19 March 2013

Palabra del día: Establishing boundaries

"The lizard's about to change colors" is all Walter Powell had to say to let his class know he was done playing around. Everyone loved Mr. Powell, but no one wanted to see what would happen if they crossed him. Me, I have never really had that intimidation factor, or a line that students could even see. Sure, I yelled a lot, broke out my Actor Voice and the Teacher Look, but student blood still failed to freeze. I had no cool catchphrase or strategy that I could keep up consistently as a signal that I was about to change colors.

Until now.

Not only is my signal an organizing strategy for me and my students, it reinforces high-frequency Spanish words (especially juego). Now, it's nothing revolutionary, but it allows me to stay in the target language, even when I'm about to change colors

Step 1: Choose a word of the day, preferably about 5-letters long. The word should reflect something that the students want and have a chance to earn/keep by the end of class, like playing a game, time to work on a homework assignment, choosing their own partners, re-taking an atrocious quiz, computer privileges, or I don't know, candy. Words I've used include juego, tarea, tiempo, socios, prueba, and compus. Hint: though using any word with "pus" in it may not work well with high school boys. (Irregular preterite, amirite?)

Step 2: Write the word on the board in a reserved location with easy visibility and accessibility. I find just walking over to that side of the room serves as a visual reminder now, too!

Step 3: Introduce today's word and what it has to do with what they can expect: "¿Les gustan juegos? Tengo un juego muy divertido para el fin de clase, pero hay que poner atención." This usually happens right after the warm-up for me, or sooner, if we're having trouble getting settled.

Step 4: Introduce the steps to losing letters, then privileges:
  1. "Atención, por favor"
  2. "Silencio, por favor"
  3. Borrar una letra. No letras, no privilegio.

11 March 2013

Managing student blogs: tricks and tools

Blogging in the L2 is something that I've researched a good bit. Vygotsky would say it's awesome for capitalizing on the social nature of learning, and if I may speak for Sr. Krashen, it's also pretty nifty in how it helps lower ye olde affective filter. And everyone seems to agree that blogs increase engagement and motivation. Plus technology = awesome, especially with video and hyperlinks and all sorts of cool interactivity going on.

There are two ways to set up class blogs: one big blog for everyone to post on, or each with their own blogs. Me, I like for them to have their own blogs, in part because I require their Spanish blogs to have a theme and some sort of unity to them, and in part because it's fun to play with the presentation: that's part of the blogging experience. This means I can aggregate them in different ways according to my purposes, too.

These are three main tools I use for blog management:
I'm aware of a handful of others that could work, but I have a purpose for each of these and a system I like. First of all, I use Google Reader for grading (as previously posted). This means not only that I can check assignments from my smart phone, but also that I can keep a running tally of who has completed the week's post as they come in. As soon as a new post is added to my queue, I put a check mark by their name on the roster, so I know they've submitted something, and I can easily spot who has not done so by the appointed hour, and I can then get on the horn to Mom/Dad/Guardian.

Of course my students blog on Blogger because they already have Google accounts, and it's pretty user-friendly and easy to customize. This also makes it easy for me to collect posts I want their classmates to see. I require my students to comment on each other's blogs weekly (my research suggests that leaving it as an option means it ain't gonna happen). I also like to reward people who do a good job and produce something interesting. So I created Blogs de la semana as a place to collect the good stuff and publicize it a little, maybe give classmates something worth commenting on if they're having a hard time choosing. When I see a post I like, I simply re-blog it using the little icon Blogger puts at the bottom of posts, add a little blurb about why I like it, and voila! Instant aggregation of good stuff. A catch: if they choose the "Dynamic Views" style, the little re-blog button is gone. This means either copious copy-pasting or a bit of benevolent dictating.

I also just started COMPASS Review Help for my COMPASS Test review mini-class. The purpose of this blog is still to aggregate examples from class, but to seek suggestions. Some students are not going far enough with their inferences and have a very shaky grasp on tone and organization. Therefore, I'm plucking out their posts and tagging them with what needs work. So students can see the parts where they got things right while they're seeing what's wrong and analyzing the problem. And even if they're seeing something they got wrong too, I'm thinking that seeing someone get it wrong a different way could help them pinpoint the source of their own confusion. Heck, since we're going to dig into conjugation in Spanish I pretty soon, I think I might make a blog-of-blogs to collect posts where students need to go back and change some verb forms! While I'm at it, I might also collect things that need a second look at past tense usage for Spanish II to go over and make suggestions on! (Extra credit if people go back and actually change their posts and highlight what they changed?) Yay peer revision!

