Classroom Management, Part 1

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

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

Here are some general guidelines about managing student behavior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student: Bonjour, Madame (Hello Madam).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources for La France en Danger

French teacher friends, I know that Mira Canion is busy preparing a teacher’s guide for her novel La France en Danger. I offer you some ideas about how to teach the novel and offer access to some of the resources I have created for it. You can use them while you wait for the guide to be available for purchase, or even as a compliment to the guide once you have it.

Chapter 1

In the first chapter, the most important thing to do before you start reading the chapter is to make sure the students have some background information regarding some of the cultural references in the novel. In order to do that, I created this PowerPoint that I used to talk about Pauline and Luc (the two protagonists), Paris, the World’s Fair, Pablo Picasso, and the bombing of Guernica.

I also wrote this reading in very simple French to provide background knowledge about Charles de Gaulle and Maréchal Pétain, who do not appear in the book but are mentioned. I did not do any formal assessments on this, since all I wanted was that my students knew who fought on which side during World War Two.

And finally, I wrote this reading in English about the Spear of Destiny. I felt that the topic was too difficult for my students to read in French, so I came up with a reading in English followed by questions in French.

Chapter 2

The most important part of Chapter 2 is the introduction of the two agents, Roger and Marcel. After we read the chapter I divided my class into four groups and assigned each group a character from the chapter, either  Pauline, Luc, Roger, and Marcel. Each group was responsible for drawing a picture of their character and writing a description in French of each person. Then we displayed the pictures in class and I did some question/answer with the class where I asked questions like, “Qui a 24 ans?” and “Qui a de longs cheveux bruns?” Then we compared the four characters with students in the class (Alternatively, you could just have your groups draw a picture of their character, put them on display, and then describe them to the class in French one sentence at a time and have your students guess which character is being described).

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 contains information about Pablo Picasso’s Guernica painting, so I did a number of cultural activities related to the painting before we read the chapter. The activities were designed to help students develop an appreciation of the painting and to introduce some vocabulary that they would need while reading the chapter. You will see that I have five different activities here, but most of them are relatively short, lasting at most 15 minutes each.

First, I showed this PowerPoint about Pablo Picasso. I wanted my class to know that he had created realistic artwork before he developed his modern style that he is most known for and to connect Picasso to Paris, where he was living when he painted Guernica.

Second, I created this “I Spy” activity to encourage students to examine elements in the painting and develop the French vocabulary needed to comprehend the chapter.

Third, to familiarize students with some body part words they need for the chapter, I created this matching sheet where students had to match descriptions with the Picasso painting being described.

I also created this matching sheet to help students think about possible symbols in Guernica.

And finally, I created this quick drawing assignment to reinforce names of body parts in the chapter.

Chapter 4

In Chapter 4, Pauline and Luc go to the famous café-restaurant, Les Deux Magots. I created two resources to go along with it.

Here is the PowerPoint presentation I created about Les Deux Magots to give kids some background information about it.

Here is the Web Quest I created for which students had to search the menu and answer questions about it. Students accessed the menu in french but my Web Quest is in English because I am using it as an Interpretive Listening assignment.

Chapter 5

In this chapter, Pauline and Luc visit la Sainte-Chapelle. Here is the PowerPoint I made about la Sainte-Chapelle.

Chapter 6

In this chapter, Luc and Pauline arrive in Antibes in Pauline’s car, a 1937 Talbot-Lago. You can find lots of great pictures of one of these on Google Images, like the one below.

Talbot Lago 1937

Here’s a great poster for the car too.

Talbot-Lago

In this chapter, Luc and Pauline walk down the promenade Amiral de Grasse. I used Google Maps to “walk” along the promenade so students could get an idea of what the area looks like (and appreciate its gorgeous view!).

Chapter 7

In this chapter, Luc and Pauline enter the Château Grimaldi. Here is the PowerPoint I made to go along with this.

