30 September 2008

My KWLA presentation

Here are the slides from the presentation I recently gave at the Kentucky World Language Association's fall conference in Lexington, KY.

The whole thing can be found here.

Song success: La llave de mi corazón

By far one of the most popular songs in any of my Spanish classes is La llave de mi corazón, by Juan Luis Guerra. No wonder he won so many Latin Grammys last year!

Target features: Subjuctive for reason of influence, tiene, soy de/es de.

Video: Available on YouTube. High interest, upbeat, great!!

Questionable content: None, either in the lyrics or in the video. My favorite kind!

Spanish 1 Story: Insectos grises para el almuerzo

Here's my first Spanish 1 story, written using some of our vocab from the first quarter. This was right after we talked about colors and we hadn't done much on verb conjugations. (I hate the word conjugate and we don't spend much time memorizing or any time drilling conjugations.)

My story

Story with blanks so students can re-create the story

Finding stories

I'll be posting quite a bit in the days to come about all the things I learned at the fall KWLA conference. One of them is that for someone who's a fan of TPRS, my students don't do a lot of the R-reading. So I determined we were going to read more.

I'm normally pretty good at finding stuff on the internet, but I've been highly disappointed in the lack of free, easy-to-intermediate short Spanish stories available online. Everything seems to take you to a place where you can buy a product. If I haven't read the stories, I'm not likely to trust the author enough to spend my money on it. So I decided to write my own. My process is to write a short, simple story using high-frequency, cognate, and recent class vocabulary. I add several questions at the end. Students read the story and answer the questions. Then, I drop several details from the story and tell students (in pairs) to recreate it with their own details, and then answer the same questions at the end. Then they trade stories and answer the same questions, a third time, about someone else's story.

Whenever I write these I'll try to post both documents to this blog. I use Google docs to put the documents to a permanent web link. Hope it's useful for someone!

Also, if you know of any place where we can all find some good, free stories, please let me know!

How do I find the music?

So, if you're looking for good, popular, current music, where do you find it without spending a whole bunch of money on random CD's and hoping to find a jewel? If your area is anything like mine, the only Spanish-language radio in the area is Tejano/Norteño music, and my students barely tolerate music with even hints of that.

I find most of my music by streaming radio from Yahoo! radio's Pop Latino station. I created my own station for free, started rating artists and songs, and Yahoo played more songs based on how I rated certain ones. I don't know how long you sit at your desk / computer grading papers or entering grades, but for me it's a long time, especially since I don't have internet at my house, and I almost always have my radio station streaming. When I hear a song that's especially good and has linguistic features I want to emphasize, I go to Amazon and download it for 99 cents. (Side note: making it clear that you do this is a great way to try to instill into your students the integrity of downloading their music legally, something almost none of mine do.)

Then I search the lyrics on the internet, copy and paste them into a Word document, make the font at least 22pt, listen/watch to make sure there are no errors, fix the accents, etc. and print/copy it to a transparency so my students can see the lyrics while the song plays. (They'll tell you my mantra is "You can watch and listen or you can watch and sing, but you can't not watch!) I believe doing this trains their brains to hear where words start and end, a key to listening comprehension, and as an added benefit my students almost never ask me how to spell anything anymore, nor do they have many spelling mistakes.

So go get yourself a free Latin pop station and let the magic begin!

23 September 2008

TPRS gone wrong

I was looking for other blogs to look at and add to my blog, and I stumbled upon this TPRS teacher's blog:


It shows my major, major complaint with TPRS (which I mostly love and borrow from a lot, btw, as you can see in previous posts). Look at all the "we translated" "students translate" assessment! With all the research showing that translation isn't good for bilingual proficiency, why does TPRS look like this? Why, for a method that's so incredibly communicative and includes the brilliance of circling questions, do TPRS teachers insist on translation in their assessment?

This is my goal in my curriculum development journey: eradicate translation from my assessment, evaluate whether this works, and show other teachers how to do the same!

Modeling the billingual lexicon

Kroll's Revised Hierarchical Model and the Inhibitory Control model are other models I was introduced to in grad school, and they are an incredible help in explaining how students develop proficiency in their second language, why we shouldn't use English translation in a world language class, and why back-translation (L2 to L1) is easier than forward translation (L1 to L2).

