Let the Wheel Decide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Using YouTube Videos in French and Spanish Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Promoting the Seal of Biliteracy is Good for Second Language Programs

I don’t know what things are like in your state, but here in New England, many states have started programs that allow students to earn the Seal of Biliteracy in high school. The Seal of Biliteracy is a program that allows second language students to earn a seal on their diploma recognizing them for being biliterate, meaning that they are proficient in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehending two languages. Qualifications for earning the Seal vary from state to state, but in most states students need to demonstrate that they possess at least  an Intermediate Mid language proficiency as measured by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency scale. Many states are measuring this with the AAPPL or STAMP tests, which are computerized language proficiency tests. Other measures include at least a 3 on an Advanced Placement exam or at least a four on the International Baccalaureate exam.

If you teach a second language and live in a state that offers the Seal of Biliteracy, you should inquire about the Seal of Biliteracy in your district. And if your district hasn’t implemented this program yet, you should try to convince them that they should. Not only will it give your district something to brag about, but it is good for your language program overall. Here are two reasons why.

First of all, earning a score of Intermediate Mid proficiency is not something that most students can do in a few years. According to this CASLS study, only a small percentage of students enrolled in four years of a second language high school program reach Intermediate Low, and even fewer reach Intermediate Mid. ACTFL reached similar findings, which you can find on this graph. 

This information is the ammunition needed to advocate for the implementation, expansion, and/or retention of out second language programs. If our superintendents want to brag about awarding the Seal of Biliteracy in their school district, they are going to have to put their money where their mouth is and support second language education at the middle school level.

Second, implementing the Seal of Biliteracy can be a great way to highlight and promote comprehensible input teaching approaches. I think students taught using comprehensible input (CI) approaches will develop higher language proficiency overall than students in traditional programs. I have no direct data that supports this, but I did see this, which is a review of studies comparing classed taught with Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), with is one CI approach, and traditional teaching approaches. Overwhelmingly the research finds that students in TPRS classrooms perform at least as well as, if not better than, assessments given to students in traditional classrooms. As far as I know, research has not studied the efficacy of TPRS with a proficiency test, but nonetheless the data does suggest that students in a TPRS program advance more quickly that those in traditional programs.

I also have some anecdotal evidence about the success of CI approaches related to the Seal of Biliteracy. Just last week, I had a conversation with a woman who is the World Language Department Head at a local school. Last year, 28 students earned the Seal of Biliteracy. Of those students, only three studied Spanish. The rest were all French students. In this school, all the French students are taught with a CI approach and all Spanish students have traditional teachers. Last I heard, the school principal was very interested in why so many French students and so few Spanish students earned the Seal of Biliteracy. I am sure this department head will have a lot to say about this.

I predict that it will soon become very fashionable for school districts to offer students the chance to earn the Seal of Biliteracy. If you haven’t already checked out to see if it is offered in your state, reach out to your state language association for more information. Implementing this program could really be beneficial for your school district. 

Classroom Management, Revisited

Last year I went to a TPRS workshop with Mike Coxon and Craig Sheehy. This was the first time I heard about their classroom management system. Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS, calls it the Party Points System. The Party Points system awards the class points for staying in the target language (TL) for eight minute segments. The teacher uses a timer and resets the timer every time someone talks in English. If the class is successful in staying in the target language for eight minutes, they get a point. After a certain number of points, the class gets a reward (View this post for more on this system).

I came home from the conference and implemented this system. It worked really well. My problem behaviors decreased dramatically. I ignored colleagues who criticized the system and was able to make it to the end of the year with hardly any discipline issues at all. Life was good.

At the National TPRS conference in Boston over the summer, I heard again from Blaine about how awesome the Party Points System was. When the new school year started, I made plans to implement Mike and Craig’s reward system again. As far as I was concerned, it was foolproof, right?

Nope.

I have one class this year that has been difficult since our first week back in August. The class is very large (27 students), which makes classroom management difficult. I also have a large number of boys in the class who don’t take class seriously. I abandoned the Party Points System with them because I got nowhere. They were so bad that they often earned zero points in one 45-minute class. The well-behaved students were frustrated by those who constantly blurted in English and spent class socializing, and the ones who caused the problems stopped caring about a reward. As far as they were concerned, if they were never going to earn any points, why bother trying to behave? It was a lost cause.

