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.

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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.

New year, minor updates

Today is my last work day before students come into the building tomorrow. Since I don’t have to share rooms, move rooms, or otherwise do anything over the summer, I can leave everything more or less how it is when I finish in May. I am a major creature of habit, but I did make a few minor changes this year and I just want to show everyone what my room looks like. It’s nothing fancy – I’m no pinterest fiend – but it’s functional.

Updated word walls!

Ever since I switched to comprehensible input, I’ve had some version of word walls up. This is the third time I’ve done them and I hope the kids are nice to these, because cutting out all those words took a lot of time! (My prior versions were handwritten and I don’t have particularly nice handwriting.) A problem we also had in the past was that students couldn’t read the words when the lights were off, so I’m hoping that the white bubbles around black letters will help them stand out while still allowing for color on my bulletin board areas. (I also felt really proud of myself when I realized that with the whiteboard between the two word walls, I could use the green and red to make a Mexican-flag-like display.)

Useful phrases!

helpful words

I put an image of this on twitter a while back, but I added the green poster last year. (See what I mean about the handwriting? I can’t write in a straight line to save my life.) These posters are super duper handy when pushing students into intermediate and helping them use connecting and organizational words in their speaking and writing. This year, I am considering adding a bunch of various nouns (with pictures) in that blank space above the posters as inspiration. Not in the sense that they’re inspirational pictures, but rather to help students if we’re trying to story-ask or write something and they can’t think of something interesting to happen in the story. Maybe animals or something that can function as both a character in the story or a prop – I haven’t gotten that far yet.

New books!

studentwishlistbooks

Most of these were either specific student requests from my end-of-year survey about the offerings of my class library or Spanish versions of popular books that I know my students like in English. I hope the students attempt some of the harder ones – I think that The Fault in Our Stars will be popular. I also got a handful of new novels from TPRS Publishing as well as expanding my collection of ones that were popular last year (Problemas en Paraíso and Rebeldes de Tejas, if you were wondering.) However, it seems that with every novel I buy, two more are released! But that’s a good problem to have, I think.

Other random stuff

In the past, I have usually placed my tables in groups of 4 to facilitate easier pair work and conversation. This year, I decided to put the tables into a horseshoe shape. #1, it will be easier for everyone to see the whiteboard/projector screen comfortably. #2, students can still easily work in pairs or small groups. #3, nobody will complain about so-and-so kicking them from across the way cause their legs are too long. #4, I think a horseshoe shape works better for discussion and storytelling. #5, I can easily get to every student without having to navigate the narrow in-between-groups spaces. My projector is still currently on a cart but hopefully it will be in the ceiling by the end of the month, which will make things even easier for me.

The other big additions this year are more curriculum based. I decided as of yesterday to add the show Gran Hotel to my Spanish 3 and AP classes on Fridays. We run a shortened schedule anyway, and it’s a nice way to end the week. I am probably going to use the guides provided by Mike Peto and Kara Jacobs to help me out.

Reading and blogging are staying around for Spanish 3 and AP. I am seriously considering expanding FVR to my Spanish 2s, though in a more limited way. (We already read 2 novels in the year.) For reading, however, I am adding Martina Bex’s Mundo en tus manos news stories to my Monday plans. Between a short reading or two and weekend chat, my Mondays are set! (Mundo en tus manos is also a fantastic addition to any FVR library. Last year’s students felt they were an easy, comfortable read at level 3.)

First days

We only have 24 minute periods tomorrow and 35 minute periods on Friday, so my plans are pretty simple. Due to the nature of my school, I know all of my returning students and I am pretty familiar with my incoming freshmen, so I get a VERY short honeymoon period. I think I am going to have ‘Relax’ by Sie7e playing as students come in. I love Sie7e because he’s got that chill summer vibe, and Relax is a very appropriate song for first-day Spanish students who are probably super nervous! I’ll say hi. Spanish 1 will do a simple me llamo/te llamas/se llama game and that’s all we’ll have time for. With the other levels, we will do a quick refresher on the syllabus and procedures, then maybe chill while listening to some favorite Spanish songs from last year. Day 2 is when I will hit that stuff with Spanish 1, and the other levels will do some conversational stuff about their vacation (or just listen to me ramble about mine which is also great). And that’s it. Nothing too fancy. Next Monday, we hit the ground running.

For funsies, I’ve included a copy of my EXTREMELY simple syllabus piktochart (again, not a lot to explain in a small school) and the image I use to explain the AP exam to my AP students. Feel free to use either of them in whole, in part, or inspirationally.

