27 January 2011

Instead of the vocab quiz

@SraSpanglish commented on my post "Kick the vocab quiz":
"I feel like I can't do this with Spanish I, and it's hard with Spanish II. Also, what are students graded on instead?"

At this point, I only teach very early elementary, who only receive a grade of "excellent/satisfactory/needs improvement" once a quarter, and advanced students. I realize that's quite an uncommon setup. But when I was teaching 5 periods of Spanish 1 and 2 (along with Spanish 3) I also never gave vocab quizzes. I'm a bigger fan of @alfiekohn than I am of grades, but at my school we have to give them (as, I'm sure, do you) so here's an outline of where my assessment comes from.

In Spanish 3 and 4 (AP), both classes receive grades for:
Completing the chapter guides for our books
Writing a free-topic blog post once a week
Doing listening cloze quizzes on things such as commercials
Doing a regular vocabulary review (see #1)

In Spanish 3, students also:
do intermittent writing/speaking assignments related to recent target features (in class)
do an end-of-unit assessment, profiency- and task-based, as in a how-to demonstration (to elicit commands) or telling an interesting true story about themselves (to elicit combined past tenses)

In AP, students also:
do a weekly "fluency" activity on their own
write AP-style essays & interpersonal writing pieces
do AP-style oral presentations

When I was teaching Spanish 1 & 2, students did:
-the same regular vocabulary review
-also a weekly blog post, beginning with question prompts in 1st semester of Spanish 1 and changing to free-topic word count requirements starting in the 2nd semester of Spanish 1
-also listening cloze quizzes (the difficulty is in the words you drop- for beginners, you drop numbers and greetings, for example)
-also prompted writing/speaking with target features (i.e. 5 phrases describing your family using person + es + adjective from vocabulary)

Different from advanced students, however, were:
Yes, vocab quizzes. Well, I suppose you could call them vocab quizzes because they were assessment designed to elicit vocabulary. But my format of low-level quizzes were always unannounced (to avoid short-term memory cramming) and took three forms:
1) Ask random questions to elicit vocab, and the answer just has to make sense or be true. (¿De qué color son los 'arches' de McDonalds?)
2) Ask questions about stories we've been doing in class. (¿Quién es el amigo del pingüino?) Students were required to draw/label stories in their composition notebooks and were allowed to use them for quizzes.
3) Describe a drawing for students to draw and grade on how the drawing turns out. ("Hay una niña. La niña tiene una banana verde.") Colored pencils were a supply requirement.

Hope this helps clarify how I did some of my lower-level assessment.

26 January 2011

Best songs for stem changing irreg. present

@lisajmch asked on Twitter this week about good activities for stem-changing verbs and my mind immediately went to a blog post I thought I'd made about a song with repetitions of 'puedo,' and again, it turned out it was in the dashboard and not written or published. So here goes.

I feel like a broken record, but to start off,
-only students who go on to major in Spanish will benefit from calling them "stem-changing" verbs. I've found it more useful to say things like "repite is a verb that acts like pide, so you have pido, repito, but rePETimos, PEDimos" - you're pointing out the difference without giving it a useless grammatical label and it gets you more accurate input in their ears.
-only accurate comprehensible input will cause them to spontaneously (read: without having to think & self-edit all the time) and consistently produce accurate forms. If all they ever hear is "puedo" and "poder," they won't produce "podo" or "pueder" unless they're overgeneralizing, and then that's just a creative, natural process of language that corrects itself with more input.

Anyway, for fun, here are two excellent songs to deal with that messy irregular present tense.

The Bacilos hit Pasos de gigantes is a gold mine with 9 repetitions of puedo just in the first verse. Have them count them. Have them touch their nose whenever they hear one. Something that lets you replay the accurate input into their ears. Also, you have a 'puedes' elsewhere and other stem-changers 'siento' & 'pienso' in the chorus which means they're also repeated. There used to be a good music video available for it on YouTube but it must have had copyright issues because I can't find it anywhere.