So I implemented the “hard reset.” I spoke to the class about their behavior, explained why I was abandoning the point system, and returned to my old-school management system à la Ben Slavic. It’s only been a few days since the switch, but things are a little better. My students aren’t little angels, but the threat of calling home is keeping most of them in line. The moral of the story, then, is that no classroom management system is perfect. Some kids just naturally will misbehave, and it’s up to the teacher to figure out how to manage them in the most effective way possible. And considering that I have been teaching for over 20 years, I should have known that.

A New Year’s Reset

Yay! December Break is finally here! I have been looking forward to a little rest and relaxation. And yet, my teacher brain just cannot turn itself off. All the Christmas presents have been opened and New Year’s Eve is still a few days away, making this the perfect time to start thinking about what I’m going to do once I am back in my classroom next week. I have two changes I plan to make to my Interpersonal Communication Skills Rubric and a great Movie Talk I’m planning to do once I return to work. More details are below.

The rubric I use for self-assessment is similar to ones that are found on Ben Slavic’s website. This rubric asks students to evaluate themselves based on how well they listen with the extent to understand and how well they support the flow of language in class.

Now that I have started Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) in class, I have replaced “Listen with the Extent to Understand” to “Listen AND READ with the Extent to Understand.” I don’t hold students responsible for what they read, which means no book reports, assessments, or projects based on their books, but I do want them to actually read. Most of them do but I still have a few that don’t (I have one student who purposely held her book upside down during our last FVR session, and when I said something to her about it she said, “I just don’t feel like reading.” This is exactly the kind of behavior I hope to address with the altered rubric).

The other adjustment I have made to my rubric involves how well students support the flow of language. Students are required to respond to my whole-class questions, usually only with a word or two. The problem is that I have a lot of students who give themselves full credit on their rubrics for answering my whole-class questions but I usually can only hear a handful of kids. As a result, I have rewritten the rubric so that students will only be able to give themselves full credit on the rubric if their answer is audible. I’m not going to give students full credit if they mumble or whisper anymore.

Along with these two changes, I’ve also planned to do a Movie Talk when I return to school based on the clip Lily and the Snowman. It is the story of a girl who builds a snowman that comes to life. It’s a perfect Movie Talk for the middle of winter, don’t you think?

An Eye-Opening Conversation

Recently I had an amazing conversation with my mother that I have to share with you.

Two days ago, I told her that I would be leading a professional development workshop for a local school district. I then proceeded to tell her that I would be talking about second language acquisition (SLA) and how what I know about it has changed the way I teach my language classes (For more about my presentation, click here). I then proceeded to talk to her about Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis (formally called the Input Hypothesis) and what Bill Van Patten says about explicit instruction, which is that it does not lead to implicit knowledge because language is too abstract to be reduced to a set of rules.

When I talk about what I know about SLA, I am usually met with skepticism. The theories do not reflect what happens in our traditional classrooms. Even though few people learn a second language through grammar drills and memorizing vocabulary lists, most people still believe that traditional instruction is the way to learn a second language. So I was expecting my mother to possess the same skepticism when I talked to her about comprehensible input (CI). But instead, she said, “That makes perfect sense to me!” She then went on to tell me about her experiences in her high school German class, in which she, like most people in traditional classes, learned ABOUT the language but did not become proficient IN the language. She then went on to say that the only time she has ever felt that she was “getting” language was when she was in a country where that language was spoken and she was being bombarded with CI.

For my mother, this was a real eye-opening conversation. She is now in her early seventies, and she has spent all those years since high school believing that she couldn’t learn a second language because there was something wrong with her. Now she realizes that she did not become proficient in a second language because her teacher did not use methods based on SLA theory.

We in the United States have intellectualized second language instruction to such an extent that the only people who find any success in traditional classes are the cream of the crop, because those students who are not freaky language geniuses drop out. As a result, there are probably MILLIONS of people in the United States who had or are currently having an experience similar to my mother’s. It makes me really sad to think that so many former and current language students walk around thinking that they are too stupid to be successful in a second language.

