30 December 2016

Make Your Own Objectives! Language domains and student portfolios

ACTFL Can-Do Statements are holding my students back. I've been using them to evaluate porfolio submissions and award badges, and the badges just aren't matching students' abilities this way.

I need a system that connects what we know about proficiency with what students can and want to do with the target language.


Students submit evidence for reading, writing, listening, and speaking on their e-portfolios each six weeks, and if they don't show me that they can definitely, consistently perform at the designated level for all 3-4 objectives in a given category-100%, they have to submit evidence for the same level, the same category the next six weeks.

The objectives for each category and level are based on the ACTFL Can-Do Statements, though I whittled them down the as far as I felt I reasonably could. I like the idea of having something "Official" to ground these linguistical rites of passage, but they are hindering recognition where recognition is due.


There are kids who are consistently performing at an intermediate level on IPAs who can't break out of Novice Mid based on the Can-Dos (and, yes, I'm using the bold ones, not the niggling example bullet points below). I've been justifying it with "The Cone"--you have to show how far out you can go out with different contexts, not just how far up with text types.

But is that all The Proficiency Cone is?

The more I said it to kids who were convinced they'd at least hit Novice High (P.S. how cool is it that they want to defend their performance levels?), the more I heard myself omitting language domains.

Get your copy
on the ACTFL site!
Having taken part in the #LangCamp book study on The Keys to Planning for Learning this past summer, I knew there was a lot more to proficiency than text types and contexts.

But what could I do about it?

I hadn't been awarding badges based on proficiency guidelines or performance descriptors primarily because I thought it was more fun to have more levels to conquer, and neither document was willing to break down levels further than the broad headings of Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced (okay, and Superior and Distinguished, but my early college kids ain't getting there in 2 years--3 if they beg).

My kids have a pretty good grasp on proficiency/performance levels in general, but what if they also grasped language domains?

Could they then define their own goals for badges?


I stand by my belief that novices  don't know enough to know what they don't know, and they usually don't know even enough to know what they want to know. With language domains to choose from, I think they could have just enough ammunition to set some goals that are
  1. realistic, and
  2. relevant.
As with the ACTFL Can-Do's, though I'm going to choose to ignore the parts that I don't want. For one, I think language control is a domain that novices by definition can't evaluate. For two, if my kids want to talk about dinosaurs and roller coasters instead of their families and hobbies before they hit intermediate, I see absolutely no reason why they shouldn't. So I'm refusing to limit contexts in the accepted sense as well.

I find the descriptors for cultural awareness limiting, but I do like the idea of connecting whatever reading, listening, speaking, or writing they are doing to
  • "Knowing Myself"
  • "Exploring Communities," and/or 
  • "Engaging with the World."
The rest of the domains I broke down into novice and intermediate descriptors by mode (and I have to say, it really helped me grasp what I should expect when a lot more clearly!) 



Each six weeks, students are still going to 1)  pick/create 3 samples of their work for each communicative skill (a different skill each week).

Then, for each sample they are going to 2) construct an objective that that sample reflects, and they will pick at least one descriptor from each of the five domains in the infograph above.

Then they are going to 3) reflect on what the sample demonstrates about their performance level and where it shows they are with that skill, as well as their cultural awareness.

I made a Google Drawing that students can copy for each skill to pick their descriptors and just cut out the ones that don't apply. This way they'll automatically have a relevant header for anything that they embed in their portfolios, AND an easy way to reflect on their skills!

Before and after: I designated the level as Novice High because it drew from Novice AND Intermediate descriptors.


With domains and their command, students will be able to form their own relevant and appropriate objectives to apply to the evidence they want to display.

And then maybe they can tell me what is worth a badge.

27 December 2016

2017 To-Do List

These are not resolutions--I'm still working on my #OneWord for next year. But I am trying to organize what it is I want to accomplish so I don't end up stuck at the drawing board again. So these are a few goals that I want to start shaping up in order to sketch my semester.

1) Plan for Grading

It has occurred to me that when I plan an assessment, I should also plan when and how the actual, you know, ASSESSING is going to happen. Schedule an IPA in class? Schedule three hours of scoring. Collecting rough drafts? Gather some time for commenting before final drafts must be revised.

I suppose this is what normal people call "Logic," but this "Logic" is not my first, second, or even third language--I'm at like intermediate maybe.

Basically what this means is keeping my calendar more carefully and maybe working on my follow-through after kids are in bed.

2) Build a New Starter Cycle

I broke up with coros this year because they weren't having the results I wanted as far as listening. I wonder, though, if that breakup hurt my kids's speaking, since they really struggled with that the last 6 weeks (though for the final, it wasn't quite as bad as I thought--more on those results soon). Another problem was that they always seemed to lose their luster a month or two into the semester, and kids only ever seemed really smitten with the songs from the beginning of the year.

That's why I want to set up some sort of rotating schedule--one that takes more than a week to rotate, so don't get bored.

