Sometimes You Just Have to Play the Game

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I recently left a position teaching French and Spanish that I held for 14 years at a high school. At first I taught traditionally and was well-liked by other teachers in my department, but once I started learning about and teaching with comprehensible input (CI), I went from being a respected colleague to persona non grata pretty fast. My Department Head did not like my new teaching methods because she felt that I wasn’t adhering to the curriculum (otherwise known as “Covering what was in the textbook”), so I tried my best to blend the textbook material with CI to appease her.

At first I tried a hybrid approach. I would spend one week doing textbook stuff and another week doing CI. The problem was that my students did very well during our CI week but stopped making any progress during our textbook week. Additionally, my structure was so completely different depending on the week that some of my students had issues figuring out what was expected of them.

As time went on, I started becoming more confident in my own teaching skills and, as a result, began doing more and more CI and less and less textbook work. My students made more progress, but my Department Head was unhappy that I did not explicitly “cover” certain topics. As a result, I got really good at “Playing the Game,” that is, making sure to “cover” textbook topics without sacrificing much classroom time. Here are a few things that I recommend if you are in a similar situation.

1. Get to know Quizlet. Quizlet is an online program that I used quite often. This program allows you to create a study set that students can access and study by completing different types of activities or playing different types of games (See this link for more information if you are unfamiliar with this site).

When I was expected to teach certain vocabulary words, I would create a new study set on Quizlet (Most of the time I would look at the quiz ahead of time and create a study set with only the words on the quiz). On Monday I would quickly introduce the words. Then at the beginning of class on Tuesday through Thursday, reviewing the study set for five minutes or so was my bellringer assignment (It is important to give up class time for this so that you are not accused of assessing students on something that you did not “cover” in class). The homework assignment for Monday through Thursday night was to review the Quizlet set for and then quiz on them during Friday’s class. Our textbook had simple, multiple choice reading quizzes that I used for the Friday assessment (Most textbooks come with quizzes like these, otherwise it is pretty easy to create some yourself). It took at most 15 minutes for students to take one of these quizzes.

2. Ask students to take notes for homework.  Along with vocabulary, I was also expected to “cover” certain grammar topics. I was able to assign note taking for homework for most of the simpler topics from the textbook. Teacher’s Discovery sells a series of flipped lesson books in French and Spanish that I was able to purchase with department funds (although I don’t recommend spending your own money on them because it is super easy to create them yourself) that I could photocopy and give out. Here is what a sample page looks like, which students would have to complete for homework.

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Students would bring this completed page to class for homework credit. Sometimes I would give a quiz on the topic that students could take with their notes, although I was careful to ask very simple questions on the quiz where students would have to report what they learned but not apply it. For example, if I gave a quiz on the above worksheet I would ask students to produce conjugations of both verbs but would not give them questions where they would have to choose between the two verbs.

3. Assign students videos to watch on YouTube. YouTube has so many language instructional videos available that are easy to take advantage of, so sometimes instead of asking students to take notes on a topic using the textbook I would ask them to watch a video about that topic instead. Here is a video that I assigned when introducing Spanish students to the imperfect tense. Sometimes students would also have to take notes on the video they watched, which would serve as proof that they watched the video (By the way, the guy that made this video has since abandoned grammar instruction, and I have heard that he has even thought about taking down the grammar videos he has on YouTube because they don’t reflect his teaching style anymore). And, just liked I did with the flipped lessons I discussed previously, sometimes I would give a quiz on the topic that students could take using their notes.

4. Make a deal. Last year when I was the only person teaching Spanish 3 I went to my Department Head and asked, “What do I absolutely have to cover and what can I skip?” She and I came up with a list of topics that she said I absolutely had to cover, which I did using the methods I have already discussed above. I was then able to spend the rest of my class time doing CI activities. I was able to do this because I was the only person teaching Spanish 3. When I shared sections of Spanish 1 or French 2 with another teacher we needed to be “on the same page,” so I had to do much more textbook stuff then.