Read up on it! The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics has a whole chapter on this topic (by Kroll herself, with Dijkstra).

Why don't they teach this to undergraduate language education majors?!?

17 September 2008

Summaries of some classroom SLA articles

Click the title of this post and it'll take you to a good annotated bibliography of some articles that review the most intriguing current research trends in classroom-applied SLA.

Love/Hate Krashen

There are an awful lot of people with good things to say about Krashen, and an awful lot of bad things to say about him.

For a good, balanced summary of Krashen's theories and some reactions, look here.

Krashen was/is an advocate of bilingual education. I hate almost everything about bilingual education, particularly past 2nd grade. And apparently some have taken that to a hatred for Krashen himself. Look here for a fierce anti-Krashen view.

So why my verdict? As with any SLA researcher, you have to take what makes sense and throw out the rest. And judge it by success. Does Krashen's model match what your common sense tells you about how people learn language? It does mine. And as a teacher I believe I can see it happening. Besides, don't be fooled into thinking these guys believe everything they write. Sometimes they write something super-strong just to have such an opinion. Last year I sat down to dinner with DeKeyser, someone who disagrees with almost everything Krashen writes, and some of my colleagues. He backpedaled so much it seemed he wasn't even willing to espouse his own theory, not as he'd published it anyway. So take it all with a grain of salt, just the way we teachers do with everything someone hands us, right?

Another article that rocked my world

I read this article for a class called Issues in Bilingualism or something like that while I was in grad school. I remember exclaiming over and over as I read it, "That makes so much sense! That explains why..." My husband laughed at me getting so excited over a scholarly article. It has a lot of SLA terminology in it, but if you can wade through that, it's well worth your time/money. If you have access to a university library, you can probably get it free. Here's a link to the abstract.
Author: Norbert Francis
Source: International Journal of Bilingualism, Volume 8, Number 2, June 2004 , pp. 167-189(23)
Publisher: Kingston Press Ltd

I'll be referencing Francis's ideas and model quite a bit when I do my conference presentation next week on Assessing Comprehension without English. This is the article that convinced me, along with Krashen, to throw English translation out of my teaching as much as possible.

More sunshine

Saturday was our school's arts & crafts fair. It's a major fundraiser for the various classes, so a lot of my students were there. I walked by one of my freshman, who was talking to some girls from another school. He said, "That's my Spanish teacher," and the girl said something about Spanish, to which he replied, "Yeah, but she makes it easy."

Well, I'm not exactly the one that made it easy, but when they're finding it easy, I know I'm doing my job.


06 September 2008

When it's not all coming up roses

Lest you think that I think that musicuentos is the fix for every language acquisition issue, I don't. Friday was a good example of holding on to the good ones and trying to let the other stuff slide off my back while learning from it.

This year I'm teaching six periods of Spanish--two Spanish 1, three Spanish 2, and one Spanish 3. Five of the six are having a blast. One section of Spanish 2, however, is not. For some reason this particular group of kids has been a challenge. Here's what I think the problem is: Musicuentos is based on research that says that motivation and listening are vital. In school, students seem to be motivated by one of three things: 1) what they love, 2) what is easy, 3) what is entertaining. So, kids who love math may find something difficult, but they'll still be motivated to do it because they love it. Unfortunately, I can't make kids love Spanish, so I go for the other two--easy and entertaining. God's taken care of the easy part by making their brains perfectly suited to acquire language. Throw in some pop music, the Latin grammys, and a Spanish-speaking monito or two, and voilá, you've got entertaining.

The problem is, in order for this to work, the kids have to listen and watch. This is my mantra. All the time I'm telling them this. But Class 6 doesn't believe me. They keep their heads down. They talk to each other. Incessantly. And we're miserable. Everything takes them twice as long, so there isn't time for the songs. They account for almost all the demerits I give out for off-task and disruption. Friday, one asked me how to say pissed in Spanish after getting a demerit for being off task. Total demerits for Class 6 on Friday alone? Nine. So how do I convince them that if they'll just shut up and watch and listen, it really will be easy and entertaining? Good question. I think today we'll work on the seating arrangement. And I've started working to get parents working on it with me.

Meanwhile, I take encouragement where I can. Earlier the same day, one of my freshman told me, "I've learned more in three weeks of Spanish than I did in three years of middle school Spanish."
(My mind files this little sunshine #1 away for dark times later. Little do I know I'll need it by the end of the same day!)

