Beginning of the Year Reflections

I’ve been back to school for about three weeks now, teaching French and Spanish at the middle school level. Here are some of my reflections so far.

1. Concentrating on classroom management at first was definitely the right thing to do. As I mentioned in a previous post, I decided that getting control of student behavior and establishing routines at the beginning of the school year would be my main goal, which I have done by assigning class jobs and using a classroom management system that is a combination of what Annabelle Allen and Ben Slavic do in their classes.

Implementing class jobs has proven to be a great way to streamline activity in my classroom. My fifth grade class is very well trained, and most students do their job without needing to be prompted. My seventh and eighth grade classes still need reminders, but they are coming along. I have assigned a few jobs and will continue to appoint more helpers in class as the year goes on. As of right now, I have people who keep my water bottle full, people who pass things out, people who collect things, and question word keepers (these are the people who call out an English translation when I say a question word in French or Spanish). Soon I will add absent student helper, who will be responsible for compiling a report of class activity when a student is absent, class artists, and class note taker. As I have mentioned previously, having student jobs generates a feeling of community and keeps wiggly kids busy. If you are interested in adding student jobs to your class, I recommend you visit either Bryce Hedstrom’s blog or purchase Ben Slavic’s Big CI Book for more information and ideas.

I have been keeping a handle on classroom behavior in two ways. First of all, I am keeping score each class. I reward points to students for doing great things and give points to myself for rule infractions. At the end of class, I record who “won” by keeping a running tally. My classes know that they will get a reward like a party or game day when they have amassed a total of ten points. For my younger students, this has proven to be enough incentive to get the class to behave.

My seventh and eighth graders, however, are too cool for school and need more than just the possibility of a reward to get them to behave. So while I still have a party points system like I have with my younger students, I also hold them accountable for their behavior through the use of the Interpersonal Communication Skills rubric, which is available in Ben Slavic and Tina Hargarden’s book, A Natural Approach to the Year.

I periodically ask students to fill out a rubric in which they self-assess their class engagement. I review each student’s rubric and, if necessary, I adjust the score and explain why. I then notify the parent or guardian of any student who scores a C or lower on the rubric and offer suggestions about what the student can do to improve their grade next time. I plan to have students fill out this rubric four times during the semester and will be entered in my grade book as a summative assessment. And while we’re speaking of grades…

2. After a bit of a struggle, I have finally established a grading system. Lance Piantaggini presented about his grading system at the National TPRS conference this summer. You can read about his system here. Students in Lance’s class are graded solely on their classroom engagement, which they self-assess. In my classes, the students’ quarter grade is based on 60% student engagement, which is based on scores on the Interpersonal Communication Skills rubric, and 40% traditional measures like classwork, homework, timed writings, and quick quizzes.

3. I have established an easy and flexible first-year curriculum. This summer, I read an online post that Mike Peto wrote about curriculum and explored some of the curriculum documents that Lance Piantaggini has on his website. These two resources helped me set up a framework for the curriculum in my own class.

Both Mike and Lance talk about building a curriculum based on high-frequency verbs, and I have followed their lead by doing the same in my classes. In my first-year French class, I am starting off the year by focusing on est (is), (has), va (goes), and aime (likes). While at first I will concentrate on third person singular forms, over time I will start to include other conjugations. All the activities I do are designed to reinforce those four verbs, which naturally lend themselves to include common, thematic vocabulary for a first-year classroom such as words to describe family, food, school, descriptive adjectives, and common leisure activities when used in conversation. As the year progresses, I will then add other high-frequency verbs like veut (wants), peut (can) and doit (must). These verbs are also very practical for culture study as well and will be used to talk about topics such as the French-speaking world and school in France.

4. I have established some professional development goals for myself. I truly believe that we as language educators need to continue to develop our skills and grow as teachers in order to be effective in our classrooms. So here are some goals I have set for myself this year.

This year I plan to:

  • continue to read about teaching with comprehensible input (CI) and new CI teaching approaches,
  • start regularly doing Storyasking in class again,
  • attempt to do a lesson based on a One Word Image (OWI),
  • record myself teaching so I can review it and improve my instruction and so I can share it with others.

I hope you are all having a good start to your school year. What goals do you have this year?

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Starting Off the Year with Comprehensible Input

It’s August, so many teachers who would like to begin teaching with a comprehensible input (CI) approach have started posting in CI Facebook groups asking about how they should start off the year. That’s a pretty daunting question, because many of them (like me back in the day) are used to having a textbook. As textbook teachers, most of us used to start the year by doing what was on page 1 of our textbook and then just taught whatever came next in the book as the year progressed. But once teachers start teaching with CI, we abandon the textbook, which may leave many of us floundering over what to plan for our classes. So for what it’s worth, I’m going to tell you in this post how I plan to start off my year in my middle school Spanish French, and ESL classes. If you teach another language or another level, don’t stop reading just yet, because nothing I do is language or level specific. I did the same thing when I taught high school, and I have seen other teachers use similar approaches in Mandarin, Russian, and German classes.

At the beginning of the year, the first thing all teachers should do in any discipline is set expectations. I have spent the summer reading a lot of books about education. Every one of them, from Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School, which applies to all levels and all disciplines, to Ben Slavic and Tina Hargarden’s CI language instruction specific A Natural Approach to the Year, agrees that the teacher’s most important job at the beginning of the school year is to establish behavior guidelines and class routines. In other words, you need to train your kids to act in such a way that it creates an atmosphere where you can easily provide them with the input they need to acquire language.

While I do have actual content that I would like to teach in class at the beginning of the year, completing the lessons I have planned is secondary to getting my students to meet these two goals. Without effective control of the classroom, your troublemakers will begin to take over. They will not acquire language because they will be too busy causing disruptions in the class, and the rest of your class will not acquire as much language as they should because they will have heightened negative emotions like frustration and anxiety caused by the classroom disruptions.