(By the way, it was in this chapter that I realized that the author is not being faithful to the original timeline (which I’m fine with, by the way, because it works in the story). Pauline and Luc go to Antibes because Luc said that Picasso had a connection with the Château Grimaldi. It is already a Picasso museum in the novel, which takes place in 1937. In reality, Picasso did not go to Antibes, where he lived in the Château Grimaldi and contributed a number of paintings to the museum that eventually opened there, until 1946. I don’t think it’s that important to mention the timeline manipulation to students but wanted to make sure that any teachers reading this knew the truth.)

Chapter 8 

In this chapter, Marcel approaches Pauline dressed as a princess with plans to steal her notebook, which contains notes about the location of the Lance du Destin. I did a little Reader’s Theater for this chapter, complete with props (a long-haired wig and a tiara).

Chapter 9

This chapter has the car chase. Roger and Marcel chase Pauline and Luc through Antibes. At the end of this chapter, Pauline and Luc escape when Roger’s car crashes. This is a really short chapter, but I did bring in some miniature cars so we could reenact the car chase.

Chapter 10

In this chapter, the action moves to the city of Arles. Here is the PowerPoint I made about the bull celebrations in Arles.

There are also many videos in YouTube with bull running in Arles. If you decide to look for a video for this, it is very important that you specify “Arles” in your search or else you will end up with bull running in Spain instead.

Since students were not familiar with the practice of bull running, this is a very important chapter to review visually. I used a SmartBoard so students could see the main characters jump the barrier onto the bull running course, the bulls running into the characters on the road, and the main characters’ subsequent jump back over the barrier to safety.

Chapter 11

In this chapter, Luc and Pauline go to a bullfight in Arles. Since bullfighting is only legal in southern France, I decided not to spend too much time talking about the practice. I showed this video about bullfighting in Arles and then explained events quickly in English as needed when we read the chapter.

Chapter 12

In this chapter, Pauline is in possession of the Lance of Destiny and runs to a park while Marcel and Roger pursue her. This is also the chapter where Roger captures Luc. This is another chapter that needs to be reviewed visually, so once again I used my SmartBoard to draw the action in the chapter.

Chapter 13

This is the final chapter! I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the outcome, but I will tell you that Reader’s Theater is a great activity to do as a chapter review.

If you are doing this book with your students, I would love to trade resources! Let me know what fun activities you planned for this text!

Rachel’s Awesome Carlos Game

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Level 1 Themes with Comprehensible Input

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

A Valuable Learning Experience

Even though I have been teaching French and Spanish for over twenty years, I still have those days when my lesson plan blows up in my face. I had a day like that this week, which turned into a valuable learning experience for me. But before I tell you what happened, let me give you a little background.

When I first started teaching French and Spanish, one of the issues I had was that I was constantly overestimating my students’ ability in the target language (TL). Many times I gave my students an assignment or an assessment that I thought they could handle only to watch them struggle unsuccessfully and become frustrated.

It was only after I had been teaching for a while that I learned about how much time it takes to advance in language proficiency and what students are capable of doing at their current proficiency level. I found this chart below to be very valuable.

Capture

Once I saw this chart, I realized that the language in some of the assignments and assessments I was giving was way too advanced for my students’ proficiency level. For example, students at the end of a first-year class usually end up at a Novice Mid level of proficiency. According to the performance indicators created by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL), language learners at this level have a very limited vocabulary. That vocabulary is made up of mostly high frequency and memorized expressions. In addition, they can understand single, isolated phrases, especially if those phrases include cognates and borrowed words. It is only when students reach an Intermediate level that they start understanding paragraph-length text (for more about what learners can do at different language proficiency levels, click here).

Armed with this new insight, I went back to my first-year class and adjusted my expectations. I began telling stories in isolated sentences. And while I still gave students paragraphs to read, I made sure that those paragraphs were full of high frequency words that my students had already seen multiple times in class, and even then I never gave them a paragraph that had more than three or four sentences in it. I also learned to adjust my assessments so students could be successful and not become frustrated my language that was too complex.

So now that you have a little background on how I try to make sure that I give my students activities that they are capable of doing at their proficiency level, let me go back and tell you what happened last week.

