My Takeaways from #ACTFL19

I spent last weekend in Washington, DC at the 2019 ACTFL convention. If you have never been to an ACTFL conference, believe me when I say that it is a unique experience. Friends, it is HUGE. This year, around 7,500 world language teachers from all over the country and beyond attended. It can be very overwhelming due to its immense size. But one of the advantages of being so large is that it offers workshops on a wide variety of topics. After two days of attending presentations, two common themes started to emerge.

The biggest takeaway for me was about inclusivity and empathy. I attended three sessions that touched on this. Two presentations were about inclusive language. The first workshop by Marialuisa Di Stefano, Abelardo Almazan-Vasquez, and William Yepes was called “Latina/o, Latin@, Latinex, Latiné: An Inclusion and Social Justice Approach.” The second was Dr. Joseph Parodi-Brown’s “Authentic Voices: Create LGBT+ Affirming Classes with Language and Content.” In both sessions, the presenters talked about using inclusive language aimed at making both gendered and nongendered students of all sexual orientations feel welcome and represented in language class. In Spanish class, this could be using a neutral -e on words that normally have either an -o or -a, as in “Tengo muches amigues.” In French class, this could be incorporating the use of gender neutral pronouns like “ille” or “iel.” Either way, the message was that our nonbinary students deserve to feel included and represented in our classes, and that using inclusive language normalizes both nonbinary language and identities, thus leading to greater social acceptance.

Annabelle Allen gave a presentation on a similar theme called “Equitable Engagement: Ensuring Every Student Invests, Is Valued and Achieves.” Her main idea was that all students should feel important and recognized in our classrooms. One of the ways to do that is by featuring both texts and images in our classrooms that reflect the identity and backgrounds of our students. This helps create a strong and positive classroom community where all students feel welcome and represented. In the long run, this leads to higher levels of both success and engagement.

Annabelle teaches in New Orleans, where she has many students of color. I, on the other hand, teach in a school that is not as diverse. But even in suburban, predominantly white schools, it is important to include diverse images, because it helps students appreciate, learn about, and accept different ways of living and thinking. If you think about it, with the majority of books, movies, and TV shows featuring predominantly white characters, do white kids need yet another representation of themselves? Furthermore, if I predominantly feature images of white people, I am perpetuating the erroneous belief that white people are the only people worth talking about and celebrating. That’s not something I want to do.

The second topic I heard a lot about was intercultural competency. Historically, cultural topics in second language classes have almost always been taught in isolation, and almost always in the students’ native language. When I taught with a textbook, the first two pages usually presented a cultural theme, but the true mission of the chapter was to present grammar topics and thematic vocabulary lists. To be honest, I usually had so much to cover in the chapter that I skipped the culture section completely. And when I did teach culture, I taught bits and pieces using the 4-F Approach (only talking about folk dances, festivals, fairs, and food) or the Tour Guide Approach (talking about geography and important monuments). The conversations we had in class about culture were superficial, and assessments on culture often asked students to remember isolated facts (I call this “Cultural Trivial Pursuit”).

At the ACTFL conference, the message I heard repeatedly was that second language teachers need to weave the studies of both language and culture, thus developing intercultural competency. The end goal is that students will be able to “expand one’s own world view; to develop an insider’s perspective toward the target culture’s beliefs, traditions and ways of behaving; to develop a sensitivity toward alternative perspectives and cultural differences and mediate those divides through language; and finally, to expand one’s own identity as a global citizen (Bott Van Houten and Shelton, p. 35).”

Being a visual learner, I appreciate the following graphic organizer, which encapsulates what we all should try to develop in our language classes.

The small italicized “i” in the center of this graphic stands for intercultural competency. The message here is that incorporating cultural appreciation and understanding should be the goal of everything we do in our classrooms.

The topic of intercultural competency is not something in which I have much expertise. I have a few books on my nightstand to read and have a few professional development sessions to attend before I can say any more about this topic.

All in all, ACTFL did not disappoint. If you have the chance to attend one of their conferences in an upcoming year (2020 in San Antonio, TX and 2021 in San Diego, CA), I promise that it will be a very fulfilling, informative, and energizing weekend.

Early Takeaways From the 2019-2020 School Year

I’ve been back in school for almost a month now, and things are going pretty well so far. I made some changes to my teaching and classroom management approach this year that I talked about briefly in my last post. I already have some observations that I thought would be interesting and beneficial to share.

First of all, my use of a daily packet is going well. Most of my students are already used to the routine of coming to class and completing their Do Now assignment right away. it is really nice not to have to raise my voice to get students to sit down and get ready for class. I do have to work on how much time students get for a Do Now, as it is currently taking u at least ten minutes of class. I think I will be able to shorten the time once those few students who haven’t figured out the classroom routine yet finally remember that they have something to do at the beginning of class. Visit my last post for more information about a daily packet.