If you are interested in reading more about classroom management, read this post, where I summarize three classroom management systems that other CI teachers have spoken and written about and this post, where I talk about other facets of classroom management. You may also want to read this post by Cécile Lainé, who had some classroom management issues with one of her French classes last year and talks about how she adressed them. And finally, you might want to read this post by Bryce Hedstrom, a retired Spanish teacher, who writes about how negative behaviors impede language acquisition and what behaviors he absolutely never allowed in his classrooms.

Helping students adapt to class routine goes hand and hand with managing student behavior. Each classroom is different and has its  own set of routines, but mine involve how students should enter the classroom (with a password, which I describe below), what students should do when they enter the classroom (some of my students have jobs that they must do when they get to class, such as returning corrected papers or writing our class agenda on the board), and what activities they should expect that we will begin class with. I try to have a different activity every day, and over time students can come to expect that we will start class with a certain type of activity for each specific day. For example, on Mondays, I start class with Free Voluntary Reading (Called Leamos los Lunes in Spanish class and Le Lundi On Lit in French class) and on Friday I show a short video (Video Viernes or Vidéo Vendredi). Magister P. takes routines one step further with this two-week routine.

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Other teachers prefer to start class with the same activity every day.  Here is a post by Chris Stolz about what his daily, opening activity is in his Spanish classes. I don’t think having the same or different daily routines is really all that important. All that is important is that the routine is in place. It is comforting to some students to know what to expect when class begins, and if students know what is expected, teachers will be able to spend less time directing students to get to work.

Besides getting classroom management and routines under control, the other goal of the beginning of the year is to begin to establish community. Whatever activities I do in class have the same purpose, which is to help me get to know my students, help them get to know me, and establish a relationship between us. I have three activities that I use to do this, which are Password, Card Talk, and Special Person Interviews. Card Talk is a Ben Slavic activity that used to be called Circling with Balls. He and Tina Hargarden suggest using this activity to start the year in their book A Natural Approach to the Year as well. Password and Special Person Interviews are two activities originated by Bryce Hedstrom.

The Password activity involves the teacher meeting students at the door and engaging with each of them before they enter the classroom. Each student must say a special word or phrase in the target language (TL), which is the password, to enter the room. I post my password outside my front door for student reference and make sure to maintain eye contact and smile during each exchange (I know of male teachers who also require students to shake the teacher’s hand along with saying the password, but I don’t do that because it doesn’t feel natural for me). Last year when I started doing passwords I had my students say a phrase in French before they entered the room, such as “Je n’ai pas de crayon (I don’t have a pencil)” but I didn’t use the password in any activity that we did during class. I think this was a mistake because very few of my students retained the password for very long once we switched to a new password. I will be sure to include our passwords in other class activities to increase the likelihood that students will retain them. If you would like to learn more about Passwords, Bryce has this book available for Spanish teachers that is sale through Teacher’s Discovery or on his website.

What I like about using passwords is that it gives me the chance to connect with each student individually. I have some students who are very shy. Sometimes our password exchange is the only chance I get to talk to them and hear them talk to me. It is my hope that this quick conversation with me will give them the confidence to start speaking in class.

Once students have entered the classroom by saying the password, we will move on to greetings, take care of school business, and move on to Card Talk. To do Card Talk, students draw a picture or pictures on a card that the teacher can then use to ask questions. So, for example, if students are asked to draw something they like to play and any pets they have at home, the teacher can then use that to ask questions about what a student likes (or doesn’t like) to play and what pets s/he has (or doesn’t have) at home. I usually start with Yes-No questions and then progress to Either-Or questions before I move on to questions with an interrogative (You can read this post for more information about questioning in a CI class). This activity takes practically no time to prepare and can be done for multiple classes. I have been known to do Card Talk every day for the first month of school for about five to ten minutes or so (And you don’t have to only do Card Talk at the beginning of the year. Lance Piantaggini writes in this post that Card Talk is also a good activity to do after a vacation as a warm-up to reinforce class routines). If you would like more information about Card Talk or want to see it in action, Ben Slavic has a lot of information about it on his website.

Last year I did Card Talk on and off for about three weeks, but there is no set amount of time that you should do it. If it’s still interesting, keep doing it. If it gets boring, stop and do something else. This year when Card Talk gets boring I plan to ask students to write sentences together with me on a PowerPoint about our class, one student per slide. Then I will let each student choose a picture for his or her slide and print the whole thing out and make a class book. This is a nice extension of Card Talk that helps students make connections between the written and spoken language (BTW, if you teach a language with a different alphabet like Russian or Greek or a language with characters like Mandarin to students whose first language uses a Roman alphabet, I don’t see anything wrong with using the Roman alphabet initially for this activity, because you can then go back and rewrite it with your language’s alphabet or characters later on once you teach them).

Another great activity that can help teachers get to know their students is the Special Person Interview. It involves asking a student a series of questions about him or herself in front of the class. You can read more about it in this post. This activity is similar to Card Talk because it involves learning personal information about students, but the difference is that, unlike Card Talk, you ask only one student questions about him or herself. If you are a Spanish teacher, you can see questionnaire that I used for my Special Person Interviews with my third-year students on my Spanish Resources page. The questionnaire I used with my first-year French students can be found on my French Resources page.

What I like about Special Person Interviews is that it gives each student some positive, personal attention. For some students, this may be the only positive attention they get all day. This activity also helps both the class and me learn new information about each student. I especially like it when students who have known each other since kindergarten learn knew things about their friends.

Last year I did Card Talk in class for a few weeks, where I asked questions about something students liked to play and what pets they had. Then I did this Movie Talk as a change of pace before I started my Special Person Interviews. Since the class and I had spent so much time talking about our pets, doing a Movie Talk about someone else’s pet was a good way to use familiar vocabulary in a new way. The reason why I didn’t want to go right into Special Person Interviews after Card Talk is because I was afraid that these two activities were too similar to do back to back and felt that students would benefit from doing something completely different.