Some things I think I'd like to work into the rotation:
  • Classcraft check in - I think the gamification aspect is useful, and I regret letting it fall by the wayside. I should have regular time set aside for people to claim their badges/rewards.
  • FVR - I had some success with a Michelle Kindt inspired version of response for this...but this too fell by the wayside.
  • Game time - Kids L-O-V-E-D having some time to play Duolingo, Verba, and Manzanas con Manzanas, and I think it really filled in some gaps that I really didn't want to spend class time on, but gave the grammar-oriented a sense of confidence--and some extra vocab.
  • Blogging - Even if self-selected homework worked and vocabulary blogs ended up working out, making blogging a daily assignment was a bust, but setting aside time for cultural response and/or commenting on each other's ideas could be time well-spent.
  • Adobe Spark talks - I'm not sure how I want to set them up, but I want kids talking more frequently, with less stress. I think these might make better "enders" than starters, but they're on my (this) short list.
  • Conversation listening - the playlist of teachers who talked to me a few years ago was useful for my 1's this year, but this class has already heard them. Maybe I can get some topic suggestions and enlist more amigos to add to the list?
  • Random #authres fun - Sra. Wienhold has a Loco Lunes with random videos from Pinterest--a perfect excuse for some memes, comics, or infographs too!
  • And of course MUSIC - I don't know if I want to go the March Madness route or try some of the call-and-response or little dances made up to go with the words that worked this year, but I know there's gotta be music.

3) Connect with Online Kiddos

I've really been missing the part of teaching anything that made the drudgery of stuff like GRADES worthwhile, namely the connections with neat young people. Despite getting to know their skill levels, I just can't engage with them online the same was I can with people right in front of me!

So I think I'm going to start with the "Million words or fewer" assignment. I haven't really needed it in a while, since I got to observe and hang out with kids for a year in 9th grade before I taught them in 10th, but having parents email me anything I should know about their kids--in a million words or fewer--would surely help establish connections a little more firmly. And then maybe I need to implement the weekly random discussion board I learned about at Camp Musicuentos, to keep millions of words flowing and connecting us.

4) Differentiate Directors

My NOT-online Spanish III kids are really native speakers who will be earning Spanish III credit by doing mostly the same thing as the rest of the Spanish II class, just a level up on the AAPPL scales. This time, though, I have requested to have all of them in one class, not just for my own sanity when entering grades. My plan is to have them become the writers, choreographers, and directors for our winning skit, song, and even trivia at the language festival this year.

That way all of the tough stuff that is really not novice appropriate--like negotiating topics, developing storylines, and planning the moves--can actually be delegated to, well, NON-novices. And the novices can use what the Spanish 3's come up with as input!

17 December 2016

Top 6 of 2016

Among the most visited posts from 2016, some are policies that I've been implementing but just hadn't put in writing before. Some posts are the direct result of inspiration at #TELLCollab16 his spring. Another was trying to jump on a trend (that turned out not to be as trendy as I'd predicted) and another represents a more metacognitive in my Spanish I focus that has served me well this semester.

Click on the links below to see what hit home for the most people this year!

#1 New Translator Policy

August 22

#2 I Don't Do Standards-Based Grading, BUT...

April 7

#3 Self-Selected Spanish Homework

April 25

#4 ¡Pokemon VAMOS! Pokemon GO! for Spanish Class

July 31

#5 EPIC Telenovela PBL Unit & Final Exam

April 22

August 31

15 December 2016

Final Exam Stations: Presentation, reflection, and anticipation

That's right, I'm conducting final exams in stations (although really only one station constitutes part of the final exam grade). The rest are more "daily" sorts of assignments, but they are designed...
A) to promote reflection and anticipation and
B) to keep 80% of the class busy while 20% of the class presents their speeches in small groups
So far, they're working great. It takes a little pressure off of my presenters (although their amigos still have to make eye contact and giggle from their stations, of course), and it keeps students thinking about how to keep their Spanish alive in the twelve months between Spanish I and II!

Presentation Station

So obviously station 1 is where the presentations happen, not unlike Mme. Blouwolff's conversation stations (though I haven't mastered the barrier area yet). One student at a time has their "Ignite Lite" presentation pulled up on the SmartBoard directly in front of a table where 4-5 classmates listen raptly and then ask a few questions. I keep a little chart where I track each kiddo's participation as far as
  • questions
  • answers
  • overall speaking level
My chart notes mostly consist of N1-I2 codes according to my beloved AAPPL rubrics in each slot, adding an approximate code next to the appropriate name each time someone in the group speaks. This is working nicely, as it allows me to see what they can do with a week of straight preparation for the performance but also how they respond to questions on the spot.

And I gotta tell you, these are the best questions I've heard all semester, too! They're getting their point across and really picking something in the presentations to latch onto, since they're covered if they ask each presenter one question. I think this may be how I conduct assessments moving forward!

Debriefing afterward since all of the presentations have been going so smoothly has also been really beneficial for me and, I think, the kids.

Reflection Station

This is mostly survey filling time. In the past, I've asked about which activities and tools they enjoyed the most and/or learned the most from and solicited suggestions for the future. This year, though, the focus has been why and how, so I think that's the direction I really want to head this year. I still have some quick 1-5 Likert polling on a select few tasks and tools, but I'm mostly be looking at questions like:
  1. Why do you think Sra. Sexton made you  ___?
  2. How well do you feel ___  accomplished those purposes and why?
I want to choose my proverbial battles so I don't get a zillion hurried, thoughtless responses, so I'm focusing on recurring tasks like:
  • interactive notebook pages
  • novel reading
  • vocabulary blogs
  • personal practice blogs
  • Adobe Spark conversations
  • game time
Portfolios and IPAs still get their own sections, because I believe there will be a lot to say there. And of course, they get a chance to tell me what they think I should do more/less of before Spanish II.