Second, I have implemented traditional Storyasking in my classroom, and my students are responding to it very positively. As I said in this post, I felt very uncomfortable with the process because I felt that I couldn’t control it and also that I was not prepared to work with students who misbehaved during the Storyasking process. Well, after my day with Blaine Ray, my confidence level soared, and I have successfully started to include Storyasking in my classroom again. You can read more about the day Blaine came to my class here.

Third, I implemented Tina Hargaden’s lesson structure this year, which helps me structure my lessons logically and appropriately. I incorporate a LOT of what she talked about at the workshop I attended last month, especially her Write and Discuss technique (You can read more about my takeaways from that workshop here and here and more about Write and Discuss here). Write and Discuss has been especially beneficial in my French classes, because it helps my students make connections between the spoken language and the (very different) written language.

Fourth, I have incorporated more student jobs into my class than ever before. My students are still starting to develop routines surrounding those jobs, but the overall feedback I have received so far has been very positive. If you want more information about student jobs, you can read this post or visit Bryce Hedstrom’s blog.

And finally, I have adjusted the seating in my classroom so the classroom is easier to manage and more efficient. I have chairs and tables in my classroom, which I have arranged in the shape of a giant U. This leaves me with a large, vacant space in the middle of class, which is useful for many reasons. First of all, it creates lots of open space for me to wander through as I spot-check student work on their daily packet. Second, it is a great spot for student actors to use during Storyasking. And finally, it is large enough that I can have students take their chairs and form a deskless circle for various activities.

As I’m sure you can probably tell, I am pretty happy with what has been happening in my classroom so far. Of course, it’s still early in the year, so who knows what will happen as the year unfolds? I will certainly keep you posted. I hope you’re having a great start to your school year too!

New Classroom Tools and Supplies

Hi all! I am enjoying my last weekend of summer vacation before the madness of returning to school begins once again. I’ve been getting things organized at home this summer and I’m excited to tell you about some of the new stuff I have for my classroom this year.

The first thing I’m excited about is a template for a weekly packet. One of the most valuable things I’ve done this year is watch the presentations Jon Cowart gave about classroom management and engagement for Comprehensible Online. I had some difficulties controlling both behavior and engagement last year and I found Jon’s advice to be quite valuable.

One of the biggest issues I had was that many students treated my class like it wasn’t a legitimate subject. Let’s face it – providing comprehensible input (CI) often means that kids are supposed to just sit there, answer questions, and absorb language. My more mature students were able to handle this, but my immature ones could not. They have been inadvertently trained over the years to think that if a teacher isn’t making them write stuff down, study for a high-stake test, take notes, memorize lots of facts, and do worksheets, then they don’t have to pay attention and participate. Undesirable behaviors start to manifest themselves. Moreover, if students are not engaged, they are not interacting with the input and making any language proficiency gains. Enter the idea of a weekly packet.

Every week, Jon gives his students a worksheet that they must fill out daily in class. Part of it is a “Do Now,” which students have to complete as soon as they arrive. The worksheet also has things that students have to do at other times during class, culminating in an quick quiz or Exit Ticket that students have to answer before they can leave class. The worksheet keeps students accountable for things happening in class and, with any luck, will improve class behaviors and engagement once they realize that they’re going to get some kind of assessment at the end of every class and a grade based on how well they fill out their daily worksheets. To read more about Jon’s weekly packet, visit this post.

Some teachers may be reluctant to implement a weekly packet because they think it might add a lot of extra grading to their workload. I plan to limit my time spent correcting by doing so at random. While I will walk around the class while students are completing their Do Now, I don’t feel the need to check everyone’s worksheet every day. I’ll just pull a few out at random and make sure to correct every student’s paper at least once every five days or so.

This leads me to the second thing I’m super excited about having for class this year, which is a personalized stamp for classroom use. Etsy has some really nice products, which is where I’m able to find personalized items to use in my classroom. A few years ago I bought a stamp that I can use for books I’ve purchased with personal funds in my classroom library similar to this one. Then this year I bought a stamp similar to this one with my name on it that says “Bien” to mark those papers I am grading just on completion (By the way, I do NOT get compensated if you should order something after clicking on one of the Etsy links in this post).

Along with Jon’s weekly packet, I have a Daily Behavior Log that I will also use for classroom management purposes. This is a binder I will keep in the class. If a student doesn’t follow one of my rules, they will have to fill out a line on a form in my Daily Behavior Log so I have a record of their behavior and subsequent consequence based on their transgression. The idea for the Daily Behavior Log is something I learned from Craig Sheehy. You can read more about his take on managing a classroom here.