5. Have a grammar day every week, every two weeks, or monthly. Some teachers consistently take time out of class for language study days, ideally after many days of CI-driven classes with plenty of examples of the grammar constructions that the teacher plans to discuss on grammar days (A teacher I know has joked that she since she plans to follow this model in her middle school classes, she might dress up like a dinosaur while she does it because the practice of teaching grammar explicitly is so ancient).

5. Do an end-of-the-year cram session. This is not something that I ever tried but I do  know of a few CI teachers that have spent most of the year doing nothing but CI activities and then switch to straight textbook instruction for the last six weeks of the year. From what I have heard, students have few problems grasping the textbook instruction after spending so much time being exposed to CI. But I must confess that I was never brave enough to try this. If you have done this, please comment on your experience.

In closing, let me say that I absolutely HATED having to play the game, which is one of the reasons I traded in my last job for one where I can teach using 100% CI. Some of you might not be so lucky, and if you are in a position similar to the one in which I used to be, good luck playing the game. Let me know if I can offer any insight to help you out!

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Using an Online Calendar for Input

OMG, you guys, I am SO excited about this site I found online, www.tuerchen.com. This is a cool site that allows you to create your own FREE online calendar. Since I try to start my class with a little calendar talk, this site provides a very cool visual that you can use along with your conversation. And, since, as Carol Gaab says, “The brain craves novelty,” this constantly changing visual can help keep students interested.

How to Create a Custom Calendar

To being, visit tuerchen.com and click “Create Calendar.” The site then will ask you if you plan to use the calendar for private use, which is free (choose this option) or commercial use, for which there is a fee. You will end up on a page that looks something like this:

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The column at the left is where you customize your calendar. You can change the title, colors, the background image and the font. You can also customize how many days you want your calendar to have and add some special effects. Once you have made all your changes here, you can then add some fun stuff to the calendar itself.

Each numbered block on the calendar is actually a door. When you click on each block, you will get a box like this below.

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This pop-up box lets you put an image, video, or gif behind each door. Make sure once you have inserted media behind the doors that you click save. I do not recommend that you insert your media on a projected screen with your class watching because some of the media that pops up when you search is not school appropriate, even if you put in a perfectly innocent search term (I put in “Joyeux Anniversaire,” which is “Happy Birthday” in French and got a cartoon image of two bears mating in the snow. You REALLY have to be careful!).

Once you have finished inserting your media, it’s time to make your calendar go live. Click on “Save and Share” in the top right corner. Be advised that, once the calendar goes live, the doors are not in order. Maybe it is possible to put them in order, but I haven’t figured out how to and I don’t want to, because I can reinforce numbers this way.

Once your calendar goes live it looks something like this, with your media peeking out from behind each door, as in the image below.

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To open each door, just click on it and your media will appear. I project it on my Smart Board so my wiggly middle school students can come up to the front of the room and open a door with a touch of a finger, which I tell them to do in the target language, of course.

How I Use an Online Calendar in Class

I start every class with a bit of small talk about the date, weather, and important events that are coming up. The calendar is a great addition to this conversation. For example, if it is a really cold day (like today, with temperatures in the single digits), a picture of a snow-covered forest illustrates this very well. If it’s a holiday in the French or Spanish speaking word, media about that is a nice addition to a short culture talk about customs surrounding that celebration. Other things that go up on the calendar include students’ birthdays, my children’s birthdays, my wedding anniversary, a vacation week, a field trip day, a playoff game or any other special day worth mentioning. One thing you can’t do with this calendar is open up a door to a date that is in the future, so keep this in mind as you plan out your events.

The site lets you set up multiple calendars, so this year I set up a special December vacation countdown calendar. Each day on my December calendar had a word or expression behind its door that had to do with Christmas, Hanukkah, or winter. As a result, my students acquired some new vocabulary and could use some previously acquired words as well. Also, talking about getting presents is high interest, compelling input, so my students were very engaged.

I’m super excited about all the cool stuff I can do with this calendar! If you think of any other cool ideas on how to use it, let me know!