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.

On writing and grammar

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend not one but TWO of Anita Archer’s trainings through the Adolescent Literacy Learning program. I was able to learn from Anita the summer after my first year teaching. Like any workshop worth attending, I was able to pull different ideas and strategies to use in my classroom after six years of teaching to supplement the ones I implemented after my first. The first time I went focused on reading, but this year had one day of reading strategies and one day of writing. While I was at these workshops, two (two and a half?) big ideas stuck with me enough concerning the area of world languages that I wrote them down.

Thought #1: Explicit teaching

Okay, so, we know that explicit teaching of grammar at the high school level (in world languages) is not useful. Students have to know the rule, be concerned about applying the rule, and then have the time to accurately apply said rule. At the novice and intermediate levels where our students are learning, we are pretty much only working on step #1: learn the rule. And you can’t learn the rule, you must acquire it through practice and repetition. Learning grammar is only useful once a speaker has reached the advanced level and is ready to edit their speaking and writing. But to be honest, how many of our students are native English speakers who are still working on acquiring and applying the rules of English?

However, research shows that explicit vocabulary instruction DOES improve cognition and performance. So this caused a little bit of a disturbance in my brain-force. Explicit grammar instruction not so good, explicit vocab instruction great. Huh. Because it’s all related, right? How can one be true but not the other?

My theory is – and I could be entirely wrong and would love discussion in the comments or via twitter – that the establishing meaning portion of CI/TPRS is teaching the implicit acquisition of grammar through explicit vocabulary instruction. The sorts of strategies Anita outlined for explicit vocabulary teaching, such as defining examples and non-examples, using it in a sentences and then a short reading, and showing how it is related to other words is the exact same sort of strategies we use in foreign language. In addition, she talked about how you should really only pick 3-5 big ideas for each vocabulary chunk (which mysteriously coincides with the recommended 3-5 target structures for most CI activities). On top of that, words that students already have a passing familiarity with or a simple definition should be given the ‘light touch’ – this would be like our quick translation into English.

Another big idea I took from the reading presentation was about pronunciation. Some language teachers are all about practicing pronunciation, others give it barely more than a passing glance. But we learned that students who are unsure of a word’s pronunciation are less able to keep the word in their working memory and therefore it is less likely to be put into long term memory. Which makes sense, if you think about it – it’s hard to make a connection to a word if you don’t remember how to say it!

Thought #2: Content vs. writing processes

The second training focused all on writing, and I was pleased that some of my strategies for learning to write better sentences (to push from novice to intermediate) are the same ideas that Anita’s research supports. However, I ran into another mental conundrum. We know that for students to be able to write well, they need to write frequently with plenty of feedback and support. That takes up a LOT of time, even if we’re only writing paragraph level discourse. And if we teachers are going to provide multiple opportunities for clear and structured writing practice… how are we going to have time to teach content? The obvious answer is to have students read, then use that content to write, but for acquisition, students need to have a heavy dose of input first. And for native language teachers (English language arts, or heritage language teachers), students still need input of ideas and knowledge and thoughts before they can have an opinion on something to write about. We can’t write all the time. The brain craves novelty.

Another language-related thought (the half idea) is about how this affects storywriting in TPRS classrooms. I tend to commit ‘assumicide’ which is where I figured, hey, we’ve read a zillion stories, surely students know how to write one now. And unsurprisingly, those stories were not so great. If I want students to write good stories, I have to show them how to script them. (The easiest way being ‘there is a [whatever], it has a problem, it goes here, it doesn’t solve the problem, it goes somewhere else, it solves the problem’ format suggested by Blaine Ray.) But doing that also takes time, time that we have to split between all the different activities and cultures and knowledge we want to share with our students.

As always, I feel like I don’t have all the answers, or any answers, really. I’m just a regular teacher doing the best I can. But it’s important to ask the questions.

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!

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.

Student work sample

It’s funny to note that, for the last 2 years I’ve been blogging, my post count dips significantly in October and November. One act takes up a lot of my time, and pretty much any time I have outside of work, I am desperately trying to do fun and exciting things with my friends. (Not that I don’t enjoy play production or spending time with my students, but it is definitely a draining and exhausting season.)

So in lieu of a substantive post, here’s some student samples of work. These are from my Spanish 2 classes, about 6 or 7 weeks into the school year. We are recycling our school words and adding phrases like ‘arrived late’ ‘was mad’ ‘yelled at him/her’ and so on. I asked the students, in pairs, to write a story using the vocabulary from the unit and illustrate it. I collected them at the end of the period. The next day, I projected their pictures with the document camera and read a sentence from their story. The class had to match the sentence to the picture and show me their answer on individual markerboards. After doing this for a few stories, I mixed it up/upped the difficulty level a bit by adding some dictation for a few sentences. I don’t do a ton of dictation in my class because it’s not particularly engaging or exciting, but I do think it has useful applications of checking for spelling errors (I had a few students mix up llegar with llevar, for example) and training to listen for those Spanishy sounds, when used sparingly.

This example is from a group of students that are reaching their proficiency goal, but not really going above and beyond. Their writing is still bridging the gap from novice high to intermediate low.

sp2story-1sp2drawings-1

This example is from a group of students who are two of my superstars. They are chugging along into intermediate faster than expected for this time of year.

sp2story-2sp2drawings-2

Carol Gaab TCI presentation thoughts

Last week, I was one of about 120-140 lucky teachers in the state of Nebraska who attended a two day workshop put on by the one and only Carol Gaab. The first thing I want to say is that it makes me kind of sad that language students in Nebraska don’t understand how awesome their teachers are. The kind of people who take two days out of their ‘summer’ to learn a technique – which was a new thing for the majority of teachers – are the kind that are teachers who care about their students. Who want the best for their students. I saw so many instances of these teachers being helpful, kind, and often just funny. Some of the people at my table traveled quite a ways to be in Lincoln last week, but I hope it pays off for their students.