An easy weather lesson

Even though I am a comprehensible input teacher, I still follow thematic units. These units tend to follow the pattern of Realidades, the text we used back when I still used one. The real key is comprehensible, engaging, repetitive input, but as a Mega Planner I’m someone who needs thematic units to keep me on track. Otherwise, I would literally just tell stories all day without any rhyme or reason, and I would get myself lost.

In Spanish 1, I still like to hit all the basics (time, weather, colors, etc.) at the beginning of the year because then they are words I know I can throw into stories, or offer as options when teaching new chunks. I only spend 1-2 days on each of these because of course, we are going to hit them pretty much every time we do PQA or a story in the class, and many students in my district come in knowing at least 1-10 and some colors, thanks to Dora.

One way of using authentic resources AND having students feel successful right away is to have them interpret a weather forecast. (I used to do the ‘make a weather’ forecast activity and it was always a mess, because I was asking for way too much output way too soon.) The lesson is really simple and requires little prep work on your end.

After introducing weather phrases (however you choose to do so), introduce a sample forecast. I always choose Brainard, the town where I teach. After that, the lesson might look a little different depending on your technology available. Some different ways of doing it are:

1 – If you have internet access AND the website is unblocked, have students look up cities on espanol.weather.com and browse the forecast. I usually have them do this in pairs or small groups. I also assign them capital cities – Tegucigalpa, Madrid, Mexico DF, Buenos Aires, etc. It’s also a good time to remind them of the seasonal switch in the southern hemisphere, and the time switch in Europe. (So for example, if you’re looking at the forecast at 2 pm your time and it’s the day forecast, it might already be 10 pm in Madrid and showing the evening forecast.)

2 – If you don’t have internet access, you can visit the website on a different computer and then screenshot the cities you want to use. I try to cut out all the ‘junk’ and focus on just the weather information. Since the website is inexplicably no longer loading from my work computer, I used my home computer to do the screencapping and uploaded the images to my Google Drive. Then I printed some copies of each of the cities to distribute to the students.

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An example of a screenshot I took from espanol.weather.com.

3 – After the students look over their city, I had them present (en inglés) what they thought each section meant. This is a great time to also throw in super-bonus vocabulary like probabilidad de precipitación and humedad.

I really like this activity for two reasons. Number one, it reinforces cognates and the strategy of using what you already know (What does a weather forecast look like in English? How is it set up? What do the pictures represent?) to infer meaning, even if you’ve never seen the words before. Number two, it gives all students a high level of success reading a WHOLE PAGE! of native speaker Spanish within the first few weeks. That feeling of success can help keep them motivated when working through tougher material, so I try to foster it whenever I can.

You could also easily extend this activity in a number of ways. As the groups present, the other students could fill in a chart and then you could ask questions about the different cities. For multiple tenses, you could compare yesterday’s weather to today’s weather to tomorrow’s weather. You could probably even hit subjunctive, for languages that have it, by deciding if it’s possible that it might rain tomorrow, it’s possible it might snow, etc.

I think one of the most fun things about comprehensible input is the variety of ways you can work with just one simple piece of input. What do you think? How do you like to teach weather in your classroom?

Creating and submitting my AP syllabus

I am super excited to announce that my Big Scary Project for the summer – completing and submitting my AP Spanish syllabus – is done! It’s actually been mostly-done for quite some time, but the perfectionist side of me was worried. Did I have enough authentic resources? Did I vary my types enough? I feel like I have way more readings than audio sources. Do my units go in a logical order? So on and so forth. I expect every teacher asks these questions as they go through the process. However, I apparently didn’t need to worry. I submitted my syllabus mid-day yesterday and checked my work email on a whim right before bed, and there was the acceptance message! (I guess there’s probably not too many people submitting their syllabus in July.) Here are some thoughts/tips as I went along:

You don’t actually have to write your own syllabus

And this is why you go to AP trainings. I learned that I can use a syllabus adopted from another teacher, as long as it has already been approved by the Board. You can adopt one of the example syllabi or borrow from another teacher in your school. I personally chose to write my own syllabus because I wanted to be in control of my content. I want topics that are interesting to my students and to me. I also chose to organize my units by topic rather than by the six content areas, just because I felt that my topics had so much overlap between them. For example, almost everything is connected at least marginally to the Identities area, because all of a person/culture’s perspectives and practices are a direct reflection on their identity.

