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. 🙂


The far-reaching effects of depression

Hello, dear readers! Things are slowing down here at school but picking up in my personal life. As we enter the last month of the school year, I have some time to reflect on how things went this year and use those reflections to guide my smattering of lesson plans. However, when I’m trying to plan, I find that I have an elephant in the room. Well, more of a donkey, really. A grumpy, mopey donkey named Eeyore.

Without going into too many specifics, I am someone who has suffered from various levels of depression and anxiety throughout my life. Over the years, I’ve come up with various strategies to help me cope. But this past fall, my strategies were no longer working. I was a frazzled, grouchy mess. I cried nearly every day over things that I knew were absolutely ridiculous – and a whole bunch of other things that weren’t ridiculous, but was an overreaction to the situation. And it also affected my teaching. Yeah, I was that teacher. The one who is on auto-pilot, who was in survival mode, putting together very mediocre lessons just to get through the day. I don’t feel any guilt – it’s what I needed to do to get through.

In December, I finally went to the doctor and got back on track. I’m feeling like my old self again – better, really – but now that I can look back and peer into the dark hole that was the fall semester… I am finding myself in a bit of trouble. I have three related problems: number one, there were some units that really should’ve been overhauled or found themselves in the chuck it bucket. (I also still feel like I try to teach too much vocabulary at once.) Number two, I did a horrendous job of getting my repetitions in, so my students have a huge gap in their vocabularies. Number three, I was all over the place in terms of what I asked students to do rather than using best practices so the stuff they did pick up is not quite the quality I would like.

Let’s not even talk about AP Spanish. AP Spanish’s class structure is getting a complete renovation next year. They did everything I asked;  the lack of awesome is all on me.

So I guess the question is… uh, now what? I can do a little damage control in the remaining days, but that doesn’t make up for weeks of survival teaching. It’s already frustrating enough to limit vocabulary. I just want my students to know all the Spanishes already! So now I have to control it even more until I can somehow squeeze our lost words back into the curriculum. I have this terrible habit where it is very input/story based in first semester and not so much the second. Guess when they make the most gains in proficiency. I’ve got myself trapped in a double-whammy of having better plans in the fall, though I taught them in a not-so-awesome manner, and having better teaching in the spring with more mediocre planning.

I’m not going to let it get me down. These ups and downs are part of the normal teaching flow. I’ll figure it out next year. It’s just something for me to think about.



A paradox of priorities

Even though I like to think of myself as a smarty smart pants, sometimes I am a really slow learner. I’ve been doing a TPRSish style of teaching for about 2 years now and the other morning, I was reflecting on something that the coach said during the workshop I attended. One of my fellow attendees asked if he used thematic units or just taught whatever happened to come up. He explained that you can do it either way (and it’s a matter of preference) but his focus was on the high frequency vocabulary, so his style was stories strictly based on trying to get students to learn said high frequency vocabulary.

When I did the switch, I still kept my thematic units – I just made stories to match. However, I figured out this year that it meant that I still have a hodgepodge of different strategies going on, and they’re not meshing very well anymore. I can’t focus on high frequency vocabulary AND all the bonus vocabulary at the same time, if that makes sense. There’s simply too many words. On top of that, when I taught thematic units, I could remember that in this unit in this class, we learned these words. Well, that doesn’t necessarily happen anymore, because some units are more story-focused and some are not nearly repetitive enough for students to acquire that vocabulary. I can tell you right now that my Spanish 2 students this year are not going to remember a thing from the recipes unit, and that is 10,000% my fault. I didn’t do the reps. I got lazy.

The Spanish 2 class is the one that is actually bringing my problem to light, because the recipe unit used to go in the spring. My problem was, however, that part of the unit involves cooking and sharing food (yay!) but it always landed during Lent and wrestling season. With a high Catholic population in my school plus very serious wrestlers (especially around conference and districts), I felt bad that some of the students couldn’t fully participate. I decided to move the cooking unit to the fall, and push the childhood unit to the spring.

