Random Notes from Conferences

I’ve decided that it’s time to get rid of some of the clutter in my home à la Marie Kondo. I came across a large number of notebooks in which I took notes at various conferences I attended in the past four years. Before I toss them, I decided to save some of the most important takeaways here in this blog post. In no particular order, here are some of the big takeaways I have from those events.

Notes from a TPRS workshop with Craig Sheehy and Mike Coxon

  • Authentic texts are not necessarily good sources of comprehensible input if they have too many unfamiliar words, especially for Novice students (read more about this here).
  • The best comprehensible input is RICH (Repetitive, Interesting, Comprehensible and full of High-frequency words).
  • Language is only input if it is used to communicate a message. Language used as practice is NOT input so it does not lead to gains in acquisition (research on that can be found here).
  • Dr. Bill VanPatten says that in language acquisition, there are no language errors, just different stages of language development (see more about this here).
  • Dr. Bill VanPatten also says that explicit correction of so-called student “errors” will not accelerate acquisition or increase accuracy (see more about this here).
  • For teachers, delivering input is like a friendly game of catch. Teachers should use nice, easy language with no fastballs (talking too fast) and no curveballs (using too much unfamiliar language).
  • Teachers who teach gestures along with high-frequency words can then use those gestures as non-verbal prompting when students try to produce language.
  • If it’s at all possible, teach students, not curriculum, meaning that it’s inappropriate to move on if students haven’t mastered current material.

Notes from a Classroom Management Workshop with Jon Cowart

  • Students need explicit instructions about when they’re expected to use the target language, when they can use English, and what to do if they don’t understand. These instructions will most likely need to be repeated frequently.
  • For accountability, have students self-assess their engagement and behavior.
  • If you give students directions but some are slow to comply, praising and/or thanking the students who have already followed the direction may be the catalyst needed for other students to comply, thus eliminating the need to repeat the direction or singling out students who haven’t followed it yet.
  • If the majority of a class is not following a certain rule, do a whole class reset. Stop teaching, review class rules, practice the correct behavior, discuss why the class follows rules, and try again to get back to the lesson.
  • If one or only a few students are not following a certain rule, try norming the error. Stop teaching, explain what went wrong, state what should have happened, and give the students a chance to redeem themselves once you start teaching again.
  • When praising students for good behavior, be SPECIFIC with your praise. Name the desirable action the student is doing.

Notes from a Classroom Jobs Workshop with John Sifert

  • Classroom jobs create a better sense of community, relieve and reduce teacher stress, and can improve classroom management.
  • Jobs in a CI language class fall into three categories: classroom management, story jobs, and language management jobs.
  • Classroom management jobs include: materials distributors/collectors; people in charge of the door, phone, and lights; attendance takers; nurse (in charge of Band-Aids and Kleenex); and boss (reminds people to do their job, recommends firing or promoting people).
  • Story jobs include: actors, quiz writers, illustrators, colorists, and Professor #2 (the person who gets to decide things when the teacher doesn’t).
  • Language jobs include: timekeepers (tracks how many minutes can the class stay in the target language), English police (politely reminds students speaking in English to try to talk in the Target language if possible).
  • Make sure to post jobs (preferably in the target language) so it’s easier for people to remember what they have to do.
  • Take volunteers for jobs first and try only to assign them if you don’t have enough volunteers.

Backwards Planning with Jessica Haxhi

  • Backwards Planning refers to creating units starting with the end goal in mind.
  • The first step in Backwards Planning is to identify the goals students should meet. Teachers should set realistic goals based on the students’ proficiency level and they should be able to write 2-3 Can-Do Statements based on the goal.
  • The second step in Backwards Planning is to create an assessment to measure how well students can meet the goal set in Step 1. Jessica suggests that students have a choice in how they wish to be assessed and the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in all three modes (Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational).
  • The third step in Backwards Planning is to determine what vocabulary and language structures students need to demonstrate proficiency and reach the desired end goal.

Unit Planning with Arianne Dowd

  • When planning a unit, choose the topic based on your passions or interests.
  • If you can’t think of a topic, visit other teachers’ blog posts or Pinterest accounts, such as Leslie Grahn’s Pinterest page, grahn for Lang.
  • Base your unit on an authentic resource you love. Then determine what vocabulary students will need in order to make the resource accessible to students.
  • If possible, include a cultural comparison in your unit, where students compare what they see in the resource with their own cultural products, practices, or perspectives.