My fifth grade Spanish class recently watched the movie Coco. When the movie was over, I gave them a worksheet to complete. Students had to identify the names of members in the family of the protagonist, a boy names Miguel, based on one-sentence descriptions in Spanish. For copyright reasons, I cannot post that worksheet here, so I will do my best to describe it.

The worksheet has two pictures, one of the living members of Miguel’s family and one of the deceased members. Then the page has seventeen clues to the identity of a character in one of the pictures that the students had to match to a person in one of the pictures. With the sentence-length clues and abundance of family vocabulary that they already knew (but which was translated on the Smart Board in case they forgot essential family words), I figured that my students would breeze through that worksheet. Boy, was I wrong.

So what happened? Why did so many students struggle so much on this assignment even though I made sure the language was right at their assumed proficiency level? After speaking with a colleague and doing some reflection on my own, I have a few ideas about what happened.

First, the worksheet asked students to remember the names of all the major characters, whose names we heard many times, as well as minor characters, who only appeared in one or two scenes and whose names were only said once or twice, if at all. I didn’t have a problem filling out the worksheet because I have already seen the movie four or five times. I failed to put myself in the shoes of my students, who were seeing the movie for the first time over a period of three, non-consecutive days and were not as familiar as I was with the details of the film.

Second, I failed to take into account how overwhelming it would be for my fifth graders to read seventeen sentences in Spanish. It overwhelmed many of them, who started to shut down after the tenth sentence, if not earlier. I probably could have given high schoolers seventeen sentences, but not ten-year-olds.

Third, although I translated some unfamiliar words for students on the board, many of them forgot those words were there. So much incomprehensible language caused them to panic, which raised their Affective Filter and impeded acquisition. In addition, I had over twenty words translated on the board. Just seeing the length of that list was probably enough to freak out some of my students. In retrospect, I should have known that having to translate that many words would make the worksheet problematic.

And finally, I lost sight of what I really wanted to do with the worksheet. My main goal was not to see if they remembered the name of Miguel’s great-great-grandmother. The goal was for them to read sentences in Spanish that would, with any luck, provide the comprehensible input they needed to advance their own language proficiency. If I had remembered this, I would have been able to recognize that the worksheet I had for them was not going to do that.

After some reflection, I came up with a set of guidelines I plan to use in the future to assess whether or not texts are too difficult for my students.

1. Make sure the text is at an appropriate proficiency level for students. I will continue to refrain from giving my Novice students paragraph-length texts unless it has simple, predictable language and, when appropriate, visual support.

2. Make sure the text is not too long. If I give my Novice students sentence-length text, I will limit the number of sentences I give them so they don’t become overwhelmed and I will take into account my students’ age and maturity too.

3. Limit the number of words that need to be translated and put those translations near the text so they are easy to see. Having multiple words translated along with a text doesn’t automatically make a text comprehensible.

4. Don’t lose sight of the real reason students are interacting with the text. The main goal of the text is to facilitate language acquisition and check comprehension, and it’s not worth using if it is too long or complex to do that.

I’m going to alter this Coco worksheet for use next year. I plan to eliminate clues about the minor characters in the movie.  That should reduce the number of sentences students need to read and, with any luck, not overwhelm them. Second, I plan to rewrite some of the clues so the language is more comprehensible to my students. And finally, I may split up clues and separate them into a group about the living members of the family and another group about the deceased members of the family.  Since I will be creating the new worksheet(s) myself, I won’t have to worry about copyright infringement. You can expect to see my altered version(s) on my Spanish Resources page.

I’m Flipping Over Flipgrid

Hey all, have you discovered Flipgrid yet?

Flipgrid is an online video sharing platform. It is very easy to use. Through Flipgrid, teachers and students can create and post videos to a “grid” that are shared with anyone who has the special code giving permission to view them. Flipgrid hopes to create engaged communities where students can discuss a wide variety of topics spanning all disciplines. At the TCI Maine conference I attended last October, the fabulous Laurie Clarcq set up a Flipgrid where comprehensible input (CI) teachers at the conference could comment about the workshops they were attending and what they had learned.

