30 September 2011

Bringing my classroom to the community

A la panaderia
I have heard it called "the elusive 5th C." When I started teaching Spanish, I was more than a little put off that I was expected to do something so unheard of in any other discipline. As Skype got fancier, however, and Twitter opened up connections and communication possibility previously beyond my rural North Carolina reach, I started to warm up to the idea of obligatory community interaction.

And I started to make it happen.

Sure, it was one thing contacting people through Epals or Skype in the classroom, something where "community" had a broader, more global (or at least national) sense. It was quite another, however, to find means and opportunity and excuses to take class on the road, so to speak, and get them talking to people face to face, within blocks of our very schoolhouse. But I did it.

I got clearance from the man, I bribed the one certified bus driver on staff with promises of free Mexican snacks convinced a colleague to transport us, I got out the permission slips, I made fliers and spoke with proprietors at eight cooperative locations in the "Little Mexico" shopping center a few blocks from my house, I had classes come up with questions related to our text, I whipped up a notes sheet  (and some stickers that said "Por favor, no me hablen en ingles"), I texted/called/emailed parents of students without permission slips, and I did it. I took each of my two Spanish 2 classes to Plaza Latina to "interview" people at local businesses: to find out where they're from, what they do, and how they feel about Plaza Latina. And to have a bite to eat, of course.

Just as America's walk to school is described in La llaman America, so my students will be describing a walk through the Plaza. Well, theirs will probably be more of a guide to the Plaza. And they actually know the people's names, not just where they're from and what they do. And I hope they got a similar sense of security in the small community that the 9-year-old character from our book got.

Meanwhile, we've used their notes from the trip to have some semi-scripted interpersonal discussions using saber and conocer as well as object pronouns; students had to find two things for each student in class that both they and the other student knew after the trip. Then I quizzed them on people they met, a round-robin who-knows-whom sort of thing.

I have to say, that turning the community into my classroom was pretty taxing in the preparation. But the confidence of the students who "ACTUALLY UNDERSTOOD!" afterward and the sense of belonging fostered by at least being introduced to people that might have been hidden to them otherwise definitely made the trip worth it.

I'll just have to remember to get permission slips for the other teacher's class that I drag along next time, and I think that'll take care of the last wrinkle!

24 September 2011

Transition to Engrade

This means I'm going to have to keep up with grading.

I have set up a gradebook with Engrade for all 5 of my classes this year. I have entered the vast majority of titles for assignments given so far this year. I have entered, oh, maybe half of the grades for these assignments; some still languish in the Edmodo gradebook or on Glogster projects...or post-its. Others, frankly, have not been graded.

However, progress reports are to go out Monday and Tuesday (A Day/ B Day schedule, don't you know), so it's now or never.

At least two of my colleagues are completely in love with Engrade. I think these colleagues grade everything the same day they get it anyway. Also, they are kind of my gurus in the push to go paperless...ish. Plus, my principal (though I think he's still seeking an online gradebook where he can just upload CSV files or something for his Theater Arts class) has said as long as we keep the Engrade grades updated, we don't have to enter anything but the final grade each quarter in our compulsory official state-sanctioned clunky online gradebook. Hooray for administrative support!

I mean, parents and students can't check NCWise at will, so really, we're more accountable and transparent this way. So why shouldn't he grant us that?

So far, Engrade has not exactly convinced me to go to prom with it, but there are a few reasons that I'm still allowing it to pitch woo.

Doubts/ don't love:
  • Entering names & student numbers by hand. One. By. One.
  • Not to mention their e-mails and parent e-mails.
  • What the heck is the difference between adding an assignment to Discussions and to Turn-ins? Is it supposed to do what I've been using Edmodo for?
  • Why the heck would it give me the option "Allow students to see Assignment"? Is that for us perpetually procrastinatory types? For those who are so far ahead they don't want to freak out their class when they add things to the book?
  • If there is a way to share students with my co-workers, I don't know what it is yet.
Of course, Engrade's wingman, our unofficial tech rep (now that our IT staff went from 2 to 1 for the whole DISTRICT) and social studies profesor, is set to answer some of these questions. That and maybe he'll show me how to do useful things with categories like Quizzes, Discipline, Discussions, Comments, Standards, and Seating (though I kind of doubt they have anything compatible with my trapezoidal table set-up).