Teaching With Comprehensible Input with Gary DiBianca

  • Students are prepped for success if they feel that they are in a safe environment (Safe environment = low affective filter = greater chance of acquisition)
  • If you teach with comprehensible input, its important to talk to students about second language acquisition and how the way you teach facilitates it.
  • Set expectations quickly and be consistent in enforcing them.
  • Show students that you care about them and their success.
  • Check often to see that students understand.
  • Gestures, word walls, visuals, and props can all aide in comprehension.
  • Levels of chunking language: single word, word pairs, word with prepositions, full sentences.
  • Try to change activities every ten minutes to keep students engaged.
  • Steps for Total Physical Response: Say and model, Say but don’t model, Say two commands in a row, Say two commands in a row with students’ eyes closed, Say three commands in a row, Say and add details.
  • A TPRS story only needs 5-6 sentences.
  • Classic TPRS story frame: A character has a problem and tries to solve it in three ways.
  • Follow up a TPRS story with a pre-written text of with a Write and Discuss activity.
  • Novel ways to reuse language: Songs, Picture Talk, videos, fairy tales, simple biographies, legends, and games.
  • Rereading activities: Choral translation, pair reading, drawing comics from a reading, true/false questions in English, comprehension questions about the text.
  • 5 ways to assess: Simple translation, listening comprehension, dictation, story retells, and timed writing.
  • Before starting a novel, plan prereading and post reading activities ahead of time for each chapter.
  • If you do Calendar Talk, lead students in conversation at the beginning of the month and fill out a calendar for the month based on what students say (one calendar for each class).

Equity and Social Justice in Lesson Planning with Dr. José Medina

  • Everyone has unconscious biases which find their way into lesson planning if teachers are not careful.
  • Whether teachers acknowledge it or not, lesson planning is a political act based on what teachers choose to amplify or ignore in their units.
  • Teachers need to examine their practices through a social justice and equity lens.
  • When lessons planning, plan with a content, language, and culture target in mind.
  • Try to connect the culture learning target to self, community, and the real world
  • The language target is the most important target.

Using TV Shows to Provide Input

Using television shows in language classes is not a new topic, as Spanish teachers such as Kara Kane Jacobs, Mike Peto, and Dustin Williamson have frequently blogged about using Spanish-language TV in their classes as a source of rich comprehensible input. I’ve been very envious of them, because the right show can be incredibly compelling to students, and because up until recently, it has been very difficult to find a compelling, school-appropriate show in French on a streaming service that could be easily adapted for Novice language students.

I’m happy to report that this is no longer the case. Disney Plus has recently added two shows filmed in French in France onto their platform. I discovered this after reading Sarah Moghtader’s blog, where she wrote about using the new Disney Plus show Weekend Family in class. Weekend Family is a show about a thrice-divorced father living in Paris whose three daughters spend the weekends with him. Things get a bit complicated in Episode 1, because he has fallen in love with a French-Canadian woman named Emma and wants to introduce her to his children. If you are interested in exploring her fabulous ideas and resources for the show, you can find her blog post here.

While searching for Weekend Family on my own Disney+ account, I was pleasantly surprised to discover another French show filmed in France called Parallels. Online reviews of the show describe it as being in the same genre as the wildly popular Netflix show Stranger Things. Once I read that, I knew that I had found a show that my students could get excited about. This is a science fiction show about four teenagers in middle school who, after a strange course of events, end up in different, parallel universes (hence the title). Once they realize this, they then try to return to and restore their original timeline.

One of the things I like about this show is that a good portion of the plot and character development is represented visually. Facial expressions, actions, and silence are used as much as dialogue to drive the story. When characters do speak, the dialogue is spoken relatively slowly and with very little slang. This makes it very comprehensible for students. In addition, the action switches between parallel universes very cleanly, which provides a natural stopping point if teachers want to use Movie Talk techniques for only one scene

As I started to prepare resources for the show, I had four main goals:

  • to acquaint students with the characters in the show
  • to scaffold language so that students could understand the main idea of the episode
  • to help students feel comfortable with listening to French but not understanding all of it.
  • to use discussions about the show as a chance to use high-frequency vocabulary

To introduce the series, I plan to show the first thirteen minutes of Episode 1 in French with French subtitles. Students will fill out this handout as we watch and discuss. I anticipate that this will take about three class periods (Many of the techniques presented here are ones that I read about in Sarah Moghtader’s blog post).

  1. Introduction and Hook. In this introductory presentation, I set up the very first scene of the show and lead a map activity where students try to figure out in what region of France the story takes place. Then I’ll show the first scene clip (times are in the presentation’s Speaker Notes), in which a young boy and his dog disappear, and I will invite students to guess what happened to them. With any luck, this will ignite student curiosity and get them invested in the story.
  2. Character Identification. After the opening credits, all characters except one are introduced in about ten minutes. Students will watch the first ten minutes with the understanding that their only goal is to identify who each character is. Here is the presentation to review characters (Times are once again in the presentation’s Speaker Notes).
  3. Movie Talk #1. Once students can identify all the characters, I will give them this handout with lines from the show to review and translate. Then I will play the same first ten minutes after the opening credits narrating with Movie Talk techniques while students try to identify who says each line as we watch, which we will then review and discuss.
  4. Write and Discuss. I’ll use this technique to write short descriptions of the main characters (Bilal, Sam, Victor and Romane). This will give me a chance to add some important vocabulary that will pop up later on in the episode.
  5. Movie Talk #2. I’ll give students this handout with lines from the second part of the first episode for students to review and translate. Then I will play and narrate the rest of the episode using Movie Talk techniques while students try to identify who says each line as we watch, which we will then review and discuss.