Become really, really, really familiar with what your students will need from you

Thankfully, the College Board has a very clear set of standards of what to put in your syllabus. I’m converting my Spanish 4 to AP Spanish, and a lot of what I was already doing is transferrable to one of their six main themes. The other stuff – discussing products, perspectives, and practices, as well as the three modes of communication – is all part of following ACTFL guidelines, so I was doing that anyway. Please note that nowhere in any part of the syllabus creation process does it say you need to work on specific grammar points. However, when you look at the standards for rating the actual test, it’s clear that the students need to be able to function at a high level in present tense, be able to comprehend other tenses (and attempt to use them when appropriate), use a few idiomatic expressions, and switch between formal and informal register. This is all in line with what I would consider a general intermediate-high using the ACTFL scale. So there’s a lot of information to keep in your brain while you design your syllabus. I’m a big fan of backwards design, but in this case, I am not the one designing the ultimate exam, so it’s absolutely critical that I’m familiar with it and what my students will have to do. All of the information you need is located on the College Board’s website, and I also got a huge tome at my training of the information in print form.

Be organized

When designing your syllabus, you have to have some sort of plan. I actually rewrote my plans in three different ways – one in my ‘day to day’ unit plan document, one in my official syllabus, and then after attending my AP training this summer, a third way. Ultimately, the way that David Marlow showed me was the best way to make sure I was hitting a variety of sources for each unit. He recommends setting up a grid like this for each unit:

applan

You really only need one source per area, and some topics lend more to one type of resource than others. One of my units has to do with vaccinations, so there are no literature sources, but tons of non-fiction news sources.

You can also use this type of grid to make sure each unit hits every mode of output (written presentational, spoken presentational, written interpersonal, and spoken interpersonal). I chose not to do it, simply because we tend to hit every mode a little bit each day as we work with each source on top of our usual weekly activities like blogging and free reading. Of course, the problem with having multiple ways of planning means that now I have to reconcile my official syllabus with my day-to-day plans, which have had sources added or changed.

Vertical curriculum backwards planning

This applies more to singleton teachers like myself, but it’s also something to consider for those of you who have to work within a larger department. By ‘vertical curriculum backwards planning’ I mean that from day one of Spanish 1, I have to consider the students that will some day take the AP Spanish exam. By setting a strong foundation of using Spanish in class, practicing constantly so my students are very familiar with high frequency vocabulary, exposing my students to native speaker speech, and pushing our proficiency from the very beginning, I can ensure my students will be as ready as I can make them before the end of their senior year. But this also especially affects my Spanish 3 planning, because a good number of students who bother with Spanish 3 usually do so with the intention of taking AP Spanish. So for example, I chose not to do a unit on the environment in AP… but I am going to modify a different unit in Spanish 3 to have more of an environmental focus, juuuust in case they need that vocabulary.

Closing thoughts

I suppose I can’t end this post without sharing my own syllabus now! This is my official syllabus, although it’s not the full bread and butter of my course. (For example, the Guerra Sucia unit looks a little bare, but the focus of that unit is actually the TPRS novel La Guerra Sucia which isn’t technically an authentic resource, though I feel that it is of appropriate difficulty and quality to include in my unit.) You can find my official syllabus here. Feel free to modify or use whatever part might be handy in your own classes (AP or otherwise).

I also want to give a shoutout to Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell and Mike Peto, whose syllabi I pored over when trying to set up my own, as well as Angie Wagoner from Crete and Laura Chambers from Omaha South for their syllabi and units while at the workshop in Omaha.

#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 Díaz 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.

#Teach2Teach Question 2

Time for round 2 of #Teach2Teach, the blogging series where experienced teachers are trying to give our best advice to new and pre-sevice teachers. Today’s topic is one of my favorites: politics.

Carrie asks: How do you stay inspired and not get bogged down by the politics of teaching?

I have to agree 100% with Amy when she says that whether we like it or not, politics are part of the job. Since everyone theoretically got some sort of education, everyone has an opinion on it. Even though we as teachers understand that things are completely different from the other side of the desk, many people still base their opinions on their own experiences. The sooner that we understand and accept that playing the politics game is part of our job – and learn to manage it with grace – will help us maintain our sanity.

When in doubt, keep your mouth shut

Now, I need to preface my personal comments by noting that I am terrible at politics. I love debating policies and arguing over procedures, but when it comes to the tactful part of politics, I am terrible. Horrific. Awful. I have a big mouth and I have gotten myself in hot water multiple times over it, and that is why I am wording my advice in a strong, somewhat rude way. Let me be a lesson to you: if you are in doubt about anything, keep your mouth shut. If you are emotional, keep it shut. If you are angry or frustrated, definitely keep it shut. I call my blog Making Good Mistakes because making mistakes and fixing them is how we learn. But sometimes we make a big whopper of a mistake, and it is easier to remove the mistake-maker than to give them a chance to fix it.

