Kagan conversion: why you should get training too

Something that I see over and over when I am on twitter (which I am reading far more frequently this year than last, for various reasons) are threads where I want to jump in and say ‘Need engagement strategies? There’s a Kagan structure for that!’ It’s kind of like the Portlandia sketch ‘Put a bird on it!’ only.. you know, for questioning kids. The most recent example was a thread on the ol’ worksheet debate: yay or nay. My take is that the debate is old and tired. Pieces of paper with words (aka worksheets) are not the problem; it is the tasks on the them that are the issue. And that isn’t even the underlying issue because 99% of the time, the task – in any subject – is asking students to solve a problem or answer a question. Our job, as teachers, is to have students solve problems and answer questions and we can either have them do that orally (enter: the lecture) or written (enter: the worksheet). For a long time, that was The Way Things Were Done because that was what we had available to us, and as our teachers were taught before us, and the teachers before them, and so on unto the beginning of time.

But it’s 2017. And this blog is all about Not Doing Things The Way They’ve Been Done, unless there’s a good reason, such as research-based evidence that it actually works. And I assume you (ustedes) read this blog because you are someone who wants to become a better teacher all the time. I can assume this because teachers who do not want to become better teachers don’t bother reading blogs. So here’s why I’m a Kagan convert, and you should be too.

In January of this year, I took day 1 of training thanks to my ESU. I loved it. I said, ‘Oh, this is stuff I do already.’ My favorite part was that day 1 stuff takes ZERO PREP. NONE. Okay, making your teams takes some prep but that’s it – the actual structures, the stuff you do in class? No work on your part. WHAT TEACHER DOESN’T LOVE THAT. I get MORE engagement from my students, LOWER affective filter, BETTER feelings of being part of the in-group, and I don’t have to do anything except what I’m already doing? Sign me up!!

Now day 2, this is where we get to the worksheet part. Day 2 structures included strategies like quiz-quiz-trade, fan-n-pick, or numbered heads together. Day 2 structures do require a bit of prep work on the teacher’s part. But here’s the catch – that prep work? Is probably stuff you already have lying around. It’s taking the questions you were going to ask already (in a worksheet format), and putting them in a different format like on a powerpoint or on index cards. These structures are great for world language teachers who are stuck teaching from a textbook or assigned curriculum who would rather not, or PERFECT for social sciences. They’re a little bit trickier for subjects like math, but they can also be easily adapted for literature, any of the sciences, you name it!

I’m going to day 3 here in a few weeks and I don’t know what structures are up next, but I’m excited. I will use them when I learn them. This year, I honestly use Kagan structures… nearly every day, in every class.

Okay, the structures are the meat-and-potatoes of the system. I’ve mentioned them here and here before. I can’t possibly explain how they all work, because there is not enough space or time – that’s why you have to go to the training sessions. Or email/DM me if you have a specific question. But there are many other parts to the system, and they all work together. Students are placed in teams, which is important for building comraderie. We want that closeness, that ‘we’re in this together’. Each week, they recommend that you do classbuilding and teambuilding activities. They only have to take less than 5 minutes a piece. I, personally, don’t worry about this because in Spanish, we’re already doing that in the TL, all day, every day! That’s literally half of what Spanish class is about! There’s also the positive interdependence piece – since everyone is part of a team, everyone is important and everyone’s work counts. There is no hiding. Everyone has to put in their fair share. I like this for multiple obvious reasons. Number one, the slackers can’t slack, because the peer pressure is too strong. (It’s easy to be a slacker in a trio. It’s much harder to slack in a pair. And with Kagan, even if you are in a trio, it is very clear on who is doing what, so there is no arguments over what you’re supposed to be doing.) Number two, quiet students get heard and socially aggressive students don’t dominate. Now, some students are just quiet (physically) and not actually shy, but this helps the actually shy students – I have yet to meet someone who is cripplingly shy in just a one-on-one situation. Kagan, due to its clarity, also helps students with anxiety – it is clear who goes first, what their job is, and what everyone else should be doing when they’re not speaking. There are no surprises.

