17 November 2011

Dear novice-learner teacher - love, an AP teacher

Twice for #langchat we've polled the following question:

What activities prepare students for AP from the very beginning?

I confess, I probably wrote this question, maybe with some help from something similar being suggested as a topic. Certainly I've voted for it twice. But for whatever reason--perhaps teachers of lower levels don't think much about AP or the question was polled with others deemed more relevant--this topic has lost both times. So as usual, I'll take my opinion to the blog. Because I can.

I'm currently in my fourth year teaching AP. I know I've learned a lot from it, and I've gotten better at it, but my students are also improving considerably, mostly, I think, from what they get before my class, not from what they get from it. AP is a fourth-year class at my school. My first year, I had just 2 students, scoring 1 and 2. Second year, 6 students scoring one 3 and five 1's (ouch). That year I was so mad at the College Board I won't tell you what I wanted to do with them. Last year I hit some things really hard and actually, I ended up with my eight students scoring one 4, three 3's, two 2's, and two 1's (yay!). This year, I have such a stellar group of kids that I wouldn't be surprised if all six of them pass.

Now, in all seriousness, I hate the AP. I hate the test, and I hate the College Board, and I hate the idea. I can't stand that one three-hour exam thinks it can predict how proficient my students are and will be in college in Spanish. That student my first year that scored a 2, he was conversationally fluent, at least an Advanced Low speaker, after 3 years (he'd skipped Spanish 3) and the most motivated learner I have ever met. Of the two students who scored 1's last year, one is majoring in Middle School Spanish Education and the other is minoring in Spanish.

Really, that's how I feel about all standardized exams (thank you, Alfie Kohn). But the fact is, most of my students care about it. It is our only fourth-year option, and last year they voted on whether to keep it AP (in which they are required to take the exam) or to call it Spanish 4 (in which they'd have the option to take the test). But all but one voted for AP. They want the weighted grade points, and the AP Advantage study hall, and yes, they want the extra focused preparation for the exam. They want the bragging rights, and they want the college credit. So, I'm about pleasing the students, and here we are again.

After four years of watching students struggle and succeed in their fourth-year AP class, here are my requests for you, the elementary teachers (which I also am) through middle school, Spanish 1, 2, and 3 teachers.

  1. Please, please, PLEASE feed them ALL KINDS of authentic audio.
    This is my #1 because it's my #1 problem with my students. They get to me (in Spanish 3) and can't understand anything but learner language. The majority of audio on the AP is not learner language. It's stuff like BBC Mundo and Radio ONU (which I couldn't understand until, say, 10 years into my journey). More importantly, the majority of audio in life is not learner language.
    The common mistake is to think that novices cannot understand authentic media. The truth is that the difficulty is in the question and not in the source. If you're asking them to hear the word cinco that's a different question than if you're asking them to hear the word aprovechándonos.

  2. Interact with vocabulary in real contexts.
    Asking students "what is the word for black? Good! Red? Great!" does almost *nothing* for their language acquisition. Trust me, from day one a novice learner can understand this question:
    ¿De qué colores es un oso panda? (2)
    Context is everything. My current AP students have not had a vocab quiz in four years and their vocabulary is incredible. Yesterday in our novel they were accurately identifying words like solía and lechuza. One of my Spanish 3 students actually asked for vocab quizzes the other day and we had to have a talk about how cramming does not create long-term memory. This is connected with the issue of authentic media - get students listening to and reading real materials and the vocabulary will just be there. I promise.

  3. Ask questions that require critical thinking.
    Critical thinking is a life skill. Prepare your students for life by asking them real questions that make a difference. Stop asking 'what' and start asking 'why' and 'how.' To me, the true test of a critical thinking question is if there's no clear-cut answer. Instead of stopping with "what foods do you like?" ask "is a guinea pig food? why or why not? would you try it?" (In Ecuador, guinea pig - 'cuy' or as my dad likes to call it, 'barbecuy' - is a delicacy.)

  4. Do speaking assessments. GET THEM TALKING.
    My current Spanish 3 students tell me that last year they had exactly 1 speaking assessment. Now, kids like to complain about teachers, but if it's anywhere close to the truth, it's far too few. They're now facing two speaking assessments each in every unit for sixteen in all and they're dying. They hate it, except for my one who's aptitude leans toward speaking and away from writing.
    The AP has a wicked guided conversation activity in which someone says something, then there's a beep, and the student has 20 seconds to think up and say what the test says they need to do. That's repeated about five times and that's the interpersonal speaking section. It's stressful and intense and unrealistic but there you have it. My current AP students are so used to talking back and forth in class that this year they were able to do this for practice without much anxiety much sooner than the students I had last year. Keep students talking -for the AP and for life.

  5. Teach and require idiomatic expressions.
    It's a sad fact about general proficiency guidelines and about the AP that the difference between one level and the next can come down to one single phrase - an idiomatic one. Three years ago the one student who passed said she went in determined to use the phrase "vale la pena." Honestly, she was the most proficient student in the class but I wouldn't be surprised if it made the difference between 2 and 3 for her. Keep an idiomatic expression on the wall, once a week or every two weeks. Reward students when they use them. Do an activity that requires a particular one. Point them out in authentic texts. Realize, and help students realize, that language is idiomatic.

  6. Do assessments that require extrapolating and synthesizing main points from multiple sources.
    A couple of years ago I did a KWLA presentation called Prompts with Power. It was about finding authentic sources and asking students to answer a question, orally or written, based on the sources. Teach students to draw their own conclusions after comparing and contrasting two other opinions. Or three. Similar or different, it doesn't matter, but it's a life skill -and an important one on the AP- to be able to look critically at what other people think and use those opinions to develop an informed personal one.

Perhaps it's good I had to write this here and not on #langchat - this is certainly more than I could have explained in snippets of 140 characters. Thanks for putting up with it.

26 October 2011

Learning from #langchat

If there's one big principle I've learned over the past 10 years, 8 teaching and 2 in grad school, it's that good teaching isn't magic. Sometimes it looks like magic, but it's not. Sure, some people just don't have the personality or gift of explanation to be a teacher. But some very gifted people have made very bad teachers throughout the history of education (I had some, didn't you?). I wish there were some card trick I could learn that would make everything in my classroom effective and, well, magical, but if there is, I haven't found it yet.