One of the great things about teaching with CI is that, since it is based on theories of how people acquire language, any student who pays attention and stays engaged will gain proficiency, even if s/he doesn’t want to. As students are exposed to compelling written and spoken messages that they understand, they will receive input, which helps develop their internal language systems. As their internal language systems develop, students begin to recognize that they have developed some proficiency in the language. As a result, their confidence and motivation will grow and, with any luck, they will never feel that they are too stupid to become proficient in a second language.

This conversation with my mother has made me even more committed to teaching with CI. Not only do I want students to develop proficiency in the language, but I also want them to feel proud of themselves and become confident, motivated language learners. I don’t ever want students in my class to think that they are too stupid for language study and that they just can’t “get” it.

Now that my mother knows a bit about SLA theory and how to acquire a second language, I wonder if she will consider trying to improve her proficiency in a second language? My guess is that she probably won’t. But at the very least it is probably nice that she knows that her lack of proficiency isn’t her fault.

What I’ve Been Thinking About This Past Week

This past week I became a member of the Board of Directors of an organization of local language teachers. We had a dinner this past Thursday and I had two interesting interactions that I have been thinking about a lot this weekend.

My first interaction was with a fellow teacher trying to embrace comprehensible input (CI) in her classroom. She told me she was struggling a bit so I asked her to tell me what was going on in her classes in the hopes that I could help troubleshoot.

The first issue she is having is that she does not have control over her students’ behavior. As a result, she finds it hard to get through a CI lesson because she cannot get her students to settle down, pay attention, and contribute to the lesson. So I told her about the rewards system that Craig and Mike from TPRS Books talked about when I went to a training this past March. When they taught in a language classroom, they had a points system set up where the amount of time students spent behaving well and staying in the target language resulted in the class earning points. After a certain number of points, the students got a prize (For more information about this system, read this post.).

I implemented this system after I came back from the workshop and I have noticed three major differences. First of all, the number of discipline problems I have experienced has decreased dramatically. Second, since more students are staying on task and paying closer attention to the target language, they have made some impressive language gains in the past two months. And finally, student morale is up because my students are more motivated and excited about earning a prize.

Some teachers might take a look at this system and criticize it because, technically, I am bribing students to get them to behave with the promise of candy, a movie, or a similar privilege. But I am absolutely fine with that because of how much easier it has been for me to teach and because of the amount the progress my students have made since I implemented this system. In addition, this year I have noticed that I have more of my sanity intact than I usually do in the fourth quarter of the school year. I’m not as easily aggravated or mentally tired the way I normally am from dealing with bad behavior for the previous eight months, and it is all thanks to this system. Do I wish that my students were all so intrinsically motivated to acquire language that I didn’t need to entice them with a reward? Yes, of course. But I will gladly give candy bars or movie days if that’s what I need to do to get my class to behave well enough so I can keep my sanity, maintain control over the classroom, and, most importantly, facilitate my students’ acquisition of language.

The second issue this teacher told me about what that she has to deal with a lot of student anger. She said that her students are often mad at her because she refuses to translate any words into English for them. I know some teachers who do not translate for their students, and while I think they do this with the best intentions, I also believe that it is a practice that can be a substantial roadblock to second language acquisition. It can also kill motivation and create a negative atmosphere in the classroom.

Teachers who refuse to translate expressions for their students tell me that they do this to obligate students to develop the deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills that are involved in determining meaning in the target language (TL). They also say that this practice makes second language acquisition a more natural process because it mimics the way people acquired their first language. But the amount of frustration this creates for some of our students can lead to a scenario like the one the above mentioned teacher is experiencing in her classroom. This practice can cause students anxiety, which can raise the Affective Filter and impede language acquisition overall. Moreover, any teachers who are providing input in their classroom must make sure that the input is comprehensible. The problem with never translating is that sometimes we cannot be sure that are students are understanding us otherwise. As Mike said at our March TPRS conference, the problem with immersion is that it sometimes become submersion, which is what I think is happening in this teacher’s class.