Do like:
  • I can just push space after a grade and comment on the reason behind it, thus facilitating the tracking of students whose "late penalty" is served in time after school rather than points.
  • The simplicity of new assignments being the closest, and the old ones being the ones pushed off screen, theoretically past their grading window.
  • Auto-save!
  • Averages: by assignment and by class
  • I can invite parents/students by e-mail (that's the only reason you really need to collect those one by one) OR just give them a code to access grades
  • Once parents/students have access, they can check any time they feel like...and I don't have to call or e-mail to keep them in the know!
  • Oh yeah, and FREE!
I still have a lot to discover about Engrade, its benefits and its pitfalls, and hopefully our little professional development session will get me the rest of the way. I am, after all, still in transition phase.

22 September 2011

Divide and conquer

I cannot handle a class of 25 freshmen after 1:00. OK, 22 freshmen and a couple of sophomores and juniors. I haven't had a class over 22 in over 3 years so, yes, I'm spoiled. And to pile all of those kids I've never met into one class at the end of the day, I have 3.5 other preps (Debate being the .5), not to mention the hiccuping fetus the size of a large eggplant...AND no AC.

On top of that, the curriculum says these are the kids that need to learn school supplies and household items, so I'm trying to get them to assemble supplies to ship to a school in need in Colombia.

In short: I am in over my head.

In a moment of exasperation, I had students write me letters (not in the TL, I'm afraid) explaining what this project means to them and how we can make it work. By and large, the response to the former was "a lot" and "helping people is good." The response to the latter consisted mostly of "grow up," "focus," and a few suggesting smaller groups.

That is how I will have to handle this, I thought. Not as 25 at a time, but 4,4,4,4,4, and 5. I used our Sternberg results until I ran out of creatives and analyticals. I tried to make groups that would not kill each other that were also heterogeneous in ability (the sort of grouping I've heard prescribed for learning new materials, homogeneous being for review). I let them write on cards whom they would trade out and then whom they would trade in, but I'm just keeping those until I see problems that do appear to be caused by group dynamics.

All of this would probably be fine, were it not that we had a copying crisis declared in our district. I've found many ways to cut back, sending most things out on Edmodo and projecting the rest. However, activities on the projector = whole class activities, which, by the transverse property of equality = my mind exploding.

So of course, 10 minutes before the end of lunch, I have a brainwave as to how to do the semantic mapping/group planning activity A) without the interactive whiteboard (for which I had already finished setting it up--of course) and B) without making copies which students would have to cut up and leave strewn about my room. I enlisted Glogster for something much less glorious than its usual fanciful projects.

I took all of the items that all of the groups said they wanted to pack into backpacks for La Laja and added them to a glog, text item by text item. I made 2 categories: "mi grupo" and "todos grupos" so students could add items to "mi grupo" if the school would not need tons and "todos grupos" for things they would surely need a lot of. AND they deleted the things that we had decided were "imposible" to ship based on fragility or liquid content. Each student did their own glog, meaning they had to talk about the vocabulary. They also added something to represent the group name they'd picked previously for a little extra solidarity.

The lab happened to be open yesterday. It is not likely to be open every day. Also, technology cannot save everything. Part of my problem is also that I have been letting my plans flounder a little too much because of all of the unknown territory. So now, I must set some solid goals, some outcomes for this unit, aside from shipping some packages to Colombia. Having spoken with my Twitter contact in Colombia via Skype, I can at least say that we need not worry about sending too much of any one thing.

So here are the goals:

  • Get students to bring in as many of the supplies from their lists as they can by Thursday .
  • Have students write "apology notes" (that probably won't send) about things we can't send and why (more semantic grouping!).
  • Get a list of October birthdays (so our classes can sing to each other!)
  • Obtain (donated?) backpacks for each group
  • "Quiz" individuals by having them name things as they go in the backpack or as they take them out
  • Weigh backpacks and calculate postage (in Algebra?)
  • Plan how to obtain postage (local churches? fundraisers?) by group?
  • Learn birthday song in Spanish?
  • Brainstorm introductory vocabulary/phrases in groups
  • Learn about "nosotros," "nuestro," and accompanying verb forms
  • Write class group introduction letters
  • Learn about "yo," "mi," "me gusta," and accompanying verb forms
  • Create individual/group? introductory videos: familia, amigos, escuela, comunidad
  • Plan skype questions for children (ustedes, su, les gusta, verb forms)
These could take a while to accomplish, but now, I think I'm starting to get a picture of where this is going and how to split up the class to make something worthwhile happen. I'll just have to remember to do as much through their groups as I can.