Another thing I decided to purchase this summer was personalized pencils. I teach at a middle school, and many students come to class without a writing utensil. I do have extra pencils that I keep for those who come without materials, but I don’t always get them back. One trick I used in the past to get them back was asking students to give me a shoe as collateral in exchange for a pencil, but middle school student feet can be pretty smelly (I’m sorry to say that I know that from experience), which can be quite the distraction. Moreover, it can become a safety issue if students need to exit the building quickly and they don’t have both shoes on. In addition,,middle school kids don’t usually have other things that high school kids might have like car keys or a cell phone that can serve as collateral, so I purchased personalized pencils similar to these from yes, you guessed it, Etsy. With any luck, most students will remember to return these because they have my name on it.

I also ordered some custom-made posters for my classroom. At a conference this summer, Scott Benedict recommended using a company called Short Run Posters that prints decent-quality posters pretty cheaply. I used their services to order posters of my classroom rules, classroom expectations, and consequences for undesirable behavior. I designed my posters on Microsoft Publisher, uploaded a PDF to the printing company, and had my posters about two weeks later. It was super easy. I had five posters made for under $30, which I thought was very reasonable.

And even though I tell myself every time I go to Target that I am not going to purchase more materials for my classroom, I almost always succumb to the temptation. I inevitably find something that will either brighten my classroom, make my teaching more efficient, or aid in classroom storage and setup. Nothing I’ve bought there has cost more that $5, which is good for my budget. This summer I’ve found name tags in Spanish, storage bins for notebooks and folders, and cardboard display shelving to display books.

Before I end this post, I do want to talk about using personal funds for professional use. I know that some teachers make a point not to purchase anything for their class with personal funds for philosophical reasons. I totally respect and understand their viewpoints. I expect my school district to supply the basic necessities I need to make my classroom function, such as paper, writing utensils, technology, novels, accompanying teacher resources, and texts needed for district-sponsored professional development. I’m sure many of you have seen news stories and angry posts on social media about teachers who have to use their own money to purchase materials to keep their classroom afloat. I get so angry when I read about that, because no teacher should have to use their own money so they have paper. Luckily, many of these teachers are starting to mobilize to demand change.

In contrast, the things I’ve purchased this summer are extras that are fun to have but, in all honesty, I could do without them if I needed to. In addition, sometimes it is just easier for me to fork over $3 at Target or $20 on Etsy than go through the whole purchase order process. Metaphorically speaking, my school provides the meal, but I am willing and able to provide the spices that make that meal tastier. But I also know that I am lucky to work in a district that is able to take care of my major classroom supply needs. If that’s not your situation, maybe you can put items like this on your Christmas or birthday list. Also, you can at least think about the weekly packet and behavior log ideas, which don’t cost anything.

Please reach out if you would like any more information about anything I’ve written about here, and have a great start to the school year.

Adapting Tina’s Lesson Plan Framework

In my last post, I talked about Tina Hargaden’s lesson plan framework for a traditional 50-55 minute class. In this post, I’ll discuss how to adapt this framework for shorter or longer classes.

Tina’s traditional lesson plan framework is set up below. See my last post for in-depth explanation of these components.

  1. Norming the class (2-3 minutes)
  2. Reading Workshop (5-10 minutes)
  3. Guided Oral Input (14 minutes)
  4. Scaffolded Oral Review (6 minutes)
  5. Shared Writing (12 minutes)
  6. Shared Reading (6 minutes)
  7. Student Application and Assessment (3-5 minutes)

Teachers with shorter classes can adapt this framework by breaking it up over two days. Here’s Tina’s suggestion:

Day 1
1. Norming the class
2. Reading Workshop
3. Guided Oral Input
4. Scaffolded Oral Review (Very quickly)
5. Shared Writing
6. Student Application and Assessment (Very quickly)

Day 2
1. Norming the class
2. Reading Workshop
3. Scaffolded Oral Review (In depth)
4. Shared Reading (Of Shared Writing from Day 1)
5. Student Application and Assessment (in depth)

Teachers on a block schedule should follow the same framework as the original, 50-55 minute class but extend and/or repeat a few of the activities so they last a little longer and schedule some breaks in between (See this post for ideas about Brain Breaks). For example, Guided Oral Input in a 50-55 minute class might have a main idea and three details, but have a main idea and five details in a block class. So perhaps it might look something like this:

  1. Norming the class (2-3 minutes)
  2. Reading Workshop (5-10 minutes)
  3. Guided Oral Input, Part 1 (14 minutes)
  4. Scaffolded Oral Review (6 minutes)
  5. Guided Oral Input, Part 2 (14 minutes)
  6. Scaffolded Oral Review, Part 2 (6 minutes)
  7. Shared Writing (12 minutes)
  8. Shared Reading (6 minutes)
  9. Student Application and Assessment (3 to 5 minutes)

No matter what the length of class, Tina’s lesson framework is flexible enough to adapt to practically every class. I’m looking forward to implementing it in my own classes next week!