So far it looks like I'm on track with the gaming, but I need to do more with their notebooks.

Contact Station

A calendar year between Spanish I and II is a fact of life for us here at the early college. But if it means I have all of the sophomores at once and all of the juniors at once, I'll take it.

Last year I had students do refresh portfolios in their absence, but I thought since we had the novel now, they might prefer to stay up on their Spanish reading, say, a chapter a month and maybe doing an activity here and there. Most wanted to stick to portfolios or blogs. Go figure.

I decided I wanted to make sure that they were interacting fairly regularly with the language, so I want to see dates: blogs it is. I also decided that there are twelve months and four skills I want them to practice with, that I'll require 3 posts about each skill before next year. And to make it even easier, we'll meet once a month (most months) and do some fun stuff that also helps fulfill a blog requirement.

So at the station, their job is to

  1. sign up for any meet-up dates they're planning on attending
  2. make suggestions for what we can do at that meet-up
  3. help brainstorm a list of activities for reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and then
  4. make a personal plan for an activity for each month
So far it looks like everyone is planning to cram some practice in in the final months before Spanish II, but I think I'm okay with that.

Competition Station

I wanna win. So at this station, everyone will have to decide what activity they want to compete in for the language festival, then start building a team and a plan. They have to pick acting or singing, and if they pick acting, they havt to suggest a skit topic' singing hast to suggest a song. Then whoever wants to do each creates a video (in Spanish) promoting their idea to upload to Seesaw, and get people to like their video. They can create the video with as many people as they can get to agree on their idea, but all have to talk. The video with the most likes on Seesaw will be our focus in Spanish II!

I'm a little worried about our skit chances next year, as it's looking pretty darn music heavy...but at least they're passionate.

Cuaderno Station

Here, they make a cheat sheet. They fit everything they need to remember from their notebooks on one page. We talked about sketch notes last year when I tried to help them survive their college Health class, so I think this is a perfect opportunity to bring those lessons back (and give them something they can keep in their pocket of or take a picture of to review when they're bored).

They've been taking to this one like ducks to water. They knew what to do and mostly seem to zero in on conjugation so far.

I'm looking forward to another full day of presentations and stations, and I think the kiddos might actually be feeling pretty good about it too...considering it still is exam day.

13 December 2016

Forget about Proficiency

I spent YEARS fretting and fuming about the difference between performance and proficiency and what exactly I was supposed to DO with them. I'd like to give a shout out to my tweeps who put up with this spillage from my inner turmoil, especially Sra, Cottrell and Herr Sauer. And Lord bless Paul Sandrock for gracefully dealing with my neophyte self face to face when I was still more than a little belligerent about the whole thing.

You know those super smart kids that hate language class because it's the first time they didn't automatically get what was going on? That was me in my early performance/proficiency maelstrom. Ooooo, I did NOT take that lesson lying down.

Still, as with many acquisition type concepts, I figure if I'm not getting it--brilliant scholar that I am--someone else isn't getting it, and they might not be as...vocal...about getting someone to talk them through it (again: bless you guys, AND anyone else who got caught in the Twitter or NC WL Collaborative crossfire.)

So after years of bugging people who have my utmost respect and/or actually let me call them amig@, here's my quick and dirty breakdown of what you need to know about Proficiency, Performance, and why one is not your problem.

#1 Proficiency is a far-off dream

You do not assess for proficiency in your class. You are not qualified to assess for proficiency in your class, unless you are one of the select few who has made it through some sort of Official Training where Someone Official officially declares you are. Yes, you are teaching toward proficiency as your ultimate goal, but it's kind of like the way you are teaching for your students' general success in life. You want them to be happy and comfortable and prepared--only with proficiency, specific guidelines defining said linguistic happiness, comfort, and preparation actually EXIST, and you have to do what you know is most likely to get them to that simultaneously vague yet very specific promised land, probably without ever actually getting to see their arrival.

#2 Proficiency doesn't fit in a classroom

What kind of jerk tests a kid on something they don't prepare them for? (Sit down, me from 5 years ago. We didn't know any better.) But really, proficiency is by definition a big, broad, nebulous thing that kind of has to incorporate everything. To measure it, you have to keep pushing upward and outward, gauging how many topics the language learner can handle until you bump up against what they can't do.

We're not there to limit language learners, people, or to judge what they can't do. We're there to support and increase what they CAN do. So we prepare them for specific, isolated performances with a familiar, predetermined topic, and we do not GOTCHA our precious babies. We funnel input into their little ears and eyes as much as we can and then measure what comes out according to reasonable expectations based on what we have actually provided. It is our responsibility to assess performances that are within the scope of what we know they have been prepared for through our classes. It is the duty of the proficiency assessor to determine what they can do beyond their specific preparation in any context.

That would just be plain cruel to grade for class. And it'd really make building a #NationofAdvocates pretty impossible.

#3 Performances lead to proficiency

I have this theory that if I measure enough performances, I can call that proficiency. It's why I do portfolios and IPAs and grade how I grade. My precious babies are very proud of their intermediate performances and get frustrated when those don't automatically get them even their Novice High badges. I tell them proficiency is a cone, but performance is a line, and they grumble and move on without actually getting the difference.