I’ve only created resources for Episode 1. As I create resources for future episodes, I’ll place them in this folder. If you are a French teacher, you are welcome to use or alter these materials to better serve your students.

Teaching Those Obligatory Topics Through a Cultural Lens

Today I went to observe the student teacher I have been supervising. As he practices and hones his skills, he has been feeling a bit frustrated because he does not enjoy certain topics in the school curriculum. This week, the curriculum calls for a comprehensive review of the alphabet and numbers. My student teacher needed some ideas on how to make this topic engaging to students, which he found especially daunting since these topics are a review for the class and because it’s the week before Spring Break.

Anyone who has ever been obligated to teach according to a traditional curriculum knows that it can be difficult to make certain topics interesting. My suggestion to my student teacher was to approach these topics from a cultural perspective, which might make lessons more engaging. Below I have created a list of topics you might be obligated to teach that I believe can be made more interesting by leading with culture. I’ve done my best to make these as low prep as possible and have tried to include comprehensible input components to each lesson.

Teaching the Alphabet

If you teach a language that uses an alphabet as opposed to characters, an activity where you combine spelling with an exploration of notable people or places from your target culture(s) could make this topic a lot more engaging.

To prepare:

  • Create a list of notable people and/or places (Spanish teachers, think about all those long words like Popocatépetl that come from indigenous languages that you can use here! French teachers, geographical terms like names of cities and regions would be good choices here)
  • Create a slideshow with the correct spelling of the person/place on one slide followed by a picture of said person/place on the next slide.
  • Spell out each word in the target language and have students write down the word letter by letter.
  • Show the slide with the correct spelling so student can check their spelling.
  • Show the picture of the person/place and describe it using Picture Talk techniques.

Teaching Numbers

There are lots of ways to reinforce numbers. Here are a few low prep possibilities:

  • Calendar Talk is a great way to reinforce numbers as you discuss the day, the weather, student birthdays, and holidays in the target language (asking students to predict the temperature is a good way to reinforce those larger numbers)
  • Prepare a slide with a table of the size or population of cities/countries where your target language is spoken and lead a conversation where you talk about which area is the biggest/smallest or the best way to travel between areas based on distance between two places. Calculate distance in both miles and kilometers.
  • Show an advertisement with prices in foreign currency and use the target language to convert the amount into US dollars (or the currency of the country you live in).
  • Vote on pretty much anything (What is your favorite sport/type of music/leisure activity) in class and discuss how many students or what percentage of students liked what.

Teaching Time

  • Find a movie schedule in your target culture and talk about which movies from the US are the most popular and times those movies are being shown.
  • Compare and contrast a typical class schedule at your school with a typical class schedule at a school in your target culture(s).
  • Compare time differences in different areas where your target language is spoken.

ln closing, let me end by saying that these ideas mainly touch on what is referred to as “surface culture,” as presented in the image below. Think of surface culture as products and practices of the speakers of your target language.

Touching on topics that are referred to as “deep culture,” or perspectives about the target culture’s product and practices, require a different and more deliberate approach. Teachers who are interested in exploring how to teach “deep culture” should check out Michael Byram‘s book, Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence.

Italian Teachers, Rejoice! Voces Digital in Italian is here!

One of the benefits of teaching Spanish is that, since it’s the most widely-taught world language in the US, teachers have little difficulty finding high-quality resources and curricula for their classroom. Teachers of French, another widely-taught language, can also find classroom resources fairly easily. But world language teachers who don’t teach those two languages are not so lucky. I’ve seen many posts from teachers of less commonly taught languages about how difficult it can be to find ready-made materials in their language.

The creators of Voces Digital recognized the need for resources in languages besides Spanish and French and have recently released a version of their online resources in Italian (German teachers: A version for you is coming soon too!). Currently, Levels 1 and 2 are all that is available, but Levels 3 and 4 will be available by the end of the year. In this post, I will review the Italian version by comparing it to the French version, which I have used extensively for the past two years.

Before I go any further, I want to be completely transparent and tell you that I recently became a Voces Ambassador. My job is simply to help spread the word about Voces Digital at conferences, on my blog, in my district and state language organization, and/or on social media. It is NOT a paid position, so I will not be compensated for this review. Also, although I am not an Italian teacher, I do have decent enough proficiency in the language to understand all the stories in the two levels I reviewed.