Two Days With Tina

This past Monday and Tuesday I went to a two-day workshop with Tina Hargaden. Tina runs the group CI Liftoff and has taken the upcoming year off from teaching to travel around the US training teachers. I have been Facebook friends with Tina for a few years now and was excited that I finally got the chance to see her in action.

Tina is a French and Spanish teacher who uses a proficiency-based, comprehensible input (CI) approach in her classes. What sets her apart from other French and Spanish teacher trainers, however, is that she also has a background in teaching social studies, English to students of other languages (ESOL) and English language arts (ELA). This offers an interesting perspective on teaching a second language because she has incorporated the use of strategies from those fields in her second language classroom.

For me, the most valuable takeaway from the workshop was Tina’s lesson plan framework. I love the consistency and flexibility it provides. I anticipate that I will not have to agonize as much over my lesson planning once I adopt and adapt this lesson plan to my classroom needs.

Here is the framework Tina uses on a daily basis when planning a lesson.

1. Norming the class. During the first two or three minutes of the class, Tina tells students what the day’s objectives are (Example: “Okay class, today I’m going to tell you a story about something that happened to me when I was young. After we read and write about it, I will ask you some questions about it to make sure you understood it.”).

2. Reading workshop. With her background in ELA, it probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that Tina stresses literacy in her classes. In addition, if you’ve been reading this blog, you have already learned that reading is the most powerful way for students to acquire language, in both their first language (L1) and second language (L2). This five to ten minute segment is one of the first of two reading activities that students do in class on a daily basis. This block of time is when students do Free Voluntary Reading, where they can read practically anything in the L2. Other activities that Tina may do during this time include Book Talks, during which she may describe and recommend a book in her class library in the L2, whole-class reading (if she finds a short passage that she wants to share with them) or Volleyball Reading.

3. Guided Oral Input. This part of Tina’s lesson is the longest (14 minutes or so) because students need to receive comprehensible input (CI) in order to acquire language. Here is where she uses one of many strategies such as Storylistening, Storyasking, Movie Talk, Picture Talk, One Word Images, or Special Person Interviews to provide input to the class.

One strategy that was new to me that Tina modeled at her workshop is called a Narrative Input Chart, which she first heard about at a Project Glad training. In an ESOL class, it is a story-based activity used to teach academic language and concepts. For example, if the class is studying about the solar system, the academic content and vocabulary is embedded in a story about an extra-terrestrial traveling through the solar system looking for a new home. Below is an example of how a narrative input chart might be incorporated into an ESOL class.

Tina has modified this strategy for use in the second language classroom and has used it to complement L2 storytelling. My fabulous workshop partner Rachel (this is a different Rachel, not the one who introduced me to the Carlos Game)and I have plans to use this technique for history and cultural lessons in our classes.

4. Scaffolded Oral Review. This part of the lesson is about six minutes long, during which the teacher reviews whatever was done in the Guided Oral Input part of class. This can be pretty much any oral review activity, ranging from a quick question-and-answer session to a review game.

One strategy that was new to me is called Reading the Walls. The teacher reviews any visual created during the Guided Oral Input segment of class (Tina recommends doing this in a question-answer format for heightened engagement) and affixes large Post-Its with key terms on the visual as the class reviews, thus reinforcing those key terms.

5. Shared Writing. Together, the teacher and class write about what was discussed and reviewed during the Guided Oral Input and Scaffolded Oral Review segments of class. This activity should take about ten minutes or so. If you search for this technique online, you may find it referred to as “Write and Discuss.” When I do this in my class, I will often start a sentence in the L2 and ask students to finish it. If students are unable to finish it, I then may give them a choice to help them. Here are two examples of this in English.

Me: Today is…(I write the first two words and wait for students to call out a response)

Student(s): Tuesday.

Me: Today is Tuesday (I finish writing the sentence).


Me: Today is…(I write the first two words, wait for students to call out a response, but nobody finishes the sentence)

Me: Is today Monday or Tuesday?

Student(s): Tuesday.

Me: Today is Tuesday (I finish writing the sentence).

If you want to learn more about Write and Discuss, John Piazza does an excellent job explaining how to do this activity in this post.

6. Shared Reading. Once the writing is complete, the teacher reads the text out loud as the class translates. This takes about eight minutes. When she demonstrated this in class, Tina circled and translated any new words (she is not afraid to add some new words in the shared writing). In addition, she also took time during this segment of class it to discuss grammar as needed in pop-up grammar style. Tina often will often encourage students to share ideas about the language by asking “What can you teach the class?” This gives students a chance to examine the text and comment on language features.