One of the all-time hits in my classroom is Fonseca's Hace tiempo, which does have a fabulous music video widely available too. Along with some really interesting cultural content, you've got a vast array of present tense to have fun with here, including present progressive and the 'g' verbs 'digo' and 'tengo' (another reason teaching "stem-changing" verbs doesn't work--what about when they're in both categories?). You'll also find the stem changers 'quiero,' 'siento,' and reflexive 'muero.' Incidentally, I have never had success "teaching" the hace + period of time concept and seeing students actually produce it until this song got into some of them.

Music works!

25 January 2011

Do something drastic - kick the vocab quiz

Ah, the vocab quiz, I remember them well. I used to have all my students do what I had to do in college- put all the new vocab on spiral-bound 3x5 cards, English on front, Spanish on back. I would drill myself and drill myself for that dreaded weekly (or whenever) vocab quiz, the one where you had to match the right words, or fill in the translation.

Why? Because I'm motivated (read: driven) by grades.

I remember the first time I had a B on my midterm report in college. I cried. (Here you go, more insight into me.) Intro to Spanish Literature. I was so annoyed at it that I worked hard enough to get a 100 on the final and bring the grade to a solid A. I never saw the letter B again.

My point is that vocab quizzes are a colossal failure. They are based on several false assumptions:
1) Quizzes produce long-term memory.
2) Short-term memory is desirable in any way in the language class.
3) Motivation by grades will draw the language learners to acquire more words.

When you give a vocab quiz, you're asking students to cram discrete words into their short-term memory for a grade. Think: what could be more useless? What about the students who aren't motivated by grades? I've heard this rant so many times by vocab-quizzing teachers. "So-and-so just won't study the vocab and fails every quiz! Doesn't he care?" No, no he doesn't. Because grades aren't motivating to him and so you have to find something that is.

And short-term memory? Why not reach for ways that actually create long-term memory of vocab--motivating popular music? reading for pleasure? Articles that use recent vocab? Finding them just takes a quick search on Google News. I just came across an article through a Tweet from a Mexican news source that uses a rich variety of vocab from Spanish 3--you can bet we will be looking at it soon.

Need more reasoning? Here is a list of words and phrases my fourth-year students identified yesterday as we previewed their next chapter in Ciudad de las Bestias:

ardiendo de fiebre
se arrodilló
se despidieron
al amanecer
la suya
no quedaba más remedio que

They haven't had a vocab quiz or test in two years.

21 January 2011

Topic for #LangChat 1/27

You can vote here for the topic for this week's #LangChat on Twitter, Thursday 1/27 at 8 pm EST.

Also, feel free to suggest topics through this suggestion form.

20 January 2011

Topic for the first #LangChat 1/20

The topic is chosen and we're on tonight on Twitter at 8pm EST/7CST!

What are the differences between communicative competence and accuracy, and what weight or importance do each of these carry in the world language classroom?

Choose your medium (Twitter.com, Twitterfall, Tweetdeck-my favorite) and we'll "see" you there!

19 January 2011

Low-level learners can't understand authentic media, what?

Low-level vocabulary, motivating subject matter, absolutely up-to-date...

tell me again why we aren't using authentic materials in the low levels?

18 January 2011

They can't speak, and it's our fault: Dismantling the myths

Earlier this month was the deadline for proposals to be submitted for the 2011 conference of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. I have never been to their conference--indeed, I've only ever attended one national conference (TESOL 2007)--but one of my new year's resolutions was to at least attempt to go, and part of that was to submit a proposal to present.

Before proposing anything, I polled several of my colleagues on Twitter to see what they thought about what might have been lacking at the 2010 conference. I got a wide variety of answers, ranging from "how could anything be lacking when there were 600 sessions?" to "oh there was so much lacking, where do I start?". One comment in particular stuck in my mind: @tmsaue1 said that almost no one seemed to want to talk about the elephant in the room- that after all this push for CLT for all these years, we still aren't producing students with any useful level of proficiency. So I made a quip on Twitter about needing a better title for my proposal than "They can't speak, and it's our fault." Something must have resonated because several people told me that either I should stick with that title, or if I changed it, that should still be the topic, because it's true.