What I like about the Italian Version of Voces Digital, Nostra Storia

  1. Nostra Storia is a comprehensible input-based program.
  2. The Italian version of Voces Digital offers all the functions found in the French and Spanish version. That means it has stories that can be read and listened to, the ability to assign independent work, automatic scoring for multiple choice, fill-in, and true false questions, the ability to edit and add pages, audio and video activities, and more (If you’d like a more detailed explanation of what Voces Digital has to offer, here is my last blog post about that and here for a list of features from the Voces Digital website).
  3. The photos are beautiful and are of excellent quality. I especially like the panorama photos.
  4. The stories are current. You’ll find references to modern technology and social media as well as updated language (my personal favorite word that I’ve seen so far is friendzonato/a, which made me laugh out loud).
  5. The Italian version is based on AP themes (Contemporary Life, Families and Communities, Global Challenges, Beauty and Aesthetics, Science and Technology, Personal and Public Identities) and has essential questions for each chapter, just like the Spanish and French versions.
  6. Just like the French and Spanish versions, the Italian version is ACTFL aligned and has Can-Do Statements for each chapter.
  7. Voces Digital provides resources for teachers on how to implement the program and on how to teach using comprehensible input methods as well as resources for students on why and how to study a new language, just like the Spanish and French versions.

What could be better in Nostra Storia

  1. Nostra Storia has fewer stories and fewer activities per story than Nuestra Historia or Notre Histoire.
  2. The Ancora! Ancora! sections do not have embedded cultural readings like the French and Spanish versions do.
  3. The Assessment sections at the end of each unit do not have Integrated Performance Assessments.
  4. The units do not begin with a set of “Let’s Visit” activities (If you are unfamiliar with these, they are activities that introduce students to a certain location where the target language is spoken. In the Spanish and French versions, the pages have a series of pictures with captions and then questions for students to answer. They are nice because they introduce students to places that are then used as settings in the unit stories).
  5. I’d like to see more diversity in Nostra Storia. Yes, you will find a few stories with characters who are Muslim or who are people of color and one reading discussing the inaccuracies of stereotypes about Italians but, as far as I can tell, all interviews are with White people, all religious holidays presented in stories are Christian, and all stories with romantic themes are about relationships between a man and a woman. Luckily, teachers can customize all pages in Nostra Storia and add new pages that can include more diverse story lines and characters if they want to, but I wish they didn’t have to.

One of the nice things about Voces Digital is that, since it is an online resource, the developers constantly update it and add new features. Since the Voces Digital team explicitly states on their website that the Italian series is available as “Early Access,” I predict that they will continue to add new stories, videos, and other features to Nostra Storia over time (but my guess is that this won’t happen until after Levels 3 and 4 are released). But even though the Italian series seems a little light compared to the French and Spanish series, I would most likely still purchase access to the series for the upcoming school year so I could have a comprehensible-input based resource to supplement my classroom curriculum.

Pricing for Voces Digital is on their website. If you would like to test it out, you can sign up for a free 10-day trial and explore Levels 1 and 2. If you have any questions about the Italian series or any other Voces Digital resource, please reach out and I will do my best to answer you as soon as I can. Arrivederci!

Turning My Love of Eurovision into a Class Unit

Even though the Eurovision Song Contest has been around for over 60 years, I didn’t discover it until a few years ago when the wonderful Cécile Lainé wrote about a French Eurovision participant in her wonderful resource Le Petit Journal Francophone.

If you aren’t familiar with Eurovision, it is an annual song contest. Participants from Australia, every European country, and a few countries geographically outside of Europe like Israel and Armenia are eligible to compete for the title of Best Eurovision song for the year. The winning country hosts the contest the following year, which can potentially generate millions in revenue from tourists for the competition.

After I learned of this competition, I started developing what may be called an unhealthy obsession with it. My obsession started in earnest when Netflix released the Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which was about an Icelandic band performing in Eurovision. My obsession then solidified when the 2021 Eurovision competition became available for streaming in the USA for the first time on Peacock (I think Netflix has plans to show it on their platform also).

I love sooooo many things about Eurovision. I love the elaborate sets, the freaky costumes, and, most especially, the diverse selection of songs and performers in the competition. I’ve seen a heavy metal band dressed as demons, a group of singing grandmas, a man in a hamster wheel, a puppet, and millions of dollars worth of pyrotechnics. Year to year, it is impossible to predict what one will see on the Eurovision stage.

I also love how Eurovision has come to symbolize inclusivity. Countries that we think of as being predominantly White send performers of color, thus highlighting the growing racial diversity in Europe. Eurovision’s first transgender contestant was in 1998, which was incredibly groundbreaking at the time. They’ve also had drag queens, openly gay and bisexual performers, and performers with disabilities ranging from cystic fibrosis and Tourette’s Syndrome to autism and down’s syndrome. Performers are free to be completely genuine and honest about who they are, and I love that.