In conclusion, I already have a plan for my first two months or so of class, which is to start each day with a specific warm-up activity for each day of the week to establish class routines and then continue with Card Talk, which I will use as a vehicle to set my behavior expectations. When I feel that students are ready to move on, I will do the Movie Talk I talked about above and then move on to Special Person Interviews. And then what? With any luck, they will be ready to read their first novel. I’ll let you know!

NTPRS 2018 Conference, Days 3 and 4 – Trust the Process

On Wednesday at the NTPRS conference, our workshop presenter, the fabulous Jason Fritze, talked to us about Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA). PQA involves asking students a series of questions to get them to talk about themselves and their interests in the second language (L2).

In many ways, PQA is simply a class discussion. That being said, it is VERY important that the questions being asked don’t require students to create too much output at first. In many comprehensible input (CI) classrooms, PQA relies heavily on Yes-No or Either-Or questions, especially in the beginning levels.

Let’s say, for example, that I want to find out what students like to do in their spare time. Here is how I would do my PQA:

  1. Use Yes-No questions in the L2 to establish maybe 2 or 3 activities that students like to do such as “Do you like to play basketball?” or “Do you like to watch TV?” or “Do you like to do homework?” I also make sure to ask students about themselves and about each other to expose students to first, second, and third person verbs.
  2. Once I have a few activities named, I can then move on to Either-Or questions like “Do you like to watch TV or do homework?” “Do you like to play basketball or watch TV?” I might also add a third or fourth activity to the Either-Or if asking about the previously mentioned activities are getting a bit stale. Once again, I make sure to ask students about themselves and about each other.
  3. Once we’ve done Yes-No and Either-Or questions, I can them start asking open-ended questions with an interrogative such as “What do you like to do?” or “Who likes to watch TV?” In my class, one of my student jobs is the Question Word Translator. After I say a question word in the L2, the Question Word Translator shouts out the English translation before I finish the question, kind of like this:
    1. Me: Qui…
    2. Question Word Translator: Who!
    3. Me: …aime le football?

In one of the workshops I went to on Day 4, presenter Lance Piantaggini mentioned that, after the teacher has gotten used to the PQA progression, s/he may want to vary that progression, because it may get predictable and stale. Lance also said that, in some languages (like Chinese and Latin), Either-Or questions might be easier than Yes-No, so he recommends starting with Either-Or questions in those situations. Lance also said that he may omit the Yes-No and Either-Or questions as the year progresses if he feels that his students are strong enough to skip straight to the interrogatives.

Jason Fritze acknowledged that it can be difficult to come up with good PQA questions spontaneously, so he recommends that teachers script out PQA questions ahead of time to use as reference. Jason said that he often takes five minutes of his planning period to script questions both as a guide to use during class but also to practice creating PQA questions. Lance Piantaggini said that he kept his question words posted in the back of the room so he could refer to them for inspiration if he does spontaneous PQA in class.

In many instances, the goal of the PQA is to use that student information to create a story using Storyasking techniques (Storyasking involves using questions to flesh out the details of a story by having students suggest details for the teacher to include in the narrative). Jason Fritze referred to this as “spinning the story.” So in the above example, finding out about someone who likes to watch TV but doesn’t like to do homework and someone else who likes to play basketball may lead to a story about a student who tried to do his/her homework as quickly as possible so s/he could watch America’s Got Talent, couldn’t find a pencil to do the homework, so s/he had to phone a friend to borrow one, but the friend wasn’t home because he was at a basketball game.

Many presenters acknowledge that being willing to let the story develop naturally involves the teacher being able to relinquish control of the class and trust the PQA-to-Class Story process. Jason Fritze, referencing the movie Frozen, told the class that we had to “…be like Elsa and let it go.” Von Ray, who led a workshop about improvisation in the CI classroom, echoed Jason’s words by telling us that we needed to “trust the process.” Both Jason and Von acknowledge that this may be very difficult for teachers (I have written about my own troubles with Storyasking in this post), so they recommend that teachers always have a back up story that they can use in case the student story falls flat or veers off into a direction that might be either inappropriate or impractical (The teacher can write his/her own backup story or purchase pre-written stories like these and these).

All the presenters who talked about PQA, Storyasking, and improvisation at the NTPRS 2018 conference agree that stories based on the students themselves are very powerful. They are compelling because they are about the students themselves. Since they are highly interesting, students are more likely to be engaged in the process, which ideally should lead to more language acquisition and proficiency gains. I for one plan to include lots of days where I use the PQA-to-Class Story process. I’ll let you know how it goes.

NTPRS 2018 Conference, Day 3 – Five Expressions We Should Stop Using When Talking About Language Instruction

The highlight of the third day of this year’s NTPRS conference was an afternoon keynote speech by Dr. Bill Van Patten. Dr. Van Patten’s nickname, for obvious reasons, is BVP, and he is an expert on second language acquisition (SLA). In his keynote address on Wednesday he talked about five words that he thinks all of us who work and teach in the field of language acquisition should eliminate from our vocabulary when we talk about our language classrooms.

The first expression BVP wants us to eliminate is the word foreign. The word “foreign” has synonyms such as “strange” or “bizarre.” These synonyms cast a negative light on the second language and implies that it is not as good as the first language. As BVP pointed out, it is odd that we use the word “foreign” to describe a language potentially spoken by millions of people as well as something that may get lodged in our eye that we need to go to the emergency to have removed. BVP says that when we talk about another language besides our target language we should use “second” or “another” in place of foreign.

At my last school, our language department had been “Department of Foreign Languages” for many years. The last year I was there, I advocated that we change the name to “Department of World Languages.” BVP takes it one step further and says we should just call our departments “Department of Languages and Culture.” I like that.

The second expression BVP wants us to eliminate is the word error. BVP says that, in second language acquisition, errors don’t technically exist. When learners don’t speak accurately, they are simply manifesting what their internal language systems are capable of at their particular proficiency level. Furthermore, the word “error” suggests that the language speaker has the ability to be correct if s/he just listened to feedback when being corrected, which is not true in language acquisition due to the unconscious nature of the process. Instead, BVP suggests that we use the term “developmental form” instead of “error,” which I really like. It eliminates all negative connotations and accurately represents what those emerging forms really are.