But the point is: you can get the right text types and vocabulary to move up the cone, but you have to show you can do it in more and more contexts to continue filling out the cone.

I've tried a plant analogy too: a stem needs branches and leaves to nourish itself and survive. So as they are able to understand and express themselves on more and more topics in more and more situations through more and more performance assessments, they're adding more branches to their tree so it get be stronger and, well, bigger. But if they're measured with only one performance, they stay a stem, and their language learning will never last.

So my advice to anyone caught trying to teach for proficiency or implement performance-based assessment is to keep your eyes on one branch at a time. You are planting forests, nourishing them from the ground up. We may never get the aerial view of what our efforts accomplish, but we can see the forest in each tree.

11 December 2016

Back to the Drawing Board: #ACTFL16 strategies

After iFLT this summer, I was ready to sprint back to the drawing board. I needed a good solid month to just sketch, doodle, redraw EVERYTYHING.

I got a week. And two completely new preps complete with two completely new LMS platforms.

So this year has been a bit of an unoutlined mess.

Now more recently, there were about three #ACTFL16 presentations that got me feeling that drawing board itch again, almost like iFLT. These were NOT tidbits I could try out Monday or sprinkle in in those moments when a few extra minutes magically appear before class ends. I have had to stop and ponder the innerworkings of my whole philosphy of teaching and language to find where these fit into, you know, EVERYTHING.

I mean, I could just whip out a random one-word image on a whim, or immediately abandon my current the IPA structure and AAPPL rubrics that my Spanish I kids have come to depend on, and dive right into a complete reformatting with Talk-Read-Talk-Write and TALK rubrics. But then I know I would be heaping on another helping of that same drifting chaos feeling that has made this semester seem so off already.

So here's a little doodling on how these strategies are starting to fit into my philosophy.

I've been intrigued by the one-word image since I saw Grant Boulanger and his imaginary Pikachu at #iFLT16. I didn't quite grasp how it worked at the time, but there is nothing quite like actually doing the activity to figure out it's inner-workings. Instead of actually doing it and creating the horse that Haiyun Lu tasked us with, I dragged my partner along analyzing how it was supposed to work. We figured out how the questions would go, and then got to hear other people's examples, so it was like we, you know, actually followed directions.

Now what I've been turning over and over in my head is how I can exploit this strategy in a PBL context. There have got to be certain words or types of words that could help equip students with language they'll need to use for their research or presentation, nouns that can enhance students' active vocabularies for researching, collaborating, creating, or presenting. The nouns themselves don't have to be what I'm trying to shoehorn into their active vocabulary--they probably should be recognizable words that students already understand so that I can come up with questions they can A) understand and B) actually answer.

It could be something like premio or guerrero to start the discussion on Classcraft privileges and characters. Maybe something like ejercicio or tiempo libre (that's kind a a compound word, right?) to get into the self-improvement unit or ayuda to get into the product pitch unit.

Of course this will involve further sketching and shading--like some actual questions I could ask to flesh out the "image." So expect more doodling on that topic.

Amy Lenord had piqued my curiosity about Talk Read Talk Write several months ago, but it was another concept I couldn't wrap my brain around until I was IN it. Having experienced it from the student end in Greta Lundgaard's session, I felt a lot more confident in my ability to inflict it on my kids--in a meaningful way.

Since ACTFL, I've been thinking about using this format to replace IPAs. I like how the process consists of two conversations instead of just one, and I think it could take a little pressure off the conversation side of assessment that led to tears almost immediately preceding my flight to Boston. And starting with a sort of philosophical question to set up the text could make the conversations more interesting to have to begin with and give the young ones a chance to warm up their mouths and brains before it's for the proverbial money.

Now Sra. Lundgaard also recommended Talk Read Talk Write as a once-in-a-great-while type activity, but after the IPA-induced tears, I was already thinking it might be time to apply my less-is-more philosophy to the number of assessments instead of relying on the reduced point values (10% instead of 20% of the grade for each) to reduce stress, so having just one TRTW scenario each grading period--maybe between the middle and the end--could also actually give them time to relax a little between assessments.

Since this summer's LangCamp book chats--and probably before--I've been fascinated by the idea of Rebecca Blouwolff's interpersonal bootcamp and the TALK rubric. Once again, I had to feel it to get it, even if I was the pretend teacher in the scenario instead of the student.

I have to say that one of the most powerful revelations for me in the session was Mme. Blouwolff's class setup for this assessment, and I really think it lends itself well to IPA (or TRTW) functioning--a way to take the front-of-the room pressure off, get more conversation done at once, and generally keep the class functioning!

I'm also contemplating a break from my beloved AAPPL rubrics because of this session--at least for interpersonal mode. On the one hand, I do want to have some sort of consistent evaluation with the N1-I5 scale. But on the other, I think "Target language use, Accuracy on specific structures, Listening and responding appropriately to peers, and Kindness in being an equal and inclusive conversation partner" are a lot more descriptive and provide more thorough scaffolding for meaningful interpersonal engagement. So I may end up using this as a pre-assessment assessment, kind of like an interpersonal "bridge quiz," as my genius grad school amiga (and SC Spanish ToY!) Sra. Stephanie always recommends.

