After the interview, I will do some sort of recap activity. Students can tell a partner what they remember, I might make true/false statements, or whatever. Then they open their laptops and actually add to their notes. The first few interviews, I then had everyone share something and I typed it up in proper Spanish. We’re about halfway through now, so at this point, I just look at their screens while they’re working and correct any errors that impede comprehensibility. After three interviews, we took a quiz. (My classes are small, so I have sections of 10 and 9 respectively – you may want to have more in each quiz grouping.)  I picked some examples to show you all as a sample of their work. Sample #1 comes from a student that has no prior Spanish knowledge but I suspect will go all 4 years with me. Sample #2 is from an average student with average mistakes. Sample #3 is from another potential superstar student who has studied a bit of Spanish through Rosetta Stone. However, as you can see, her prior knowledge doesn’t really make her writing leaps and bounds better than the others. Each student is very comprehensible. These samples are after about 25 days of Spanish class. I normally let students keep their assessments, but tonight we have parent-teacher conferences and I kept these to show parents what their students are able to do in my class. It is super cool to show a parent that their child, after a little over a month, can read and write simple paragraphs.

personaespecial1

personalespecial2personalespecial3

So there it is! I am more than happy to answer any questions or offer any help that I can. I’m no expert by any means, but La Persona Especial is so easy, any of us can do it!

PS: Here is a link to a blank copy of my quiz/rubric. Feel free to make a copy of it, change it, whatever you need to do to fit your class and philosophy.

An experimental curriculum

In my school, I’m a department of one. I teach Spanish 1-3, then AP Spanish. We have only 3 native speakers of Spanish in my district, and they attend elementary school in our other building. So many of my students don’t know anything besides hola, amigo, and taco before walking into my room in 9th grade. I am very, very happy to be a high school teacher (elementary and middle school require a skill set that I’m not sure I have) but sometimes I wonder, if I designed a middle school 9 week exploratory Spanish class, what would it look like?

And you know, I would like to see if I could do it with minimal creation of activities on my part. I mean, there are so many awesome ideas and programs out there, and 9 weeks really isn’t a lot of time to cover material. I can help out other teachers by paying for their services, and save myself a ton of time in the process.

Here is my experiment: armed with only La Persona Especial, Señor Wooly, and a few cultural units from The Comprehensible Classroom… I bet I could get students proficient enough in the really big main verbs (es/está/tiene/quiere/va/puede/le gusta) in that time. But I don’t have a classroom to test out my theory. So if any of you suddenly find yourself with an exploratory Spanish class… feel free to use this idea and tell me how it goes!

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.

Too many materials!

I started teaching in 2010. The 2010s are a great time to be a language teacher. We’ve got youtube, google drive/classroom, twitter, LCD projectors, smartboards, and more leveled readers and stories than you can shake a stick at. And because there are so many options to choose from, it can be extremely overwhelming! It used to be that language teachers had to look through a handful of textbooks and decide which one they preferred, they ordered it, and then they taught it. But now there’s so many options, how do you even know where to start? I mean, curating videos from youtube and making lessons from them could be a full-time job. The upside and downside of the availability of language materials is that literally anything could be used for a lesson, as long as you can make it comprehensible for your students.

With that in mind, many new teachers are looking to graduate and compile ideas for their future classrooms. Veteran teachers are looking forward to another fresh start in the fall. However, none of us have time to comb all the websites for all the potentially useful ideas for all levels and all topics. So in this post, I’m going to share some of my favorite teaching materials to help narrow down the field for both newcomers and veterans. Unfortunately, these materials tend to focus on Spanish language so I hope that all the other language bloggers out there find someone who will do the same for them! I also have easy access to technology in my room, though I know many schools still do not, so your mileage may vary.

Video resources

  • VideoEle – a youtube series designed for Spanish learners. I like it because it designates topics by difficulty level (using the European A/B/C) and has subtitles. The creator has also started going through and remastering some videos with Latin American Spanish as well as the original Spain Spanish, so that’s cool.
  • Señor Wooly – Señor Wooly recently recreated his site from the ground up and it is awesome. The PRO version, though mildly expensive, has been totally worth it in my opinion. Doing one video can easily take a class period or two, and if you do a large number of the included stories, nuggets, and other activities, you could easily stretch one video into a week’s worth of comprehensible input with very little work on your part. Señor Wooly does all the work for you! And, because music is fun, the students don’t even realize they’re learning.
  • Señor Jordan – Even though I have backed off heavily from grammar explanations, there still comes a time when I need to explain a grammatical point to clean up my students’ speech or writing. Señor Jordan has a number of grammar videos with great examples of the concept.