Enter #langchat, which started (and continues) as a Thursday-night professional development that is prompted by and dictated by its participants, all world language teachers, or somehow connected to the profession. Three colleagues on Twitter approached me through email... wow, is it a year ago?... to start the chat, and it's blossomed into a useful hashtag that we use to share questions, answers, and links about teaching world language. The professionals who interact on #langchat have taught me so much more about good world language teaching than any bag of tricks could do.

A couple of recent blog posts made me think, hey, perhaps it would be useful for me to reflect in the blogosphere on why I use #langchat, why we started it, and where it should go from here.

1) Twitter is an unfocused, messy medium, but I love it, and let's make the most of it.
Twitter is anything but focused. Sometimes #langchat is like an open PD forum with pockets of teachers in the room, sitting at different tables, and a lot of chatter because there are seven different conversations going. (I think that's happened at every conference I've ever been to.) I remember a couple of #langchats where we started out with the topic (which participants had chosen) and went off in so many directions I felt like we weren't anywhere near what we were supposed to be talking about, and it was impossible to get back. But you know what? That's okay. Because that's where people were. That's what they needed to talk about that night. And that's what #langchat is about - it's professional development that you need, when you need it, on the subject you need. If it doesn't apply to you, skip it and see what's happening next week.

2) Everyone has learned something from their journey, and everyone has the right to express what they've learned on #langchat. Please share yours with me.
Years ago, I remember telling my Spanish 3 students that I was going to try to speak in Spanish more in class (like, 10 minutes a class instead of nothing) and hearing them groan. I'd never even heard of ACTFL, much less their target input guidelines. That's one thing I love most about teaching: we're continually learning. I've learned so much more since college than I learned in college. I'm pretty sure I've learned more from our Twitter PLN in two years than I did in grad school.
I think all of us have that story - none of us has "arrived" at the final magic trick. Looking back at #langchat, personally that chat last year on authentic assessment picked me up by the collar and dumped me on my tail, so to speak, to show me I was relying too much on technology as assessment without thinking about whether or not the tasks were actually realistic or useful. And the PBL chat that @dr_dmd led - I thought I used PBL, but by the real definition, I almost never did. So I kept hammering him with questions, trying to figure out how PBL, authentic assessment, learner language, and input could interplay in the WL classroom, and came away determined to change up our major fall project in Spanish 3. I still don't know how I feel about PBL in the WL classroom as a major vehicle of learning, but just this last week my students benefited from what I learned from Don in that chat, and that's now part of my journey.
What's your journey? What have you learned? Whatever it is - in whatever format or area - share it, not just on Thursday evenings, but like we all do, throughout the week using the hashtags #langchat, or #flteach, or #spanishteachers, or #apfrench, or any number of others!

3) Everyone deserves respect, face-to-face and online. Respect me, and give me the benefit of the doubt. Bring problems with me, to me.
I am the type of teacher who learns about something and then throws caution to the wind and jumps in head-first. Four years ago I went to a TPRS workshop on a Thursday night and then Monday morning we pretty much threw our textbooks out the window (okay, it was a little slower than that). Then it was like God put me working with people who were the exact opposite: 'okay, let's get my feet wet a little bit here; okay, that worked pretty well, maybe next year I'll go a little deeper.' To balance my personality or something. ;-) What I've learned from working with them is what has been mentioned here--it's a journey and you never know what will motivate someone toward the next step on their path.

From my perspective, many times I'm looking back on my own practices and asking, "Why didn't I see how terrible my idea was?" and I wonder if that comes off on Twitter as sounding like, "Why can't you see your idea is terrible?" if someone is doing something similar. 140 characters of digital type is a tough medium to communicate what we've learned. That shouldn't make us give up; on the contrary, I suggest two responses: 1) I determine to remember that we're all worthy of respect and edifying speech and 2) I determine to remind myself that if I'm offended it's more than likely I've misread what the person was trying to communicate and I should ask for clarification from that person until we've worked it out.

4) Respect is not the same thing as agreeing or affirming everything. I may be wrong, but...
But nothing! Call me out! Well, respectfully, but still, please don't affirm my bad ideas and call it respect, right? I look back and think, what would I have learned if people hadn't questioned what I was doing? There's one colleague in particular who has the mildly annoying habit of consistently asking me why I do a certain activity or assign some work or teach some unit or whatever. But the only reason it's mildly annoying is that frequently I'm just flat wrong, and there's no good pedagogy behind what I've done, and I'm immensely grateful that I have someone like that who keeps me professionally sound.
As one more personal example, it's no secret I try to keep translation out of my classroom as much as possible and that makes me not exactly a TPRS teacher, but it's also no secret that I think TPRS is one of the most revolutionary improvements to come to language learning in the last century, and I think Kristy (@placido) must be an amazing teacher I'd love to live closer to so I could observe her.

5) #langchat is intended to bring together a wide range of educators to foster the best exchange possible.
One of the most popular education chats on Twitter, #edchat, is so large that people blog about it being too large, and has broken up into two separate chats. And lots of area-specific chats have spun off from it. #langchat, so far, has not had the level of participation that would productively produce even more focused chats, in my opinion. That's not to say it couldn't. If educators want to spin off age-level focused chats, they should feel free. If a couple of educators hadn't had the idea to get some language teachers together to chat on Thursday nights, we wouldn't have #langchat. So what's your idea? Where do you want to go - and do you want to lead others there? Go for it!

You can follow me on Twitter at @secottrell. Join us Thursday evenings at 8 Eastern, 7 Central for the best professional development around, #langchat. (Tweetdeck and tweetchat are useful tools for organizing and following #langchat tweets.)

24 October 2011

Not your average health unit

foto por USP Hospitales

A unit on health is common in Spanish class. We have a unit in Spanish 2 on describing ailments and visiting the doctor. Then in AP I have a unit called "Cuidándome a mí" (taking care of myself). It's useful -last year's AP essay was health-related- but for AP I wanted to go beyond the typical reflexive verb, sickness phrases, doctor questions vocabulary and activities. Besides, our principal asked us this year to focus on hands-on learning with our students. So how could I make the learning hands-on, relevant, and connected to communities and culture?