As a new teacher, you are going to mess up. But just as our tolerance for making the same mistakes wanes the closer our students get to adulthood, the same will happen with administration. Make their job easier for them and resist the temptation to give comments if you haven’t thought them over multiple times and considered how it will be taken by anyone who might run across it. This goes doubly so for written material whether that is an email, a blog post, or even just a quick tweet. (And even then, you might still find yourself challenged, but I have no problem with being challenged on a thoughtful belief I truly hold, rather than an off-the-cuff remark that is now biting me in the butt.) It’s just not worth it.

Remember to be friendly, but you are not their friend

This piece of advice goes dually for working with students and other adults in the building. Being a young teacher, you are in a weird position. Many of your students could be your own siblings, and you may have many of the same interests. I absolutely encourage you to use those strengths, but remember, no matter how close you get, they are students first. They can be your friend after they graduate. In addition, different schools have different policies on social media. If yours doesn’t have a clear-cut policy, always use caution. Remember that anything you write on the internet, no matter how private you think it might be, can quickly spread through the internet and make its way to your principal’s desk.

It is harder, I think, to remember that your coworkers are not necessarily your friends, either. It can be very difficult to be the new kid on the block, especially if you enter as the only new teacher with a well-established staff. The loneliness can be alleviated by a good mentoring program, but most schools don’t have that. With other staff members, you can be more of your real self than you are with the students, but you are still playing the political game. Just because you are all educators does not mean you all have the same beliefs and values. Throughout the school year, there are naturally occuring personality clashes when it comes to things like school improvement or making changes to curriculum. Handle these with grace and composure. Like I said in my first point, if you don’t have a well-rehearsed, tactful response, just keep your mouth shut. As you become more established, you will feel more comfortable (respectfully!) challenging beliefs, but at the beginning, you don’t have the trust built up to do so safely.

Keeping your spark ignited

Okay, so my post hasn’t been very positive so far. ‘Keep your mouth shut or you’ll get into trouble.’ ‘Be friendly, but not friends.’ I have one more not-so-positive thing to say before I tell you all the good parts, and that is to temper your flame. I am all about passion and excitement and enthusiasm – I think those are all qualities you need to be a good teacher. But you have to keep that enthusiasm under control. It can be very hard when you feel like you have this Really Great Idea! but if you approach it like your way is the best and only way, it can turn people off in a hurry. (There is a reason this post on offensive “authentic resources” has, by far, the most hits on my blog.) But I encourage you to take your tempered flame and direct it towards gently guiding people, whether they are your students or fellow staff members, rather than blasting everyone in the nearby area with it. Going with the fire analogy, a raging fire left unchecked and uncontrolled only destroys everything around it. But a controlled flame, like used in a welding torch, can create wonderful things. Be the torch and not the blaze.

It’s also better to keep your fire safely contained, so that you don’t burn yourself out. The workload in your first few years is intense, and if you give 110% of yourself to your job every single day, you won’t have anything left. Going back to my first #Teach2Teach advice, make sure to take time for yourself. The grading can wait.

But what if you’re having the opposite problem, where your flame has been dampened and you feel like you’re just slogging through the days? That is the time to refresh and reconnect, to relight your fire with the fire of others. I’m going to sound cliche here, but those are the times to read blogs and check #langchat. Maybe you’re struggling with a unit, or have a so-so lesson that you’re not sure how to make great. Maybe it’s just the kids getting you down. That’s when you need to touch base with people who will lift your spirits and push you forward. If you can get this connection in the teacher’s lounge, great. If you feel like nothing positive is discussed at lunch, eat by yourself or eat with a positive-minded friend in his/her room. You can’t always choose how you feel, but you can choose what to do about it.

The first few years can be incredibly lonely because you haven’t built up your teacher support network yet, and you might feel that your normal support networks don’t cut it (even if they’re amazing, wonderful people, teaching is one of those jobs where most people have no idea what you actually do each day and why it is so hard.) Trust me, we’ve all been there. You are probably going to make political mistakes – say something inappropriate or rude to a student, or offend a coworker – but take them as making good mistakes to learn from. Recharge your flame by huddling close to people who are currently burning bright. Eventually, those people are going to need you to return the favor. We’re all in this together, for better or worse.

#Teach2Teach Question 1

I am so excited to participate (okay, so I’m a little late) in Amy Lenord’s #Teach2Teach series because… well, I’m a teacher! I love helping people learn stuff! Being a younger teacher myself, it wasn’t too long ago that I was the fresh face in the building who was fumbling and bumbling my way through my first year. On top of it, I had to rebuild a language program that had been razed to the ground by prior teachers, so my work was definitely cut out for me.