7. Student application and assessment. This is the last segment of the class where Tina wraps everything up with some sort of formal or informal assessment. Depending on how she decides to assess, this may take about five to ten minutes.

This lesson plan is designed for a traditional 50-55 minute class. In my next post, I will describe how to modify this for a shorter or a longer class.

When You Absolutely Have to Teach Grammar

I recently met a Spanish teacher who is new to the area. He teaches at a private middle school and has been attending some interesting professional development this year, including Organic World Language (OWL) training and a proficiency institute organized by a local language association. His comment to me was that, although he has enjoyed learning new ideas at these workshops, he is unable to implement a lot of the new ideas he learns into his classes because the teachers at the high school that his students go on to attend expect that they will have a solid grammar foundation when they reach the second year of the language.

Sigh. I hear this over and over again. So many teachers who want to incorporate more proficiency-based and comprehensible input (CI) approaches in their classroom feel that they are unable to because of the demands placed on them to teach grammar. Of course, these teachers don’t want put their job in jeopardy, so many of them bow down to pressure and teach grammar explicitly, even though it doesn’t result in language acquisition (For further explanation of this, pick up a copy of Bill VanPatten’s book While We’re on The Topic). I am not in a situation like this but I am also not passing judgement, because as I said previously in this post, we all have to do what we need to do to keep our jobs.

That being said, with a little planning and creativity, you can find ways to teach the necessary grammar but still remain primarily CI or proficiency based. Below are a few ways you can do that.

Solution Number 1: Do CI and proficiency-based activities exclusively until the last few weeks of school, then switch and do explicit grammar for the remainder of the year. This is what Alina Filipescu does in her classroom. Read this post to find out more about how she makes sure students get to the next level with plenty of knowledge about verb conjugations in Spanish.

Solution Number 2: Have designated “Language Study Days.” This is something I first heard about from Tina Hargarden. She did a language study day every few weeks to fulfill district requirements (A colleague of mine who teaches Spanish also has days set aside for language study. She jokingly said that she calls them “Dinosaur Days” and wants to wear a Tyrannosaurus Rex costume in class for those lessons).

Solution Number 3: Alternate between CI or proficiency-based lesson weekly, biweekly, or monthly. This is similar to what Alina Filipescu does but breaks up the grammar study throughout the year. I tried this on and off for a few years but found that I preferred waiting until the end of the year to do all the grammar, kind of like what Alina does.

Solution Number 4: Assign students grammar study for homework. If you read this post and this post, you will see that I have written before about flipped classrooms, where teachers obligate students to learn a new concept for homework that the teacher then reviews the following day in class. If you check YouTube, you will find a lot of videos that explain different grammar topics in a second language, especially in Spanish. This year, I found videos on YouTube about different grammar topics and gave students worksheets to fill out while watching them. I kept all the worksheets together in a folder for each student for personal reference and then I shipped a copy up to the high school teacher so she could see the topics they had reviewed.

The bottom line is, you can have the best of both worlds, where you provide your students with plenty of comprehensible input and activities designed to further language proficiency but still squeeze in those necessary grammar topics. If you haven’t already, I hope you will consider giving it a try.

My Takeaways This Year

I have already started reflecting on what has worked for me this year and what I have learned about myself as a teacher and about second language (L2) students in general. These thoughts are in no particular order, and many of them echo things that I have already written about on this blog. Below are things that I have been thinking about recently.

1. Before teachers can begin to teach meaningfully, they must make sure to train their students to meet their expectations. As I have already talked about in this previous post, the main priority of all teachers should be to establish class norms, make expectations clear, and enforce discipline consistently. With high school students, this should typically take two or three weeks. As a rule of thumb, the younger the student, the longer it will take to train them. There are always exceptions to this rule, however, since every class is different. In addition, it is also good practice to retrain students after long weekends and vacation weeks.

2. While forced output is never acceptable, it is fine for a teacher to cold call students if the teacher is pretty sure that they know the answer. One of the biggest components of teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is understanding that obligating students to speak will not further proficiency. This is called forced output, and it is common in traditional, textbook-driven classes. As Dr. Stephen Krashen stated in his book Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, making students produce language when they are not ready to do so will raise the Affective Filter and hinder language acquisition.

While I strongly support this hypothesis, I started to notice that, in classes where I wasn’t randomly choosing students to answer questions, some of my students were beginning to disengage and lose focus. It is perfectly understandable. Students in a class who know that they may be cold called (that is, called on to answer a question for which s/he did not volunteer to answer) have to stay attentive in class because they know that they may have to answer a question involuntarily at any moment. But some students will become disengaged if they know that the teacher is not going to obligate them to participate.