I explored some of the grids on Flipgrid created by world language teachers. Most seem to use Flipgrid for speaking projects. I only teach first year French, and since I teach with CI, I don’t do activities in my class that obligate students to speak or write in the target language. Obligating students to speak is referred to as forced output. I have written before about my issue with output activities. Like many CI teachers, I am not a fan for many reasons. TPRS teacher Chris Stolz sums up quite succinctly what I think about forced activities on his blog, where he wrote, “Forced output is not language– it is drama, recitation, what VanPatten calls ‘language-like behaviour,’ but it’s not language.”

I decided to use Flipgrid as a source of input, and not output (Last year I talked about transforming output activities into input activities in this post). I reached out to the English teacher in France with whom I have an epal exchange. Then I made an introductory video in English on Flipgrid in which I talked about myself and my community. My students all made introductory videos about themselves in English as well. Then I sent the link to the English teacher in France so she and her students can make introductory videos in French for us. As a result, my students are providing CI to her students by recording videos in English and her students are providing CI to my students by recording in French. Since my students are already very excited about having French epals, this is a highly engaging activity for them as they get to know a little bit more about the French students.

Viewers can slow down the speed of the videos to improve comprehension, which is a nice feature, but the absolute coolest thing about the videos made on Flipgrid is that I can download them and save them for future use. I plan to create some comprehension activities that I can use in the upcoming years to go along with the videos this summer. Downloading and saving videos also gives me an opportunity to show the same videos multiple times throughout the year so my students can see the progress they are making in understanding spoken French.

If you are interested in trying something like this but you don’t have an epal exchange, I suggest you visit this epals site to connect with other classes. You can also make connections through Facebook or other social media sites. And if you come up with any other ideas about how to use Flipgrid for providing comprehensible input, let me know so I can try your idea too!

 

 

 

 

 

My Awesome News

As I have said previously in posts in this blog, I started a new job this year. As I mentioned in this post, my current students are making excellent progress. I continue to be pleasantly surprised when I hear the language my students are starting to produce, and am even more impressed by how much they understand. My four evaluations have all been fantastic due to the high level of student engagement in my classes. And I recently received some awesome news that I wanted to share with all of you.

At my new school, sixth graders take a quarter of each of the four languages we offer (French, Spanish, Latin, or German). Then in the late spring they choose which language they wish to pursue as seventh graders. I’m happy to report that French (which I teach) was the most popular choice this year, with almost 40% of sixth graders choosing to take French in the seventh grade next year.

This result took me completely by surprise, for two main reasons. First of all, French is NEVER the most popular language choice. In my area, Spanish is thought to be the most useful language to study. And in my school, Latin is very popular because it is taught by an engaging teacher who doesn’t assign homework. If you had asked me which language would be the most popular choice among our sixth graders this year, I would have guessed that it would be Spanish, for how practical most people think it is today, or Latin, for its popularity among students who don’t like to do schoolwork outside of class.

The second reason why I was so surprised that French was the most popular choice of language is because I underestimated how positively students would respond to a class taught with CI, most likely due to the fact that the world language department at my previous school disapproved of CI methods. Over the ten years that I taught using a CI approach there I never had anyone I worked with complement me or support what I did in my classroom (For example, on one occasion I proudly showed my department head a set of beautiful free writes. She picked up one and started criticizing all the grammar mistakes the student had made and asked why I hadn’t corrected them. As you may already know, second language acquisition theory states that error correction doesn’t help students improve their language skills).

I was the misfit of the world language department, and even though I knew that teaching with CI was better for my students, I think subconsciously a part of me wondered if maybe the traditional teachers in my department were right. After all, they had the respect of the school administration and students, who believed that a traditional textbook approach was the only effective way to study a second language, and support from the entire textbook industry, who continued creating traditional materials for their use in the world language classroom. I guess a part of me always felt that, if so many people seemed to think that a traditional textbook approach was the best approach to language study, maybe they were right and it was my approach that was wrong.