16 September 2011

Pop star backtalk

Two things were missing: interpersonal interaction and sufficient authentic input. Also, engagement had been stretched a little thin, either by note-taking (although in a form not quite as dry as other methods) or a pretty solid week of writing and revising.

My Spanish 3 pack needed to be exposed to more artists to be able to choose a song for their favorite, and we had started off with a little Fonsi, so we needed someone female, less pop: Adassa, Colombian-American reggaetonera.

For Spanish 2, I cannibalized a powerpoint from two years back that I had used for starters back then, and I added a little more variety. Spanish 2 gets...
  • A Mexican pop group (Reik)
  • A Spanish pop group (La Oreja de Van Gogh)
  • A Mexican regional star (Marco Antonio Solis)
  • A Puerto Rican reggaetonero (Don Omar)
  • A Colombian rock god (Juanes)
  • A Mexican pop-rock star (Julieta Venegas)
  • A pair of Puerto Rican reggaetoneros (Rakim y Ken-Y)
And now also
  • A Cuban singer-songwriter (Amaury Gutiérrez)
  • A (fictional?) Mexican bubble gum pop star (Lola)
  • My boyfriend from Spain with a sort of dance tune (David Bisbal)
To refresh: 4 Mexican acts, 2 Spanish acts, 2 Puerto Rican acts, a Cuban, and a Colombian, 3 females, 2 Afrolatinos. (I am afraid now I sacrificed ethnic and gender diversity for genre diversity...)

Spanish 3 got the whole song, "No me compares," by Adassa, and Spanish 2 got snippets containing object pronouns from all of the artists listed above. Both classes, however, talked back to the songs.

First of all "No me compares" is a nice, juicy, accusatory break-up song. So Spanish 3 students first practiced responding to lines I'd picked out to be a bit inflammatory, but responding as an enamored beau trying to win the singer back. Then, they responded as cruelly as they could (which was still extremely genteel from a couple of the ladies). And then, they picked out lines to use to accuse someone else, and they went head to head with a classmate, who had to respond as the accused off the top of their heads.

It was sort of a semi-interpersonal experience, but I think a nice middle ground, an exercise with training wheels, perhaps, to capture a little of the ability to answer appropriately (although saying the accuser had "the hair of my grandmother" does not usually fall under the realm of "appropriate") under fire.

Similarly, Spanish 2 had to answer the singers, but with incredulity, questioning everything each singer said using an object pronoun. If Reik said "Me encanta la idea," then they said "Te encanta?" If Rakim y Ken-Y said "Me matas," they asked "Te mato?" It was not authentic conversation, of course, but I contend it was building up skills to be able to converse, that they were learning to confirm and clarify: key interpersonal skills.

Again, in the name of saving copies, I had them create their own worksheet, listing the artists' names and leaving the number of lines indicated by each name to indicate how many questions they would be asking in response to each.

In other words, I used input from authentic texts for inauthentic texts, which I hoped would engage them and build up to more authentic tasks. Now, I suppose I just have to see if they can hold their own when they actually need verification or when involved in real spats in Spanish.

14 September 2011

P.A.C.E. yourself: teaching grammar

If you have to teach grammar, teach it authentically. Use models by native speakers for native speakers, and break down

Presentation. Attention. Co-Construct an explanation. Extension activity.

P.A.C.E. kind of reminds me of my English methods class. We learned that isolated explicit grammar instruction was one of THE least effective things you could do in a class, that modeling (preferably from real books or students' own writing) was the only way to make grammar stick. P.A.C.E. struck me as a nice systematic version of this approach, and so I've been experimenting with P.A.C.E. since the year before last.

More recently, instead of using a First Aid manual (authentic, but not so high-interest) as a source of authentic sentences to highlight grammar functions, I used lyrics & literary excerpts.

Still more recently, I dusted off this method again in conjunction with my La llaman America unit. Once again, I'm using it to illustrate object pronoun usage, but first, we reviewed something familiar that seemed to be giving students trouble when they were biographers for classmates, using America's first page as a model: verb endings. So I made this powerpoint--with directions for how I want P.A.C.E. notes set up (since we have a "copying crisis" on at school--otherwise I could just distribute pages like this one, which, of course, I can still make available on Edmodo to enterprising students).