3. Teachers can use authentic resources creatively at any level. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) supports using authentic resources in the world language classroom, but many teachers struggle with making those resources comprehensible for Novice students. It takes practice, but with appropriate scaffolding or an attainable underlying purpose for use of that resource, teachers can successfully use authentic resources with all students.

For example, students in a Novice level class can study a song in the target language (TL), but the desired end result may not be that they understand every word of the song. Maybe the goal is for them to understand just one line. Or maybe the song is secondary because it has a great video that the teacher can use as a Movie Talk. In addition, authentic resources like works of art, wordless books, or photographs (that is to say, resources without language) can also be used in Novice classes. Why hadn’t I thought about that before?

4. While teaching culture is an important component of second language teaching, it can be taught in the target language (TL) at all levels. Many teachers talk about culture in the students’ native language because they say that students don’t possess the appropriate language skills to discuss cultural topics in the TL. But if you look at ACTFL’s Intercultural Competency expectations, you will find that, even at the Intermediate level, students are not expected to have in-depth, detailed knowledge of cultural products or practices. Novices are only expected to identify products and practices, which means that while they might be expected to know that September 16th is Mexican Independence Day and that it is a national holiday, they should not be expected to know much more than that. At the Intermediate level, students would be expected to know enough facts about Mexican Independence Day that they would be able to compare it with Independence Day in their home country. It’s only at the advanced level that students are expected to be able to speak at length and with great detail about cultural products or practices. So since expectations are so low (and, in my opinion, completely realistic for the students’ ability level), it is completely possible for students to learn about a certain cultural product or practice in the TL.

5. Technology is a nice tool to use in a second language classroom, but it is not essential. This year I incorporated a lot of technology into my classroom instruction, such as Quizlet, Kahoot, Gimkit, Charlala, Wheel Decide, and Plickers. What I learned was that, although my students enjoyed the novelty associated with using them, they didn’t really add anything to my classroom instruction that I felt I couldn’t live without. If I ever have an administrator that wants to see me use technology during an observation, I will make sure to use one of the tools listed above. I’ll also use one of these tech tools on a day when half the class is on a field trip or right before a vacation. But on a regular basis, I will not use a technology just for the sake of using technology.

6. When it comes to curriculum, less is more. Lance Piantaggini has a curriculum document on his website that I found very beneficial. Basically, he structures his curriculum around two essential questions (“Who am I?” and “Who are the speakers of the TL?”) and a list of high-frequency verbs called the Super Seven (and, once students have mastered those, the Sweet Sixteen. That’s it.

It probably doesn’t sound like much, but when you brainstorm all the possible answers to those two questions, you will find that almost anything you want to or are obligated to teach is an appropriate response to those two essential questions. And while teaching only seven (or sixteen) verbs doesn’t sound like a lot, it is a lot more when you factor in all the different tenses (When teaching in a comprehensible input classroom, teachers are encouraged to use any and all tenses necessary to make their messages meaning and comprehensible). And as you continue to use those high-frequency verbs, you will just naturally include other vocabulary that one would naturally use with those verbs (articles, adjectives, prepositions, common nouns, and so on).

As you embark on your summer break, I encourage you to reflect on what you have learned this year. How will what you have learned about yourself this year guide and improve your practice next year? Let me know.

My Day With Blaine Ray

Last July I attended the NTPRS conference in Boston. This is a national language conference devoted to training second language teachers in Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and other comprehensible input (CI) teaching approaches (This conference was organized by TPRS Books, but you can also find information about additional conferences being held all over the country during the summer by other second language companies like Fluency Matters, CI Liftoff, and Express Fluency). This is an annual conference, but this was my first time attending.

At the conference, I won a day of free teaching and coaching with Blaine Ray. Yes, THE Blaine Ray. He arrived earlier this month and spent the day with my French and Spanish students and I. He taught my classes and also coached me after watching me teach.

Before he arrived, I told him that I wanted to work on my Storyasking skills (I have talked about my dislike for Storyasking in this post). I felt very uncomfortable in my abilities to make Storyasking work in my second language classes, so I had been spending my time using every other CI activity I’ve ever learned, like Movie Talks, class novel reading, Free Voluntary Reading, and Special Person Interviews. These activities have worked very well for me in my CI-driven classroom. However, I felt that Storyasking was so powerful that I just had to try to learn how to do it more effectively and incorporate it into my classes.

The day began with Blaine teaching Spanish to my fifth grade students. My fifth graders are nice, eager to please, and easy to control, so the lesson went very smoothly. After a while, he had me step in and ask a story, and when the class was over, he praised me and told me that I already had strong Storyasking skills, and that maybe I was hesitant to ask a story in class because I lacked confidence in my abilities.

