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.

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