Every unit in AP contains four performance assessments: interpersonal speaking, presentational speaking, interpersonal writing, and presentational writing. I've had a focus in this unit for the past two or three years on healthcare and undocumented immigrants, but this year I wanted it to really matter. Here are the assignments we did for each:

1) Interpersonal speaking
One student played a doctor's receptionist, and the student being assessed was someone in the doctor's office. I was a mother whose child needed a chicken pox vaccine in order to go to school, but didn't have any health insurance or much money. So the receptionist won't let me make an appointment, and the student had to explain to me that I could get the vaccine at the health department. To complete this task my students had to a) get the address and phone number of the health department in our city, b) identify language options at the health department, c) find out what kind of care is offered at the health department, d) find out whether undocumented immigrants can get care at the health department, and e) understand how services are paid for at the health department. And these students had never even heard of the health department!
Here's April completing this task.

2) Presentational speaking
Scenario: The local Latino community is having a town hall meeting to talk about local health care options. Several local political leaders are attending (with translators). Based on an article about undocumented children in the health reform debate and a video about a baby's life being saved at Seattle Children's Hospital, present a 2-minute argument about why undocumented immigrant children should or should not receive healthcare services at health departments and hospitals.

3) Interpersonal writing
Students had to locate a doctor in the city who spoke Spanish. This involved actually calling the offices to verify that they had Spanish-speaking staff and to get their address. Then they wrote a letter to the doctor explaining what they had learned about the undocumented and/or uninsured Spanish-speaking community and encouraging the doctor to get involved in free or low-cost clinics in the area. We are mailing these letters.

4) Presentational writing
Students wrote a lengthy letter to our Congressman, John Yarmuth. Based on a Pew Hispanic Center study, comments by the Republican presidential candidates, and a radio program addressing changes in the California MediCal access laws, students addressed such questions as:
-what is the most reasonable response to the healthcare crisis?
-if we treat everyone indiscriminately, will healthcare costs rise to an unsustainable level?
-how can we control costs for those who can't pay without overburdening society?
-what kinds of healthcare are human rights and what aren't?
-what do we do with undocumented children who had no say in their legal status?
-should undocumented immigrants receive healthcare anywhere, or only in certain places?
-how can we inform undocumented immigrants on their healthcare rights and options?
I am going to write an English-language note to accompany these letters, explaining what we did to Mr. Yarmuth and telling him that my students care enough about the Latino community that they have taken the time to learn their language, and if he will take the time to find someone to translate their letters, he will get some interesting opinions, as well as getting a taste of what language negotiation immigrants have to go through to become informed. Then I'll mail them.

I actually posted about this unit two years ago, but I think now it's become a lot more relevant and service-oriented.

10 October 2011

Presentation: Target Language: Expect More, Say Less

Whoops! I completely forgot to post my Prezi from my second KWLA presentation! Here it is, Target Language: Expect More, Say Less.

27 September 2011

Spanish 3 assessment documents

Sometimes I feel like I'm reinventing myself every year. Do you ever look back on something you did and think, "Why on earth did I do it that way? What a bad idea! Here we go again." I feel like I do that every year! So even though I completely redesigned my Spanish 3 class last year, this past summer I attended a week-long workshop on using proficiency-based assessments, and here I am again, reinventing Spanish 3.

I give all the credit in the world to @tmsaue1 and the @JCPSWorldLang teachers who welcomed me into their learning community and inspired me to work on authentic, proficiency-based, standards-based assessments. You can view their documents here.

In the spirit of open source I also try to make everything I do available. Here are my Spanish 3 assessment documents, and the rubric I use to "grade" them (you'll notice there's no place for an actual grade). Feel free to comment here with your email if you want an editable version--they looked terrible in Google Docs as Word documents.

22 September 2011

For KWLA 2011: Media from Reel to Real

Here's my Prezi for my Friday a.m. session, Media from Reel to Real.

21 September 2011

Accuracy vs. proficiency: an illustration

photo Steve Mullan

Accuracy refers to grammatical forms that match the standard form of the language. So, a student produces 'yo pensé' instead of 'yo piense' (something my 3's have been doing recently). Proficiency includes an aspect of accuracy, but primarily refers to how well the speaker (or writer) is able to communicate and comprehend meaning. The contrast is what Cathy Doughty (confusingly) refers to as focus on form vs. focus on formS. (The distinction is necessary but this way of referring to it has always driven me up the wall- I can't remember which is which without looking it up. Every.time.)

Next week, Ingrid Betancourt is coming to visit our local library, a super exciting event because every year for the past 3 years my Spanish 3 students have done a project related to her kidnapping and rescue. To prepare for her book talk, I got her book in Spanish and I'm trying to finish it before she comes. It's 700 pages long. I've made it halfway. I just read this morning a perfect example of the importance of proficiency over accuracy. I know that as Spanish teachers it makes us cringe inside every time we hear "Me llamo es..." but read this snippet of Betancourt's story and see which you think is more important.

Betancourt was in the jungle for more than 6 years. Not long after she was kidnapped, three American contractors were also kidnapped, and they ended up with her for a period of time in a type of jail in the jungle. The hostages bickered quite a bit amongst themselves, often targeted at Betancourt, so much so that at one point she was taken out of the jail and housed elsewhere in the camp. Then, the other hostages back in the jail complained so much that her conditions were now better than theirs, that she was transferred back. When she returned, one of the Americans, Marc Gonsalves, whom she says did not participate in all the bickering, approached her. Here's my loose translation:

Marc smiled sadly and told us in broken Spanish, with all the verbs in infinitive form, that he was very happy to see Lucho and I again. His words reached my soul...
"I can't believe it! You're speaking Spanish! I go away for three short weeks and you end up speaking better than me!"
Everyone laughed, because Marc answered with the three words of Spanish that he could patch together. He translated literally some English expressions that, miraculously, in Spanish came out hysterical and made us all laugh. Then he bid farewell courteously and went back to the barrack.

So, can verbs in infinitive "reach the soul"?

19 September 2011

Fun activity #6: A escribir

Fun activity #6 is ¡A escribir!, an activity obviously designed to get students spontaneously writing.