Then I check the weekly blogs. My students post on a blog every week. It's a fun requirement and a major part of keeping their grade up. I love it and they love it. So, I get this on one blog while I'm reading Saturday:
Hola! Hoy yo durmi en clase. Espanol es aburrido porque no lo comprendo. Yo amo Chris Brown mucho. Me gusta musica. Mi cancionfavorito es Disturbia. Adios.
Publicado por p.w.

Now, I know this student is frustrated because she's approaching my class as if it's like last year, and she keeps her head down a lot. But I also know she's comprehending because I check her comprehension a lot because I know she's struggling more than the rest of her classmates for that reason. (It's like a tangible affective filter, I swear.)

So I keep reading. Immediately after that blog, there's this one:
Hola amigos! Escuela esta muy aburrito, pero el clase de espanol es muy divertido porque cantamos musica. Ahora me casa esta vicia. Estoy solo. Esta muy triste, verdad?Adios para ahora.
(my mind files this sunshine #2 away for when I need it)
And that blog has at least 2 similar things.

Today I was checking my Spanish 3 blogs and something one of my students wrote blew me away. Absolutely blew me away. When I started teaching these kids in Spanish 2 last year, their ability to communicate was almost nothing. They could sing -o, -as, -a, -amos, -ais, -an all day long. But comprehend? Communicate? Very very little. You may not be impressed by this (especially if you don't read Spanish) but wow. Knowing where they've come from, I am. And before you wonder if a computer translator did this, I can assure you it didn't. I know this student, and I'm very very good at spotting computer translation besides, and this is his Spanish, 100%.
Hola! Ibas tu Dia del Trabajo? Mi familia y yo fuimos a mi casa de abuelos.Dios es Sensacional. Hace dos dias, mi iphone muerto. Yo llame el ayuda de Apple y dijeron ellos no me ayudaron porque mi garantia se fue. Mi padre y yo fuimos a el tienda de Apple y preguntamos ellos para ayuda. El hombre dijo no me ayudo, pero entonces me dijo que el fue a preguntar alguien algo. Se fue de mi papa y yo. Entonces, regreso y dijo que ellos reemplazon mi iphone y me da un lo nuevo.Fue un bendicion de Dios. Estoy muy feliz.-Cristian

So much sunshine. It's not all coming up roses, but the flowers are pretty abundant around here.

04 September 2008

What on earth is going on here?

I've written about how I went to grad school and learned about second language acquisition (SLA) theory that revolutionized how I approached teaching.

Then I attended an AP workshop where the facilitator used two Latin pop songs to illustrate how authentic Spanish media could be used in AP. I decided it was catchy and could probably appeal and be useful all the way down to Spanish 1.

Then I attended a TPRS workshop at the Kentucky World Language Association's fall conference last year and that rocked my world.

I decided to put it all together and see what happened in my classroom. What happened is still amazing me and is why I started this blog, why I'm documenting my action research, why I want to talk to anyone who'll listen about what I've learned. And I'm still not even sure what's going on.

I had 48 students in Spanish 2 last year. It was the only high school Spanish class I taught. No one failed. 10% earned a D for the year, and that was because they, without exception, consistently took zeros on assignments or refused to listen in class. As a high school teacher, I'm still required to give grades, much as I hate it, and when a student consistently refuses to do work, I can't give him/her anything above a zero. Also, Musicuentos does not work with students who will not listen, and doesn't work exceptionally well with students who won't watch. The other 90% earned a C or higher, the majority A's or B's. And I don't give extra credit, bonus work, or academic credit for non-academic work. My students get no points for food, none for signatures on papers, none for extra credit projects, zip. The only thing they can do is earn back half the points they miss on paper tests by correcting the missed answers to make them communicative.

As last year drew to a close, I started to pray for 10 students to take Spanish 3. I teach at a smallish private school, about 200 in the high school, and last year (my first year here) no one elected Spanish 3. Two students elected AP Spanish. And I'm like any other Spanish teacher, I know the attrition between the required classes and the electives. So I prayed for 10. This summer our guidance counselor said to me, "We have a problem. 23 students have signed up for Spanish 3."
You could've knocked me over with a feather. 23? I had to cut five because I had to cap the class at 18 because of my room size, and I didn't have an open period to teach another section. After the school year started, 2 dropped, 2 came in, and 4 more asked to come in and couldn't (including one who had dropped).