I’m actually really surprised that I don’t hear more language teachers talking about using Kagan because if you already use CI strategies and especially TPRS specifically, it fits right in with how we want things to work. The only real difference is, instead of the whole class reporting to us (the teacher) all the time, the students are reporting to each other and then to us. Does it slow things down? Yes, especially the first time you are using a structure. But my hope is to get other teachers at my school on board and then by the time kids get to me in 9th grade, they can know exactly ‘RoundRobin, 1 minuto, Persona 3 empieza’ means without any explanation, off we go. There are really NO downsides to this system. After my trip to iFLT this summer and my initial TPRS training with Craig Sheehy however many years ago, these Kagan trainings have probably been the most useful to my practice. If you can get the training, go. I hope you’ll become a Kagan convert too. (And if you just want free talk throughs, there’s always google and yours truly!)


iFLT 2017: Day 4

On day 4, I watched yet another language lab session and finished with probably the most useful, thought-provoking presentation of the week. It was called In Good Times and Bad: Staying in the TL 95%+ by Paul Kirschling. Not only was Paul comical, he really knows his stuff.

Teacher confession time: I do not stay in the TL 95% of the time. Or 90% of the time. I am really okay with about 80% of the time as a target (especially since, as Sara-Elizabeth notes here, that the 90% statement from ACTFL is really an arbitrary number made up that sounded pretty good to a bunch of teachers). My problem is… I like to tell personal stories. No problem, right? But then I run into something I can’t describe in Spanish. Or it’s a long story, because I’m me, and I ramble. So I switch to English. And then Kid 1 wants to tell a story, and I let them, because I care and I’m interested, but they have to use English to tell me all the details. And then Kid 2 wants to tell a story. And so on.

And then we technically did PQA. Just… all in English and now we’re 15 minutes into a 45 minute class and there was no language acquisition. Epic teacher fail.

So I decided to go to this session because the thing is, I am totally capable of staying in the TL 95% of the time or more, and the slow realization had dawned on me throughout the week. (But I’m going to say more about that in my wrap-up post so, no more here.) Here is what Paul had to say before he gave us squazillions of examples of how to stay in the TL:

  • Why do we need to stay in the TL? Because we have limited time with our students and there are no shortcuts.
  • What keeps us from using it? Classroom management issues, verbose verbiage, and most commonly YOU THE TEACHER (I bolded this with lots of exclamation points because I am the problem in my classroom.)
  • Two big ideas: layer in the language, and teach the phrases you need to be able to teach (directions, common phrases like What are you doing? / Do you need help? / Eyes on me / Is it true or false / etc)



This was the meat and potatoes of his session. It was the most obvious and also most enlightening sentence of the entire week for me. He said, kid has to go to the bathroom? Use it for input. Kid tries to speak English? Time for input. A visitor interrupts class? More input. I suppose if you are a control freak (I used to be one, but I am in recovery) then it will be very hard to let go of your lesson plan, but if you treat every moment as an opportunity to teach language, then it doesn’t really matter what kind of random stuff happens in class… it’s all a rich gold mine for teaching language, especially conversational language (lots of “should” and “what if” type language.) He also opened my eyes to taking rote input that I spent a lot of time teaching at the beginning of Spanish 1 and… not doing that anymore. Stuff like greetings, saying goodbye, basic courtesies… you know, things you teach the first two weeks of school in a big flurry and the kids immediately forget except for their favorite? Yeah, I’m not going to do that this year. Instead of doing that, just greet them in the same way for a few days until they either get it or get super tired of it, then mix it up. For example:

  • Good morning.
  • Good morning, class.
  • Good morning, my students.
  • Good morning, my dear students.
  • Good morning, my dear students who are always on time.

As you can see, you just keep layering on more and more new language – that’s how we acquire, right? By taking things we have already acquired and just putting a liiiiittle bit more on it.  As the year progresses, mix it up.

  • Good morning, Tigers. [our mascot]
  • Hello, young students and old students.
  • Good day, citizens.
  • Good afternoon, students wearing green shirts and black shorts.

One I came up with myself was a mishmash of an idea from La Maestra Loca, who names her classes, and this one. Name each class after a country, then greet them by their demonym – Hola peruanos, hola argentinos, hola candienses, etc.

Then he threw in some GREAT ideas for languages like Spanish. Want to teach your level ones some subjunctive?

  • I am thrilled you came today.
  • I am disappointed you are late.
  • It’s my pleasure to teach you today.
  • I’m so happy it’s Monday.