At first, when our activity chooser landed on "A escribir," students were not thrilled. Writing? Don't we do that all the time? And from my perspective, how do you keep a random, effective writing prompt on hand all the time?
This is where I have to hand all the props to @ZJonesSpanish and his Tírate a escribir writing activities based on comic strips. The chooser lands on A escribir? No problem. I literally have to do -nothing-. I pull up Zambombazo, click on Tiras, and pick the newest one that I think will interest my students and be appropriate for their level. We talk about the tira cómica for about a minute, and then they have 8 minutes to write whatever they can think of about it. It's been a whole lot more interesting for my students than they thought it would be. We even sent some responses to Zachary and he posted them on the tira on his site.
Another offering from Zambombazo great for lower levels too (and incidentally, writing or speaking) is his ebook, ¿Qué le dirías?.
Spontaneous writing gets kids thinking on the spot in the TL, a skill that boosts oral proficiency as well. Go for it!

12 September 2011

App review: Tour Wrist

A couple of weeks ago on #Langchat, the Thursday night (8 ET) chat by and for language teachers on Twitter, we discussed iPad (and other iOS) apps that may be useful in the world language classroom. That night I downloaded something like 25 free apps and since then I've been on a mission to see what they can do in my classroom. In my Spanish 3, we have 2 iPods and 1 iPad, and in AP, we have 2 iPads and 3 iPods. Not ideal, but enough to have a little fun.

Our first unit in Spanish 3 was on things we do with friends and family for fun ("Esparcimiento"), and included some talk about travel, as well as concentrating on expressing opinions with deeper vocabulary than "Sí, me gusta." The interpersonal speaking assessment involved me having a conversation with them (about a sports game) so-- what do the rest do while I'm talking to 1? Enter Tour Wrist.

tour wrist home page

Tour wrist is a free app that lets you do virtual tours of more than 23,000 places all over the world. You can look at the Tour of the Day (or obviously, home, hotel, or photographer of the day) but more useful is the "Browse all tours" function. That takes you to a map of the world.

tour wrist map - Central America

You can use two fingers to enlarge any part of the map to see more of what's there. Now, the offerings in Latin America are not exactly extensive, but the app is a whole lot of fun. As you focus in, more and more green placeholders show up. Tapping on one will tell you what it is, and tapping on the arrow on its title will take you to the tour.
This is where you find the best feature - by holding your device at eye level, you can turn around and see the 360-degree view as if you were there. Really, you can hold it up and look at the sky, or down and look at the floor.

Tour of bridge in Medellín, Colombia

Anyway, what do you do with this in class? While I was doing the interpersonal conversation with individual students, the others had to work in pairs to find a tour in a Spanish-speaking country and answer the following questions:
1. What is it?
2. Where is it?
3. Do you like it?
4. Why or why not?
They did this for at least two places.

The students really enjoyed the app, of course, but more importantly, they were using their recent targets (expressing reasons for opinions) to talk about places I could never take them to. I did have one pair choose random places in the Caribbean or someplace. I told them later that if they were doing something that didn't have much to do with Spanish or places where people speak Spanish, they probably had the directions wrong.

So- it would be nice if there were more tours available in the places we were looking, but it's a stylish, user-friendly, free app for all iOS devices, lots of fun for all involved.

What ideas do you have for Tour Wrist in the world language class?

01 September 2011

Myth #6: Memorizing vocabulary

For my original post about the myths, look here.

foto por Micheo

Myth #6 is this:
Students learn vocabulary in long lists of isolated words (or, we just went over bosque, why can't they remember it and remember it's masculine?).

What a mistake I used to make, and textbooks make. To think that we can give students a list of vocabulary, tell them there's a quiz on Friday, and somehow think they'll be able to use it next month, or next week for that matter.

Here's the truth: students learn words they need to do what they want to do. Think about the words you know - they are words you need to accomplish something. I don't know how to talk in Spanish about nuclear power plants. I barely know how to talk in English about nuclear power plants, and what I do know I know because my father worked at one for thirty years. Our brains are efficient - most of us just don't bother remembering terminology we never need to communicate something.

If you've interacted with me for very long, you know that my students do free-topic blogging. I once had a student who wrote nearly every week about hunting. It was his passion. The verb cazar was not in our vocabulary for Spanish 3. But you can bet that before long he knew that and the words for all the different animals he hunted. Why? Because he wanted to. In Spanish 3 every year, we read the novels Cajas de cartón and Esperanza renace. Both deal with immigrant children. Though the words are not in our vocabulary list, by the end of the year they are completely familiar with words like migra, campesino, pizcar, and frontera. Why? Because they need them to talk about the issues in the books.

It's one of the most freeing things that has ever happened to me in my professional life to come to the realization that students will naturally acquire the vocabulary that interests and helps them without me drilling or quizzing it.

As a few resources for you, check out the archive of last year's #Langchat on rethinking how we teach vocabulary. I also have done several blog posts on this topic, including how I do vocabulary (surprise! I do give out vocab lists!), why you should kick the vocab quiz, and what you might do instead of the vocab quiz. Also check out cybraryman's page on teaching vocabulary, as well as Edutopia's insightful post on the topic.

If you're into research, read up on what it has to tell us about teaching vocabulary, including that shallow processing memorization doesn't work. For a tempering opinion, if it's worth a book purchase to you, you could read Vocabulary Myths by Keith Folse, who warns that throwing out vocab lists and stopping teaching it explicitly is too dramatic and not actually an answer to the vocab question.

However you decide to present and teach and review your vocabulary, my advice is to seek more ways to focus on these five keys:
1) motivation - make it vocabulary students find interesting.
2) useful - students see value in vocabulary when they can see themselves using it.
3) frequency - in every way you can think of, integrate the vocabulary that everyone uses.
4) phrasal - fool with words and phrases to encourage chunking of words commonly used together
5) less is more - concede that students can only acquire so much at a time, and give up on the rest (at least until later).