The math ends up to a 50% retaining rate between Spanish 2 and 3. But what amazes me the most is when these kids walk in Spanish 3, tell me the usual, "Oh I forgot everything over the summer," look at the picture of the clown and say, "Oh look, you got a payaso." And then the first week of school, I can ask them questions at a native rate of speed and they'll answer me. In Spanish.

So what on earth is going on here? I think the only answer I have right now is this:
Second language acquisition theory has a lot to teach us, and we'd better sit up and listen, or only the most motivated, linguistically inclined students will ever learn language.

So, what are the cuentos?

I took the scariest leap a teacher can take.

I now teach without a textbook. Well, mostly.

I use EMC Publishing's series En sus marcas (Spanish 1), Listos (2), Ya! (3), which is what my school gave me, as a rough sequencing tool. So, I use it to more or less order what concepts I cover when, and as a reference for the students for charts of things, and very occasionally for an exercise I find useful.

Other than that, I tell stories, we write, we talk, we watch, we listen, we sing.

A brief overview of the stories:

In Spanish 1, the first day, students draw a boy with me. We do it almost completely in Spanish. I ask them what color, etc., everything should be. They mostly comprehend the questions and answer in English, but they label things and color the drawing (colored pencils are a requirement for all my classes). The second day, same thing with a girl. The students name the girl. One class named her Mari.

Soon Mari meets a penguin named Jeffrey. Then Mari introduces Jeffrey to her friend Garfield and she goes away. The rest of Spanish 1, most the stories involve interactions between Jeffrey and Garfield.

At the beginning of Spanish 2, we find that Garfield has acquired a computer and is chatting online with a monkey. Garfield decides to go to the circus where he meets the monkey. After he leaves the circus, we meet the clown that the monkey belongs to. Most of the stories for the rest of the year involve the monkey and/or the clown.

At the beginning of Spanish 3, the director of the circus gives the clown a horse. The horse can talk, in Spanish of course, so his name is Señor Eduardo, Sr. Ed for short. Soon the clown falls on hard times and has to sell the horse to a cowboy, and the rest of Spanish 3 involves the horse and the cowboy.

Fin. So far. I didn't storytell in AP (except for using Isabel Allende's Zorro) last year, and I don't teach AP this year (no Spanish 3 last year to feed into it) so we'll see where that goes.

The verdict on pop test 1

I teach two sections of Spanish 1, with 19 students in each class (my classroom won't hold any more than that). I haven't taught Spanish 1 in the three years prior to this year and I have to say I'd forgotten how much fun it is.

Anyway, the pop test went reasonably well. There were 54 possible points on the test. In the first class, the average grade was 48.8, range 29-54. In the second class, average was 45.6, range 28-53.

Section 2 didn't have time to complete a writing exercise that the other class did, and that writing exercise was important to the essay portion of the test. If I'd realized in time that the second class hadn't done this, I would've repeated it with them before the test. Hindsight's 20/20. But overall a success!

I'll post an excerpt later, but for now I'll say briefly that I don't use any translation on my tests. Ever. Not even in vocabulary matching. I almost never use English in formal comprehension assessment.

03 September 2008

People I love

I have to throw out some props for the people whose work I believe makes the theoretical field of SLA something we can use to make ourselves better teachers and learners.

Obviously I'm a Krashenite. Not all the way. I couldn't care less what he has to say about bird languages or what the aliens will speak when they get here, but that's California for you (j/k). The acquisition/learning difference, i+1, the affective filter, the monitor, they all just make so much sense. And the power of reading--it's such a part of the power of storytelling.

I love, love, love Michael Long and Cathy Doughty and wish I could live another life at the University of Maryland sitting at their feet and learning from their insanely practical research. Especially on noticing.

Blaine Ray and TPRS. Wow. It's my inspiration. There are flaws and I'm trying to work through them, and Blaine wouldn't call me a TPRS teacher, but a lot of what I do is based in TPRS. I sat through a 20-minute demonstration by a woman just starting in TPRS, in Swedish, a year ago, and I can re-tell you the story she told, and I know what it means, and I walked into that workshop not speaking a word of Swedish. I don't think TPRS is motivating enough and I think it moves too fast (anyone in SLA will tell you there are so many problems with anything called "Fluency Fast"), but he's really on to something and I attend every workshop I can. I'm going to the Kentucky World Language Association workshop this month and I can't wait.