So as you can see, my drawing board is still in a bit of an upheaval, but I will be doing more doodling throughout break.

And I will have a draft before Spanish II begins in January!

10 December 2016


I'm trying a choose-your-own-adventure format for my talks on authentic texts at the Texas Spanish Language Symposium today! On paper, I'm giving the same presentation three times today, but depending on which direction everybody's facing, we could go three totally different directions.

I had originally planned to get my audience interaction from Nearpod, but then I got to thinking about how hard it is to read through all of the submitted responses in a timely manner--forget adjusting! I thought about going the classic four-corners route (if you answer this way, go to the far left corner; that way, go to the near right, etc.), but I also know how hard it is to crawl over the laps of people you may or may not have introduced yourself to.

So I went to the craft store and got some big ol' pieces of felt to make traffic lights.

There are two different points in the presentation where my new amigos get to decide which way to go, and there are three options for each, designated as red, yellow, or green: 

My big red felt "light" goes on one side of the room and the big yellow one on the other: red goes at the back. So when we get to those slides, everybody has to stand (move a little--without injuring unsuspecting strangers) and face the color that corresponds with their choice, maybe greet the person they end up facing, try and persuade them to turn the same way as you. (PS you're totally getting called out if you stay facing forward.)

I'm hoping there will be a pretty clear consensus on which way we should go, but there's always the classic teacherly snap decision--and the links here to explore later!

Also, in the vein of teacherly snap decisions, I decided I might need some brain breaks too, so I have some sneaky buttons worked in at various junctures if I feel the audience lagging, and we'll decide look at some texts and decide if they're "Authentic or just awesome?" Because  
  1. I know that the term "authentic" has connotations that can be hurtful to those whose work doesn't technically fit the accepted definition and

  2. though I was asked to present on authentic resources, I want it to be clear that there's a purpose, a time and a place for ALL engaging texts.
And so, without further ado, go ahead on choose your own adventure on how you can set your students up for success with authentic texts at every level!

30 November 2016

Fuegos: Ignite lite for Spanish I finals

Ignite talks are short and fast. They're like Pecha Kucha, with 20 carefully timed images, but they're even shorter.

I mean, yeah, you can rehearse and rehearse (and rehearse) an ignite talk to time it perfectly  (and that's actually a good option for kiddos just breaking out of Novice Land), but everything that comes out of your mouth has to come out of your head.

Not off a card or a screen.

My wise amiga Sra. Hawkins says it's hard to fill up the 20 seconds in Pecha Kucha in your native language, so my plan is to go with the 15 seconds. And because it's hard to hold five solid minutes of anything in your head in high school, I want to cut the slides back to 10. That's 2 1/2 minutes in the target language.

My kids can do that.

I want this to be an opportunity for reflection, some metacognition in the ol' L2. So I've come up with a list of suggested topics I know they can talk about--and that might benefit next year's kiddos:

  • What you can do in Spanish now
  • What not to do in Spanish I
  • Problems you can have in Spanish I
  • What helps you learn Spanish
  • How Spanish helps you
  • How you like to use Spanish
  • How you are going to use Spanish in the future
I also tried to think of some more project-specific ones to, to tap into more topical language:

  • How Spanish I is like a game
  • How Spanish I can be more like a game
  • How to use games to learn skills
  • What you need to know about Hispanics in the U.S
  • How to find ideas for a good product
  • How to make a good product
  • How not to make a good product
  • How to make a good presentation for your product
  • How to attract Hispanic consumers to your product
  • How to communicate with people in your group
I would also be really interested in what students could come up with, but they would have to be able to have a discussion with me--in Spanish--about what they want their topic to be and what they are actually able to say about it--in Spanish. I'm all for it if they can come up with something cool and useful that's actually, you know, within their powers!

Now for someone who has disavowed presentational Spanish at the novice level, this whole "exam" is definitely incomplete. I could easily get presentational writing in there by having them writing and revising what they plan to say, and we can add the interpersonal with a quick 2 1/2 minute Q&A on their topic to fill out the rest of their five minutes, as I've done in final presentations past.

The reading and writing are a little trickier to work in, but I think I can edit together some of the post-product-presentation interviews with our guest "investors" for the listening, and I might go the personalized route once again with the reading section once I have their topics, picking out blogs and infographs and whatever I can find that would tie in with what they plan to present.

Can you think of any other topics you would like to hear at the end of Spanish I?

23 November 2016

#ACTFL16 Tidbits

I came to ACTFL 2016 with a conference path set for Everything Interpersonal, having had various students freeze up, blank out, and even two start crying during the interpersonal part of the most recent IPA--in spite of low-stress strategies that worked the last two IPAs--just hours before I boarded the plane to Boston.

Perhaps it is the curse of the hyper-connected educator, but I did not walk away from this conference in a haze of hope and renewed vigor to take on teaching.

I suspect it's because I get cool ideas from the coolest people all the time, so I don't have to wait for November for my brain to be full like I used to. I kind of exist in a perpetual state of mind half-blown every time Amy Lenord or Wendy Farabaugh or Annabelle Allen--not to mention the dozens of other pedagogical geniuses on my blog roll and the #langchat feed--adds a new post.