23 August 2011

Trending topic = authentic comprehensible input

foto por Scott Beale

I keep the Mexico trending topics as a column on my Tweetdeck, because you never know what will come up there. One great thing about Twitter is that you can only get so complicated in 140 characters, and when someone gets it in their head to get a topic like #4palabrasqueduelen trending by thousands and thousands of people, the text gets even simpler. So of course I had to mine the tweets using Archivist Desktop, clean them up, and use them for class. This is authentic input, mostly simple phrases written by Spanish speakers for Spanish speakers, most of them about our students' age or just a bit older. Twitter is such a gold mine!

And I can't do something like this without sharing, right? I put them in a spreadsheet, took out the hashtags, fixed the accents that got messed up in the transfer, deleted the trash, and deleted the repeats like the unending versions of "ya no te quiero." (Twitter is so dramatic.) I also only kept 50 of them - the program mined 2000 tweets.

After your students read them, take a poll of what are the favorites. Then see what are their #4palabrasqueduelen - o mejor, #4palabrasquealegran, a great suggestion from @SraHeebsh.

21 August 2011

Got the rubric!

After making my first new assessment description, I've finished the performance assessment rubric. It took a long time to make but hopefully it will be adopted for every assessment from 6-12 grades at my school. Again, I stole most of it from the great people at @JCPSWorldLang (with a special shout-out to @tmsaue1 for all the sharing they do over there). They got it all on one page, but I wasn't willing to put my text that small, or my document-creating abilities just aren't up to par. ;-) Thoughts?

18 August 2011

New year, new units, new assessments

At last I've turned to working on my own classes (after looking at Spanish 1 all summer for our new teacher) and I'm (once again) re-doing my Spanish 3 units. This year I'm trying to make them more realistic. I've been heavily influenced on this by a particular #langchat last year on making assessments authentic. My assessments were fun, and used a lot of language, but didn't have a whole lot to do with what students really would do with language.

So, back to the drawing board. I've come up with the assessments for Unit 1 (titled "El esparcimiento") and just did the assessment description for interpersonal writing. What do you think?

(Of course I have to give a shout-out to @JCPSWorldLang, from whom I stole almost completely the format for this.)

16 August 2011

Jumping on the Animoto bandwagon

I've heard a lot about Animoto but it's always been filed away in that "I'm sure it's great, but I'm on technology overload here" part of my brain. This week I decided to finally jump in and make on.

If you stick with the basic account, it's more than mildly annoying that you can't do anything past 30 seconds without a paid account. But thanks to @ckendall for the heads-up that you can apply for a free educator account. Mine came through immediately (no 2-week wait like they cautiously say). That gives you unlimited videos for you and up to 50 students.

Yesterday, our first day of school, I was in the new position of actually not knowing my Spanish 3 students. This is the first class I've had that I didn't already have in a previous class. So, we talked about why each one of them elected the class. I took some of their ideas, grabbed some photos from Flickr Creative Commons, and made a quick Animoto. Today I did the same thing with some vocab from AP's first unit.

What will you make?

Create your own video slideshow at animoto.com.

Create your own video slideshow at animoto.com.

13 August 2011

Rethinking "late" work

After a busy but fun month of traveling here and there on vacation, it's back to school and back to the blog! We teachers have been at school this past week, and the kids come back Monday. Where did that summer go?

One goal I accomplished this summer was reading The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn. While I do not share Kohn's apparent view that kids are generally angels who are being failed by everyone and if they were just in the right environment they'd all do the right thing and achieve all the right things (a biased summary, you can tell), I applaud and stand with him on so many aspects of traditional educational models that just make no sense. And this is from someone trained and drilled in "if the one-room schoolhouse was good enough for them...".

As I read this book, and discussed related topics on #langchat, I have become increasingly frustrated with late work policies and other issues that invalidate grades. I've had students turn in exemplary work, but I have to give them an F because it's a week late. To me, that is academically punishing a student for something that is not an academic problem.

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that very few times in my life have I had a deadline that, if not met exactly, was a disaster. Even the water company gives me up to 2 days late to pay my bill. Now, I understand that it's a life skill to learn to budget time, plan for when things are due, etc. But also, what about when life happens? When Grandma's sick and everyone's at the ER until 2 AM? When the alarm didn't go off and I wake up five minutes before school? When because my teachers don't talk to each other I have a book review, research paper, chem test, and Spanish presentation all on the same day?

At my school, we used to have a late work policy. Everyone had to use it.
1 day late : -25%
2 days late : -50%
3rd day: Zero

If you use zeroes, you know how they kill a student's average and quickly make it impossible to bring up the grade.

Last year they let us set our own late work policy, and this was mine:
1 day late : -25%
2 days late : -50%
after 2 days until the end of the quarter : -75%
At the end of the quarter, I was forced to finalize grades and thus, to give a zero.

This is my new late work policy. Let me know what you think.
Students can turn in up to 2 assignments up to 2 days late per quarter with no penalty.
After 2 days late, the student will be dismissed to the library to complete the assignment for 60% credit and cannot return to class until it is finished, but will be responsible for all missed work.

I'm trying so hard to find a balance between grace, training, and trust. I'll let you know how it works.

06 July 2011

A song made for early Spanish 1

Last week Luis Fonsi's new album Tierra Firme came out - and it's good. It's worth the whole download, I promise. The Deluxe version came with the video for Gritar, as well as acoustic and ranchero versions of that fabulous song.

As I was listening, this song called "Me gustas tú" came on. The more I listened the more I thought, Seriously, did Fonsi write this song for the beginning units for Spanish 1? It's a gem for any unit on expressing likes/dislikes. Here's hoping a good video comes out for it, too.

28 June 2011

Proficiency & tacos

So, about informing our students on proficiency.

One of the great ideas that came from that PD I went to was this 'taco' activity. It's designed to be done in the first days of school, preferable on the first day unless your first day is taken up with 'administrivia.'