This year, I have channeled my Eurovision obsession into the final unit of my French 1 class. Here is what my lesson included.

Day 1: Since most of my students have never heard of Eurovision, I started with this presentation. In the first part, I explain what Eurovision is, how long it has been around, and a few other facts such as voting rules, which country has won the most number of times, well-known participants, and the most well-known song. In the second part, I discuss some memorable Eurovision performances and milestones. I make sure to mention some performers that I think my students will know, like Céline Dion, who performs the signature songs from both Titanic and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Alexander Rybak, whose song “Into a Fantasy” was featured in the movie How To Train Your Dragon. This presentation was especially great for practicing numbers because we could talk about what year something happened. This is especially needed in French since the numbers 70-99 can be problematic.

Day 2: Students completed a Pear Deck about my Eurovision presentation to check comprehension (For more information about Pear Deck, click here).

Day 3: Since I had done a clothing unit with my students this past year, I showed them this presentation about some of the more outrageous Eurovision costumes worn over the years. I did a Picture Talk activity with the presentation, but in the future I may print out the presentation and have students do a Gallery Walk activity with the pictures, matching descriptions of the photos written in French with the correct pictures.

Day 4: I told students that we were going to do our own mini-Eurovision contest. First, I grouped students in teams of two or three. Then, I assigned each group a country (I printed out flags of each country, which students put in the center of their group). Then we located each country using Google Maps and talked about its major cities and its location (which gave us ample opportunity to use prepositions and directional words).

Day 5: We watched the videos that were part of our mini-Eurovision contest (Please make sure you preview ALL your videos ahead of time!). Since I knew that almost none of my students knew anything about this year’s winners, the videos in my competition were the top ten performances for 2021 (I did this activity two weeks after the Eurovision contest aired). If you replicate this, you can choose any group of videos you want, but using this year’s winners gave this unit a degree of authenticity and made it more exciting for my students, because we were able to compare our results with the real winners. I also recommend that the videos you include in your contest come from the countries you assigned students previously. This makes things a little more interesting since students cannot vote for their own country.

Day 6: In the target language, we tallied votes. In the real contest, countries give a series of points ranging from one to twelve, and viewers at home call in to cast votes too. To keep things simple for us, our country teams just gave points for first, second, and third place (twelve, eight, and four points respectively). Once we tallied up all our votes, we established our class winners and compared our list to the real list of winners.

This was a really fun unit for the end of the year. Many of my students got really excited and very animated as they made their case for their favorite performance. The fact that my students were all in groups required them to compromise and collaborate, which are always important skills to practice and refine. I hope that my students also started to develop an appreciation for songs that aren’t sung in English. Since I teach in the US, students don’t usually listen to songs in anything other than English, which means that they are missing out on some fantastic music!

The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote Instruction: Z is for ZoomIt

Yay, I’ve made it to the end of this A-Z series!

When I started this series last year, I never thought that so many educators would still be conducting instruction remotely over a year after they started. But here we are, and many of us have spent the last year teaching in some sort of remote or hybrid model. We have become very adept at navigating much of the technology that seemed so new and exciting to us a year ago when I started blogging about it in this series.

When I got the idea to begin this series, I was sure that this, my last installment, would be about using Zoom, the meeting software that allows people to hold meetings remotely. But that was a year ago when hardly anyone had heard of it or used it that much. But now it’s a year later, and I think much has been written and said about how to use Zoom and similar applications like Microsoft Teams or Google Meet and all their features in an education setting. We’re tired of virtual classes, saying “You’re muted,” and teaching to black screens. We’re so over Zoom. So instead, I’ve decided to use this post to talk about another application called ZoomIt.

ZoomIt is a downloadable tool that allows users to annotate on and zoom in and out on their computer screens. It is a piece of software that users can download. Once it’s installed, it stays dormant until the user activates it . Once activated, users can customize keyboard shortcuts to operate it. It also plays very nicely with other software on computers, including virtual meeting technology like Zoom or Google Meet.

I heard about ZoomIt from Brett Chonko, how maintains a YouTube channel called Comprehensible RVA. You can click on the picture below to access his video demonstrating this software.

I have been using Zoom for over a year now and I know that Zoom has a feature that allows users to annotate directly on the screen. My school district disabled that feature, however, to prevent mischievous youngsters from being able to use it, so I found this tool to be handy as a workaround to that. And I am not familiar enough with other virtual meeting software to know if the ability to annotate is available, so if not, teachers may want to explore using this software if they are interested in annotating anything on their computer.

Thanks to everyone who kept up with my A-Z series. I hope you found something useful in these posts and that you will stick around for future, non-pandemic teaching thoughts on this blog!