Emotions + subjunctive is a super common construction in Spanish, but I don’t normally introduce any of that until Spanish 3. The last one could even introduce ‘sea’ which is very important, being a form of ‘is’ and also being irregular. The modifier ‘tan’ for ‘so’ is also super handy. See? So much rich language in ONE simple sentence. And obviously you would write it on the board, explain the first day you say it, and all that good stuff. You can repeat this process with ways to ask how are you or say goodbye or any other typical routine courtesies.

Then Paul moved on to modeling various student interactions when a student has a routine request, like going to the bathroom, asking to charge a device, asking for a pencil, whatever. Going to the bathroom might include questions like:

  • Where are you going?
  • Is it near or is it far?
  • Is it dangerous to go?
  • What do you need to go?
  • Do you need your phone/a pass/money/your computer/etc?
  • How do you get there?
  • Class, should I let them go?
  • [after the student leaves] Do you think they’re really going to the bathroom? Will they text? Will they play games on their phone? Will they talk to Fiona in the bathroom? Will they be back in 5 minutes?

Obviously, you can’t do this every time and not all the questions every time, but it could be fun, especially if you have frequent fliers for certain things. Or hey, even have a kid do a set-up where they will specifically ask you for something (even though they don’t actually need that thing), because, why not?

This session opened my eyes to the possibility of easy input that is present in every single class if I would just look for it, and especially lots of conversational input that doesn’t necessarily sound stilted or forced (which can be a problem once you get into the higher levels and are trying to work in ways to use conditional or future tenses and such). Since these are tasks that are repeated frequently, you will get your repetition a few reps over a period of time rather than 20+ reps in one day like we might do with a specific CI activity, but students will pick that stuff up. And now I can save myself time at the beginning of Spanish 1 to get to more interesting things than practicing saying hola and buenos días.

iFLT 2017: Day 3

On day 3, I chose to start my day by observing Grant Boulanger’s language lab. As promised in day 2, I am going to write up my language lab observations in a different post. (I ended up watching a THIRD language lab on Friday because they are just so fun and informative to watch.) So we’ll start with my second session.

Session 2 – Embedded Reading Part 2 – Michele Whaley/Laurie Clarcq

I originally was going to go embedded reading part 1 the day before, but I ended up trading it in for La Maestra Loca’s language lab which turned out to be a fine decision. I have a good grasp on the basics of embedded readings and how they work. This presentation, like many parts of iFLT, was mostly a target-language demo of what it looks and feels like (this time, in Russian!) but some salient points the presenters made are these:

  • Remember to leave thinking time!!! As teachers (of any sort) we frequently want students to answer the question before we’re done even asking, when that’s not how questioning and answering happens in normal conversation.
  • We have to remind students to tell us if things aren’t clear – that’s a normal part of communication. (True story: I was talking to native speakers yesterday and getting into unknown vocabulary, and they were starting to talk very quickly, so I had to ask the woman to repeat herself. Lo and behold, she wasn’t offended or angry, she slowed down, repeated herself, and changed her language slightly so I could get it and we could solve her problem! That’s how language works in reality!!!)
  • Big important note: why did students read before comprehensible input? To get ready for the test. What are they doing? Trying to find the bits they understand. How much do they understand? About 30%.
  • In a CI classroom, why do students read? To get information. What are they doing? Focusing on the message. How much do they understand? Depends on purpose and who’s doing the leading. 85% gets you comprehension, 90-95% with teacher support leads to acquisition, 95-100% alone leads to acquisition. That being said, we were shown examples of gibberish plus English to show the different percentage levels and anything under 95 is really unpleasant. (Later, in the BVP/Krashen talk, Dr. Krashen hypothesized that higher interest would lead to higher tolerance of ‘noise’.)

Then we went into a typical embedded reading scenario reading about a penguin who swims from Argentina to Brazil every year to visit a man who washed him off when he was a baby penguin. We did a short TPRS story to introduce the vocabulary, then about a 5-line version one of the story while Michele read. (Yes, she put the actual Russian up there while she read aloud.) For the next version, she had a few of us go up and act it out. Another way to possibly do this is to have the kids do a read-and-draw type activity, but leave a few extra boxes at the bottom. That’s where the NEW information they find out from the subsequent readings goes.

Another idea they suggested is to quickly smash kids into small groups (a director + actors) and have them act out the story SILENTLY while the director films on their phone. Then they submit their silent movies to you, and you can use their movies as a potential MovieTalk. I love this idea because 1) less work that I have to do, 2) kids love seeing themselves, 3) moooooorrreeee input!