But I want more than just the blogs that I choose to get some response, so I collect the links for each student blog on a Symbaloo webmix and assign a representative symbol (like so) so that students can choose which blog to peruse based on their interests for commenting purposes. This is also handy for double-checking when it appears someone has not blogged for the week, as I arrange them alphabetically by author's last name.

I suppose you could also say I use Schoology for blog management, in that I record grades there and use it for collecting students' comments. Each week, there is an assignment to comment, and each week, students must post which post they commented on directly to the comment section of that assignment on Schoology, including 1) the name of the author, 2) the name of the blog, 3) the name of the post, and 4) the actual link to the post they commented on. I have noticed that the posts that are among the first commented on that week tend to have multiple comments, so this also seems to help get the word out about classmates' blogs.

Collecting comments is, however, an area where I would be open to suggestions on how to do it more efficiently. Maybe make all students authors on another re-blog-blog? A way to keep track of my own comments would be cool, too, because I usually forget to check to see if/when students reply to me. Is there some kind of RSS feeder for this?

09 March 2013

Storify for heritage speakers

In a perfect world, those who have been speaking Spanish since childhood would never end up in a high school Spanish 1 class. I speak of the world where there is adequate funding and flexibility to provide whole courses tailored to those who need only refine and develop their literacy skills in a language other than English. Or the world where those who already speak 2 languages are driven to keep learning as many languages as possible...


In the meantime, we can expect our classes to be mixed in ways that defy all logic. But there are worthwhile activities that can replace redundant vocabulary notes, overly simple conversations, and writing tasks that take them 1/4 the time they take the rest of the class. This is especially feasible if you can get your hands on as many computers as you have heritage speakers and get them online.

Storify is a way to collect and archive online media, while adding your own analysis. Me, I like to use it for tweets mostly. After all, spelling is one thing that separates mere Spanish speaking teenagers from respectable bilingual professionals. As my Applied Grammar professor once said, "People are shallow: use it." And where better to find a smorgasbord of every imaginable spelling error--in contextual authentic resources,  no less--than Twitter?

So I've made one Storify story on when to use V and B in the imperfect. I plan to make some more on the various forms of haber and the ever-popular -istes and -astes, and perhaps some on various accent placements. Here's how I do it:

1) Create a new story, of course giving it a descriptive title and explanation of the problem.

2) Under Media, choose the little Twitter bird.

3) Search for the incorrect construction, e.g. "ivas a".

4) You may need to choose a major Spanish-speaking city, especially with issues of V versus B: estava, for example is correct in Portuguese. I chose within 100 km of Guadalajara and Madrid and got pretty good results.

5) Add 3 or so tweets with the same problem pattern, making sure, of course, that there is no...questionable language or veiled innuendo. (Emo tweets are usually pretty safe, alas, but political ones can be nice and topical, expose even the heritage speakers to new culture).

6) Insert an explanation of the variations of the problem pattern between the sets of tweets.

7) Send the link to students. Schoology, for example, lets you individually assign it and prevent non-heritage-speaker freak-outs about the mystery assignment.

8) Have students copy and paste the tweets in a new document and correct the errors.

From my tiny sample of students who have completed the assignment so far, this is not a 100% method, as they did still miss some of the problems. Still, I think with repetition of seeing the issue in context, I think this could transfer to their blogs (which are actually how I decide which errors to focus on to begin with). In the future, I might also add the additional step of having them respond to the tweets with their own tweets (real or simulated) to practice creating--rather than only correcting--with the target construction.

06 March 2013

La Vida Universitaria

Maybe they won't ever go to a four-year college in another country, but they're going to know exactly how they could if they ever decide to!

Driving Question: Can I convince my friends to study abroad with me?

Entry Event: Fill out an application to Universidad Anáhuac (yay for fulfilling Novice Linguafolio goals!) and show their student life video:


You get to review personal information words, use cognates, practice using context clues, plus you get some background on the student to inform activities that follow.

Journal: Imagínate que ya eres estudiante en la universidad. ¿Qué haces allí? ¿Qué tienes que hacer para tus clases? ¿Qué haces cuando tienes tiempo libre?
  • —Para mis clases, tengo que…
  • —Paso mucho tiempo…
  • —Cuando tengo tiempo libre…voy a…para…
  • —Lo que más me gusta hacer aquí es…
(I also added a second journal to get more to the heart of what interested them, where they pretended they were at their ideal--real or imagined--university.)