The third expression BVP wants us to eliminate is the word student. This word implies that the person wishing to speak another language can become proficient due to conscious study (of vocabulary lists and explicit grammar explanation), just like s/he can in other subjects like math and history. And while this works if our goal is for the person to learn about the language, it doesn’t work if our goal is for a person to be able to become proficient in actually using the language. BVP suggests that we use the term “learner” or “classroom learner” instead. Personally, I prefer the term “language acquirer,” and while that may be more accurate, it is a bit wordy, so I guess I’ll stick with “learner.”

The fourth expression BVP wants us to eliminate is language teaching. He argues that, if our classroom goal is to advance language proficiency, we are not teaching but facilitating. In a comprehensible input (CI) driven classroom, the goal of the teacher is to provide as much CI as possible. We don’t ever really teach students how to use the language. Instead, we model how to use the language and provide repeated exposure to words and expressions in the language in a comprehensible and compelling way. With any luck, that exposure will eventually become part of our students’ internal language system and will help develop their proficiency.

BVP says that what we are really doing in our classrooms is not language teaching. It is language facilitating. So by extension, I am not a language “teacher” but a language “facilitator.” This comment reminds me of a quote by American poet Robert Frost: “I am not a teacher but an awakener.”

The fifth and final expression BVP wants us to eliminate caused quite a strong audience reaction, because BVP was speaking in front of a room full of teachers dedicated to teaching with CI. The fifth expression BVP wants us to eliminate from our vocabulary is COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT!!! Um, what?!?

BVP says that the term “comprehensible input” is problematic for three reasons. First of all, it can be polarizing, because it divides teachers into two camps – CI teachers versus textbook/legacy teachers. Quite frankly, we have enough division in the US and the world as it is, so we shouldn’t be trying to create animosity in an area where it is not needed. Second, it is being used inappropriately, because it is being used to describe a technique, which is usually the same techniques used in a legacy classroom christened with a new name and maybe some slight adjustments. That’s when you hear teachers say, “I teach grammar with CI” or “I use the textbook with CI.”), which are oxymoronic. Third, the term is seen as being outdated in the larger educational community, who sees it as just another approach that has come and gone much like the old-fashioned Audio-Lingual Method of second language teaching (Just recently, I saw a comment on the CI Liftoff Facebook page where someone was looking for an expression to use instead of using “comprehensible input” because of her administrator’s negative interpretation of the term. This is not uncommon).

BVP wants us to use the term “communicatively-embedded input (CEI)” instead of “comprehensible input (CI).” I don’t think it is going to catch on within the CI community, but that is because all of us in that community know what real comprehensible input should look like. So I suggest that we keep the term “comprehensible input (CI)” for use among ourselves and use “communicatively-embedded input (CEI)” with those outside of the CI community.

Once BVP finished his presentation, he ended the session with a flourish. You’ll have to watch this if you want to know exactly how he did that. And if you don’t want to, let’s just say that people don’t call BVP the “diva of SLA” for nothing.

NTPRS 2018 Conference, Day 2 – TPRS

Hi all! If you haven’t already, read my last post about Day One of the NTPRS conference for my summary of the Advanced track before you continue with this post, which is my summary of Day Two.

On Day Two, our workshop presenter, Jason Fritze, spent most of the day talking about Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). TPRS is a very powerful comprehensible input (CI) based second language teaching method invented by Blaine Ray. TPRS includes these three steps:

  1. Step One: Establish meaning. Usually, a TPRS teacher has certain structures in mind that s/he wishes to teach, so s/he establishes meaning of those target structures first. Using Total Physical Response (TPR), which I wrote about in my last post, is a good way to establish meaning. Teachers can also establish meaning through pictures, gestures, or direct English translation (If you would like to know my opinion about using translation in a second language class, read this post). Once the teacher has established meaning, s/he may start to ask students personal questions containing one of the structures. This technique is called Personalized Question and Answer (PQA). For example, pretend the teacher wishes to teach “likes to play.” With this is mind, the teacher might ask questions about who likes to play certain sports or instruments and compare what different students like to play. The teacher may also use circling techniques that I talked about in my last post along with PQA. Since students love to talk about themselves, PQA is a highly engaging activity. And since teachers and students learn all kids of personal information about each other, it is also a great community builder. Jason and Linda Li make PQA look effortless, but Jason pointed out that PQA questions are much more powerful and entertaining when scripted ahead of time.
  2. Step Two: Ask a story. More experienced TPRS teachers can spin PQA into a story. This is what Linda Li did when she came to do more Mandarin with us. On Day One Linda had spent most of her time teaching us some structures such as “has” and “looks at” and “happy.” Then today she took those structures and wove them into a story about someone who is unhappy because he does not have an iPhone. Since he doesn’t have an iPhone, he can’t look at his pretty friend via FaceTime. Linda had some workshop participants come up and be student actors. At first when they had to say something, Linda stood behind their back and had them move their mouth to make it look as if they were speaking while she said the Mandarin words. Then later on students said the words themselves with some prompting from Linda when they felt more comfortable. Jason Fritze suggests that all teachers keep a “back-up” story in case the story spun as a result of PQA falls flat.
  3. Step Three: Read. Once we finished acting out the story, our next step was to review the story through reading. As we discussed what happened in our story, Linda wrote it down for us so we could see and read it. Reading is an essential step in the TPRS process because it ties everything together, reinforces what we have already heard, and compliments our spoken input by providing written input. Jason Fritze said that it is important to establish class procedures and expectations before the class reads. In Jason’s class, students are expected to look at the page and follow along as Jason reads the story. Students who need extra support are offered Post-Its, bookmarks, or highlighters to help them focus. Sometimes the class does whole group reading and sometimes the students do partner reading. Along with reading the text, checking for comprehension is also important. One way to check reading comprehension is to have the class translate chorally in their native language (L1) after the teacher or a student reads in the second language (L2). Another good strategy to check reading comprehension is for teachers to start reading a sentence in the L2 and have the students finish that sentence in the L2. Teachers can also do a spot check for comprehension by occasionally stopping while reading to ask students to produce a gesture to represent certain words.