So thanks especially to Drs. Krashen, Long, & Doughty, and Blaine Ray for their work in putting SLA into something teachers can use.

A pop test

All my tests are unannounced (except finals, because that's the way my school dictates it).

My Spanish 1 kids are taking their first pop test right now... I'll let you know later how it turns out!

02 September 2008

Some assumptions

To understand why I do what I do, you first need to hear the assumptions I'm working from, I think.

1) Motivation is one of the top (if not the number one) factors in success in language acquisition.

2) I've never seen a textbook that U.S. high school students found motivating.

3) Not all students are motivated by grades.

4) It is extraordinarily difficult to obtain a grade that accurately reflects language acquisition.

5) Most students are motivated by media.

6) Most students are motivated by past and present success.

7) It's the teacher's job to make language acquisition as stress-free as possible.

8) Especially at the beginning, students' language production needs to be very low-risk for them (cf Krashen's affective filter theory, silent period).

9) Students need to interact with the language on many levels, in many situations, over a long period of time in order to acquire it.

10) Input should be systematized and repetitive (think TPRS) but authentic at the same time.

11) If we always feed students slow learner Spanish, we're cheating them.

12) Translation in the acquisition process is very nearly useless, particularly in assessment.

13) Studying for tests doesn't produce long-term memory in anyone except the extraordinarily brilliant. Therefore, telling students when tests are going to occur is useless.

14) Homework is busywork performed outside of the help and supervision of someone who can monitor the acquisition process and is therefore mostly useless.

That's almost enough for now, but I think the most important discovery I've made, the one that I think makes what I do different from what I've seen anywhere else is this:
High school language students are basically 4-year-olds with a lot of metacognitive awareness, and until we start treating them like that, they're going to keep learning what they need to know for the test, and graduating saying "I took two years of Spanish and I can say hola and taco." The trick is to treat them like high schoolers in every other area besides where their language acquisition is concerned, throw in some Ricky Martin and Maná, and they'll forgive you for reading them Froggy se viste.

01 September 2008

Starting to share my journey

I put myself through grad school working with a group of graduate electrical engineers. Their supervisor spent thousands of dollars paying 100% of my tuition and a stipend for me to live off of, and in exchange, I helped them communicate their research. After spending 4 years in undergraduate engineering classes, they'd entered their master's track to discover that if they couldn't communicate their research, it didn't mean anything to anyone but themselves.

I've come to realize the same thing about myself.

My first three years of teaching, I taught Spanish the same way a lot of people teach it, which is to say, the same way a lot of teachers teach history, science or math.
Open the textbook.
This is what we're doing today.
Everyone got it?
Here's the test.
And the same kids get A's who get A's in every other class. And the kids who fail science, struggle in Spanish too.

Then I went to get my master's in Linguistics with an emphasis in Second Language Acquisition and what I'd been doing made no sense. All these kids had done perfectly well learning English. They'd proven their brains were capable of learning language. People don't learn language the same way they learn science or history or math. So what on earth were we doing wrong?
I was introduced to the research of Dr. Stephen Krashen. My professors weren't his biggest fans by a long shot but his stuff came closest to explaining to me what was wrong with the U.S. foreign language education system. What it didn't do, however, was tell me how to fix it. I've heard Dr. Krashen speak twice and he himself has said he doesn't know what to tell teachers to do in the classroom. So instead of shrugging my shoulders and going back to the same old stuff in my classroom, I decided to keep at it until I figured out how I could change at least my teaching and make my classroom an i+1 acquisition classroom, for every student who would listen.

For the past year and a half, my students and I have had a blast experimenting with what it means to bring Krashen's i+1 and affective filter theories down to practical earth, and it's been quite a ride. But unless I communicate how my research has turned into a 90% C or above grade rate (and the other 10% take zeros for not turning in assignments), 50% retaining rate into a Spanish 3 elective, students who hated Spanish now saying it's their favorite class, and on and on, it won't go beyond me and my students.

Welcome to my language acquisition journey, a method I call Musicuentos (I realize not an original name, but as a teaching method it is). I hope you find something you can use. If you find anything, it's been worth it!