Even though I consider myself a pretty okay embedded reading user (two of my favorite stories to teach are authres stories embedded-reading-ified down for students), this session helped me realize that the reason that these SUPER AMAZING STORIES unfortunately tend to fall flat with my kids is because we just read the stories, check for comprehension, and that’s it. I don’t put in other activities with them, which is a note for this year.


On Thursday, there was an hour Q&A with Bill VanPatten and Dr. Krashen, which I have zero notes on because I was enraptured with their presence. (Seriously. I sat 4th row, dead center, and it was the only thing I was EARLY to this entire week.) They were knowledgeable and hilarious and I really wish they had time for more questions. But I’ve always got my Tea with BVP!

Session 3 – Reader’s Theatre – Karen Rowan

I chose this session for two reasons. One, because I sort of do reader’s theatre but I’m not great at it. Two, because I coach drama at my school but I’m not great at it.  The basics of reader’s theatre aren’t terribly difficult: find an entertaining passage in what you’re reading, usually a novel, and act it out. However, after watching Karen’s session, I realized why I’m not so great at it. To have a good reader’s theatre, you have to be adequately prepared with the right kinds of props. #1, I said last year “Oh, I’m going to start a prop box” (I even have a 3-drawer rolling cart with 2 empty drawers for props!) but I never got around to it and #2, I never went through and specifically said THIS WILL BE THE DRAMATIC SECTION (even though we do, for example, Casi Se Muere and we absolutely should act out the part where Pepe is choking and Ana saves his life and then Jaime stomps over). I usually just decided that morning if the kids had enough energy. As a side note, I also think that even if you’re thinking, eeeeh I don’t think my kids would really be into this, having the right kind of ridiculous props will help. In my case, my problem is small numbers due to our enrollment so I usually don’t have enough bodies after Spanish 1.

We acted out a scene from Don Quijote (the version written by Karen Rowan herself so it was exceptionally fun and entertaining) and here are my notes during our experience and on her post-experience talk:

  • We are not teaching students to decode words, we are teaching them to make pictures in their head.
  • The students technically have their books but they’re not really looking at them. (This made me felt better because I always had an internal conflict between, we’re supposed to be reading, but how can they watch the acting and read at the same time.) Some teachers might type out scripts instead and some novel teacher guides even include reader’s theatre scripts that are easier to hold than the book.
  • Karen had written out the dialogue on big pieces of cardboard on BOTH sides so the actor could hold it up and read it and the audience could also see and read it. She later suggested using markerboards too.
  • It’s important for the class to keep the energy up or you, the teacher, have to provide all the energy and that is exhausting.
  • You can redo chunks of the story in rewind, fast forward, slow-mo – just don’t overdo it.
  • Designate a photographer to take pictures as you go, then use those pictures in a retell.
  • Project a photo as a backdrop!
  • Use chairs and tables as staging, just make good decisions.
  • Stop at the moment of maximum interest to get those language reps in. (Should he yell at the bully? Will she ask the cute boy on a date? etc.)
  • Then, once you get to the actual reading of the chapter, just read it. You’ve already acted it out; the kids know what happens.

Session 4 – AP through a CI Lens – Darcy Pippins

The final session of the day on a very long Thursday was focused on preparing students for the AP exam and how CI can do that just as effectively as traditional programs. AP scores just came in for the last school year, and well. I’ve got 2 years of AP under my belt and I am 0-for-9 of students receiving passing scores. Let me be clear: this is a me-problem and not a student-problem but I will address this more in my wrap-up/changes for 2017-2018 post. Darcy had a great presentation but I didn’t take a whole ton of notes because I felt her target audience wasn’t necessarily current AP teachers, but rather teachers who were part of programs that feed into AP and how to get those students prepared from the bottom up. A lot of the information was on the six themes of the AP exam and stuff I was already familiar with due to my AP training a few years ago. One thing I did NOT know that will certainly be useful is that apparently you can ask for your students’ materials back? It costs something or other, but if I can see what my students did on the test, that would be very helpful in saying “Oh. Yeeeeeah this is what I need to fix.” (Right now, that answer is: all the things.)