A little later, my seventh grade students came in. This year, my seventh grade students have given me a very hard time. Classroom management has been a constant struggle for me this year, and as Blaine began his lesson, they began giving him a bit of trouble too (You can be sure that I gave them a VERY stern lecture about their behavior the next day!). But Blaine had a response for each infraction, and he shut them up and shut them down both quickly and politely and continued his lesson.

As I observed Blaine, I began to realize that the reason I struggled with Storyasking was because I didn’t know how to respond to misbehavior during the process. After all, whenever I had previously seen a Storyasking demonstration, it was at a workshop where the presenter had no behavior problems, since the “students” were all teachers interested in learning how to ask a story. I needed to observe Storyasking with problematic students to get that missing piece. And as embarrassed as I was that my seventh graders misbehaved when Blaine visited, at least I was able to see firsthand how to deal with some pretty common behavior infractions during Storyasking. Below are some of the issues Blaine had with my students and how he dealt with them.

Problem Number One: Students intentionally giving a wrong answer. Blaine had established that the main character was a girl, but students were intentionally answering “No”afterwards when Blaine asked if the main character was a girl. Blaine’s response was to stop and tell the students, “You must not know what the rules are of asking a story. Once we establish something in the story, it is fact and cannot be changed. We have already established that she is a girl, so you need to say ‘Yes’ if I ask that question again.”

Problem Number Two: Students screaming answers when asked a whole-class question. When this happened in my class, Blaine said to the two culprits, “I’m glad you know the answer, but part of my job is to make sure that all students know the answer. I can’t hear the rest of the class over you two because you’re too loud. Please answer in a normal speaking voice.”

Problem Number Three: Side conversations. Blaine used a party points system. A timer was set for eight minutes, and if the class had no side conversations in that eight minutes, the class earned a point and the timer was set again for eight minutes. After a certain number of points, the class got a prize. If students had a side conversation during that eight-minute block, the timer was reset (For the purpose of Blaine’s visit, the prize was a piece of candy).

Problem Number Four: Students not responding to a whole-class question. Blaine told the class, “I need to know that you are understanding the story. If you don’t answer along with the class, I will ask you the question individually.” This was enough to motivate my super-shy students to answer the questions with the rest of the class.

Problem Number Five: Misbehaving Student Actors. Blaine had one student actor that was being uncooperative, so Blaine said, “I need you to do only what I tell you to do. If you can’t do that, I will fire you.” The student in question subsequently asked to be fired immediately, because he didn’t think he could obey the rules.

Blaine came to my school the week before school ended for the summer, so I did not have the opportunity to test out my new classroom management skills with students. But now that I am on summer break, I have continued to reflect on the experience as I prepare for the next school year. I have also found more resources related to classroom management in a CI class (This guest post by Jon Cowart talks about urban classrooms, but the behavior management techniques he describes could work in any classroom). One of the things I have recently discovered that I especially like is Connie Navarro’s Response to Blurting Out resource sheet. This one-page document lists root causes and action steps in response to students blurting out in class. I plan to post it in my classroom as a reference for those inevitable moments when I have to respond to undesirable behavior.

I will be attending this year’s NTPRS conference. I am pretty sure that presentations about classroom management will be offered again, which I plan to attend. With any luck, I should have a solid enough foundation in classroom management to start off the year successfully. Wish me luck! I have those pesky seventh graders again this year. I hope they have matured over the summer!

Let the Wheel Decide

Yesterday I received my latest newsletter from Joshua Cabral, a World Language teacher in Massachusetts who operates the website World Language Classroom. In it, he talked about a website called Wheel Decide that lets you create free wheels of chance like the one you might see on the game show Wheel of Fortune or at a roulette table in a casino. For example, if you don’t know what to have for dinner, you may spin a wheel like the one below to choose what to eat that night.

I have nothing but respect for Joshua, who is a member of many professional language organizations and an engaging speaker and presenter. But, he is much more interested in getting students to speak in class than I am, so it came as no surprise to me that he suggested using Wheel Decide for student output activities. As a comprehensible input (CI) teacher, I am more concerned with input than with output, but the idea of using this wheel intrigued me as a way to inject some novelty into my classroom instruction. I have started implementing it in class in a few ways that you may find useful in your own classes.

In my classroom, I start off by talking about the day, date, and weather. Recently a French teacher colleague said on Twitter that she includes a discussion about the weather in a French-speaking country as part of her opening routine. I thought this could be a great way to talk about French-speaking countries and geography, and I decided to use this wheel to take this activity one step further in my French class this morning.