Learning that French was the most popular choice at my new school for the upcoming year has erased all those doubts I had about teaching with CI. It has given me a sense of validation I didn’t have at my last job. I am so excited for next year, and I can’t wait to see what my students are able to do with the language at the end of the academic year. And by the end of eighth grade, they are going to be amazing!

I didn’t share my news with you because I want to brag about how awesome I am. I’m not the sort of person who toots her own horn. I wrote this because I hoped that it would encourage all you lone CI teachers in a traditional, textbook-driven department to persevere and stay the course. Having to work in an environment with little support from fellow language teachers and superiors can be difficult and depressing. It can make any CI teacher second guess what they do in their classrooms. I hope you can get some strength from my story and recent success. And if you can’t find the support that you need in your world language department, reach out and find that support online in the wonderful online CI community that supported me when I was struggling at my last job. Hang in there and don’t doubt yourself or the awesome power of teaching with CI.

 

My Exploratory Language Class Activities

For the first time this year, I am teaching a 6th grade Exploratory French class. I see my students for one quarter (roughly nine weeks), three times a week for 45 minutes. Every quarter I get a new rotation of students. I have used a full comprehensible input (CI) approach in my exploratory classes. Although I didn’t have my students for very long, by the end of the quarter they were able to acquire an impressive amount of French and could use it effectively on interpretive assessments. Here is a rough outline of how I set up my exploratory program.

1. Calendar Talk. I begin each class with my version of Calendar Talk. At the start of the rotation, I show this PowerPoint and talk about the day, the date, and the weather. At first I ask the question and then I give the answer, translating as necessary. After a while I can then ask the question and get a student volunteer to answer. When relevant, I also mention holidays (I refer to them as “un jour spécial.”). After about four or five weeks I upgrade to this PowerPoint, in which I have removed some of the English supports found in the first PowerPoint. This second PowerPoint also contains two new questions, one about the season and another about the time.

2. A Second Warm-up Activity. After our Calendar Talk, the second activity varies depending on what day of the week it is. On Mondays, I use a visual like the ones mentioned in this post to ask students about what they did the previous weekend. At the beginning of the rotation I read the sentences describing certain activities and have students either stand up or raise their hand and say “C’est moi (Me)” if they did the described activity over the weekend. Once we have done that for a couple of weeks I then ask them to guess what they think I did over the weekend (FYI, I lie to my students about my weekend plans from time to time to provide more repetitions of certain structures).  I also play Two Truths and a Lie, where students write down two activities from the visual they did and one they didn’t do over the weekend. Then as a class we try to guess which activity is the lie. By the end of the rotation, I can get student volunteers to answer when I ask about their weekend (Note: I keep the visual up for the entire quarter. They still need the support).

During the first week of class I quickly teach my students to respond to “Comment ça va (How are you doing)?” Then every Wednesday from the second week of class to the end of the rotation I use this fantastic PowerPoint created by Cécile Lainé as my second warm-up activity. At first I show a slide and ask “Qui se sent…(Who feels…)?” and have students raise their hands and say “C’est moi (Me).” After a few weeks, I ask, “Comment est-ce que vous vous sentez aujourd’hui (How are you all feeling today)?” and take volunteers to answer.

On Fridays, my second activity varies. Sometimes I use a visual like the ones mentioned in this post to ask students about what they are planning to do during the upcoming  weekend. At first I made this my second activity every Friday, but it grew a bit stale since it was so similar to my Monday activity. So then I started substituting other activities. Sometimes we do a little bit of Total Physical Response (TPR) that turns into a Simon Says game. On other days we look at French memes and try to figure out what they say or listen to popular French music.