In any case, the title I settled on was "Dismantling the Myths that Prevent Proficiency," and before I realized that you only had to come up with an outline if you were proposing a 3-hour workshop, I had outlined several myths that in my opinion are holding back the average U.S. world language teacher from pushing students to real proficiency in the classroom. Since then I have thought of a few more and gotten input from more comments. At this rate I'll have to poll everyone to see which ones to include if the proposal is accepted so I can get them within the time limit!

Over the next few months I'll be blogging about these myths individually. I'll find out in April if I'll be presenting at ACTFL (and if I am, here's hoping I also get accepted to score AP Spanish exams so I can pay for the conference!) but either way, I can reach more people through my blog anyway, with what I think about what's holding us all back.

Here goes. The ones in bold are the ones I think are hurting us the worst--keeping students from interacting with native & authentic input. Please offer feedback and help me add or subtract to/from these as necessary!


1. A person who is not proficient can be a language teacher (Or, "I have a degree in this; of course I'm qualified").

2. Learning about language is enough (Or, "I don't have to speak the TL in the classroom").

and its cousin

3. Grammatical terms are actually helpful in language acquisition (or, "How will they know what it is if I don't call it subjunctive by reason of indefinite antecedent?????")

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

5. The textbook and accessories are all I need (or, "my district spent $20,000 on this stuff, I have make it worth their while").

6. Students can learn vocabulary in isolation and in lists of 150 words per chapter (or, "why don't they know what bosque means and that it's masculine? we just studied this!").

7. Media produced for language learners counts as authentic materials (or, "The 'First Semester of Spanish Love Song' is the best video ever!")

8. Low-level learners can't understand authentic materials.

and its cousin

9. Students have to understand everything they hear.

10. Communication among learners is somehow going to equip them to communicate with native speakers.

11. A multiple-choice question counts as a valid assessment of proficiency (or, "I can tell how well students communicate without actually asking them to communicate).

12. Translation helps language acquisition and counts as a valid assessment of communicative ability (or, "I knew she was trying to say 'my nose is running'- how creative!").

13. Finding/creating materials takes too much time (or, "I have to do all this on my own").

14. Tech tool + any amount of language = classroom magic (or, "I'm the 21st-century teacher! Look at that amazing project with almost no communication that my students put together!").

15. Assessment is an end-of-unit activity. (or "I understand it. Surely they must. Moving on.")


Stay tuned!

15 January 2011

Don't teach a health unit without this song

Somewhere in Spanish 1 or 2 there usually comes up a unit that has something to do with health.  I even have a unit in my AP course (with units I wrote myself) called "Cuidándo a mí" with health-related issues.  In your Spanish health-related unit you really ought to include the song "Bilirrubina" por Juan Luis Guerra.

The song includes a lot of present tense and a lot of wonderful health-related vocabulary like fiebre and aspirina with super-useful verbs like quita with object pronouns.

If you want to delve further, there's an interesting discussion on Word Reference about the use of the word bilirrubina. I love the WR forums-that's how I found out that in this collaboration by Juan Luis with Diego Torres, Torres makes a reference to the Bilirrubina song in the end (I'd heard the song but hadn't noticed that!) and when I listened for it, I heard him reference another of Guerra's big hits, Ojalá que llueva café. Amazing what you'll learn on the yellow brick road.

13 January 2011

New: A language teachers' weekly chat on Twitter - choose our first topic!

A group of language teachers on Twitter has gotten together to start a weekly chat on issues related to world language teaching. We're going to do this on Thursday evenings at 8 Eastern/7 Central (NOTE: this is a correction from the earlier posted incorrect time). The hashtag is #langchat. So add a #langchat column to your Tweetdeck, or add it to Twitterfall or Twubs, however you'd like to keep track of it, and come eavesdrop or join in the conversation. Vote on the poll for our first topic, and see you there!

Since I stopped teaching to the [AP] test

Last year my AP class was a bit happy-go-lucky. They had a sort of attitude that went like this:

"Well, I understood that pretty well, that was awesome!"
"I didn't get that at all. Oh well! What's next?"

This year, not so much. This year's class is more like:

"I understood that, cool!"
"I didn't understand that at all. I'm dropping this class at Christmas. My life is over."
"We don't do anything fun anymore."