Does that mean that I think teachers should translate every single word and expression they use in the classroom? No, of course not. Teachers should not have to translate concrete words and expressions if they can convey meaning with a picture or gesture. For example, I have never told my French students that the word “chat” means “cat” in English, because whenever I use this word I show a picture of a cat or make cat noises. But if a student ever asked me to tell them what “chat” meant in English I would gladly translate it for them to make my input comprehensible and decrease any anxiety that student may be feeling about not understanding.

My second interaction at the dinner was with a veteran language teacher who is extremely active in a number of language organizations. I told her that I taught with CI, and her response was, “Of course, because you’re a middle school teacher.” I must confess that I got a bit annoyed by this comment, because it stems from some common misconceptions about the CI teaching approach.

One implication here is that CI teaching is not serious enough language instruction for high school level classes. This perception may partially be due to this teacher’s limited knowledge of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). Teachers who use this approach tell and create stories in their classrooms, some of which are quite ridiculous (In one of my classes, for example, we are working on a story about Beyoncé, who works at Walmart selling elephants). What teachers are missing, however, is the fact that TPRS isn’t just about telling silly stories. Moreover, there are plenty of other ways to provide CI besides TPRS, all of which are listed in the picture below and don’t revolve around silly stories.

ci-umbrella-final-version1

Another implication made by this comment is that CI teaching is not rigorous enough for high school classes. Without emphasis on explicit grammar and long vocabulary lists, CI teachers generally have better grades than traditional teachers do. For the life of me, I can’t understand why this is bad. We should not want our students to be unsuccessful in our classes. We should not want a classroom where only the strong survive. We should not want dwindling class sizes in the upper levels because of how difficult our classes are. We should not want to teach only to the elite few who “get” grammar. Teaching with CI creates an equitable environment where all students have the opportunity to be successful, and I for one am very proud of that. Many teachers across North America use CI in their high school classes, even at the advanced placement level, with very good results.

The second interaction I had at the dinner was with a friend of mine who said, “Even though I am a TPRS teacher, I don’t tell people I am. I just say that I teach with comprehension in mind.” Unfortunately, the myth that teaching with CI is not serious or rigorous instruction has given it a bad reputation in some areas, so much so that some teachers don’t even admit that they use this approach for fear that they will alienate other teachers. The last thing we should want as teachers is create an environment of us (CI teachers) versus them (textbook teachers), because ultimately all teachers want what is best for their students. But I also know that traditional teachers can get intimidated and defensive when CI teachers start talking about what they do and do not do in their classrooms. It’s actually pretty prudent for CI teachers to tread lightly when interacting with non-CI teachers, and is something that I might start doing myself.

At the end of the dinner, the president of the organization asked me if I would get involved in planning and promoting professional development for the language organization. Based on the interactions I had at this dinner, it sounds as if this will be more of a challenge than I thought. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Random Thoughts on a Snowy Day

Hi all,

Here in New England I am in the midst of my ninth snow day so far this year. Being stuck in the house all day has given me plenty of time to think about how my school year is going so far. So, in no particular order, here are some of the random thoughts I have had today.

1. Netflix is a great resource for teachers looking to brush up on their language skills. I know that I have posted before about how my language skills have improved by watching TV, and I am so impressed by how much my language has progressed that I just HAD to mention it again. Netflix is THE place to go to find TV shows to watch in almost any language. Now the company has started producing its own TV shows, and the Netflix originals have both audio and subtitles in multiple languages. For example, the Netflix show The Crown is available with audio in English, French, Spanish, and Italian and can be watched with subtitles in French, Spanish, and both traditional and simplified Chinese (this means nothing to me, but it will probably mean something to you if you are a Chinese teacher). And the number of international shows you can find on Netflix is mind-boggling! Unfortunately, many of these shows are not appropriate to show in a K-12 classroom, but they are great for teachers to use to keep up their own personal practice.