3. My Main Activity. After my Calendar Talk and second warm-up activity (which take anywhere from five to twenty minutes of class, depending on how quickly students can process new expressions), I move on to my main activity, which usually lasts about 20-30 minutes of class. My main activity this year in my exploratory class has been one of the following:

  • Movie Talks. Visit this post for general information about doing a Movie Talk and this post for specific information about my Fritz the Dog Movie Talk, which was very popular with my sixth graders.
  • Storytelling. Alice Ayel maintains a YouTube channel where she tells stories in simple French for French learners. The first and the third ones are about an artist named Marie. In my exploratory classes these two videos turned into a complete unit, which I talk about here.
  • Storyasking with student actors. Towards the end of the rotation, students have enough language for this. Storyasking is one of the main activities of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). You can visit this post for a bit of information about how I do Storyasking in my class.

My rule of thumb for the main activity is that it needs to be something that takes at least three class periods to complete. I accomplish this by creating different activities based on the same story. For example, this year I did a Movie Talk based on this video. The 5-day lesson plan I created for this Movie Talk were as follows:

  1. Storytelling to give the bare bones of the story (minus the big reveal at the end) in a style similar to that of Alice Ayel (although unlike Alice, I do translate some words into English by writing them on the board as I tell my story).
  2. Show a PowerPoint about the story, giving a bit more detail (minus the big reveal at the end), while also asking students questions about the story, themselves, and each other.
  3. Read a story based on the video (minus the big reveal at the end), giving a bit more detail. I read the story out loud to the class. When I pause, students need to shout out the next word of the reading in English. Alternatively, students read a story together using volleyball translation.
  4. Play a game based on the story. Visit this post by the amazing Keith Toda for a list of possible Post Reading games.
  5. Watch the entire video clip so students can see the big reveal.

Since I only have students for nine weeks, any assessment I give them is interpretive. Quite often I will give students an (unannounced) assessment where they have to match a picture to a French sentence that describes it or read a series of statements that students about which students have to answer multiple-choice questions. Sometimes I give them a series of sentences to illustrate in comic strip form as an assessment.

Here are the topics I introduce in the sixth grade class:

  1. Greetings, goodbyes, asking/answering “How are you,” and other pleasantries
  2. The difference between formal and informal speech and when to use each one
  3. Adjectives used to describe how people feel
  4. Common adjectives used to describe people physically and mentally
  5. Masculine versus feminine adjective forms
  6. Days of the week, months of the year, and writing out the date
  7. Common weather expressions and names of seasons
  8. Telling time on a digital clock
  9. Expressing likes and dislikes
  10. Numbers to 59
  11. Common colors
  12. Common animals
  13. Common sports and leisure activities
  14. High frequency verb structures like “I am,” “S/he is,” “I have,” “S/he has,” “I want,” “S/he wants”
  15. The question words “What” and “Who”

Keep in mind that students have not mastered these topics. They would not be able to score well on a written or oral presentation or interpersonal assessment. If I asked my students to do that when they are only in a nine-week course, it would kill their motivation and enthusiasm, thus solidifying the belief that French is difficult. My hope is that this initial exposure will be helpful and make students successful in their first-year class, should they decide to continue with French.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this is the first year that I have taught the sixth grade exploratory. Our sixth graders can chose to take one of four languages in 7th grade. A whopping 40% of this year’s sixth grade students have elected to take French next year, which just shows how powerful language instruction with CI can be. I will be their French teacher next year. I am curious to see how much language they will be able to retain from their exploratory class when they return in the fall.

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.

How to Liberate Your Language Department Using ACTFL Can-Do Statements

Yesterday, I attended an informal workshop about Can-Do Statements, which were written and then revised by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The Can-Dos are divided into three communication categories (Interpretive, Presentational, and Interpersonal) and two intercultural categories (Investigate and Interact) and describe what language learners should be able to do with their acquired second language based on their proficiency level (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Distinguished, and Superior). For example, some of the things that learners at an Intermediate level should be able to do include the ability to:

  • understand the main idea and some pieces of information on familiar topics from sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • participate in spontaneous spoken, written, or signed conversations on familiar topics,
  • communicate information, make presentations, and express my thoughts about familiar topics, using sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • make comparisons between products and practices, and
  • interact at a functional level in some familiar contexts.