TPRS has been around since the 1980’s, so many materials are available to teachers who want to use TPRS in their classrooms but don’t have the desire or improvisational skills to create their own stories. Most textbooks these days include a TPRS reader with their ancillary materials. I have never been a fan of those stories, but they are a decent place to start, especially for teachers who are still expected to teach from a textbook. In addition, TPRS Books has lots of resources available, including entire curriculum packages in multiple languages. Jim Tripp has created a set of TPRS stories that are available on his website, and Anna Matava has a book of story scripts in English that are available through Teacher’s Discovery.

In addition, TPRS Books spends a large part of their year traveling throughout the United States and Canada hosting TPRS workshops. So if the national conference (which will be in the Chicago area next year) is not possible, chances are you can find a smaller, more affordable one closer to home. And in some cases, if you can get a group of more than 30 teachers, the boys at TPRS Books may come out and host a free workshop for you and your colleagues! So what do you have to lose? Give TPRS a try!

NTPRS Conference 2018, Day 1 – Routines, Circling, and Total Physical Response

Hi everybody! Happy summer vacation! I just spent last week at the National Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (NTPRS) conference, and I came home with loads of great ideas to use in my classroom and share on this blog.

I signed up for the Advanced track, which was taught by the fabulous Jason Fritze. To start, Jason had us all get in groups to talk about our successes as language teachers. And boy, did we have wonderful successes! We had teachers who increased enrollment and had healthy language programs where students continued to take upper-level classes due to their own successes and high engagement. We had teachers who had led Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) training sessions, whose attendees had become trainers themselves, and teachers who reported having better relationships with students both in and out of class. Jason said that it is important to remember these successes because so often we focus on the negative. He even keeps old notes and cards from students so he can take them out and look at them when he has a bad day. What a great idea!

After celebrating our successes, Jason talked to us about the important of routines in the language classroom. Routines help the class run smoothly and is an absolutely essential component of any behavior management system. If students come into class knowing exactly what is expected of them, the classroom teacher doesn’t have to waste time explaining what to do and can focus on providing comprehensible input (CI).

From there, we transitioned to talking about circling. Circling is a question technique that is an essential element of teaching with TPRS. When a teacher circles, s/he asks a series of questions. Usually the teacher starts with a yes/no question (Does Susie have a dog?), moves on to an either/or question (Does Susie have a dog or a cat?), and then asks open-ended questions (What does Susie have?). Jason gave us two useful tips about circling. First of all, he recommended that we start with a question where the answer will be “no.” He calls this “The Power of No.” So for example, if Susie has a dog, the first question asks if she has a cat. Starting with a negative question requires you to ask more questions, which gets you more repetitions. Since we need to hear words repeatedly to acquire them, getting more repetitions is very important. The second tip Jason gave us was for teachers to circle in random order once they felt comfortable with the “yes/no,” “either/or,” “open-ended” structure. The main reason for this is that the predictable order may become stale after a while. Since we don’t want our students to get bored, varying the question order should keep them on their toes and keep them more engaged.

Our morning session then included a visit from the absolutely fabulous Linda Li. Linda came in to teach us Mandarin. Being a Mandarin student was awesome for me. It helped me start to acquire a new language, observe a rock star teacher, and remember what it feels like to be a student who knows practically nothing in the language. I had been watching some Mandarin videos on YouTube to expose myself to the language, but not enough to give me any security or comfort in Mandarin class.

As Linda taught, Jason stopped occasionally and commented on Linda’s teaching from time to time. In this morning session, he commented about Linda’s use of Total Physical Response (TPR). TPR is an approach where teachers say things in the target language (TL) and students do an action or gesture representing that action. Action verbs, objects, and adverbs are great words to use when doing TPR in class. Be careful not to use something whose meaning is not clear (For example, if you point to your head that could be either “think” or “believe.” Don’t confuse your kids!).

Linda uses the following TPR steps:

Step One: She establishes meaning of a new word, assigns it a gesture and does the gesture when she uses the word in context. Students mimic her gesture.

Step Two: After multiple repetitions of the word with the gesture, Linda says the word but delays doing the gesture to see if students can do it without her. If they can’t, she goes back to Step One. If they can, she continues at this step for a while.

Step Three: Linda says the word but does not perform the gesture and lets the students do it without her. If they can’t, she goes back to Step Two. If they can, she continues at this step.

Both Linda and Jason divide the class into two groups. They assign each group a country or city name. In Mandarin class, our two groups were Taiwan and Beijing. This added some variety so she could ask only one place to do a certain gesture. So she could say, “Class, look at Jason.” “Beijing, look at Jason.” “Taiwan, look at Jason.” Then she could add even more repetitions by saying, “Taiwan, look at Beijing,” “Beijing, look at Taiwan,” and even “Taiwan, don’t look at Beijing,” and “Beijing, don’t look at Taiwan.” It was pretty amazing how many commands she was able to generate while only concentrating on one Mandarin word (look at = kan).

Jason Fritze is a big fan of TPR. He said that doing good TPR helps us become better TPRS teachers, which I do agree with. TPR forces us to think on our feet and give different commands. It also demands that we practice being creative with very few words. Another reason Jason likes TPR is because it provides a good brain break for our students (If you want to learn more about brain breaks, visit Annabelle Allen’s blog) while still providing CI. He said, “I think of TPR as a brain break where the language keeps flowing.”

Once our session was over for the day, I went to get Starbucks. While I was in line I ran into Gary DiBianca, who was in charge of the coaching. I told him that seeing Linda teach was amazing, but also made me doubt my own teaching abilities. He informed me that Linda teaches the same Mandarin lesson at conferences all the time, and, as result, it comes across as being very polished. That certainly made me feel better, and also made me realize that it doesn’t matter if I’m as good as Linda or any other TPRS teacher out there. All that matters is that I have made it my goal to teach effectively and to improve my classroom practices. And, quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter where I am on my CI journey as long as I continue to travel.