I've developed a tolerance for brilliance, I think.

And yet I'm generally still able to walk away from each session I attend with something I can use in my class. So here are a few tidbits I picked up from a few cool people who shared at this year's convention.

Given my conference path, you'd better believe I was front and center (well, side) for this former ToY's spontaneous session. Three things I want to try that might help my kiddos just feel more ready before assessment time:

  • Conversation Carousel, or ask-ask-trade
    I've used questions on cards before, but something as simple as using answers on the back to cue their partners is a valuable skill. Also instead of writing extra questions on the card, switching cards with someone else is a way to practice asking more questions without having to come up with them all yourself!
  • Cootie Catcher Questions
    A sense of play could surely lighten things up for my kiddos, and what better way than bringing back the origami fortune teller of our youth--just with Spanish questions?
  • Class Greeter QuestionsMy kids already can't leave my room without looking me in the eye and saying adiós--like they physically can't anymore. How much of a stretch would it be to add an entry question and set up a rotation of askers?

I confess I mostly go to PBL sessions for networking and finding My People (which, mission accomplished in this one). But it was also cool just to see how simple starting to plan a unit really could be with this organizer:

Also, I've used Mixbook for creating children's books in the past, but did you know Storybird has a fundraiser form letter? Could be a good tie in with our school supply project!

Mostly this session gave me some ideas on how to scaffold reflection. I think requiring regular video blogs where students NOT reading what they're saying is specifically part of the grade could help kiddos get more comfy being on the spot. I also like the idea of not grading the first version of the vlog and providing mini-lessons on problem patterns I observed, then grading the redo. Even if actual changes are tiny the second time around, it's more low-stakes practice before the big moment.

(UNcon by Sr. Anderson)

Sr. Geisel helping me see Snapchat as a video editing tool instead of social media just made SO MUCH SENSE. Really low-stakes, familiar and fun context to get kids talking without fear! (Plus I had super fun snapping buddies!)

Everyone knows I love an infograph, and surveys have been some of my more successful speaking opportunities this semester, so  why not follow up with graphs with titles that actually reflect CONCLUSIONS students can draw from the surveys! Sentence titles for the infographs can also promote moving up ye olde proficiency scale!

AND how cute and easy would it be to let people respond to survey questions with Legos, upload a picture of Lego bar graphs to Seesaw and just title them there? Could be a great first day fun station activity before kids CAN respond in sentences to just have some Solo cups with target language questions where kiddos can plop in a colored lego to represent their response--with cognate-rich questions, even "silent period" kiddos could engage!

Face time with your PLN is always a great takeaway too

Now, tidbits weren't all I got from ACTFL this year, and in fact I got some burning questions answered with some thorough and engaging demonstrations in three other sessions I attended. I do have a little cogitating to do about those sessions and how they can keep my kids from bursting into tears when we talk, but check out this Storify of some #ACTFL16 highlight tweets to get a preview of what I'm pondering and a few more more tidbits from all of my sessions.

12 November 2016

Vocabulary Blogs and Communication

Personal vocabulary blogs have allowed me some unique insights into students' approach to life so far. I especially enjoy what my little shutterbugs have shown me--even if it was only to avoid having to cite online images. Also seeing the kinds of words kiddos come up with when they're under the gun after a week (or weeks) of procrastination and how they express them is...revealing.

However, the vocabulary blogs have not been having the impact on students' expression that I had hoped for. Don't get me wrong: there have been some words that have worked their way into students' blog posts and IPAs, especially in my online Spanish III course. And sometimes when I slip a new word into conversation that someone has posted before--by chance or by design--I get exclamations of delight from those who recognize it. But still the ones who need it most don't seem to be getting much out of it.

I have a few ideas on why and what to do about it.

Purposeful Selection

I love living in the Information Age. I want to know something--anything--I click a link. One of the most important things we can do as educators is show students how to do that.

So it's well and good if students want to name a dozen marine mammals in Spanish or throw in "spooky" and "skeleton" at Halloween time. But Thomas Sauer's assertion that we have created generations of Novice Low language learners has stuck with me, so I pass it on to my students, and they do seem to get the problem with only having laundry lists at their disposal...even if they insist on just looking up the names of objects in their house or classroom at the last minute.

So I'm going to remove a little of the choice and add another step.

Now, this means I will have to lay some clear ground rules for acceptable purposes, and unfortunately "curiosity" just isn't going to cut it anymore. In fact, just using it on DuoLingo won't cut it anymore. They will have to have a communicative purpose in mind before they get to put the word on their blogs.

Of course I'm totally fine with an interpretive communicative goal--understanding Plim Plim or Gran Hotel or a random article on dinosaurs for their personal practice homework is 100% acceptable. Preparing for their upcoming marketing presentation is also a good choice. Telling our Sister Cities amigos about what's fun in our community is also a pretty purposeful communication goal.

Naming everything in your bedroom is not, mostly because no one wants to hear you do it.

So I offer the following "I can" starters to choose from for stating their purposes:

  • I can understand what's happening in [book, news article, show, music video, sports recaps]
  • I can learn more about ___ from [book, news article, show, music video, sports recaps]
  • I can discuss ___ with [name a real person you're actually going to talk to]
  • I can explain ___ for our assignment on ___.
And that's pretty much the only purposeful reasons I can see for wanting to acquire new vocabulary at the novice level. If they picked up the word from something we did in class, fine, but they have to explain what they can do  with it now that it is at their disposal. And whatever they learn from Duolingo, they learn from Duolingo, and that's separate--I still haven't found an occasion to use abacaxi.