One thing that it did trigger in my brain is that I can do a much better job aligning my lower level Spanish units to the 6 AP themes. Which is good, because I really dislike my Spanish 3 units and I want to trash a lot of them this year and do something completely different.

Notes to self aside, Arianne Dowd did a much better job actually writing up what Darcy talked about over on the CI Peek blog so if you are interested in that, head over and check it out.

My last session gets a whole post all to itself because it was probably the most enlightening of all the sessions I went to (and again, I went to it on a whim. Best decision ever.) But it will probably be a lot shorter. Yay!

iFLT 2017: Day 2

Before I start this post, I first have to say… hello to all my new readers! Imagine my surprise when I logged in after my excessively long nap tonight and saw that my blog has had more traffic in the last 24 hours than I usually get in 2 weeks so that was pretty great. A special thanks to Kristy Placido for giving me a boost on Twitter, and whoever is blasting me out on Facebook. (I don’t join teacher stuff on Facebook just to give myself some space or else I’d literally never stop thinking about teaching, but again, thank you to whoever you are!) I guess all my self-marketing at this crazy conference is actually working. Who knew?

In any case, today was a bit more brain-manageable since there were only four sessions to attend. I started my day trying to figure out more about the lost middle children of the language learning process, the intermediates.

Session 1 – The Wonderful World of Intermediates – Kristy Placido

Kristy started her session by cracking a few jokes about how intermediates are the middle children of the language world, but she’s kind of right. They’re not the carefully sheltered, curious novices, but they’re not the world-weary AP students, either. They’re this weird, messy language… thing… (which also frequently tends to coincide with a time in their physiological lives where they are weird, messy things – since my program starts in year 9, my intermediates are smack dab in the middle of sophomore and junior years. Yuck.) However, the great thing about intermediates is that you can now start teaching subject matter, as long as you continue to shelter the vocabulary, and they will continue to grow their language skills.

The intermediate level is also a great time to really push a self-selected reading program, however that might look for you. There are plenty of other blog posts from various authors on the subject so I won’t belabor the point here, but I did make a note that auto repair manuals were a big hit with Kristy’s rural students, which is also the population I teach (I laughed when she talked about kids driving their tractors or riding their horses to school – yep, that’s my town!) so that’s something I might need to look for. I have a few kids that HATE reading but would perk right up to look through one of those. Other things might be magazines, comic books, etc. (I personally keep all those sample ¿Qué Tal? magazines that I get in the mail and add those to my FVR library, even little things like that.) Kristy starts with doing only 5 minutes at a time, twice a week.

The rest of her presentation focused on ACTFL’s definition of intermediate skills and then what that looks like in Kristy’s room. So for example, when it comes to listening, students are still listening to stories, songs, short authentic recordings, reader’s theater, and class discussions. Kristy noted, however, that the majority of input is still coming from her. Even “class discussions” are still mostly teacher driven in that she will give her own opinion or idea, ask a question of a student, the student will probably give a short response, then she will redirect the question to a different student or maybe ask if they agree/disagree with student #1, and so on. In that way, it feels like a discussion because the students are giving their thoughts but the teacher is really controlling all the language input. I am glad that Kristy explained this because that’s how discussion tends to end up in my class, and I tended to feel like I was doing something wrong – I mean, I KNOW my students can talk, so why can’t they keep this discussion going on their own? But the problem is, I think, that as intermediates, they can keep a discussion going without me if the topic is simple and in context and in class, we’re usually going into unfamiliar territory, because otherwise… they wouldn’t be learning, duh. So they need me to facilitate it.

When it comes to reading, she uses novels, non-fiction writings (this is the time when I start adding in Martina Bex’s news stories to my classes), short stories, and embedded readings on a cultural topic.

Output with intermediates is… messy. They are trying to create with the language and therefore their control of time markers is particularly not-so-great, and organization with regards to order can be confusing. But as language teachers, this is good – to me, this is Making a Good Mistake. I like seeing that sort of stuff because it means they’re learning! Anyway, according to Kristy, asking for output is satisfying for two reasons. One, it is satisfying to the learner to see that they can actually do a thing. Two, it is useful for the teacher as an assessment tool. In Kristy’s class, her assessments take the form of a 10 minute timed writing every week or two. She gives them a topic because she notes (and I will agree, having seen it in my room) that NOT giving a topic means students spend more time panicking about what to write than just writing, and her topic tends to be related to whatever they’ve been studying recently. She comments on content, but doesn’t make corrections or take off for mistakes, since research shows that error correction makes pretty much no difference in language acquisition. So why waste your time? Her grades are strictly based on word count.