So here I am in the spring, and about to teach this childhood unit. Except, it is not a good unit. My unit plan goes something like: PQA, PQA, PQA, some stories I guess, Pobre Inocente embedded reading+watch the episode of Modern Family. We did the Pobre Inocente story before Christmas (it’s a Christmas story, after all) and that’s really the only chunk of this unit worth keeping. You see, the childhood unit is a legacy unit left over from when I used to teach by grammar point – of course, it’s the unit where we introduce the imperfect tense. But… this year, my Spanish 2 students have been using imperfect and preterite together from the beginning. It makes no sense to have a unit where we focus on just one of the two past tenses. On top of that, after coming out of my fall semester black hole, I can’t remember what words we’ve focused on in preterite and which in imperfect. I know they can’t apply the rule to conjugate, but how many of our high frequency verbs did they really acquire? This is a problem. I don’t know. And if I don’t know what they don’t know, I can’t lead them to the next chunk of words.

This also affects part of my behavioral plan, the preferred activity time. The way I do it involves earning points for both time on task and individual points for participation (using ClassDojo). However, I only use this system when we are working through a story as a group. So if I do a lot of non-story specific or individual tasks then the students don’t earn any points and therefore have no minutes accrued when it comes to use their time on Fridays. It hasn’t become a problem… yet. But it could be, so I worry.

So this is my paradox of priorities. Do I stay with the thematic units, or do I restructure everything around stories and high frequency vocabulary? There’s always something that has to give if I’m going to take pieces of something else – I only have so many days to work with them. But it would certainly be easier if I knew exactly what basic structures I taught that EVERYONE knows and everything else is nice-to-know since I can’t control that anyway. But then should I just do random stories, or switch to a novel-based format? I don’t have the answers yet (and I probably will change my mind another 20 times in my teaching career, even if I do think I have AN answer). But I’m thinking hard about it.

#Teach2Teach Question 3

Today’s #teach2teach question is a doozy. Every teacher has teaching horror stories. For some of us, it’s a horrible administrator experience. For others, it’s a classroom out of control. Maybe there was a day that a lesson completely fell apart and so did the teacher.

This week’s question is from Jennifer: What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you deal with it?

Great question, Jennifer! But before I start my own story, I want to point out that this experience I am going to retell here leads directly back to my response for question 2 about politics and why I was so blunt in my advice. This particular story heavily influences me, my teaching philosophy, and how I try to manage myself in regard to my admin, students, parents, and other teachers. Thankfully, I am a quick learner, but experience is a harsh mistress.

My awful, terrible, no good, very bad student teaching

My worst experience came in the form of my first attempt at student teaching. I was a young, naive, but energetic and passionate Spanish teacher who was placed with a native speaker teacher in a high school in my area. I knew it would be hard, and I was nervous about my Spanish, but I thought it could be a wonderful experience to work with someone who was a native speaker.

It wasn’t.

I met with my cooperating teacher before the semester started to get a feel for things. This meeting went fine, and I left feeling confident that I was going to learn a lot. Then the semester started and some things just seemed… well, odd. For example, she was having some computer problems, so she went to visit the tech person and left me alone with a group of extraordinarily unruly freshmen for an entire class period to review for their final exam. On my second or third day. When I didn’t know any names, classroom procedures, or even what they were supposed to be reviewing for! After the semester class switch, she informed me I would only be teaching two sections of Spanish 4. I was confused because I thought I was supposed to eventually teach most, if not all, the regular teaching load.

By the end of the second or third week, I was feeling much more tepid about my experience. The teacher didn’t seem to have any sort of management plan besides ‘Guys, c’mon, let’s pay attention.’ We had first period plan, but she told me she had to drop her daughter off at school so I generally arrived at 7:30 to plan while she usually arrived around 8:30 – half an hour after school started. (This should have been a huge, screaming, blinking red flag.) Cell phones were everywhere with no consequences. On top of that, the Spanish 4 classes were woefully behind where they were ‘supposed to be’. Logic dictates that the best thing to do for these students would be to back up and pick up where they were, but the district mandated that we keep slogging through imperfect subjunctive when I was still regularly hearing ‘yo haco’. One of the two classes I took over had 30 students crammed into a room meant to hold 20. I had this class right after lunch, and I would get so nervous and worked up that I would literally shake when trying to teach them. I was so nauseous all the time from the stress, I worried I was pregnant or had some other illness.

As the semester dragged on, my cooperating teacher and I didn’t seem to get along very well. After about a month with her, we had a discussion about whether or not I should stay in this placement. Because I had no spine at the time and didn’t want to make more work for anyone else to find me a new placement a month into the semester, I said that we could continue.

