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.

Adolescent literacy learning #3 – comprehension and critical thinking

The other week, my colleagues and I attended another Adolescent Literacy Learning session with Dr. Kevin Feldman. This session focused on comprehension strategies and critical thinking skills. As always, I’d like to share my important takeaways. These ideas work for all subjects across all grade levels, not just for foreign language.

  • Before we can even work on comprehension, students have to be in the game. We should be pushing them into active cognitive processing – students should always be doing SOMETHING mentally (not spacing out) and just as importantly, they need to be able to show us, the teachers, what they’re thinking. This could consist of responding verbally to a question, responding to a written prompt, creating a product, or any other kind of way of making their thinking visible. We were asked to self-evaluate and I rated myself very highly in this regard because with TPRS/CI strategies, active participation is the name of the game.
  • We talked about how comprehension consists of extracting and reconstructing. There are many pitfalls for students in both areas. Students might have trouble extracting the information they need due to deficiencies in vocabulary, or they might be able to understand the information but have difficulty justifying or qualifying their responses.
  • One thing that makes a huge difference is background knowledge. This is probably the key hurdle to comprehension. For example, my students tend to come from farming backgrounds. Sometimes they talk about problems with their farm equipment, and even though I technically know the words they’re saying, they might as well be speaking Russian. If we were being assessed on a reading passage about farm equipment, my kids would destroy me because their background knowledge is much deeper than mine. I also think this is an easy, easy pitfall for teachers to run into – to assume that because it was technically taught in a previous grade or class, that students will correctly remember that information. I try not to make that mistake. So that’s why, for example, I take a day and talk about fascism vs. communism and the Spanish Civil War when starting my art unit in Spanish 3. On the surface, economic systems have nothing to do with art, but when we look deeper, students need to understand the personal lives and beliefs of the artists to understand their art and contributions. Another difficulty related to background knowledge is a student’s ability to make inferences. If they don’t have sufficient understanding of the key points of the passage, they can’t read between the lines to understand a more subtle point that the author is trying to make.

Okay, so after discussing the background information that WE needed to be able to discuss the particular strategies, we delved more deeply into the strategies themselves.

  • Summarize – this one is pretty self explanatory, since every teacher since the beginning of time has asked for summaries. Some specific strategies included paragraph shrinking (write a gist statement in 10-15 words) or RAP (read, ask what’s the main idea, put in your own words).
  • One really cool summary strategy that would be awesome for literature circle type work is reciprocal teaching. In this strategy, students are in small groups where each person is assigned a role. The roles are predict, clarify, question, summarize. We also watched a video illustrating the strategy where the teacher switched out ‘clarify’ for ‘read aloud’ as the students worked through The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t find the exact video we watched, but this similar video gives a great walkthrough of the concept.
  • Teach students metacognition. Frequently stop to reflect and ask/answer questions. (For those of us in foreign language, this is also great practice to push students into the intermediate level where they can create their own questions rather than copying ours!) If they can’t answer the question on the first read-through or listen, how can they go back into the reading or audio and find it?
  • The one that I’ve been focusing on in my class is close reading. I think the concept of close reading is probably more familiar to reading teachers or elementary interventionists, but I hadn’t heard of it before the last ALL session. However, it’s possible that you already do a form of it and just don’t know it! Close reading is used for difficult readings – you know, the like the kind teachers have students do, not for fun and easy reading. In a close reading, students are asked to complete different tasks like underline the 3 most important ideas, draw a shape around words they don’t know, draw a shape around essential vocabulary, put a ?  by things they don’t understand, etc. Basically, it requires them to annotate and again, justify their thinking. They have to do multiple, thorough reads in order to accurately complete the work. Of course, after having them annotate, it’s very easy to segue into active cognition by having them share their ideas with a partner and then share out some ideas with the whole class for discussion.
  • Something that is particularly important for foreign language is teaching the vocabulary for having a good discussion – I agree because, I disagree because, I have a different opinion, I’d like to add, please explain, etc. It’s much easier for students to stay in the target language if they have the language tools to do so!

I hope you find these strategies as useful as I have. Again, these ideas are simple tweaks that make good teachers into great teachers. Stay tuned for a post about how I’ve implemented close reading strategies in my Spanish 2 class in the near future!

Blended Learning Conference (Institute for Educational Development)

So it’s that time of year where I feel I am utterly overwhelmed with all the things I need to do… and also have a lot of free time due to the scheduling of school activities and a lack of students left to teach! Blogging is one of those things that I think, ‘Oh, I’ll get to that’ and then never do, until I have something to trigger me.