Finally, when it comes to speaking, she acknowledges that it is by far the most stressful of the skills and recently threw out her participation rubrics and grading, and encouraged us to do so too. I personally don’t force any student to speak except on certain assessments, but I will always invite a student to speak (and allow them to pass if they want). Sometimes I might use a chat system like todaysmeet.com to simulate a spoken conversation but it allows my slower processors time to think or just my quieter/shyer students a screen between them and their peers, and the few times I’ve done it, the kids have really liked it. (Especially if I let them listen to music in their headphones, as long as they’re participating with the chat!)

Session 2 – Language Lab – La Maestra Loca (Annabelle Allen)

Just kidding. I’m going to put this writeup in its own post because I think it will be less confusing that way. I plan to watch Grant Boulanger’s class tomorrow because I hear his teaching style is the polar opposite of La Maestra Loca’s (hers is extremely energetic and bouncy and AAAHHHH TEACHING IS THE BEST which is very similar to mine and his is reportedly very chill) and I think I will write them up together. But I will say it was very helpful to watch another teacher teach CI with an actual class of actual kids so I can say “yes, that is what my class looks like, I must be doing something right” or “hmm, that does not look anything like what I’m doing, how do I change it”.

Session 3 – Cutting Corners and Simple Shortcuts – La Maestra Loca

After watching La Maestra Loca’s language lab, I knew I had to come back for her ultimate “how to be a lazy teacher” session because news flash: I spend all my energy on the teaching part of my teaching so I am reeeeeaaaallllllyyyy lazy on the planning part. Anything I can do to recycle pictures, student writings, etc. so that I have less to do tomorrow is the name of my game. Apparently many other teachers also feel strapped for time and energy because her room was absolutely jam packed. The pictures on Twitter do not do it justice.

Her first lazy idea is how to get students – even elementary students – writing. Post pictures or comics (without words) around the room, and give kids post it notes. Their job is to walk around the room and fill out as much about the picture as they can on their note, then stick it on the picture. Lower levels, it could just be words or phrases. Higher levels, tell a story. They can go to the pictures of their choice, skipping is allowed. And then here’s where you get really fancy: if your next class is a similar level, when they come in, their job is to a gallery walk and just read the stories. Bam. Next activity.

La Maestra Loca also doesn’t like all the random shouting and whining that might happen when you are picking names/characters/locations/etc. for a story you’re about to tell. I solved my problem through using Kagan strategies, but she offered a few other options. One is to take a huge piece of butcher paper (she takes hers from down the hall from the Latin teacher, I assume you can get yours from wherever) and write down the categories, then the students generate as many ideas as they can. Then, when it’s time to need a [whatever] for your story, just pull from the paper. If you need students to burn some energy, a variation is to do the same thing only each category is on a separate piece of paper around the room. A third variation is to use storycubes which I am not going to elaborate on because one, she just wrote about it on her own blog, so go read it there, and two, I’m going to write about it in my lesson lab writeup so you can read about it later.

Then she gave a lot of examples of various things that you can take one of and just adjust your language level to match your student level – MovieTalks, PictureTalks, story skeletons, cultural presentations. She was also a proponent of FVR.

She has a lot of sweet brain breaks. She keeps a list of them on the wall to remind herself of them all, but of course I don’t live in her brain so I didn’t know what they meant. Thankfully, her blog knows what they meant, so again, you should just go look at it and read about them. (I am going to shamelessly yoink some because I really, really, really need to use more brain breaks in my room.)

Session 4 – Using Novels in the Spanish Classroom – Kristy Placido

This session was a collaboration session, so no notes here. I mostly talked with a few other teachers about teaching novels in general, what’s worked, what hasn’t. I still don’t feel like I’ve found my perfect groove with class novels and actually will be pushing FVR down into my Spanish 2 this upcoming year. I picked up 5 new Fluency Matters books today but realized I totally missed Mira Canion’s little shelf (it’s very sneaky!) so I’ll have to get those tomorrow, as well as snag a few of Señor Wooly’s graphic novels… if he has any left!

If you got through this beast of a post… wow, thanks for reading!

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!