2. Special Person Interviews are a great way to help beginning students acquire language. I wrote about Special Person Interviews in this post, but wanted to revisit the topic now that I am done with them in my first year French classes. After listening to seventeen Special Person interviews, my students are now able to do the following:

  • say dates correctly in French
  • talk about people’s likes and dislikes using  a definite article
  • talk about the makeup of people’s families
  • give the names of different classes in French
  • give the names of multiple animals in French
  • give the names of many different foods in French
  • describe people and things using correct French word order (noun followed by adjective)
  • use the verb “avoir” in idiomatic expressions to discuss people’s ages and fears
  • identify French numbers
  • use “de” with negation
  • use the conditional form of “être” and “acheter” to say what people would be or what people would buy
  • use the imperfect form of “être” to talk about what was or were

Obviously, some of my students can do the above list of things better than others, but they are all on their way to acquiring the expressions needed to do the items on this list. And here is the best part – they can do the things on this list even though they have received NO EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION on any of the topics listed above.

3. Lately I have been thinking about teaching vocabulary in novels. In this post I talked about Jason Fritze’s template for planning to teach a novel. The template is fantastic and helps a teacher think about words and expressions that need to be pre-taught before a class reads a novel together. Most teacher’s guides that accompany novels have sections with activities that teachers can use to acquaint students with vocabulary included in a novel before they begin each chapter.

But then I bought the Teacher’s Guide to Brandon Brown Veut un Chien by Carol Gaab. I was surprised that I did not find a large number of activities designed to pre-teach vocabulary. Instead, the guide said two things. First of all, it said that, if the book was level appropriate for the class, students should ALREADY be familiar with most of the necessary vocabulary in the text (and if they weren’t they could look in the glossary). Second, it said that if the teacher started reading the chapter slowly, s/he could just translate any new words while reading (maybe writing them on the board for students to refer to). That way teachers wouldn’t get bogged down in pre-reading activities and could start reading the actual story more quickly. And, since the elementary level books tend to repeat vocabulary, students will naturally acquire most new words later on due to repeated exposure.

In my class, I will be starting Brandon Brown Veut un Chien this upcoming week with my seventh grade and La France en Danger with my eighth grade, and I plan to keep the vocabulary pre-teaching to a minimum. Instead I plan to have my students read along with me, stopping frequently to translate unfamiliar words as they appear in the text. Then I will write an unfamiliar word on the board along with its translation in English and, if it is a high frequency word, I will make sure to include that word in any supplementary activities I do in class (Usually reading the novel is only one of three or four activities that I do in any given class, so I will be sure to incorporate those unfamiliar words in one of my other activities).

4. I still hate thematic units. In this post, I talked about how I find thematic units to be rather restrictive and artificial. I still feel this way and have been moving away from thematic units for some time now. But recently Señor Wooly, aka Jim Woolridge, posted this video about how teachers should go about choosing which of his 25 videos to show in class. The message is simple. Instead of trying to find a video to fit with your unit (based on grammar or vocabulary expressions, for example), Jim urges teachers to pick the video based on the story and let the story dictate what vocabulary and grammar expressions the teacher should present to the class. He argues that, if the story is compelling, students will pick up language without even trying and will make an effort to understand language that might be too complicated for them.

I have been trying this for a while, and I have noticed that, as a result, the conversations I have with my students seem much more natural and much less forced. In addition, students are more engaged in these conversations because they know that I have no hidden agenda. I’m not asking them questions about their favorite season because they have to learn seasons vocabulary but because I am genuinely interested in whether or not some of my students hate summer (and those that have parents who work all the time and end up spending most of the summer home alone or stuck watching younger siblings actually do dislike summer). And if students only can produce words for two out of the four seasons in Spanish at the end of the year? Big deal. They are not high frequency words. And speaking of high frequency words, I have noticed that I naturally end up saying these words all the time, which my students are picking up with little effort due to how often I say them.

I’ve just looked out the window and noticed that the snow has stopped and the sun is out. So I will bid you all adieu as I go shovel. Have a great day and cross your fingers that this is the last of the snowy New England winter!

Proficiency Based Grade Reporting

Guys, can I just tell you how much I LOVE my new school district? I have the absolute freedom to teach however I want and have colleagues that also teach with comprehensible input (CI) or are interested in learning more about it so they can implement CI techniques into their classrooms. Now our totally awesome superintendent has given our department freedom to blow up our grade reporting systems and completely reinvent them, about which I am SO excited!

