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.


Katie said...

As a 2nd year Spanish I and II teacher, I really appreciate this post. All of these points seem so obvious, yet so many times I don't take the time to do them. Thanks for your insight.

Mweelin said...

You are reading my mind. I too am in my 4th year teaching AP and would say the same things you said to the lower level teachers in my department, especially about increasing speaking skills. Thanks for posting!

Cindy Tatiana said...

This is my first year teaching AP Spanish and I completely agree with you on so many points. Especially when it comes to listening. My kids need so much practice.

I am learning so much from your blog, I love it :)

MmBex said...

Thanks for sharing! I teach Spanish I and II at a middle school and have limited contact with my students' future AP teachers. Great tips :)

Katie Hellerman said...

Thanks for the inspiration. I'm sitting down to plan the next few weeks of the grade 5-8 curriculum. It's nice to have a "message from the mountain" as to what kind of gear was missing on the last expedition.

Anonymous said...

Hi- I actually have a question for you and any other language teacher in your circle -
We are trying to create what will essentially be a home-schooling experience within a school. That is, a loosely structured school day in which kids travel in small groups and meet with teachers as needed when they need direction on a project or some direct instruction on solving problems. We would like the curriculum to be inquiry-based and project and problem based in terms of the work, with the function of the student groups being peer support, communication, and collaboration. Finally, the work would be as interdisciplinary as possible, and based on community needs when feasible. Hwever, we have already sort of resigned ourselves to needing more regularly scheduled math instruction every day, but are divided on the need to do so for world languages. Do you have any thoughts on the question of regular class times, the length of meeting times, the kinds of work kids can be expected to do outside of meeting times, and the kinds of project-based, hands-on activities that could replace traditional guided classroom lessons?

Dorie Conlon said...

I really appreciate this post. I am an elementary Spanish teacher in a district that has a long, rich history of teaching foreign languages starting in first grade. Every time a student does well on an AP exam, national test, poetry competition, or other AP-type activity - our director credits the whole department, including our elementary teachers. That's because we believe that we are preparing students to be advance speakers of the language at every step of the way. All too often, elementary programs are seen as "fun", but aren't seen as an environment gives students the skills they need to become AP students in high school.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Definitely things to keep in mind and it is motivation for me to make sure I am doing those things, because I agree with you on all points. I recently have been looking to get more authentic audio and have been using more advanced texts for them to read and use context to figure out meaning when they don't know every single word.

Team Tejeda said...

LIKE LIKE LIKE!!!! You are an inspiration! I feel so alone sometimes teaching levels 3 and 4, as if I'm climbing the mountain solo. It's very reassuring to know that others work as hard as I do and have found wonderful resources and methods to teach life-long learners. Thank you so much, keep them coming because I'll be reading!

Sra Cottrell said...

Glad to help anyone!

@Raleigh thanks for your great question; I answered it on The Innovative Educator.

Anonymous said...

Great suggestions! Although AP is not part of the curriculum @ my school, students do go on to advanced-level language courses. Even with my seventh graders, I give them speaking and writing assessments. They may not be their favorite things. Especially when my French teacher counterpart is asking his students to make menus. Instead of menus, my students create a store or market, and assume the role of shopper and customer. Speaking of projects: A colleague has given them up completely. Why? They are a lot of work to implement and assess, and, he found that the students didn't produce much real language.
I assess either via 1-1 interviews, or Google Voice.

Melissa Davis said...

I was impressed with your dedication as AP Spanish teacher. Your recommendation on how to teach the student very well is a good suggestion. I prefer an audio demo on how to pronounce a certain word.

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