A New Way To Think About Grading

This past Tuesday I got the chance to hear Lance P. give a presentation about his grading system. Lance is a teacher based here in New England who teaches exclusively with comprehensible input (CI). The system he has created is designed to reduce the amount of time teachers spend assessing and grading.

Lance started his presentation by sharing a surprising statistic, namely that teachers in most classrooms spend 20% of their classroom time assessing students. This works out to be about two out of the ten months that classes are in session. In addition, most assessments are obtrusive assessments, meaning that no instruction, and subsequently no language acquisition, is happening while students complete the assessment (even when they’re done early, they either do homework for another class, read, or cause trouble). Considering how much time can be lost due to assessments, Lance said that second language teachers should try to limit the amount of assessing they do so they have more time to deliver input. He continued by saying that constant assessment would do nothing to further student language proficiency. As the saying goes, “Weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter.”

A typical assessment in Lance’s class is a 4-point, true/false quiz given orally based on a reading that is projected in front of the class. For example, if one of the Latin sentences in the reading says that a boy likes coffee, his true/false question might be, “The boy likes tea.” This quiz takes only five minutes or so to administer. When he is done giving the quiz, he has students correct their papers while he reviews the answers to the quiz in the target language (TL), which in his case is Latin. By reviewing answers in the TL, students receive more input and hear more repetitions of high frequency words that Lance wants his students to acquire. Once students are done grading the quizzes, he collects them and puts them in PowerSchool, which is the grading program he uses.

Here is where things get interesting. Lance puts all those assessment scores into his grade book, but they carry ZERO WEIGHT. Let me say that again. They have NO EFFECT on a student’s average. Since they don’t affect a student’s class grade, he does not obligate them to make the quizzes up if they are absent. He marks that student as exempt in PowerSchool for that assessment. Homework assignments also carry zero weight, so instead of chasing students who don’t turn in work, he simply marks the assignment as “Missing” in PowerSchool.

After reading the previous paragraph, you are undoubtedly wondering, “Well then how do students earn grades in his class?” They earn grades by self-assessing using what Lance calls an Input Expectations Rubric. Students self-evaluate their behavior, attitude, class attendance, and work habits in class (I am unclear if he does this once or twice a quarter). Lance then reviews the student evaluations and, if necessary, adjusts the grades based on the homework and assessment scores he has in PowerSchool. So if an exemplary student tries to be humble and give herself a low score on the Input Expectations Rubric, Lance will increase the student’s score and will explain why. That final score on the Input Expectations Rubric, whether adjusted or not, becomes the student’s grade for the quarter (If he has students self-assess twice a quarter, I assume he averages those grades together).

After reading this, you may be wondering, “What about language proficiency? Why isn’t he grading that?” Lance’s answer to this is pretty simple. He says, “students who receive input that they understand (CI) will—WILL—acquire the language.” In other words, we don’t need to measure whether or not students are acquiring language because if they meet classroom expectations, they just naturally are. It’s that simple (He does include an estimated proficiency chart on his Input Expectations Rubric, but that is just to inform the student and parents and does not factor into the student’s grade).

This grading system seems very fair to me. Students who do what they are supposed to do will get a good grade and will acquire language. Those that don’t do what they are supposed to do will not get a good grade and will not acquire language. And by not expecting all students to reach a certain proficiency level or master a certain language component in the same amount of time, the weak processor/slow acquirer will not be penalized for something that s/he has no control over.

Check out Lance’s website for more information about his grading system and his thoughts on CI in general. Could you make this grading system work in your second language classes?

 

 

Classroom Management, Part 1

I recently became a mentor of a beginning language teacher, who expressed that one of the biggest struggles she has is dealing with classroom management. This is a very typical problem for beginning teachers of any subject, but can be especially troublesome in the comprehensible input (CI) classroom.

In the CI classroom, the teachers’ main goal is to provide input. In order for this to happen, students need to be open and attentive to the messages they hear and read. When students exhibit negative behavior, they, and possibly those around them, stop paying attention to the input and won’t acquire as much language as they could if they were behaving properly. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that teachers find a way to address and discourage negative behavior when teaching with a CI approach.

Here are some general guidelines about managing student behavior.

1. The best defense is a good offense. The more compelling and engaging lessons your lessons are, the fewer discipline issues you will have. I had many more behavior problems when I taught traditionally than I do now. While that may be partially due to my inexperience as a teacher, a lot of issues arose because of how I was presenting the subject matter. It is very hard to make explicit language teaching compelling, and those students who were weak in grammar or couldn’t memorize thirty words on a vocabulary list soon found themselves struggling. That caused many students to shut down, give up, and, since they were bored and frustrated, start acting out.

Teaching with CI leveled the playing field. Since I don’t teach grammar explicitly or require students to memorize lists of vocabulary words, I have more successful students. In addition, the variety of interesting, fun activities I can do with CI creates a lot of student engagement. And, as Ben Slavic says, if your students are engaged, they will be so busy hanging on your every word that they will forget to act up.

Nevertheless, I know that even the most well-behaved and mature students may zone out or fidget on occasion, which is why I also recommend that you incorporate a few Brain Breaks into every class. Students will be able to relax and move around for a short time, which will make it easier for them to focus. Even the simple act of having the class stand up and sit down a few times can energize them. And in addition, Brain Breaks are fun!

In addition, think about the maturity of your students as you plan your lessons. Younger students, who have shorter attention spans, will need more Brain Breaks and variety than older students will. When I taught at the high school level, I planned two or three different activities per class. Now that I teach at a middle school, my classes have between three and five activities per class. The younger the student, the more variety they need.