Interpretive listening: Break the Anáhuac video into 2 parts: Introduction & Activities (I actually skipped the last half of the activity part, as the first few sum up the most interesting ones).

  1. Go over the words in the word bank.
  2. Have students just read along while the section plays once--no marks.
  3. Play again while they start filling in.
  4. Stop and make sure they cross off used words.
  5. Analyze where they have blanks and try to figure out if remaining words fit naturally.
  6. Play a third time while they fill in more.
  7. Repeat steps 5 & 6 as necessary (hopefully no more than 3 more times).

Interpersonal: Discuss what Anáhuac has to offer, what attracts you, what you want to know more about. (In a class as small as mine, just the whole class having at it works fine, but protocols similar to literature circles with the completed clozes might be appropriate with larger groups.)

Comparing student culture and target culture: We had to establish a schema for navigating college websites as well as a basis for comparison to convince our companeros that study abroad really was a reasonable option. We decided what was most important for college selection based on some local colleges that interested them and jotted down some basics like tuition, housing, majors available.

Interpretive reading--pre-reading: I find that vocabulary frontloading is a good idea when approaching authentic texts. I had pre-selected some universities based on those that I knew to have ties with the UNC system (though the list represents more schools in Panama and Mexico because some students indicated the country mattered more to them than the ability to go through a local school). From that list, I picked out some of the more common words. Using those sites (and cognates), the class sought to match English with Spanish, then narrow down the list to the words they thought they'd need to use most. They created labeled Google Drawing collages to illustrate their lists. (Then I copied them, erased the labels, and had partners try to relabel each other's!)

Interpretive reading--during reading: We established some basic questions that needed to be answered about schools/programs of their choice, such as...

  • ¿Qué son dos carreras que ofrecen que pueden interesar a tus amigos?
  • ¿Cuánto cuesta estudiar y vivir allí?
  • ¿Cuántos estudiantes tienen?
  • ¿Qué becas tienen dispinibles?
  • ¿Dónde está exactamente?


I introduced the class to Diigo, and they set about poking around websites and highlighting things to a list they shared with me to answer the questions.

Interpersonal--Skype: I then enlisted a professor friend who has been on many a study abroad trip. The class came up with questions for her that they had about studying abroad, practiced introducing themselves and their purpose, and then we had a good long conversation with her about what to expect when studying abroad (until the fire alarm went off, that is!)

Interpretive listening: Of course I recorded the whole Skype thing on Audacity, cut out the interruption, uploaded the .wav file to Schoology, and had each student pick out 5 30-90 second segments that they thought answered the most important questions. They put the segments together in a simple little movie, using the questions plus summaries of the answers they got as visuals to show what they learned.

Presentational writing and speaking: Each student created a website with information about their selected schools and were evaluated based on the visuals and organization, inclusion of advantages to going to their school, travel and preparation information, and a comparison to a local school in addition to their language function, text type, vocabulary, and comprehensibility. They presented their findings to the class in Spanish, and then explained whose school they would most be willing to visit and why.

Overall, this was a genuine chance for me to play "guide on the side," because mostly, I had to sit back and watch them interpret and navigate--verifying interpretations where necessary, and then construct and write their arguments for their schools. Even after the conclusion of this unit, I'm most pleased with how they learned to piece together meaning using all sorts of context clues: a picture book is nothing to them now!

And, you know, maybe some day they will decide visiting Panama or Mexico is something they can handle.

01 March 2013

Learning acquisition

I am of the opinion that both acquisition and language are essential to achieving fluency in a second language. I believe the two are interdependent, that there must be both conscious and unconscious practice of language and that the one feeds the other in a big ol' Ouroboros. I believe that there probably are people who do perfectly fine--better than they would otherwise--with strictly immersion, TPRS, or TCI and no grammatical analysis until at least Novice High. I also believe that there are those, myself included, whose acquisition is accelerated by the scaffolding of grammatical analysis.

For me, it comes down to brain theory. For years as an English teacher and through the New Schools Project, I was assured that scaffolding was essential for learning to take place and that graphic organizers were pretty keen ways to help the brain out. This was borne out by my reading of John Ratey's A User's Guide to the Brain. I consider conjugation charts a kind of graphic organizer that helps place new information in accessible files for our brain clerks.

Not all of my esteemed colleagues, or #langchat buddies, agree with me. And so we duked it out on a post-#langchat Friday night.