The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote Instruction: Y is for Yes, You Can Assess Remotely

I consider myself to be fortunate enough to teach at a school that did away with traditional letter/percentage grades last spring in favor of a progress report. The administrators realized that we would not be measuring true ability in the subject matter but would instead be assessing things like the students’ ability to work successfully in the remote setting, stability of their home life, access to electronic devices and reliable Wi-Fi, and other issues of inequity that hinder academic performance.

That all changed when I came back in August to teach in a hybrid/remote setting. The feedback the administration had received was that parents wanted the school to return to traditional grades. The spring progress report was OUT and the old letter/percentage report card was back IN (Let me digress for a moment to say how disappointed I was in this decision, because my assumption is that those parents whose feedback we decided to honor are those whose children don’t have many equity issues with remote learning. Education is full of instances of nice white parents calling the shots).

Since I was now responsible for supplying a letter grade, I had to figure out what and how to assess both accurately and equitably but also design activities and tasks that limited student dishonesty. I’ll talk about both of those in the remainder of this post. First, I will talk about the day-to-day grades that students earned in class and then I will describe how I calculated final quarter averages.

Here’s a list, in no particular order, of how I approached my day-to-day grades:

  1. I counted as many grades as possible for completion only (Completed/Missing).
  2. I counted as many graded activities as possible as formative assessments.
  3. I used Google Forms in Locked mode for quick assessments, because students couldn’t click out of the form until it was completed (FYI, this is only available on managed devices supplied by the school).
  4. I had students take assessment online using quiz sites like Quizizz and EdPuzzle (Other teachers have used similar sites like Textivate and Go Formative).
  5. I set up assignments in Voces Digital so that students couldn’t click out of the page they were in until they had submitted their work.
  6. I saved all texts as an image before I uploaded them so students couldn’t easily cut/paste it into a translation program.
  7. I recorded myself speaking in the target language, which I then uploaded to Padlet and Flipgrid for students to respond to.
  8. I uploaded Google Slides presentations to Pear Deck with embedded questions that students answered in real time.

As the quarter ended, I thought long and hard about how to report grades on student report cards. Here is how I calculated students’ letter grades:

  1. My three summative scores counted for 60% of my students’ grade. They consisted of one reading assessment loosely based on the Interpretive Reading section of the AAPPL test completed on a locked Chromebook and two self-reflection score sheets (one at the midpoint and one at the end of the quarter) asking students to comment on their classroom engagement and language proficiency gains.
  2. My graded formative scores counted for 40% of my students’ grade. Those scores came from any graded assignment that would be difficult for students to do dishonestly. Most of those came from Voces Digital, Edpuzzle, Flipgrid, or Google Forms in locked mode.
  3. I did NOT put zeroes in my gradebook for missing assignments. If students had twenty grades but only submitted fifteen assignments, I calculated their grade out of those fifteen that they did, and then I described their work ethic (or lack thereof) in the comments section of the report card.

At first I was skeptical about how accurately this would reflect student performance, but it turns out that almost none of those students with multiple missing assignments ended up getting an “A” for the quarter, for two reasons. First, their lack of consistent practice made it more difficult for them to score well on the reading assessment and on graded formative assignments that they did turn in. Second, when faced with questions about their own work habits and proficiency development on the self-reflection score sheets, students had no choice but to assess their ability and practice accurately as lower than those of their classmates who were working consistently. When I explained this to students and parents, I used a sports analogy. Students on a track team who train consistently are usually going to outperform those students who don’t practice regularly and/or improve their overall personal time. Language proficiency is no different.

Can I say that my assessments and final grades are 100% accurate in measuring student performance and growth? No, of course not. If students want to cheat, they will certainly find a way to do it. But I have definitely tried to make it as difficult as possible for them to be able to. I also can’t say that I was able to make my quarter grades 100% equitable because so much is beyond my control (student attendance, home environment, and so on), but I am doing all I can to be fair. And while I would prefer not having to give letter grades at all, I’m doing my best so that the grades students earn reflect their honest ability in the language spite of inequities they may be dealing with outside of my class.

The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote Instruction: X is for eXtend that Text

In any comprehensible input (CI) language class, students do lots of reading. This year in my French 1 class, I am using an CI-based online program that is chock full of stories called Notre Histoire (see this post for more information). In addition, as part of a number of strategies I use in class, like Special Person Interviews, Storyasking, and Movie Talks, I create texts with my students using the Write and Discuss strategy that I talked about in this post.

Last year, I started doing an activity that I call “Extending the Text.” Basically, I take a text that students are very familiar with (either one from Notre Histoire that we have reviewed extensively or a Write and Discuss text that the class has created together) and I ask them follow-up questions designed to elicit more details from them. Then I add those details to my original text, resulting in a piece of writing that has more complexity but still retains comprehensibility. With any luck, exposure to these more complex texts will help students increase their level of proficiency.