Also, think about the time of day and time of year your class is meeting as you choose your CI activity. Student energy levels differ depending on when your class meets. I personally find that my students are most likely to act up after lunch and during the last period of the day before a long weekend or vacation. And younger students may be so excited by the anticipation of summer break that they just can’t control themselves as the weather gets warmer. Keep variables like that in mind as you plan your lessons. I find that those are the days when I play games with my students. You can read about games I play in my class here and here. Alternatively, morning classes are a great time for Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) because students are pretty calm then (you can read about FVR here).

And finally, think about the overall personality of your class as you plan your lessons. I find that classes with a lot of extroverted students respond very well to Storyasking with student actors. However, it is not always effective with my quiet classes, who tend not to make a lot of suggestions and refuse to be students actors. I tend to do more Story Listening with the quiet classes because it fits their temperaments better.

2. Turn your classroom into a community. Classes where students feel safe and respected usually have students who behave better than those where there’s a “teacher versus student” mentality. I create community in a number of ways. First, I have followed the advice of Ben Slavic and Bryce Hedstrom and have set up class jobs. This system is great for making students feel that they are contributing to the class (Read more about that here). Do you have a kid who can’t sit still? Make him your messenger. Do you have a student who likes to doodle? Make her your class artist. Students will be so busy doing their jobs that they will forget to act up.

Another activity that creates community is setting up a password system. Bryce Hedstrom has written extensively about passwords, and has a book out about them too. In my class, students are not allowed to enter the room until they have greeted me at the door with “Bonjour, Madame” or “Buenos días, Señora” and they have said the password for entry into the classroom. So a typical password exchange goes like this:

Student: Bonjour, Madame (Hello Madam).

Me: Salut (Hi). Quelle heure est-il (What time is it)? – This is my part of the password

Student: Je ne sais pas (I don’t know). – This is the students’ part of the password.

Students are also required to make eye contact with me. This establishes a connection between the two of us and helps contribute to the community building (some other teachers, mostly males, also require students to shake hands, because touch also establishes a connection). For that brief exchange, that one student has my undivided attention. They know that I see them and that they are the most important person in my life at the moment. I hope it makes them feel special and valued and that they are an important member of my class and school community.

Another great activity that builds community is the Special Person Interview. This is another activity that comes from Bryce Hedstrom. This activity requires students to answer a series of questions about themselves. As a result, the class as a whole gets to learn a lot of information about each other. Thanks to this activity, I know everyone’s birthday and we acknowledge them all. And as we learn about who likes to watch Gilmore Girls and who is afraid of clowns, we build our community by getting to know each other better, and over time student behavior improves.

One practice that definitely does not build community is refusing to translate into the native language when students are confused. This is a topic I have written about before in this post. I’m not advocating that teachers should translate words that could be easily explained through gestures or visuals (for example, my students recognize the word for “dog” and “cat” in French but I have never said the English equivalent in class). But I also think that refusing to translate more abstract expressions like “should” will result in a huge waste of class time as the teacher tries to explain the word through gestures or visuals. It will also set up a power struggle in your class where the teacher knows the translation and the students do not. The “teacher versus students” environment that may be created could lead to some behavior issues if they decide to act out in response to what they see as an unfair, tyrannical practice (I once had a student yell “Screw you” and walk out of class because he was so frustrated that he didn’t understand what was being said). A teacher who is willing to translate (maybe as a last resort in some instances) sends the message that s/he is committed to ensuring that all students understand the language and thus are capable of being successful in class.

3. Be fair, consistent, respectful, and firm. At one of my previous jobs, I taught with a guy who was funny and friendly. He would sometimes “hold court” by telling the students jokes and stories instead of teaching a full lesson. Nobody needed permission to leave the room, so his students were constantly roaming the halls. Students often talked about how funny this teacher was and how much they enjoyed his class…until he tried to hold them accountable for something. Then these same students began to rebel and complain about the class by saying things like, “I failed that test, but how could I pass it when the guy doesn’t really teach?” And some students, who were used to the chaotic atmosphere of the class, started misbehaving because they erroneously believed that they could do anything they want because the teacher didn’t really enforce any rules. By the spring, the teacher was always stressed out because he had no control over his students, and on at least one occasion he completely lost his temper and started screaming at the class. After that, student behavior would improve marginally, but the cycle would begin again before too long.

Across the hall from the popular teacher was another teacher who operated using a different strategy. He greeted every student by name when they walked into class. He made a point to say “please” and “thank you” regularly when talking to students. He had a few rules that he enforced fairly, respectfully, and consistently. If he made a mistake, he would apologize to the class and make restitution. He would joke good-naturedly with the class, but he let it be known that there was a line that students could not cross. He attended as many concerts, sports competitions, and quiz bowl tournaments as he could to support his students. He held the students accountable for their mistakes too and made himself available to help struggling students. As far as I know, this teacher never had any major discipline problems except for too much talking every once in a while.

The moral of the story is that you absolutely will not be able to manage your class by being the cool, popular teacher. Students may like that teacher, but they will not respect him or her enough to listen to him or her and follow instructions. Do not try to be your students’ friend by creating an atmosphere where the students feel that they are on equal footing with you. Instead, create an atmosphere where you are a fair, respectful, and kind  authority figure who expects students to show respect for all people in the class and the class procedures.

And finally, if you find yourself struggling with managing behavior in your classes, consider reading up about classroom management for ideas and help. You may want to subscribe to the Smart Classroom Management website, which sends out regular newsletters addressing common classroom management issues. And don’t be afraid to ask your department head or administrative team for help. They can suggest books for you to read, can help you find professional development opportunities to attend, and come to your classroom to observe and constructively critique your classroom management skills. I know it may be embarrassing to admit that you are struggling , but be proactive and not reactive. It is much better to swallow your pride and ask for help as soon as you realize you need it than explain to your administrator that you are struggling after parents have called the school to complain that your class is too rowdy an environment for their child to learn.

Look for a second installment to this post soon where I discuss some CI-specific classroom management strategies.