In this case, I went to a blended language learning conference in Omaha yesterday. I was a little worried at first because I couldn’t find much information on the instructor, Debbie Roberts, or on this particular conference. Since I was paying my own way and taking a precious spring day off of work, I was hoping it would be worth my time. Considering I am someone who is pretty well versed in technology, I was also concerned that it would be similar to the PD we’ve had here at my school about app/web basics like Google, Evernote, Prezi, Kahoot, (Duolingo and Quizlet for language teachers), etc. I know about those – I was looking for something more.

Thankfully, the conference exceeded my expectations. It turned out that there wasn’t much information on this particular conference because it was the first time our instructor had presented! (She did have extensive presentation experience on general ed tech as well as being a master language teacher.) I also really liked the fact that she is someone who is still an active teacher. I feel it gives more credence when someone can say ‘I did this lesson on Thursday’ versus ‘I did this lesson 5 years ago’.

In any case, here is a summary of my favorite new ideas. This blog post is coming from a perspective of someone who is handy with technology and is looking for some new twists on old ideas. (After all, solid teaching is solid teaching, with or without tech.)

Slidesnack – Last year (when I still gave grammar notes) I used a regular powerpoint + screencast-o-matic. Although SOM is a perfectly fine tool, I felt it was a little unwieldy when trying to use it to record a verbal lecture at the same time. Slidesnack basically does the same thing (allows you to record over a presentation) but I wonder if it’s more versatile.

Powtoon – I’m already familiar with Powtoon, but it warrants a mention because it is a wonderful storytelling tool for both teachers and students. When students get bored of the regular text stories, sometimes a simple Powtoon spices things back up. Here is an example of a story I wrote for Spanish 2 to practice the present perfect.

Fotobabble – Fotobabble is like a simplified Voicethread. You can take a photo and record your voice. This would be great for narrating a story, or simply describing the picture verbally (and still allowing the teachers to have a record of what was said for assessment/credit/whatever).

Big Huge Labs – Big Huge Labs is a website with tons of options to create stuff with photos. Debbie showed us how to make a movie poster, but there are many options that could be easily transformed into language activities.

Sock Puppets – This is sadly only available as an iOS app, but could be great for those who have iPad carts or BYOD. This basically allows students to narrate skits and the sock puppets move their mouths to match the words (plus silly voice changing).

Autorap – Another app that allows you to record spoken text and then play it back with a sweet beat. I think kids could get a kick out of working on pronunciation and then playing it back in this silly way.

Besides these useful tech tools, Debbie’s workshop packet (book, really) has example lesson plans, rubrics for assessment, examples of IPAs (integrated performance assessments), and ideas for differentiating learning through tech. Although these ideas could be used for an entirely flipped classroom, everything I learned could be applicable in a traditional+tech, blended, or flipped environment. They also work for the entire range of classroom and teaching styles (grammar-based to pure input). This post is just a taste of what we covered – I would definitely recommend this conference to all of you!

TPRS Workshop (June 26-28, 2014)

Hello everyone! I am back and ready for the new school year! Okay, maybe not really ready to go back to school, but I had my month of laziness (sorry to all of you who just got out last week) and after attending a 3 day TPRS workshop in Council Bluffs, I am ready to do some unit plan cleanup.

There are plenty of other people who know more about what they’re doing with TPRS, so if you are new and don’t know what it is, the two best places to learn the basics are from Blaine Ray and Ben Slavic. In my travels around the blogosphere, I think they tend to have the most ‘pure’ form of TPRS. If you’ve heard about this TPRS thing but are not sure a workshop is worth your money (or your school’s), let me assure you right now: it is 100% worth it. Although I had some of the basics down, it was nice to practice techniques like parallel characters or events. I’m not sure I have the skill to do them until later in the year, but that’s okay.

My workshop group was very small. There were only 7 of us, plus our presenter. We came from eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and even one from Kansas. Our instructor was Craig Sheehy from Idaho. I liked that Craig was not just someone on the lecture circuit, but a real-life teacher who goes back to his own classroom 9 months out of the year and knows what it’s really like to teach. Interestingly enough, all but one of us taught in tiny rural or parochial schools, so we are all our own department. It was very refreshing to be able to spend time with other teachers and bounce ideas off each other. In addition, everyone was a Spanish teacher. This was nice because we ended up speaking in Spanglish, but made the actual practice sessions a little less helpful since we all spoke the same second language.

Day one

My workshop was a 3 day workshop, though they offer different versions in different cities. The workshops are also appropriate for people of all levels and teaching abilities. I was one of the youngest teachers there with very little TPRS experience. One of the teachers there had gone to a workshop last year, but returned to see what she could tweak now that she had the basics down. Another one had been using TPRS for 6 or 7 years. She was there to see the updated techniques.