Here is an example. Let’s say that your class is in the middle of a TPRS story. You have established the main character and his problem. You have added parallel characters and have established a few details about them too. You do a Write and Discuss activity and end up with a text like the one below:

There is a boy. The boy is John. John lives in Memphis, Tennessee in a house with Madison. Madison is a girl. There is another boy. The boy is Jack. Jack lives in an apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico with John Cena.

Now it is time to extend the text, which I will do by asking questions. Maybe I feel that my students need more practice using adjectives. In that case I might ask, “What is John like?” Maybe they need practice talking about how old people are. In that case, the logical question is, “How old is Jack?” Maybe I want to reinforce structures students need to express likes and dislikes, so in that case I’ll ask, “What does Madison like to do?” Then I’ll add those answers to my original text, thus extending it. My new text might look like this below (new additions are in italics):

There is a boy. The boy is John. John is tall. He is 21 years old. He has brown hair and blue eyes. He is shy but friendly. He likes to read and play soccer. John lives in Memphis, Tennessee in a small, blue house with Madison. Madison is a girl. She is eighteen years old. She is medium height. She has red hair and green eyes. She is very smart. She likes to study chemistry. There is another boy. The boy is Jack. Jack is very friendly and generous. He is 22 years old. He likes to draw and paint. Jack lives in an old apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico with John Cena.

Like any good CI strategy, the higher the level, the more complex the structures. In an upper level class, my original text would be in a past tense, and my questions designed to elicit more information and subsequent sentences I added to the original text would be more complex. So that original text above about John might look like this below in an advanced class after doing some TPRS:

There was a boy who was named John. John lived in Memphis, Tennessee in a house with Madison. Madison was a girl. There was another boy. The boy’s name was Jack. Jack lived in an apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico with John Cena.

After asking questions to elicit more information, my new text in the advanced class might look like this one below (new additions are in italics):

There was a boy whose name was John. John was 21 years old. John was tall with brown curly hair and blue eyes. He had a small mole on his cheek. He liked to read and play soccer. He started playing soccer when he was five years old. John lived in Memphis, Tennessee in a house with Madison. John moved to Memphis when he was fifteen. Before that, he lived in Nashville. John met Madison in high school. Madison was a girl. She was also 21 years old. She had lived in Memphis her whole life. She was studying to be a doctor. There was another boy. The boy’s name was Jack. Jack was very friendly and generous. He was 22 years old. He started drawing and painting when he was in middle school. He wanted to become an artist. Jack lived in an old apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico with John Cena.

At the Novice level, I find that fictional texts are the easiest to stretch, since it gives students more freedom when trying to stretch out the text. Non-fiction texts are too restrictive and require more specific vocabulary, so I would save those for upper-levels.

I started using this technique when teaching face-to-face, but it is very easy to adapt to remote teaching. While on Zoom or Google Meet, all teachers need to do is paste the original text into a shared document, share the screen, and ask students for details, which they can share by unmuting themselves or typing suggestions in the chat. Then teachers would just type any additional details into the document. They can even add italics or highlighting to separate the original text from the additions if they want to.

And the absolute best thing about this particular strategy is that it takes almost no prep. All you need is a text that students are familiar with and you’re good to go. If you decide to try this, let me know how it goes!

The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote Instruction: W is for Write and Discuss

Write and Discuss is a strategy that I learned at a workshop with Tina Hargaden of CI Liftoff. (If you would like more details about Tina’s workshop, click here and here. As I recall, Tina did not invent the Write and Discuss strategy, but started using it in her classes pretty early on). Simply, put, it is a strategy where the teacher and the students in class write a summary of whatever they have been talking about in class using the TL and then they talk about it. The teacher usually begins the Write and Discuss by starting a sentence in the target language (I often start mine with “There is/There are”) and then stopping to ask students to complete the sentence. For example, if the class just read a story about a boy in school, their writing process may be the following exchange (I have written this in English in case anyone reading this doesn’t speak Spanish or French):

Teacher writes: There is…

Teacher asks: Class, what is there? Is there a girl or a boy?

Class says: A boy.

Teacher finishes the sentence by writing “a boy” and says: There is a boy…What is his name?

Class: Marvin.

Teacher says: There is a boy…class, what else do I need to add before Marvin so this sentence is complete?

Class: Who is called.

Teacher writes “who is called Marvin.” Teacher says: Where is he?

Class: At school

The teacher then continues asking questions and coaxing sentences out of the students until they have a complete paragraph about the subject. Then the teacher reads the entire completed paragraph out loud. The teacher may ask the class to translate either whole sentences or isolated words as the teacher reads. Once the class and the teacher have finished reading and translating, the teacher then may decide to point out writing conventions or words and phrases that illustrate grammar patterns in the text (If you’re a visual learner like me, here is a video of a Write and Discuss activity in a Spanish class to help visualize what this looks like in a regular class). A possible follow-up activity the next day may be a short assessment about the paragraph.