Purposeful Reflection

I polled students on how many nouns, verbs, and adjectives they had in their first quarter of vocabulary posts. SO. MANY. NOUNS.

"And what is the ONE thing you need to make a sentence in Spanish?"

Sheepish grins as they muttered, "Verbs."

I thought it might also be fun to do a Polleverywhere survey to get a word cloud of the most popular words so they could reflect on what words a lot of them had picked (calabaza figured in a lot last month), and whether they had actually been able to use them.

One thing I've learned in 14 years is that pausing for reflection is an absolute necessity if any learning is going to stick. I mean, it's why I blog to begin with! So stopping to think about and share what is and is not working is definitely worth a little slice of our time.

The VoiceThreads for reflection haven't been working out as I had planned, though, even though there was class time to make them happen--it was just on a day that I wasn't there. I'm sure normal people understand this, but in case you're like me: NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW WHEN YOU'RE OUT. Just saying. It should be a continuation of routine if you want anything to happen--besides complaining.

I think the reflection VoiceThreads are worth salvaging, mostly if I remember this:

But there are a few specific tips I would recommend to make them more effective:

  1. Provide detailed revision. Google Docs worked a lot better than blog comments for this. Also requiring essential verbs made all of the sentences make a LOT more sense. In fact, I think I'll take the requirement to write their own personal example sentence out of the initial vocabulary collecting blog posts and save this for a step after at least 3 posts and before combining them into a VoiceThread.
  2. Make grouping terms a separate step. I was going to have students group their vocabulary and create their VoiceThreads all in one assignment. That is WAY too much brainpower for a single practice assignment. Like the reflection, if it's worth doing, it's worth taking the time in class.
  3. Close the feedback loop. Set aside time in class to fix the sentences. Set aside time to listen to the "corrected" audio comments and re-record (again--when you're there #endnotetoself). All of your suggestions are for naught if you don't show students that you value what you're asking of them enough to make time for them to respond, closing the feedback loop, as Karen Tharrington taught me.
  4. Encourage original artwork. I'm still okay with finding images for the weekly posts (especially now that we got a little clarification with this post on image citation...and pulled up a few posts where hotlinked images mysteriously disappeared). However, I think it's worth having something more memorable for the reflective coming-together piece, and something that requires some personal investment--whether it's photos they staged or quick doodles.

So, even though the vocabulary blogs are not yet doing everything I had intended, I think with a little extra reflection time and intentionality students should come out with words they can and want to use in situations where they actually want to use them.

28 October 2016

Is a PIRATE's Life for Me?

I could hear Dave Burgess scolding me every second I wasted that first week. I should have had the map handouts printed and copied, waiting on tables with the necessary number of markers for the activity with nice, neat SMARTboard pages with complete maps (sorry, Uruguay--you weren't in the clipart) and images carefully pre-selected and arranged to represent each country.

Instead: maps were printing as students walked in, I had scissors in hand to separate them as I started the activity, I had to dig around two cabinet drawers to find the big marker box after my explanation, I shuffled countries and photos on the SMARTboard, resizing and regrouping (all but Uruguay), and, frankly, I lost them.

Not a lot has changed since I started this post three years ago, back when I first started reading Teach Like a PIRATE. I mean, I don't do map lessons much anymore, and of course there have been multiple inspiring PIRATE spinoffs in the intervening years that I have not had time to get to (except the picture book--that I've read cover to cover!) But I still scramble as students are walking in and often make my photocopies at lunch, which conveniently breaks up the "learning episodes" for my third period class. Just yesterday I caught myself playing lifeguard instead of swimming with my students. I don't stop and ask all the questions I could or should in my lesson planning, and you will almost never hear me say, "You don't want to miss class tomorrow!"

Yet I have talked my principal into making TLAP required reading for my school--even though I still have not read the original cover to cover.

From the 3/4 of the book I have absorbed and savored and rolled around in my brain, I would say that Sr. Burgess' main message is above all JOY in the classroom: creating opportunities for joy and removing obstacles to joy. The point is that if our students aren't happy with what's going on, and if we aren't happy with what's going on, WE DON'T HAVE TO ACCEPT IT.

I wonder how Teach Like a PIRATE is going to strike my colleagues who are feeling a little resigned. I wonder if they will be turned off by Sr. Burgess' seemingly unending pep and see it as a standard beyond anything they can or want to reach. I mean, it's a LOT of pressure to think that everything that happens in your classroom ultimately comes back to decisions you made--or neglected to make. True though that may be, sometimes, you do just have to let that go--a message I think might be lost in the grand scheme of TLAP.

Still, I would recommend the book again. It asks questions that in all reality I can't ask myself every day or even every week or month. But now I know where to find those questions, say, when I find myself slipping into DEVOLSON and need a way out. Even on days I'm not feeling so seaworthy, Teach Like a PIRATE gives me a way to move forward without blaming students or forces beyond my control.

So can I control every aspect of every lesson ahead of time so I and my students can experience maximum joy every time we enter my classroom? Am I prepared for that kind of PIRATE's life?