Day one was mostly an overview and demo of the technique. We spent the morning talking about the research behind TPRS (mostly Krashen’s input theory) and the basic steps of TPRS. In the afternoon, Craig told us a story in German. First, we practiced the new vocabulary with gestures. Then he quizzed us on doing the gestures with our eyes closed. Once we could do that, he transitioned into the background of the story. Once the background was established, we continued with the standard format: background information, introduce problem, go somewhere, problem is not solved, go somewhere else, problem is solved. Because we are all language teachers, he introduced more vocabulary than we would with truly novice language learners. It was exhausting. By the end, my brain was full of Mädchens and Zimmers and froh and geht.

We finished the day by switching back into Spanish and practicing the circling technique in small groups. Circling is the key to getting enough repetitions to make the words stick.

Day two

Day two is the time for everyone to practice doing a chunk of a story and receiving feedback on it from an experienced teacher. This was so helpful, although it’s far more intimidating to get up in front of a group of people who will actually notice if you make a mistake. It was also nice to see how the other teachers approached the same technique and what their strengths were. Like all teaching, TPRS is an art form and we each bring our own piece of flair to it. Watching the teacher who had been doing it for years was wonderful. She added simple little things, like crouching down and talking to her actor in a stage whisper voice to feed them their lines (so she was ‘out of the scene’, so to speak) then standing up and speaking loudly when verifying the detail to the class. Small difference, huge impact.

Of course, I got up there and felt like a dork because I was so nervous. Plus, it was right before lunch and everyone was hungry, so I didn’t want to take forever. It was definitely not my best teaching, but I made it through!

In a larger group, the workshopping part of day two takes longer, but since we only had two groups, we moved into the embedded readings. Since I am a highly visual person, the readings were far easier for me than the verbal story. We finished our day by practicing a timed write. The timed writing is something I will add into my grading scheme, because it’s so easy, and keeps the students accountable.

Day three

Day three was fun for us because we had basically covered all the scripted TPRS portions of the workshop by the end of day two, but we made the third day very worthwhile. We talked about how to use the TPRS novels and different techniques that Craig used to teach them to his students. The past two years, I’ve used them, but was basically making it up as I went along. It was nice to see affirmation of things I did right, and how to enhance the parts that where I struggled. (Pro-tip: do not read the entire story in one big chunk, like they might do in English class, and definitely don’t do all the books at the same time in all your classes. I often read the book aloud, which means my voice is shot by lunch. It was a terrible idea.)

We also talked about assessments, and Craig showed us examples of how he does his tests. We also talked about the variety of activities you can have students do. I think, as an outsider, it seems like TPRS is gestures – stories – free writes – nothing else. Craig’s list of ‘recap activities’ showed us that that’s not true. The biggest difference is the lack of student-to-student communication.

In the afternoon, we talked about the elephant that is in every classroom: classroom management. Craig is going to be presenting his classroom management plan at the National TPRS conference at the end of July, so it was practice for him and we got to learn, too! His whole plan is overwhelming for people who are not him, but there are pieces that will help me during the storytelling portions of TPRS that I don’t currently have a solution for in my own management plan.

Final thoughts

Overall, I think this workshop is one of the best things I could do for myself as a teacher at this stage in my career. Even experienced TPRS masters could learn a lot. The ‘textbook’, the Look, I Can Talk! mini-stories, was recently updated (as in, earlier this month) to be much more in line with itself and the basic principles of TPRS. For novices of the technique, this book literally walks you through every step and every question for the first few stories, and then gradually lessens the amount of scaffolding as you progress. The technique now also uses both past and present tenses from the beginning. The story itself is told in past (which means for Spanish students, they get tons of era/estaba practice from day 1) but the teacher converses with the student actors in present. For the readings, the accompanying book has the stories in both tenses. (As a side note, the level 2 book has not been updated yet but is slated for changes in the nearish future.)

For someone just starting teaching, you could very likely come in and do a weekly story from Look, I Can Talk and you will have a successful year. After going to the workshop, I am still not swayed that I should entirely do away with everything else I’ve been doing over the years, but I intend to use TPRS in levels 1 and 2 to really hammer the most common, essential vocabulary. In TPRS, students also pick up a ridiculous amount of implicit vocabulary, which lessens/eliminates the need for monstrously large vocabulary lists. That way, when students get to Spanish 3 and 4, we can focus more on accuracy when they have enough language to necessitate cleaning it up. It’s also a lot easier to understand the language when you aren’t constantly trying to manage tiny, common, and essential words like pero, en, a, con, el, la, le, se, nos, de, para, and so on.

Now, it’s time to get to work on those unit plans!