Divide students into four groups, or tell them to divide themselves into four groups.
Tell students that you want them to tell you what a taco is, in English. You can choose any other common object or activity, such as the circus. For the first group, tell them that they can only use individual words to talk about the taco. In the second group, they can use phrases. In the third group, they can use simple sentences. In the fourth, they can use descriptive language in compound sentences joined by transition words like 'next' and 'also.'
When students use their 'proficiency level' to describe the taco, assign the proficiency labels to what they have done. Talk about which description gives the best idea of what the object/activity really is and why that level should be a goal. We also discussed having students write on large chart paper their descriptions, so that you can put them up on the wall. Then you can post on the chart 'novice low' and 'approaches expectations' and 'C' or whatever your assessment feedback language will be, and the students can have a visual reminder all semester or year of what exactly your expectations are.
Several teachers mentioned that this activity gives students a real idea of how accessible language is and gives everyone in the room a realistic view of where they could be at the end of the level. For the group of teachers I was with, their expectation is Novice High at the end of level 1 and Intermediate Low at the end of level 2 (they haven't done level 3 yet).
I thought this was a great way for students to be introduced to proficiency levels and get away from the vague 'here's a list of units we may or may not finish this year'-type goals I've done before. What do you think?

27 June 2011

Proficiency levels shouldn't be a secret

I had a wonderful PD opportunity last week to sit in with the truly vanguard Jefferson County Public School world languages department. They have spent at least the last two years developing communicative, proficiency-based, performance based units, assessments, and rubrics at levels 1 and 2 for Spanish and French. I have been so inspired by them that even though I put in a lot of work mapping out our Spanish 1 and 2 last summer (which I don't even teach-I was doing it for a new teacher), I have realized how disorganized, unstructured, and not-proficiency-based it was and I'm doing it all over again, even more deeply, for our (third in three years) new teacher.

One of the big questions of the week was this: How do we inform our students about proficiency levels, and keep them informed?
What, you mean my students are supposed to know what these are? Before about a year or two ago, I didn't know what they were. But it makes perfect sense. Proficiency levels shouldn't be a secret; they should be incredibly clear to everyone: students, parents, teachers, administration. So how do we inform them? My answer is fairly basic - I pushed my students to try to sustain the past tense in order to cross the barrier from Intermediate to Advanced, because that's what the ACTFL (past) president Eileen Gliesen said to do in a workshop I went to. And I made proficiency-based very detailed rubrics. That's about it. And you? How do you inform them?

23 June 2011

Flipbook illustration

This post is part of my project to get rid of old (but useful) papers that have been sitting on my bookshelf.

This is another literacy idea I got from a grad school class on teaching literacy to ELLs.

  • 3 sheets of 8 1/2 by 11 blank paper
  • stapler
  • drawing tools
  • Place the three sheets of paper on top ofeachother, and overlap leaving a small margin at the bottom of the paper.
  • Hold the pages securely so that they remain overlapped, and fold the top sheet so that its top edge folds to a small margin above its bottom. There should now be six "pages" now in the flipbook.
  • Staple through all layers at the fold. On the top page, write the title of the book, the author, and your name.
  • Illustrate and write about an important event (ones you find significant) on each of the following five pages.
This project teaches students to look at literature more critically because they have to identify and illustrate significant events. Also, you can add a variety of activities, including retelling the story with the activities, explaining symbolism, writing new endings, collaboration, etc. I've also had students do this about a story told in class.

Keep reading!

20 June 2011

Ethics in the language class - we aren't their parents

I have a question for you - where do you draw the line in your language class as far as ethics?

photo by Simon Q

Here's my bias: I teach at a private faith-based (Christian) school, and I have to be very careful about what I show to my students and expose them to. More than that, I have personal convictions (actually much higher those of most of my students) that prevent me from showing many things I could show them without really getting in trouble with my school. I won't show commercials or news clips that show women in very revealing clothing. I won't show videos with suggestive dancing or themes, even in our favorite songs like Espacio sideral and No te pido flores and Sigo con ella (a song I love to use in class because of its actual positive depiction of faithful love- hard to find in almost any genre).

Aside from my personal convictions, and my school's guidelines, my perspective on the field in general is that we are not their parents. Parents have a special responsibility to filter our child's world, which is why we set rules, disallow certain clothing, prevent them from buying certain music or video games, and don't expose them to too much too soon. I don't know what the filter is that my students' parents have set for them, but I do know that it is not my place to violate that filter.

Here are some items I've come across in my teaching experience with music and film that I would choose not to allow in my classroom.

Now, I'm not against rated R movies just because they are rated R. I show my senior class Pan's Labyrinth every year as part of a series of activities to expose them to the truth about the Spanish Civil War and contrasting fantasy and reality. But when I was in the AP Spanish workshop a few years ago, the leader showed us a film that she used in her classes, even lower-level classes. The film was De eso no se habla, and the plot basically goes like this, if I remember correctly - an older, well-traveled man settles in an Argentinian village where he falls in love with a talented, 15-year-old midget. He fights his attraction for her in several ways, including traveling and regular visits to the local brothel, where he also runs into the [married] town mayor. He is able to marry her, but then she is for some reason unhappy, and in the end he watches as she runs away on the circus train to be with people who are like her. Sounds great, eh? I mentioned in the workshop that if I showed the movie I'd be fired. Another teacher said she taught at a public school but because of her personal convictions she'd never show it. I thought to myself, exactly what principles and life lessons are in this movie that I want to expose to my students? Because everyone knows that we aren't just there to teach them language, and that's certainly not all they learn from us.

I think of Ricardo Arjona as the Shakira of Guatemala. His music is very well done and mostly trashy. I actually used to use at least part of two of his songs, Quién (excellent for listening comprehension of numbers) and Pingüinos en la cama (which has the rare feature of using almost every option for continuous present in the space of about three sentences). I thought, hey, I'll just play certain parts and leave out the rest, or the language is too advanced and they won't get it, or surely they won't look up the video. Yeah, right. The first year I tried this, I had a student, we'll call him Enrique, who decided he loved Arjona, looked up the songs and their videos and their lyrics, and you can imagine how that went. I put the songs away and never used them again.

So there's me; I just can't in good conscience let myself take the place of my students' parents in the name of 'exposing them to other cultures' and 'well, they're getting worse at home anyway.' What about you? What's your ethical standard?

17 June 2011

Activity #5: Gira la botella

Fun activity #4 is 'Gira la botella,' or 'spin the bottle.'

