31 March 2012

Crowd Control Activities

When I started teaching Spanish, most of my classes were in the neighborhood of 25 students apiece. The last 3 years of my career, to have a class of 20 was to be bursting at the seams. Imagine my dismay at having a class of 25, predominantly freshman, the last period of the day all of a sudden at the beginning of this year. For those 90 minutes, the instructional approach I had been honing for the past few years is totally out the window.

And so, I reverted to some old tactics.

WARNING: they do not involve teaching in the target language. They do involve language out of context. And they do involve a little extrinsic motivation.

I was recently talking with a veteran teacher who advocated putting paragraphs on the overhead and having students copy them. Granted, she taught English, and not a foreign language. But when I demurred, insisting I knew they wouldn't learn that way, her response was, "Well are they learning anyway?"

Touche, veteran teacher, touche.

However, rather than capitulate completely to mindless, value-less activities, I decided to dust off the old toolbox from when I became a Spanglish teacher (instead of just an English teacher). These are some old chestnuts--and grad class gems--I've found helped me get some kind of learning accomplished in a class of 25:

Pizarritas: How can you go wrong with the whiteboards? Decontextualization aside, it is a handy format assessment for isolating problems. I say it in English, you write it in Spanish. Or, if we want to get a little high-tech, I steal a page from @SECottrell and whip up a few pickers for some quick gustar practice (tied to the article that I got from @Placido!)

PLUS I found a good way to make the class accountable, if you can believe it! A simple tally system, wherein I say the student's name & put a mark on the board when they're right: the goal is to get a tally for every person every time. When the class gets up to 100% 10 times, free 10-point assignment for all! Of course a little mindless copying of classmates seeps in, but mostly people had to make their own mistakes and learn from them!

Monitor groups: This one I've been itching to experiment with since my class this fall. You make 3 different cards, 2 with questions on them in English (bad teacher! not in the TL!), 1 for the "monitor" with the answers in Spanish. I also added a little tally chart on the last card (see the actual cards I made here). From the complete fracaso of a worksheet from the previous class, I picked out 8 people who pretty much knew what they were doing to be the monitors, so they could adequately prompt their peers. Then I picked peers I thought they could work with. As far as language production, this was pretty effective.

As far as crowd control, it really helped to be able to sort of delegate accountability--the ones I picked mostly stepped up and coached their peers! Go team!

Copy, copy, you try: So I tried to do something useful with Sra. Veteran's advice and pulled out the problem paragraphs from another previous assignment (the ones that were long enough to be worth working on), and instead of trying to do some random group editing activity (another fracaso), I projected one, then proceeded to walk students through correcting it. HINT: when I made a powerpoint with a new slide with each change in order, that was extra effective for keeping things flowing. This worked so that we could talk through recurring problems, and students could have accurate examples to refer back to. When we got to the "you try" part, it is also nice to have a printed out paragraph with space for correcting so students can underline errors, and you can basically match them up and hold them up to the light to see if they found everything they needed.

The crowd control angle? If they weren't listening to the explanation, I just started cruising through the corrections without stopping to explain until they hushed each other so they could hear. I honestly think that was the beginning of getting a handle back on this class. I also differentiated a bit, putting a fabulous cash prize (you know, pesos) on the line for anyone who could finish correcting faster than I could as I wrote the whole thing out.

Sticker backs: We all know and love the guess-what-it-says-on-the-back-of-your-shirt-just-by-asking-questions game, right? When it comes to crowd control, I learned two things help this go more smoothly: 1, make stickers ahead of time--and extras for those that lose them, as well as for those who think they're smart and finish early; 2, have students make a table of possibilities from the original text for quick reference. Also, have them double check their tables to make sure the answers they need jive with what they get. At the end, they take what they've practiced and write about one of the people whose names were attached to them.

As for controlling the crowd, Sra. Veteran also had some good advice: step back and observe the whole. The truth is, I can probably do some quick formative assessing without being right next to the objects of assessing, and I need to, because a crowd will become a mob except for that one little island where I'm listening otherwise.

Read my mind: I had 4 different lists of the vocabulary we're studying, I had everyone turn to the person next to them (the whole wagon wheel thing did NOT go well with my mob, and even my $64,000 pyramid game was not going well), gave each partner a different list, and had each person get their partner to guess each word on their list without saying their word in any of its Spanish forms (we're on verbs). To differentiate, I'd let partners switch roles early, and even trade out copies of the other 2 list versions while others who needed more time caught up. It was quick, it was isolated, and it involved a teensy bit of language production.

Those are some of the things that have worked so far in my struggle to recover my role after maternity leave and an unfortunate ill-defined and disastrous--though totally authentic and contextual!--first semester. At the suggestion of a parent/veteran teacher, as well as an instructional coach, I have re-arranged seating (betraying my guide-on-the-side hexagons for something more teacher-centered out of necessity) and am working on plans to give a little credit for on-task behaviors.

The fact of the matter is that freshmen are not always equipped with the motivation or the tools to focus themselves. Until I find that million-dollar solution to those issues--that also involves teaching in the target language and contextual authentic materials that spark intrinsic desires to go forth and speak Spanish--I will have to put off retirement and do a few things that feel a little like cheating, but help me survive and them feel a little more secure.


  1. Congratulations, now you have a class about Spanish, not a Spanish class.

    1. What does this comment mean, exactly? Do you have something constructive to offer?

  2. I really enjoyed this post and have been thinking about it since I read it yesterday. It really struck home with me, having 3 of my 5 classes at 30 students each in my new school. I thought I was the only one attempting to survive with those numbers. Thanks for the wonderful ideas and encouragement!

    1. That means a lot, thank you! I do not envy your numbers, but I hope you wilk share strategies you find that work too!