The first #Teach2Teach question from Garrett is: How do all these teachers balance the workload between teaching and planning?

To be honest, some of us are better at balancing it than others. There are a lot of teachers who balance it on the back of the personal lives. And it’s not just teaching and planning, you also have to consider that most teachers pick up some sort of extra duty by choice (like a club, sport, or other extra-curricular activity) and others are not such a choice (ticket taking duty for events, concession stand duty, awards ceremonies). We all get the same 24 hours in a day. I like to think that I’m pretty good at keeping the balance, but I will state for the record that I don’t have children – teachers with kids at home, especially young ones, are a special kind of superhero. I don’t know how they find time for everything.

Unit plans are your friend

This year (my 5th) is my first year using long term unit plans (with more than a little help from these tutorials by Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell!) and it has made things much easier. Instead of teaching.. uh, stuff, and then testing them.. somehow.. on the stuff, I know exactly where I am trying to steer my students and what our final goal will be. If an activity isn’t pushing us towards that goal, out it goes. My problem was, the summer before I started teaching, I didn’t make unit plans. I made activities. Lots and lots of activities. I typed up vocab sheets! I created worksheets! (Oh, so so so many worksheets. Conjugation worksheets.) I made word searches and a few information gap activities! And then, when I got to that unit in December, I asked myself why in the world I thought word X was more important than word Y, and why did I include Z at all? Now I had all this stuff I had made, and it was useless.

So if nothing else, plot out some major concepts/themes you want to cover in each of your courses. You should have access to a textbook (if you are required or intend to use one) that can help you sketch out some main ideas. Think about what you want your students to be able to do (remember, a good objective is able to be actively demonstrated by the students) and consider what your assessment should look like based on that. Then you have to create the activities, find the readings, and cull the songs that get you there. That is the part that takes the most time your first year. After that, all you have to do is adjust. What worked? What didn’t? If it didn’t work, can you make it work or should you just pitch it entirely?

Have a discipline plan and follow it. No, seriously.

After a few months, lesson planning will become second nature and probably be one of the easiest parts of the job. I am a really good teacher when I don’t have actual, physical students to teach! So to help you with the ongoing challenges of teaching, you need to have a discipline plan in place from day one. Perhaps your school has a school-wide behavior plan or maybe you have to come up with your own. In either case, depending on your school, you have anywhere from 1 minute to 1 week of honeymoon (when the kids are still feeling you out) before you’re going to have to make a major disciplinary decision, and it’s easier if you’ve already made up your mind how you will handle situations.

Some things to consider: How will you handle a phone or ipod in class? How will you handle inappropriate use of computers? How will you handle swearing? What about aggression (verbal or physical) between students? How will you handle bullying? (The bullying question is particularly difficult because sometimes it’s hard to pin down what is normal students-learning-to-be-fully-fledged-humans behavior and what is downright bullying. And sometimes, if the teacher gets directly and obviously involved, it only makes it worse for the victim.) What behaviors will get a Teacher Look or Stern Voice? What behaviors will receive a detention? (And if you decide to give a detention, what will that look like? I like to sit the student down and ask them why they think they are there, correct them if they’re totally off, and then ask them how we can fix it.) What behaviors will have the student immediately escorted from your classroom? Remember that it is very important to handle as many behaviors on your own as you can, because if you are constantly shuttling students to the office, both the students and your administration probably won’t take you very seriously.

No matter what your plan is, from the beginning, you have to follow it. None of us like confrontation, and I prefer to use non-confrontational means when possible, but eventually there will be a situation where you will need to make it clear that you are the teacher and you are in control of your classroom. Practice your Teacher Look. Practice your Stern Voice. It is much easier to be very strict at the beginning of the year and loosen up than vice versa.

Make time for yourself

My last piece of advice sounds kind of ‘duh’, but in the thick of things – for example, when I have been at work or working on education-related things for pretty much the last 2 days straight – make time for yourself. Make sure you have a lesson ready to go for tomorrow, but sometimes it’s going to be an okay-at-best lesson. (But seriously, have something for them to do – 5 minutes of unstructured time with a freshman class is as stressful and exhausting as 45 minutes of engaged time.) Grading can almost always wait. Your students cannot have a healthy, happy educational experience if their teacher is not also healthy and happy. Keep some non-educational hobbies. Go to the gym. Make time for your significant other, if you have one. Eat well. There is always something more to do, some other resource to find, some kid who needs your help – eventually you have to turn that off and go to sleep at a decent hour.

And with that said, I’m going to eat some chocolate and play Marvel Puzzle Quest.