I forget what the original purpose of this game was (in language class, I mean, haha), but I tweaked it to be a game to practice idioms. I find that one of the hardest parts of vocabulary acquisition is getting students to really use idioms in their speech and writing. Part of the problem is a lack of practice in seeing and using them repetitively in a meaningful context. Imagine my dismay when I found out one of my fourth-year students who had practically memorized Luis Fonsi's song No me doy por vencido still had no idea what the expression meant. Doh! (on me, not her) I guess songs don't cure all ills. (Did I just write that?)

Anyway, back to the game...
  • In a document, make a list of common idiomatic expressions for your language, expressions you want your students to be able to use in appropriate contexts spontaneously.
  • When this game is chosen as a class activity, copy and paste your list into the random chooser. Run the chooser so it selects an expression. (Be sure to use the fruit machine, not typewriter, so you can remove the option after it's used.)
  • Get your students into a circle. It's always good to have an opportunity to change things up, and get them up and moving, eh?
  • Spin a bottle in the middle of a circle. You can use any bottle but for cultural effect we use a Manzanita bottle (my favorite Mexican beverage).
  • When the bottle stops, the person at whom it's pointing begins a sentence with the idiom. For example, "No me doy por vencido en la clase de matemáticas."
  • Going clockwise, the next person has to remember exactly the sentence and add a detail: "No me doy por vencido en la clase de matemáticas por la mañana."
  • The first person to forget any of the sentence is out and has to sit down. Spin the bottle again, choose a different idiom, and keep going until you're done (or we time our game for 10 minutes).
I imagine you could use this for any vocabulary you're targeting and it would work the same way. I particularly like idiomatic expressions because it's such a real way to push real communicative proficiency at every level.

Have fun, and no kissing! ;-)

13 June 2011

Symbol Illustration

This post is part of my project to get rid of papers I haven't looked at in forever (but still contain good ideas) by making them 'digital' here.
The symbol illustration idea is from a course I took in graduate school on teaching literacy to (mostly elementary) English-language learners. It seemed to me an idea easily adapted to various situations, content, and levels.

  • colored paper
  • scissors
  • markers
After reading and discussing some type of literature together (in my course it was Esperanza Rising),
  1. Decide what you think is the most important object in the book.
  2. Cut a large sheet of colored paper into the shape of that object.
  3. In the middle of the object, write a sentence describing why you think that was the most important object.
  4. In the rest of the space, draw other important objects, with a sentence under each that describes its importance.
My symbol illustration of Esperanza Rising:
Some variations:
Ask for an oral presentation of the symbol illustration when it is finished.
Make the illustration a timeline instead - on a long sheet of paper, draw a line horizontally in the middle. Above, put positive symbols. Below, put negative symbols. All should be sequential and should be used to retell the story emphasizing mood changes.
Ask students to choose a symbol that may also symbolize something in their life and describe this.
Use VoiceThread or other storyboarding or digital storytelling tools to make this project digital/paperless.

10 June 2011

Connecting your classroom

photo by kmevans

Often during #Langchat, a question will come up about how those of us who have collaborating schools in target-language countries found these schools. I found two of ours through Twitter and the other through my school's accrediting agency's website.

This week on #Langchat, we devoted the entire hour to discussing how we can best collaborate with teachers and classrooms locally, globally, and internationally. The summary of the chat is full of great resources and tips for getting ourselves and our students outside the classroom (many times without leaving the classroom!)

Here are three websites I've recently come across (through Twitter, of course) that may help you give your students one of the best, most motivating things you can offer: an authentic audience.
Skype recently launched Skype in the Classroom to connect schools all over the world.
Connect All Schools may also help you find a collaborating school.
My colleague @mundaysa has had great success using The Mixxer.

Good luck and have fun!

08 June 2011

Myth #5: The textbook is all I need

For my original post about the myths, look here.
photo by NomadicLass

Textbook companies make a lot of money off of telling us that they've done all the work and they're all we need. Audio? They've got it. Video? That too. Activities? Structure? Assessments? It's an all-in-one package, for a price. And out-of-date as soon as it's printed.

It's no secret I'm not a fan of most textbooks. There must be some magic textbook out there that I haven't seen that is so communicative and fabulous, but the ones I've used before leave me wondering, who wrote this? I know they say they're aligned with standards, but what are my students actually supposed to be able to do after this activity? The activities are stale and forced, the vocabulary is endless, and the assessments are designed for easy grading instead of actually assessing language ability.

There's something to be said for having a structure. I don't think I've met a teacher who has just jumped into textbook-free teaching. For me, it was about a two-year process, and it wasn't even on purpose. At some point I just realized that we weren't taking the textbook off the shelf anymore. I realized that using online resources and storytelling and my own activities turned out to be so much more freeing, motivating, authentic, and up-to-date (after all, language is constantly changing). Not to mention it costs less.

Tying ourselves to a textbook and its cheesy, fake, tedious accessories because 'it's all we need' is a myth that is preventing our students from acquiring the real language it takes to communicate with real people. Even if you use a textbook you love, look beyond it to the world of resources that will enrich and inspire your students more than your textbook ever will. Take a look at what the Twitter PLN is talking about. Explore the resources others have shared with me. Look at some of my blog tags like internet activities, YouTube, and assessment. And soon, I'll be posting my summer project: units with activities, standards-based "I Can" statements, and assessment ideas for Spanish 1 - AP Spanish. Steal, thieve, borrow. Collaboration makes the PLN go 'round.

02 June 2011

Taking paperless to the blog

photo by NoHoDamon

I love to teach as paperless as possible. My students read more off a projector than off of paper. I wish we had the technology available to be much more paperless at my school- something to strive for.

Then I think, well, if I want to be paperless in my classroom, I should be paperless personally. Share all that info from the paper on the blog and get rid of the paper altogether, right? It's not like I actually look at all that paper ever anyway. I just did what we all (should) do at the end of the school year- I cleaned my classroom. I say 'should' because I don't. The last few years I've left my notebooks either on my bookshelf or in a closet and then put them back in the same place when school is back in, not to be looked at all year.

This year I was told I had to move all the books off my bookshelf for the summer so the floor-waxing crew didn't have to box them up when they remove the bookcase. So as I moved the books to a storage room on a different floor, I looked at all of them with a critical eye, and a *lot* of paper went in the trash. I went through my notebooks I made in college for my teaching methods courses and the bad pedagogy astounded me. Really beautiful, thematic, well-presented notebooks -I'm telling you, you would have been impressed- full of information that shouldn't even have been written and hasn't affected my life (thankfully) since.