Before the pandemic, Write and Discuss was a strategy I used once every week or two weeks. I wrote out our paragraphs by hand because it was good for my slow processors. I had a special easel, paper, and markers that I used when doing a Write and Discuss, and if my students misbehaved, I could obligate them to write down the paragraph in their notebooks, which usually quieted and calmed them down (It’s an AWESOME bailout move for anyone with a rowdy or hyper class).

When our school buildings closed in the United States due to the pandemic, many world language teachers tried to readjust their teaching approaches for the remote environment. Although Write and Discuss was not an activity that I could do with my students (I was not providing synchronous instruction then), I did get a chance to see Mike Peto demonstrate Write and Discuss in a Spanish class over Zoom. Adapting this activity to the virtual environment was actually pretty simple. All he had to do was set up a white board behind him and conduct a Write and Discuss activity the same way that he would do it with students in front of him. Students could unmute themselves to suggest additions to sentences or write a suggestion in the chat. Mike also allowed students with lower proficiency levels to suggest in English if they wanted to contribute but didn’t know enough words in Spanish. So simple! In the following picture, you can see how he set up his workspace for virtual Write and Discuss.

(If you’re a Spanish teacher and want to purchase transition word magnets like Mike’s, you can find them on his website. Disclosure: I have no affiliations with him or his products. I just like sharing tools that are easy, free, and/or help World Language teachers provide more CI to their students.)

Now that I’m back in the classroom in a hybrid model, I have started using modified Write and Discuss activities in my class. Unfortunately, I have to type on a computer because I can’t use my easel in a way that the students at home can see it without blocking my view of the students in front of me (Hybrid teaching STINKS! It’s like trying to dribble a basketball with your right hand while simultaneously trying to eat a plate of spaghetti with your left). But at some point, I am pretty sure that my school will switch to either full remote or full in person instruction, and either way, I am prepared to incorporate Write and Discuss.

The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote Instruction: V is for Voces Digital

If you are a French or Spanish teacher who is teaching remotely, you may want to check out a fairly new online book series made by Teacher’s Discovery called Voces Digital. In the past, I have spoken about how much I don’t like textbooks because they are not designed specifically with comprehensible input (CI) teaching in mind. And while I still prefer to teach without a textbook, having pre-made activities to do with my students thanks to Voces Digital has saved my sanity during both remote and hybrid instruction.

Disclosure: I have no affiliations with Teacher’s Discovery or with Voces Digital. I just like sharing tools that help World Language teachers provide more CI to their students. 

Voces Digital has two different series in both French and Spanish for levels one through four. One series is a traditional textbook series and the other is a CI series. The French CI series is called Notre Histoire and the Spanish CI series is called Nuestra Historia (Voces also has a series for ESL, which uses a combination of CI and traditional approaches, and other language series are in the works). Here’s just some of what the series offers:

  • Six units, each one based on one of the AP language themes (Families and Communities, Contemporary Life, Personal and Public Identities, Global Challenges, Beauty and Aesthetics, and Science and Technology).
  • Four short stories and four long stories per unit, each with vocabulary to pre-teach and multiple post-reading activities to reinforce and demonstrate comprehension
  • Multiple texts about the French and Spanish speaking world designed to reinforce intercultural competency
  • “Pop up” grammar explanations
  • Embedded videos and audio recordings
  • Safeguards to prevent students from cheating
  • End-of-Unit Integrated Performance Assessments (IPAs)
  • An online gradebook that automatically corrects multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and true/false activities
  • The ability to edit pages to tailor the content to the ability levels and individual needs of students

And these are just the features I was able to think of just off the top of my head! If that entices you to investigate further (and I think it should), you can sign up for a free two-week trial and explore the program yourself.

So what’s the downside? First, the cost may be prohibitive. I have one-year access to and unlimited student accounts for one title (Notre Histoire 1) and it costs $500 a year. That’s a hefty chunk of change for many school districts. But the good news is that teachers can get a decent discount if they purchase multiple titles (and let’s face it…if you teach high school, it’s highly unlikely that you only teach one level of language).

In addition, I don’t find the program to be naturally intuitive (When an online program needs nineteen videos so teachers can learn how to use it, one has to wonder…is this the absolute best design possible?). I don’t recommend that you ask students to use the program independently until you have demonstrated how it works with them. And since the program is still a work in progress, it has some glitches here and there (I repeatedly tell my students that if they can’t complete a single activity after working on it for 30 minutes, they should stop and notify me that they had an issue in case it is due to a technical problem). But the good news is that the creators of this program are extremely receptive to emails about technical glitches and suggestions to improve the product and are willing to work with schools or individual teachers as needed.

As the pandemic continues, I have no way of knowing if and when I will be back to business as usual. But until that happens, I’m very grateful to have this program to access for CI readings and activities. Mind you, I don’t use it every day, but I still like knowing that I can rely on this when I need to!