So things went on like this for another month. The teacher consistently undermined me in the class – everything from letting students leave the room in the middle of a lesson after I explicitly told them no, not helping me with watching for inappropriate behaviors, interrupting my lessons to tell personal stories, and I am fairly certain she changed some students’ grades in the gradebook behind my back because she felt my assessment was ‘unfair’. It’s been over 5 years and I can probably recount at least 10 specific stories off the top of my head. My stress got worse, and I dreaded teaching. By this point, I figured I would graduate and be done with it, and maybe go do something else for a while instead of looking for a teaching job because clearly I wasn’t cut out for it. I would go home and cry on a regular basis. I was miserable.

Everything finally came to a head about 2 months into my 16-week assignment. I was going to teach a lesson using a newspaper article I’d found in the local Spanish newspaper. It was perfect. It had all sorts of vocabulary from the chapter, it was pretty short, and by Spanish 4, I thought we could read it for the main idea. I even had my cooperating teacher look it over, and all she had me fix were a few spelling errors.

The lesson itself was a complete and utter failure. I had no buy-in from the students and by the end, I basically gathered up the handful of students who were willing to work and helped them. I had no idea how to salvage the situation because ‘c’mon, guys’ is an extremely ineffective management technique. My cooperating teacher did nothing to save me from this clearly sinking ship. In fact, there was a member of the district office there that day who happened to be in the room at the time, and she did nothing to help me either. The bell finally rang, and it had never sounded so sweet.

We had another plan period after this class (now I have to laugh, what a luxury to have two planning periods!) and clearly, I was completely distraught. The woman from district office asked me what I think went wrong, and I responded with ‘everything’. I was told that my lesson was awful, and I blew up. I pointed out that I had asked for help and if my lesson was that awful, it was the cooperating teacher’s job to help me fix it before I taught it. At this point, my cooperating teacher launched into a diatribe of every grievance she had held against me for the last 8 weeks, including matters that I had considered resolved. Then the other woman berated me, telling me I was just making excuses for my horrible teaching. I cried hysterically while being browbeaten by these two women for the entirety of the plan period, and then told that I should just go home because I clearly wasn’t going to be able to teach my other class that day.

I left. To make things worse, when I got to my car in the parking lot, someone had smashed into my car and knocked the driver’s sideview mirror completely off. After completely losing it, I sat in my car and recomposed myself, then went home. Shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from my university’s student teaching coordinator telling me that I needed to come in as soon as possible to meet with him and my education professor, and that I should not return to the school.

The next day, I went in and discussed the happenings with them. The woman from district office had contacted the university, telling them I was unfit to teach and should be removed immediately. It was mutually decided that I would not finish my placement there, and try again in the fall with at a different school. I am forever grateful that I was allowed to tell my side of the story and given a second shot, but at the time I felt like the world’s biggest screw-up. I was worried my life was over.

The happy ending

However, sometimes things happen for a reason. I realize now that, had I stayed and finished my placement at that school, I might not have gone into education at all. If I had, I probably would’ve been a very poor teacher because all I learned was what not to do. Instead, I was allowed to thrive and flourish under two amazing teachers, Betty DĂ­az and Janet Eckerson, in Crete, Nebraska. My experience at Crete was the complete opposite of my first experience. I felt like the teachers and administrators actually cared about their students. They had superb student management. The kids were connected and involved. Even better, Crete had a high Hispanic population so I was able to work with some very nice kids who helped me with my Spanish (I picked up most of my Mexican slang from them) and even got to see what a native speaker Spanish class should look like. I remembered what it was like to enjoy teaching (even if Janet did make me speak Spanish the entire time and it was scary!) and although it was still difficult due to the nature of student teaching, I have only good things to say about my time there. If there had been a position available at the time, I would’ve taken it in a heartbeat.

Lessons learned

So what did I learn from this experience? Number one, trust your instincts. If you are in a situation that is not working for you, especially a student teaching situation, do not be afraid to speak up. Your university wants you to have a good experience and to become a good teacher, so let them help you! Number two, even when you’re knocked down, get back up. I take it as a point of pride that I now have Spanish 2 students successfully doing the exact same type of lesson (reading authentic resources and looking for the main idea) that my Spanish 4 students couldn’t complete – clearly, the problem is not with me. Finally, I consider it a part of my duties to take on student teachers and do my best to teach them how to be good teachers too. I see it as my way of paying back the teaching community that gave me a second chance and allowed me to go on and become a teacher leader myself. Once you’re established, I encourage you to do the same.

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/tĂș interpersonal exchanges and Ă©l/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.