In the past, I have been lacking in the "Extension" department, so the latest addition involves students once again using America as a model, but this time, switching a paragraph of her story to 1st person. Though the P.A.C.E. focused on 3rd person, as the book does, my pre-assessment (a really uncreative verb quiz I kind of invented on the spot) indicated most people get how yo forms work already. And after all, they were extending what they learned, right?

We dipped our toes in the object pronouns lesson today, having completed model notes on something more familiar first. There are a lot fewer examples for Presentation this far in the book, and the Extension activity involves making a list of people one encounters in the morning before coming to my class and what you did to them (like greeted, smiled at, etc.) Obviously I'm still getting the hang of making an effective Extension activity, and I think I'd like to expand to include an interpersonal Extension in addition to the semi-presentational one to be included in the notes.

An old, semi-related  tweet: @SECottrell says "It's not whether you teach grammar- it's why. Come to a consensus on your approach to grammar. Purpose: avoiding miscommunication."

11 September 2011

Popsicle Stick Odyssey

It seems it was a mistake not to start my English classes with the Odyssey in the past. I have had the most successful start to a year that I may have had in all my nine years of starting classes. Full disclosure: it might be the kids, not me.

But on the off-chance it is me, here are some things that worked:
  1. Accepting excerpting. The textbook doesn't print the whole thing, and I am not really excited by the whole thing, so I might as well just pick the parts that do excite me, so I can harness that whole I-love-this-so-much-it's-contagious vibe. Ninth grade me would have a fit, having been sorely disappointed with junior high teachers for not exposing her to more Shakespeare before high school. But honestly? I'm typically not dealing with ninth grade me. And even if I were, I pull out the "I wanted to whet your appetite so you could seek out more!"

    I went with "The Cyclops," "The Sirens," "Scylla and Charybdis," "The Suitors," "Penelope," "Odysseus' Revenge," and, because time permitted, "Penelope's Test."

    My standards? Most-alluded-to passages and most gore--despite the fact that I have deliberately relegated my husband's sizable horror movie collection to the least visible, least accessible shelf possible. I like my gore literary and all in my head, thank you.
  2. Tie-ins. I got my first taste of The Odyssey from DuckTales, so why shouldn't my students? (See at the bottom, then fast forward to about 11:40). Also, to prove the ubiquitousness of allusions to The Odyssey, I quick downloaded a little Police to my phone when we got through "Cyclops" and DuckTales ahead of schedule (God bless Android phones and Amazon MP3 store!) Also, I had "7 Things McDonald's Knows About Your Brain" up my sleeve, perfectly linking allusion to The Odyssey and our school's first STEM topic: why we eat what we eat. And did you know that the textbook already came complete with multiple allusive texts? We're talking a poem each for cyclops, sirens, and Penelope! From the likes of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Margaret Atwood! Awww yeah, got some ladies in the house!
  3. Action! Apart from my dramatic and, dare I say, theatrical renditions of the goriest scenes of stabbing, monster attacks, and suitor slaughter, I also had the young ones act things out.

    "The Cyclops" is rather long, so to rehash, I assigned each table a scene from the story for a tableau. Alas, they mostly stayed away from the gore, and I had not come prepared with huge googly eyes for them to use, but I was somewhat impressed with their zeal for depicting the under-sheep cave escape, barely refraining from physically binding their classmates to the chair-sheep.

    I also had them capture the action of "The Suitors" on whiteboards, and some took extra care to elucidate the preponderance of suitors hanging out at O's palatial home. Most got the stool flying at Odysseus, but strangely, mostly only females thought to put Penelope in the picture, so that was an interesting sidetrack.

    Finally, came the popsicle sticks and Chuck Norris. I could not resist the opportunity to harness the ideas that had popped up throughout class discussion, like Odysseus as the Chuck Norris of his day, or the sirens singing the McDonald's theme song (Bada bop ba baaa!)m or 1,000 Ways to Die...in a Cyclops Cave. So rather than a quiz or a timeline or some other such "practical" or "analytical" application, I gathered some images of Chuck Norris, Lady Gaga (x3), Jack Black (for Antinous), and Jennifer Aniston...plus the cyclops from Clash of the Titans and a childhood favorite, Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent. And I gave them popsicle sticks.
(From top left) Cyclops, Odysseus, Scylla, Sirens, Antinous, & Penelope
That's right: an Odyssey puppet show. They're still filming, but what I've seen makes me glad to be an English teacher again.