Also on the shelf were programs and notes and handouts from conferences and vendor booths, things I swore I was going to look at, review, and share later, and never did. So I've brought them home, and I've told myself that before I throw them out, they must become digital. The pile is the source of a lot of hopefully helpful blog posts, so stay tuned.

What about you? What jewels are sitting on your bookshelf that could become your own paperless way of sharing with your professional learning network via a blog?

23 May 2011

Combat the 'este tiempo' monster

photo by Xiang Xi

I don't know about you, but my students even in their third and fourth years will slip into phases where they keep saying or writing 'este tiempo' instead of 'esta vez.' Or, un otro tiempo or más tiempos or el último tiempo. Here are a couple of songs to combat that monster.

The first is "Por esta vez" by Belanova, which obviously has it in the title, and so twice in the chorus, and so many repetitions throughout the song.

Another is Irreemplazable by Beyonce with 3 repetitions of 'esta vez.'

Also you have Noviembre sin ti by Reik with 4 repetitions of 'otra vez' and Fotografía por Juanes ft. Nelly Furtado with quite a bit of 'cada vez.'


05 May 2011

Children's DVD giveaway!

I've been a follower of Tati's blog for a long time - maybe before I even had my own, but at least since the very beginning. Certainly since before I had Zoe and began the adventures involved with a bilingual baby.

Do you have a child learning Spanish or do you teach elementary? Enter here on her blog for the DVD giveaway from Whistlefritz.

26 April 2011

Activity #4: Drama Inmóvil

Fun activity #4 is "Drama Inmóvil," idea courtesy of Paulino Brener.

My students LOVE this. They beg for it- even the ones who will never talk in class. You must try it, and if you're anywhere around a unit building on present progressive, you should do this every day for the first five minutes at least.

I copy/paste my class roster into the fruit machine picker and it chooses a random student. That student stays seated and all the others come to the front (you may have to do this in groups - my largest class is 8 so we can do it as whole-class). The chosen student gives a place and/or situation, e.g. in a park, or at an amusement park, or at the movies. I say 'lights, camera, action' (in Spanish) and all the 'players' adopt a frozen pose of what they are doing in the situation. Then I go around with a pretend microphone and interview them with rapid question/answer style - "Where are you? Why? With whom? Who's winning?" etc. Then the chosen student selects who was the most creative (they just get cheers for it; there's no prize, but they don't care), I remove the chosen student's name from the fruit picker and do it again.

It's a winner. My dramatic students get crazy with it. My shy students do something expected but are eager to talk about what they're doing, especially because the q&a style doesn't involve me standing at the front of the class saying, "Now, remember to answer with a complete sentence" (who says that in real life anyway?).

I made a video of my students doing this and posted it as a private video on YouTube for Paulino. I don't have permission to show my students on my blog or on YouTube publicly, but if you are a teacher and you'd like to see how it worked for us, send me your email and I'll add you as a viewer.

25 April 2011

Myth #4: The Time Whine

If you don't know what I'm talking about when I say this post is about dismantling myths, go back and read this post.
photo by TonyVC

Only the very young or students who have high aptitude are going to succeed anyway (otherwise known as the 'time whine').

I don't know if you've heard or said this before, but I've heard it primarily as a cause of teachers not working with other teachers, or concerning students who won't elect levels of language beyond the 2 years required to get into most colleges. I call it the 'time whine' because that's where the complaint is rooted: "They can't gain any real level of proficiency in the time I have them, so why try?"

Another way this argument has been presented to me is that the primary responsibility of language teachers is to motivate students to continue past the 2 years required to enter most colleges.

Here's an idea - how about we forget about the time we have them or how smart we think they are and focus on what they should be able to do with the language after whatever time they're with us? Ask @tmsaue1 and his teachers at @JCPSWorldLang - ask anyone who teaches lower levels communicatively and stops teaching language the way only analytic learners can learn it. Ask anyone who focuses on standards and proficiency levels and real-life tasks instead of verb charts and vocabulary drills. We can give our students the tools to do something with the language no matter what amount of time we have them.

I've posted before about my preschoolers - I have them 10-15 minutes per week. Even then they can do something. They rarely ask me if I speak 'normal' anymore. They can answer questions like ¿de qué color? and ¿quién vive aquí? and ¿está triste o feliz? - not always in Spanish, but they can answer.

I went to the Central States conference last month and went to a session by John De Mado about unity within the language department. One of the points he made was that the entire department needs to agree that language is accessible to all students and to teach like they believe that.

How about we teach like we believe that anyone can learn to do something realistically practical in the amount of time we have them?

21 April 2011

Have you used PhotoPeach?

I have to thank @vivianagabi for giving me the idea to use PhotoPeach to do a project called "25 things about me." Her (Brazilian) students are at lower levels than mine, and take Spanish for less time per week, but it was a brilliant way for her students to connect with my students (by posting them on our blog) on an interesting level (dare I say interpersonal mode?). Here's how I plan to incorporate a variety of modes of communication:

We're in a unit on future tense. (I love how tech tools can be adapted for whatever you're studying at the moment.) We're going to start by giving a few ideas per person, orally and without preparation, of what we want to do in the future. We'll go deeper semantically by making each item really contain something that reveals a look into who we are as a person. We'll go deeper linguistically by including several idiomatic expressions, as well as irregular future and subjunctive after expressions of time indicating a future action. We'll prepare questions based on her students' projects to ask when we Skype with them. And we'll discuss what digital citizenship is and how to use the creative commons.

Here's mine- only 21 things though. In trying to make it an example of the deep, transparent, idiomatic, multi-time narration I want from my students, I found it an emotionally satisfying journey to reveal some deep parts of myself in pictures and phrases. I hope you enjoy.

21 cosas sobre mí on PhotoPeach

Update (June):
Here are a couple of examples from my students. Really they blew me away with their depth of thought, and all of them enjoyed the project immensely - especially the senior AP students who got to do it in lieu of a final paper. :)

21 cosas. (Karson) on PhotoPeach

Vida de Felipe en 21 cosas on PhotoPeach