Audio resources

  • Audio-lingua – Audio-lingua is a great resource for all teachers, but especially if you’re a teacher who is full-on comprehensible input only, with no particular thematic units. I love that you can search by length, speaker region, difficulty, or any variety of other parameters. It’s just people talkin about stuff.
  • Spanish Obsessed Podcast – Relatedly, the Spanish Obsessed podcast is also people talkin about stuff. They do a nice job of splitting their podcasts into different levels. I’ve only used a few samples from the intermediate section. As a non-native speaker teacher, I also like that Rob is a non-native speaker conversing with Liz, a native speaker. It helps students distinguish from different accents and emphasizes that you can have an accent and still be perfectly comprehensible.
  • University of Texas listening exercises – For listening exercises, this website is my bread and butter. You can choose to have English, Spanish, or no subtitles available when viewing. I personally like to set it to no subtitles while listening, then going over the full clip together with the Spanish available. Oh, and they’re organized by difficulty level, topic, and have a variety of speakers from different countries to practice those different dialects!

Interpersonal practice

  • Let’s Chat by Patti Lozano – I ordered this book through Teacher’s Discovery. It is chock full of games and other speaking types of activities, written in English with examples in Spanish, French, and sometimes German (but of course, you can always adapt if you teach something else!) One trick is to make sure if the activity itself doesn’t lend to comprehensible input from the students, use their responses and turn it into comprehensible input yourself!
  • Cuéntame Cards – These are another valuable resource. They are the kinds of questions I might ask a student, only… I didn’t have to think of them. I just have one set that I pull cards from to make the set appropriate for whatever level of students. The guide that comes with the card has multiple ways to use the cards. You could also make your own for free, but I’m lazy.
  • Hablemos: 25 Guided Dialogues – I didn’t use this resource as much this year as I would’ve liked, but the premise is good. It’s actually rather similar to the conversational portion of the AP exam. Rather than having students translate or memorize a conversation, these guided dialogues tell students what to say in general (‘greet your friend’ or ‘make plans for the weekend’), and the students have to do the work. It provides a sample conversation for students to check their work against, and also includes some things like crosswords or word searches that might be appropriate for fast finisher activities.

As usual, I have way more resources to share but I’ll save them for a later post. Happy shopping!

Useless advice for teachers

When it comes to advice for teachers (especially newer teachers,) I have a pet peeve. It drives me bonkers when I read blogs or twitter posts that are full of feel-good platitudes that don’t actually help anyone. I’m not talking about an encouraging post or anything like that; those are good. Let’s help and support each other. I’m talking about the ones that should theoretically be obvious to teachers or overly simplify a complicated topic. Some of my “favorites” include:

  • Love your students. If you don’t at least marginally like kids (of whatever age you teach) then you won’t make it past student teaching. I guess one could argue that you should love your students even when they’re being unpleasant, but… I figured that’s pretty much a given.
  • Have a behavior management plan. The issue is, I think, that some teachers struggle with enforcing their behavior management plan, not that they don’t have one. I feel like this advice also glosses over the fact that some students are unreachable by us for whatever reasons, or many teachers deal with administrators who won’t back them up when they do use their behavior management plan. And mostly, in my school, our behavior issues stem from teenagers being teenagers. I suppose I could give detentions all day long, but it won’t stop a social butterfly from talking rather than doing his work, or magically cause a forgetful student to remember to do her homework.
  • Create engaging lessons. “I want to be super boring and hope the kids learn nothing from me,” said no teacher ever.
  • Incorporate technology. This one is a bit of a nitpick, but I feel like the techie revolution is overwhelming and dismissive of teachers who are really good teachers but are slower to adapt to the constant barrage of technology changes. Do I think you should incorporate technology into your classroom? Yes, of course. But again, this platitude ignores the fact that some – many? – schools are still struggling to have functional computer labs, much less 1:1 situations. And honestly, you should only use technology if it enhances what you’re already doing. When I do TPRS, I like to type up the stories as I go to give an extra burst of written input. It’s very easy to do with my projector. However, whenever we do illustrations, we always use paper. It’s far easier for me to copy a blank template of six squares than to have students attempt to draw on a laptop trackpad. There is also the problem of students misusing technology to the point where it is a distraction and disruption to your everyday class activities. I don’t mind having to remind a student about my expectations on a regular basis, but this year, I have a class that has such difficulty regulating their behavior on the computer that I might go back to paper with them as the default. It’s not worth the lost time in class or the loss of my patience solely to check the ‘used technology’ box.
  • Encourage your students to do their best. This one needs no explanation.
  • Let your students control the learning. Like some of these other quips, this one is a complicated situation beautifully wrapped up in a shallow one-liner. Students, when left to do what they want to do, generally don’t work on educational activities. So as educators, part of our job is to ensure that students are completing some sort of educational curriculum. After that, I do think that it’s important to include student voice and choice, especially in a subject that can be as free-form as foreign language. However, what happens when your students really don’t want to be in control of their learning? I have a few classes this year that will happily comply with whatever I ask them to do, but if I ask them what they want to do (educationally), they just shrug. They don’t really care – to them, I’m the teacher and it’s my job to tell them what to do. Sadly, they’re not invested enough in their own education to want to give it a direction. In a lot of cases for my Preferred Activity Time, the same handful of kids are the ones that end up choosing what we do since no one else appears to have an opinion. It can be tough.

This post is a full #rantchat, however, I don’t believe in offering criticisms without offering solutions! Later this week, I will be posting a secondary post with advice that I think is actually useful for teachers. Tune in then!