05 September 2011

5 C's + Service

Escuela de la Laja de Icononzo de Tolima
I was going to have students pack backpacks full of school supplies to have a tangible demonstration of "classroom and school environment" (core curriculum essential standard for Novice Mid, Connection to Other Disciplines, 1.1-- Use memorized words and phrases to exchange information about the classroom and school 
environment). It was kind of a throw-away lesson stuck in between proposals for revising Spanish-speaking countries' agricultural exports and international exchanges about hobbies, just to cover bases and, frankly, kill time before I'm back from maternity leave.

But then Goya of ChocQuibTown retweeted "ayudanos a ayudar 50 niños campesinos  sin útiles escolares NO $$ solo Especie. Y si fueras tu?" from @mauricio_ttoro, AyudandoAndo. Of course this demands more immediate attention than post-midterm filler, so I think I'll shuffle units, hopefully in time to catch the end of the back-to-school sales.

I've emailed the group and received photos of the school and a list of 66 things they need for their school. Some of them are not really conducive to international shipping, and some are beyond our price range...unless we get really active! This might be a project we can keep going all year, a connection that students maintain and keep building until we can get, say, a TV or computer or two for their class. And who knows? Maybe we could field a visit come summer?

So here is my plan at its current stage of development:


  1. Present the project to the class, divide them into teams (by table?), and have them come up with a list of what they think they should send.
  2. Compare their lists to each other, then to the actual list (plus the school's picture) they sent me (yay! authentic text!) This will be good for a few interesting discussions about comparing schooling conditions in other countries and maybe interpersonal communication, because the missives sent from my contact's Blackberry requires a little more interpretation than a more "presentational" text ordinarily would.
  3. Discuss what we can--and hope to--collect from their list, as well as what is not feasible because of cost or shipping regulations. Make a list of basics that we'd like to provide for every student, plus a few classroom essentials (definitely working in the household part of the objective as well--chairs and brooms being on the list!)
  4. Teams can then pick a "big ticket" per group and divvy up or otherwise decide how to obtain their basic list items.
To help my students really connect with this other class (twice as large as their class which seems gargantuan by our school's standards), I'm hoping we can initiate a pen pal sort of situation. Granted, this is the beginning of the year and Spanish I, so maybe I will just have them make and send cards introducing themselves and asking 2 or 3 questions (hooray for practicing interrogatives in context!) After all, my young ones have already begun an introductory project, so it seems an almost logical follow-up.

Perhaps my students could also send school-addressed, stamped stationery to encourage their young ones to write something back. I could send an overall letter explaining that even crayon doodles would be delightful to get back.

If we pull this all off, we will have touched on Communication (interpretive & interpersonal at least!), Connections, Comparison, Culture, and Communities, all while doing something worth doing!

If anyone is interested in throwing in with us, pooling resources among classes to make things like shoes and technology available for more of these children, let us know, and we can perhaps get to skyping and wiki-ing to do even more!

01 September 2011

Spanish Syllabi "infographs"

I did finally finish the Spanish versions of the infograph syllabus, if you are interested. I have also uploaded them to their respective Google Sites pages, and sent out links to said pages on Edmodo (posting them also on the, frankly, obsolete "official" Schoolfusion sites, where appropriate)

So first, zee links:
Spanish 1 Homepage (+ Schoolfusion)
Spanish 2 Homepage / alternate version for class held on alternating days (+ Schoolfusion)
Spanish 3 Homepage (there was not already a Schoolfusion page...should I bother getting one added?)

And now, the overall effect of all 3 side-by-side:

Note the colorful 5 C's theme!

Also, a caution: be sure you have your laptop charger if you do not make paper copies of your syllabus. It can be a tad inconvenient--and embarrassing--to run out of juice mid-syllabus. Fortunately, having made your syllabus so fancy, you will remember well what it contained. Unfortunately, it kind of defeats the purpose of making it so fancy. Of course, you have links. And, I mean, you know, all hypothetically.