So I feel like I couldn't possibly say "back to the drawing board" one more time, but here I went anyway. I took a good hard look and determined that what we were lacking was focus. One of my students said something to the tune of "We should do a unit on dating." I pointed up at the title of Unit 2: "La red interpersonal." We did an entire unit on interpersonal relationships and they didn't even get the focus. So I thought, where do the students think this is going wrong? Where do I think this is going wrong? What can we do that might improve it while still preparing them for the exam (and more importantly, to communicate better with the Spanish-speaking world)?

1- They hated Triángulo. They groaned every time we pulled it off the shelf. I mean despised. So I decided to move to (almost) entirely web-based sources for assignments and my own topics and questions. I still can't find anything else that has as much and as good of a replication of the AP's interpersonal speaking (simulated conversation) as Triángulo, and that whole 20-second- talk til the beep thing just freaks them out.

2- They didn't understand the sources on their own in enough time to put together a good oral or written synthesis or argument. We were doing too many oral presentations and essays within a unit. So it started to feel like "here's a source, here's a source, here's a source, bam, good luck, say something, go." Their heads were spinning and often a few of them were still confused on what exactly the question was after 2 or 3 had already given their presentation, or well into writing their essay.

So, we focused. And I mean really focused. I took the same unit themes I have in my AP syllabus, and the same general idea, but we focused it completely so that all the assessments use the same idea, and the oral presentation and essay use the same sources, and we all discuss and walk through the sources together, and then they do their presentations and essays.

Take the unit on ecoturismo. The focus was that they were trying to convince either their classmates or the school administration to take them on an ecotourism trip to Costa Rica instead of their regular trip to Disney World, or write a letter to the director of an ecotourism-focused resort, etc., depending on the assessment, but all about the senior trip, ecotourism, Costa Rica, and issues involving indigenous peoples in Latin America. And you can bet at the end of the unit, no one even thought about wondering if we'd done a unit on the environment.

So, some of them are still frustrated, because they wish it were easy, and they wish they didn't have to do anything, and well, they all have senioritis. But the class has focus, and it's not about the AP test anymore--I hope I've finally convinced them of that--and things are looking up. And in the spirit of doing something fun, they've written so many essays that in this current unit I'm suspending the essays in favor of a video using our Flip camera.

I've never been a fan of teaching to the test. I should have lectured myself about this a long time ago.

10 January 2011

Faith and Culture: help me decide our AP topic

(Keep in mind I teach at a private faith-based school and this isn't an invitation for a debate.) I'm in a dilemma between two potential topics for our next AP focus. Will you help me decide and/or make suggestions?

Our current unit in AP Spanish is called "La verdad es que..." and it's about how faith relates to culture in Spanish-speaking countries. In the first part of the unit, the assignments are related to informing students on the Spanish conquest of Latin America and getting them to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the "genocide" of the indigenous peoples and whether or not, or how, the Spanish conquistadores imposed their faith on the indígenas and how this affected today's faith/culture mix in the region and whether or not, or how, it had a negative effect on their culture.

For the second half of the unit, I'm having trouble deciding between two topics.
The one is more closely related to our first topic and so I'm leaning towards it, but the other is more current and relevant to Latinos in the U.S.

1) What ethics are involved in current Christian mission work in Latin America? Can this work continue and the indigenous cultures still be preserved? Should organizations be allowed to operate freely, or be tightly controlled, or be excluded from indigenous tribes entirely?

El impacto fundamental de las nuevas tribus ha sido el etnocidio (Print)

El domingo vence plazo para salida de misiones Nuevas Tribus de Venezuela (Print)

Foro: Nuevas Tribus, ¿misión de Dios? (very nice audio source)

2) Evaluate the motives people have for loyalty for a particular denomination over another. What cultural shifts are enough to push a change in philosophy? How does a culture decide what philosophies or principles are "hills to die on" and what can be given up? What does a group do when a respected spiritual leader leaves their denomination, but remains in the spotlight?


Fuertes críticas de padre Alberto a la Iglesia, en libro. (Print)

El padre Alberto lloró por su bebita (Print)

Padre Alberto Cutié via La W Radio (audio)
There was an error in this gadget
There was an error in this gadget