Currently the district uses a traditional A, B, C reporting system for the middle school (we are a K-8 district). This creates an issue because an A in my class might be different than an A in another class. In addition, some teachers in our department consistently give homework. In that class, therefore, a student may have a good grade because she does all the homework and a student with a poor grade may never do homework and end up with multiple zeroes, which brings his grade down. In this case, the grade is not at all based on their ability in the language but on work habits. In contrast, I give almost no homework, so the majority of students in my class have good grades that are based more on their language ability than their work habits. In a nutshell, we lack consistency as a department when it comes to grading, specifically because a letter grade can mean very different things based on whose class a student happens to be enrolled in.

At the elementary level, the second language teachers there assess each student on four criteria on a 1-4 scale. Their criteria include participation, behavior, cultural competence, and language ability. The teachers have over 200 students apiece and they also have to give comments, so this system is very cumbersome for them. So while consistent grading is the goal of the middle school grading practices, at the elementary level it is about creating a system that is less cumbersome for them.

For the middle school, we have decided to create a system based on ACTFL Proficiency Standards, which you can access here if you are not familiar with them. We have five categories: Interpretive Listening, Interpretive Reading, Presentational Writing, Interpersonal Speaking, and Interpersonal Writing. The first three we plan to assess formally and the last two we will assess informally. We will use ACTFL terminology (Novice Low, Novice Mid, etc.) for all categories. We will also report a grade (Not yet, Emerging, Meets, Exceeds) for Active Engagement. So we will have six categories to assess all together. At first I was a little wary of having to report so many different categories, but a colleague pointed out that it really isn’t all that much since there’s no grade calculation involved. Moreover, some students may not progress from quarter to quarter, so we can just copy and paste from one quarter to the next. And finally, if we can’t assess in a certain category, we may leave it blank or define it as being “Not Yet Observable.”

For the elementary school, we have reduced their four categories to two: Active Engagement and Interpretive Listening. We will use the same terminology for Active Engagement at the elementary school that we will use at the middle school but decided as a group not to use ACTFL Proficiency Standards terminology with the elementary students because we do not want parents and students to feel that they are doing poorly in the class when they see the term “Novice Low,” even though, due to the limited time our elementary teachers have, that is where they are SUPPOSED to be, at least at first. Instead, we will use the same category names for Active Listening at the elementary school that we will use for Active Engagement. Then if teachers want to they can keep their own personal records with ACTFL terminology if they desire.

Let me say a few words about that Active Engagement category. This is absolutely NOT a participation grade, for two main reasons. First of all, teaching with CI is all about input and not about output (especially not the forced kind). Second, grading participation is unfair to quiet, reserved students who may be listening and doing everything they need to do in order to be successful in class but will most likely never raise their hand to speak. Our Active Engagement have not been finalized jet, but will most likely be based on the following criteria listen below.

1. Listening with the intent to understand

2. Signaling to the teacher when something is not understood

3. No side conversations or blurting out in English

4. Good posture and eye contact with the teacher

5. A positive, respectful attitude

So now that we have decided to use a proficiency-based grading system, we now have to start testing for proficiency. Specifically, we as a department will have to make sure that we know how to assess writing, reading, listening, and speaking effectively so we can say something like, “This is a Novice Mid writing sample” or “Based on the number of questions this student answered correctly on this assessment, she is at an Intermediate Mid level for Interpretive Reading.” So our department will be researching this and seeking out professional development on this topic. Maybe in the future it will become one of my blog posts! You all will just have to wait and see.

My Thoughts on Thematic Units

I belong to a number of teaching groups on Facebook and I come across a lot of posts that are similar to these:

Does anyone have a good Movie Talk for a unit about shopping?

Does anyone have any good stories to use to talk about sports? Preferably one with command forms?

Posts like this make me cringe. Guys, I am so over planning units based on a theme with a body of knowledge that I need to cover, and the reason why is pretty simple. Teachers who “do” a unit on a specific theme, like eating out in a restaurant or protecting the environment or whatever, are almost always just talking about these themes to “cover” vocabulary expressions and grammatical structures about that theme and are hardly ever really communicating with their students about the topic. And when this happens, little language acquisition is actually taking place. If I try to steer a conversation to make sure that I cover a certain group of vocabulary words or grammatical structures, my kids will very quickly realize that my main objective is to “cover” those vocabulary words or grammatical structures. They will quickly tune me out, because the actual message is not important.