I created a wheel with the names of the capital of different French countries and overseas départements. Here’s what it looks like:

I started class today as I do normally by discussing the day, date and weather. Then I let a student come up to spin the wheel to choose which French-speaking region we would talk about. Today the wheel landed on Basse Terre, the capital of Guadeloupe. This city was unfamiliar to my students, so I showed them where it was on Google Maps (My students especially like using the Google Maps feature where you can drop the human figure found on the right into an area and get the street view). So as we talk about the day, date, and weather, we also can learn a bit about the French-speaking world without having to do a straight-up geography lesson.

I also like to do games on Fridays in my class, so I came up with a Wheel Decide to choose which (low/no prep) game to play that day (By the way, I get most of my game ideas from Keith Toda’s fantastic blog. Click on links under “Post Reading. Amy Marshall also has a ton of games on her blog, DMS Spanish. Look for “No/Low Output Games.”). Here’s what my wheel looks like:

Lastly, if you read my blog, you may remember that I don’t really like the unpredictability of Storyasking, since so often things can get out of control by students either shouting out inappropriate answers or not participating at all. Sometimes in class I use dry erase cubes when I ask a story, where I have students write possible ideas on the cubes which we roll to determine our answer. I am also planning on using Wheel Decide to help choose possible suggestions in class as well. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Using YouTube Videos in French and Spanish Class

A few years ago, I stumbled upon two great YouTube sites where native speakers tell stories intended for people wishing to learn Spanish or French. In Spanish class, my students and I watch videos on
Pablo Pankún Roman’s YouTube channel, which is called Dreaming Spanish. Students in my French class watch videos on the YouTube channel operated by Alice Ayel.

These channels are great because I can use them as a way for my students to receive input. I am not a native speaker of either French or Spanish, so listening to these videos is a great way for students to listen to native speakers (and in my Spanish classes, heritage learners get to hear a variation of Spanish that they don’t hear at home because Pablo is from Spain). I can slow down the video and add subtitles for my Novice Low learners, so they can be made comprehensible for students at all levels.

Alice organizes her videos by subject and by season (just like a TV series, she has Season 1, 2, and so on). Pablo, on the other hand, organizes his by language proficiency level. I must confess that I like having them sorted by level because it makes it easy for me to pick videos that will be comprehensible for my students based on their ability. If I’m in a hurry, I don’t need to preview his videos to see if it’s at an appropriate level for my students the way I have to for Alice’s videos.

In addition, both Alice and Pablo help learners acquire cultural knowledge of the French-speaking and Spanish-speaking worlds because they record videos about cultural products or practices. Holiday traditions are a popular topic on both channels. Alice will often record stories based on fables written by French author Jean de la Fontaine, and Pablo talks about Spanish history and important figures of Spanish and Latin American history on his.

At my school, all teachers are required to keep emergency lesson plans on file. Once I discovered these two YouTube channels, my plans became simple. In the event that I am absent unexpectedly, my students watch videos and write summaries on the videos they watch in English. I am careful to state in my plans that videos need to be a certain length. I also ask the substitute to monitor computer use to make sure that students don’t turn on English subtitles, which I am unable to control.

During class, watching a video and completing a task based on the video is a great warm-up activity. I have found that they have a calming effect, so I often will show a video when a class meets right after lunch or last period of the day. As they watch and write, my students begin to calm down and regain some of the focus they need to make it through the rest of the class without getting in trouble.

I use two different tasks when I show videos in class. Sometimes I have students write a summary in English, just like they do when I am absent unexpectedly. Then I grade the summary using a rubric based on the accuracy of their summaries and how many details they provide. As you might expect, my expectations change based on the proficiency level of my students. In September of my first-year class, students are able to meet the standard by accurately describing the general gist of the story told in the video. As the year goes on, students are required to give details to meet the standard. Since every student is different, I can differentiate and require my fast processors to do more to meet the standard and lower my expectations for my slow processors.

In my novice-level classes, I may give a multiple-choice quiz based on the video. Although I do use the quiz to assess interpretive listening skills (I know that students are starting to understand at an intermediate proficiency level if they can correctly answer a question that isn’t supported by a visual), I use them as scaffolding to help make the video more comprehensible. For example, Alice tells a story in one video about a woman who eats too many chestnuts. She draws brown circles that every one of my students assume is chocolate. So one of the questions on my quiz asks students to say how many chestnuts the woman eats. By seeing the word “chestnuts,” students then are able to figure out that those brown circles aren’t chestnuts. Similarly, many stories talk about objects people want, which is very hard to express visually. Students that aren’t familiar with that verb in French or Spanish might assume that the person in the video has that object, so the question “What does Marie want?” on a quiz goes a long way to make the video comprehensible.

A final activity that I do with these videos is ask students to comment in either French or Spanish on the YouTube channel. Usually this is an extra-credit assignment. My students are so excited when Alice or Pablo reply to their YouTube comment. I guess in a way they are celebrities in our class, but if that helps students acquire language, that’s great!