Then based on the category and the proficiency level of the language learners, a series of sample Can-Do Statements are offered for teachers and students to use as a model and alter as necessary. For example, based on what Intermediate language learners can do, sample Can-Do sentences include the following:

  • I can understand essential information in a feature story in a magazine.
  • I can understand some basic facts reported by a witness regarding an accident.
  • I can understand most of what is said in a conversation among characters in a familiar play.
  • I can understand a written apology where a someone explains why he couldn’t attend party.
  • I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant.
  • I can exchange blog posts about raising money for a cause.
  • In my own and other cultures I can compare and contrast how people label nationalities and why they do so.
  • I can choose an appropriate means of transportation based on my location, needs, and local options.

Then, by using the Can-Do Statement as the desired end result of instruction, teachers can determine what vocabulary, structures and cultural products or practices they need to teach in order to reach those results. For example, if my Can-Do Statement is “I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant,” a teacher would have to make sure than students have had instruction about different types of foods and drink, words needed to describe food and drinks, structures such as “I want to order,” “I would like,” and “I don’t like,” interrogatives, and so on. Instruction might also include information about traditional meals in the country or countries where the target language is spoken. All of these lessons can play a role in helping students meet the goal of understanding a restaurant conversation.

I am lucky enough this year to be the only French teacher at my school, so I do not have to worry about staying “on the same page” with other teachers. This is something that I have to do, however, for my Spanish classes. When I started at my new school I was handed a curriculum and lessons to teach complete with worksheets and assessments to use in class. All year I have been having issues. Using lessons, worksheets, and assessments made by someone else feels kind of like walking around wearing someone else’s clothes. As the newest of three Spanish teachers, it sometimes takes me longer to get through a unit than it takes the other Spanish teachers. In addition, I wanted to use comprehensible input (CI) in my classroom, which doesn’t appear in the curriculum as often as I would like, so I spent some time altering lessons and units to do that. And finally, I wanted to be able to use my own materials and approaches, because that is what I am comfortable doing and what I think is the most effective approach to facilitate second language acquisition.

It was after this workshop that I had what I think is a fantastic idea. Instead of writing common curricula, lessons, worksheets, and assessments, what if the three Spanish teachers sat down together and came up with a set of Can-Do statements for our common classes, and then leave it up to the individual teacher to determine how to meet those Can-Do statements? Then if Teacher A wants to use a traditional curriculum to teach descriptive adjectives, for example, but Teacher B wants to do it using CI, both teachers are actually addressing the goal set by the Can-Do statement (Which might be something like, “I can describe myself and my family”) without having to do exactly the same thing (although due to my love of all things CI you all know that I would bet that the students taught traditionally wouldn’t make as much progress as the students in the CI class). Then teachers could concentrate on what they do best, which in my case is delivering input, and not have to worry that they have to catch up to the other teachers and do that worksheet or that assessment they haven’t done yet.

Naysayers may say that this won’t work because of the possibility that students may switch from one class to another due to changes with their school schedules. And while I know that this is a possibility, after the first month of September these types of changes are rare. I really don’t think it is fair to force a teacher to do exactly the same thing as every other teacher of the same level and subject due to the remote possibility that someone may switch from one class to the other during the school year. In high school classes where students need to take a common final exam, that new student can be given extra study topics to close any gaps s/he may have due to a change of schedule. In a class where no comprehensive final is given, I’m not sure it really matters if a new student misses a certain unit. Good teachers (and especially CI teachers) know how to reuse and recycle important elements throughout the year, ensuring that the new student will get those important structures elsewhere.

CI teachers have a special advantage when using Can-Do statements to plan instruction, which is that it eliminates the friction that may surface in a department where only some teachers use CI. In addition, Can-Do statements are not grammar based, so the pressure to teach students to conjugate verbs is virtually eliminated. We CI teachers know that we are not going to be able to convince every other second language teacher to convert, for whatever reason. But, at the very least, structuring instruction around Can-Do Statements should reduce the chances that CI teachers will be vilified for their teaching approaches.

I am going to suggest this when the Spanish teachers in my department meet again, which is tomorrow. I will let you know how it goes.