And come on, guys, you have to agree that when you attempt to talk about a certain theme while making sure that you “cover” certain structures, the sentences you end up saying are artificial and often don’t resemble normal conversations. Here, just off the top of my head, is a list of questions that I have asked in a language class that I have never, ever said in a real conversation.

Do you wear pants in the summer when it’s hot out?

Do you use a spoon when you eat ice cream?

Do you get dressed for school before or after you eat breakfast?

Do you reuse or recycle to help the environment?

In case you’re interested, the answer to every one of these questions is the same. Who cares? Not my students.

My goal in my classroom is to talk with my students in a way that feels like a natural, normal conversation. I want them so caught up in what I am saying that they don’t even realize that they are acquiring language. When I think about what to talk about with my students, I choose things that I think my students will find interesting. In addition, I allow the conversation to develop naturally. And while I limit the number of new vocabulary expressions I use with my students, I use whatever grammar I need to make my message comprehensible and interesting. Subjunctive in first year? Yes, if it’s needed. Do I teach the word for sweater without teaching twenty other clothing words? Yes, if what I need to do is tell a student who is cold to put on a sweater or tell one who is hot to take off a sweater. Have I taught all numbers? No, not yet. I have covered 1-31 and the number 2018 because we need them to tell the date. I have taught my French students 55 because it is my favorite number, and I have taught my Spanish students the number 87 because that is how old I tell them that I am.

So I imagine the question you are asking yourself is, “Well, if she doesn’t do thematic units, what does she do?” The short answer is that I do whatever I think my students will find interesting that I can talk about with compelling, comprehensible input. Here is a short list of items that fit this criteria.

  1. Movie Talks. I find a short, compelling video clip, preferably one with a twist at the end, and I talk about it with my students. Sometimes I have additional activities that I do along with the video (If you don’t know how to “do” a Movie Talk, you can read this post and this post).
  2. Calendar Talks. At the beginning of each class, we talk about what is going on that day. We talk about the weather, but mainly only as a springboard to talk about other things. For example, one day last April when it was raining for the tenth or eleventh day in a row I used our weather talk to lament that it had been raining for over a week straight. I got lots of past tense practice by saying, “Saturday it rained,” followed by “Sunday it rained,” and so on. This is when I also talk about any upcoming events, like birthdays or holidays or school functions, and any other event my students might want to mention, such as if they are taking a trip anywhere or playing in an important championship game. I posted recently about using this online calendar as a visual for my Calendar Talks, which my students liked.
  3. Student Interviews.Bryce Hedstrom blogged about this activity here. Basically it involves the teacher interviewing students about themselves in the target language. It is a great activity to use to acquire personal information. I have been doing student interviews for the past few months (I only see my students 3 days a week, so it has taken a while to get through the whole class), but because of this practice my students have acquired language they need to talk about their family, pets, favorite activities, favorite foods, and more.
  4. Personal Anecdotes. My students love it when I tell them stories about my life and my family, and this is one way that I give my students a lot of exposure to the past tense. Sometimes I show my students pictures from my weekend on Monday mornings, which gives us the opportunity to use the past tense. In other instances, I tell my students about interesting events that have happened in my life recently. For example, last year I lost my wedding ring. This turned into a great lesson in class during which I told them that I had lost it, where I looked for it, where it could possibly be, and where I ultimately found it (although I found it a week before I told my class that I had found it, because our conversation about the missing ring was so compelling).

Once I moved away from doing thematic units, two things happened. First of all, I felt liberated. Forcing myself to “cover” a set list of words or grammar structures was making me feel trapped. I didn’t want to have those artificial conversations to make sure that I used all the vocabulary and grammar structures in the unit. Second, student interest increased when we started talking in a more natural way about things they really cared about, which, based on data from their reading quizzes and writing samples, is helping them acquire language. My students are happier and so am I.