The second thing I need to say is, of course, if you EVER have this opportunity, dooooo itttttt. Carol is a wonderful presenter and truly a master of her craft. Like many CI/TPRS workshops, she started with telling a story in a mystery language. She actually launched into the first verbal mini-story before doing any of the PQA, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I wasn’t sure if she was speaking a real language or just made-up sounds (cause after all, that’s all language is – a bunch of sounds strung together that we all agree means a certain thing). Then we went through and did the steps – establishing meaning, PQA, and telling of the story. By the time we got to the end of the hour (that’s it, just one hour) she retold the story again and it was completely comprehensible. I don’t know how anyone can go through that sort of experience and not say ‘Wow, that was amazing! This totally works!’ Then the afternoon of the first day and most of the second day was spent on going over the different ways to have this effect on our students. As an experienced, if not amazing, TPRS/CI teacher, I felt there was a lot of stuff I already knew, but at this point I was looking for the little tweaks to take me from ‘eh’ to ‘yeah!’ and Carol provided them. I will say, if you are brand new to the technique, an TPRS workshop (not conference) is also highly recommended, or practicing with a teacher who is already well-versed in the technique. In this case, we learned about techniques that we could use, but in the workshop I went to last year, we had the time to go through the entire process PLUS practicing how to circle PLUS practicing telling a story. So I felt that this conference was a good supplement to the workshop I went to last year.

I can’t summarize the entire two days worth of learning, but here is what I think is most key for me:

-I have said in previous posts that I don’t think I do a very good job of verbally story-asking. I think the problem is that like many new CI teachers, I am either way too focused on my target structures that I make the story less compelling, or I completely lose control of the structures and we don’t get the repetitions we need. I think an important step I am missing is the parallel story/going between the story I’m telling and PQA. In almost every instance, Carol would say only a sentence or two before asking a question (either to keep the story going, or a PQA question).

-My verbal stories became way too long. After we got past the initial vocabulary (quiere, tiene, puede, etc.) then my stories suddenly became over half a page long – that’s just too much input to be comprehensible. I need to keep it a reasonable level. Carol showed us how a story of only 6 sentences could take up half an hour’s worth of time because of all the question-asking and redoing of the sentence. (Tarzan sees Jane and calls, ‘Jane!’ Does Tarzan call romantically? Does Tarzan call loudly or quietly? Does Jane answer? How does Jane answer? – Even though the main sentence was ‘Tarzan sees Jane and calls ‘Jane!’, this sentence took 5 minutes to act out and get past, but with tons of repetition.)

-When doing readings (which again, were getting kind of ridiculously long in my class) the trick is to make your low readers forget that they’re reading. So you read a sentence… and then you ‘go off topic’ (you’re not really going off topic; you’re going into question-asking) to make them think you’re just having a conversation about what you just read. But you’re really steering them into, you guessed it, more repetitions of the target structures.

-Everyone loves to quote Carol as saying ‘The brain craves novelty!’ which is true. By the end of the year, I was very predictable. Sometimes I would ask a story (rarely though, I had given up by then) but mostly we did readings. Everything I did was a thinly veiled repetition of reading in some format two or three times until the students started audibly groaning. What I learned from Carol is that the steps we’re doing are quite honestly, exactly the same every time. We just have to fool our students’ brains into thinking we’re not doing the exact same thing (even though we are). A lot of the ideas offered (act it out, using images, using video, reader’s theater, TPR, PQA, draw it, etc) are things I already do… I just need to mix them up. And apply them to the story rather than to my ‘not doing a specific story’ activities. Although if you want to get technical, almost everything we say is telling a story, so maybe I just need to change my thinking. I may outline my month’s worth of stories and decide what activities I’m going to do with each story so that I don’t repeat any during that month.

-Another caution from Carol is when using circling, it can become very boring and predictable very quickly. So you have to circle for a bit… then go do something else. Then circle a bit…. then go do something else.

-One really ‘duh’ teacher trick she taught us was about sentence strips. When doing a story, you can give them some sentences on strips of paper and ask them to put them in a logical order. This is a great activity, but takes sooooo much time to prepare. I usually only prep one set of strips per pair/group of 4 (depending on class size) but that’s still usually 5 or more sets of papers to cut out, and those of you with monster classes might have 10+ sets. So I don’t do it very often because, if the activity takes me longer to prepare than it does the students to complete it, then I’m going to opt out. Here’s Carol’s trick: instead of printing new strips for each story, get a set of differently colored strips (you can just use colored printer paper). Each group gets a set of the colored papers (1 of each color). Then project the sentences themselves on the board, each sentence highlighted in a color that matches one of the strips. Then the students arrange as usual, putting the colors in the order they think the sentences should be in.

There were so many more wonderful tips and tricks that Carol shared with me, but truly, there is no way to record them all here. You have to experience her teaching for yourself. You will not regret it!

P.S. We had a catered lunch by a local restaurant and it was amazingly delicious. I just wanted you all to know. Best conference ever. Super shoutout thanks to Janine Theiler, the NDE, and LPS for providing this opportunity for us!