Rachel’s Awesome Carlos Game

Last Friday my friend Rachel, a Spanish teacher who teaches with comprehensible input (CI) in her classroom, shared a game she plays in class that she calls the Carlos game. (I don’t know if she created it or if she found it elsewhere. If you know the origin of this game, let me know so I can give credit to its inventor). Here is how you play it.

  1. In the game, students get in a large circle sitting on chairs.
  2. The teacher then either writes a question on the board or else projects the question on a screen. The question can be about anything. The class then chooses a silly answer to the question. Her class likes “Carlos” as the silly answer, which is why she calls it the Carlos game.
  3. For the first round, a student is selected as the questioner. That person’s chair is removed from the circle.
  4. The students, including the questioner, close their eyes, and the teacher walks around and taps either two or three students (depending on class size) silently.
  5. Students open their eyes and the questioner starts asking students the question for that round.
  6. Students who were not tapped must give a real, truthful answer. Students who were tapped must respond to the question with the silly answer. So, for example, if the question is, “What are you afraid of?” the students answer truthfully except for anyone who was tapped, who says in the target language, “I am afraid of Carlos” (or whatever your silly word is).
  7. All students must get up, run to another chair, and sit down. The person left without a chair becomes the new questioner.
  8. Play then continues from #2 above.

I played this in class today and students absolutely loved it. Here are a few variations you can add to your game.

  1. Number of students tapped to give the silly answer. The fewer students tapped by the teacher (see #4 above), the more repetitions of the question the student will hear. When I played this, I tapped multiple students when the question was “What is your name?” because my students had heard that so many times. When the question was less common, like “What are you afraid of?” I tapped fewer students so students would hear the question repeatedly, which would, with any luck, increase the chances that they will acquire it.
  2. Brainstorm possible answers to the question before questioning the students. This reviews words and expressions that students may not have seen in a while and, with any luck, eliminates any anxious feelings students may have about answering the question.
  3. Length of play. You could use this as a review game and prepare possible questions on slides and play this game for an entire regular class period (or half a block class period) or you can create your questions on the fly and use it as a filler activity when you have minutes left at the end of class.
  4. Silly responses. Rachel’s presentation led me to believe that the answer to every question is “Carlos” when she plays this game. I decided to group my questions by type (who, what, where, how) and come up with multiple silly responses, some of which were new words that provided some sneaky CI.

If you’ve read my blog previously, you may remember what I had to say about games in the CI classroom. Add this one to the list of fun, equitable CI games that I plan on playing from now on.

Teaching Level 1 Themes with Comprehensible Input

When I visit the IFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching group on Facebook, I often encounter posts from teachers who would like to teach with comprehensible input (CI) but need help getting started. These teachers inevitably need some guidance on how to provide CI while still teaching certain topics that they are told they must cover.

If you are one of these teachers, my suggestion to you is that you start making the shift from traditional to CI with your Level 1 classes. There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, you will be the students’ first language teacher, which means you will not have students trained by a traditional teacher that you will then have to retrain. Second, themes in first-year modern language classrooms are basic enough that they can be presented easily using CI.

When I decided to embrace CI, I started with some backwards planning. I went through the Level 1 textbook and made a list of topics in the book. Then I listed one or two CI approaches I could use to address many of these topics. Here is the list I compiled for my first-year Spanish and French classes.

When I start out the year, I begin each class with Calendar Talk. Here is a video of how Tina Hargarden does Calendar Talk. In my class, we talk about the day (today, yesterday, tomorrow), any upcoming holidays, the weather, what season in is, and, since we have a rotating schedule, what the time is. This eliminates those isolated lessons on those subjects that are usually at the beginning of a first-year book.

Then, as Ben Slavic and other, more established CI teachers recommend, I do Card Talk. This activity used to be called Circling with Balls. My students draw pictures of something like to play and any pet(s) they may have on a card. Then I use Personalized Question and Answer to introduce the expressions “like(s) + infinitive” and “I/You have” and “S/he has.” Students also hear the names of sports and instruments, most of which are cognates, and some animals (usually “dog” and “cat” but sometimes other things like “guinea pig” and “rabbit.”).

Following that, I do Special Person Interviews. I can introduce SO much vocabulary due to the variety of questions I ask. By the time I finish my interviews, my students have been exposed to expressions like dates and numbers (from questions like “How old are you” and “When is your birthday”), activities (“What do you like to do”), food (“What is your favorite/least favorite food”), family members (“Do you have any brothers or sisters”) and names of school classes (“What is your favorite/least favorite class). If you are a French teacher, visit my French Resources page for my Personne Spéciale documents. Spanish teachers can visit my Spanish Resources page for the Spanish version.

After those first two activities, which can take me through mid-October (or even longer depending on class size), I have no set order in which to do my other activities. I am constantly taking things out and adding new things. One activity that I do one year in September I might not do until December another year. I don’t care about when the topics are addressed as long as they are addressed at some point during the school year.

Finally, I have learned to let go of the compulsion to teach all thematic vocabulary words together and have embraced the idea that they will pick them up in bits and pieces throughout the year (Click here for more about my thoughts about thematic units). Take expressions to describe the weather and seasons, for example. In my class, we learn them as the year progresses. In August when we come back to school students will learn to say that it is hot and sunny because it is still summer. In November they will learn to say that it is cool and windy because it is fall. In January they will be able to talk about snow and cold temperatures because it is winter, and in April they will be able to talk about rain because it is spring. Where is it written that a student has to learn all expressions to describe the weather and seasons, or by extension all clothing, food, or names of family members all at once?

And finally, let’s address the elephant in the room…the explicit grammar that some people feel is necessary to teach. I only do pop-up grammar in my classes, because, based on the research by Stephen Krashen and Bill Van Patten that I have read, I know that explicit grammar lessons do not further language acquisition. And I am lucky because I work in a district that has embraced CI. If you are obligated to teach grammar, I recommend that you read this post, in which I talk about ways to teach grammar in ways that maximize class time for comprehensible input in class.

Once the shift has been made with first-year classes, you can start to alter the second year textbook to CI. But that is a blog post for another day.