No. I am decidedly not prepared for that kind of life. People already think I don't sleep, and I really wouldn't sleep then--or eat or read or breathe.

But can I use Teach Like a PIRATE to feel a little less helpless in the face of failure, to keep my focus on making my class experience better for me and my students?

Aye, that I can.

26 October 2016

Madre del alma or "How did you learn Spanish?"

It's really hard to explain how I learned Spanish without admitting failure.

Oh, I aced all of the college and graduate classes. But a significant factor in my current fluency has always been relationships. The most important relationship in my life that Spanish has made possible is indeed a family relationship, but not in any legal sense. Not anymore.

Mostly I call her Abuela. Sometimes she's my Mexican mother. I still call her suegra occasionally, though I haven't been married to--or even heard from--her son in about seven years.

But explaining what Spanish means to me, how I learned it so well, means at least mentioning my failed marriage, over and over again.

Cooking with Abuela
I once heard Kim Bearden of the Ron Clark Academy speak about her first marriage, and it meant so much to me to hear that an intelligent and inspiring educator like her could survive something like that and speak openly about it. I've also found it's usually easier to be straightforward about my own circumstances. It just takes a while to be clear, as there's no shorthand yet for how my family works.

Armida is not just my friend. She is not just my son's grandmother--though that's how I put it for people who will inevitably wonder why Paolo is brown and Lena is not. Lena could barely understand English, let alone Spanish, when Armida whispered to her that she was the grandmother who loved her most because she had never had a little girl before.

Grandaddy (Charlie's) & Abuela
What's even cooler is neither my mom nor my husband's mom denies her that. In fact, Armida is a beloved guest at my in-laws' house when Paolo requests Granny's spaghetti for his birthday supper. Even Charlie's grandma gets tickled about how Grandaddy blushes when Armida gives him his hug and kiss.

I translate for all of this. And this is how I keep learning Spanish.

I translate when Armida's mother welcomes my family of four into her home and worries that Charlie, AKA "mijo," needs more huevos or chorizo or tortillas de harina every morning for a week. I
Bisabuela y sus bisnietos
translate when Armida's husband wants to tell Lena about the cute pink vest he found for her at Zara for Armida to bring in her annual trip up for Paolo's birthday. I translate my children's reasoning for why they insisted on bringing Abuela and Bisabuela potholders for presents (they like to cook) or when Charlie REALLY wants to express his appreciation for Armida's milanesa or tortas ahogadas.

Paolo is starting to catch on, though. In a few years, I won't be the only one translating.

¡La felicidad de tener una niña por fin!
But how do I explain all of this without straight out saying I'm divorced? How do I explain that we're related but not technically related anymore? There's no title that clarifies that this is the only mother I've had who I could swap clothes with. There's no title, in English or Spanish, for the woman who loves you after all legal bonds are dissolved, who loves your new husband and your new daughter without the slightest reserve.

So when people ask me how I learned Spanish, I can tell them about college classes and grad school. I could tell them about student teaching in Guadalajara and maybe gloss over meeting a guy in Puerto Vallarta over Semana Santa, skip the four years before Paolo was born when I had a Spanish surname.

But when immigration & customs ask where Armida will be staying, she doesn't really have an accurate term to explain who can vouch for her. Neither do I--at least not one that will communicate our connection without telling the whole story.

Until someone comes up with a name for an extra mother who shares blood with your child, who shares love with everyone you love, who always told you how strong and worthy you were through it all--but who didn't raise or give birth to you, your significant other, or even a friend--I don't have a term that will make sense to those who don't already know who she is to me.

For those who do know, though, they know I learned a lot of my Spanish from--and for--my madre del alma.

25 October 2016

Madre del Alma o "¿Cómo aprendiste el español?

Es muy difícil explicar cómo es que aprendí el español sin admitir que he fallado.

Me salieron bien todos los cursos en la universidad y los cursos de mi maestría, sí. Pero un aspecto esencial de mi fluidez actual siempre ha sido las relaciones personales. La relación más importante en mi vida que el español ha facilitado es, de hecho, una relación famliar, pero ya no en un sentido legal.

En general, la llamo Abuela. A veces le digo mi madre mexicana. A veces todavía le digo suegra, aunque no he sido esposa de su hijo--ni escuchado de él--hace siete años o más.

Pero explicar lo que me significa el español, como lo he aprendido al nivel que tengo, requiere a lo menos que mencione mi matrimonio fallido, una y otra vez.

Lena y Abuela cocinando
Escuché una vez a Kim Bearden de la Ron Clark Academy hablar de su primer matrimonio, y me afectó tanto escuchar que una educadora tan inteligente e inspiradora como ella podía sobrevivir algo así y hablar abiertamente de la experiencia. Yo también encontré que se me hace más fácil hablar de una manera directa sobre mis propias circunstancias. Sólo es que tarda un poco para estar claro, porque no hay términos breves para como funciona esta relación tan integral a la función de mi familia.

Armida no es sólo mi amiga. Ella no es sólo la abuela de mi hijo--aunque así lo explico para la gente que siempre tiene que preguntarse por qué Paolo es moreno y Lena no. La verdad es que Lena ni inglés entendía bien, y mucho menos el español, cuando Armida primero le susurró que era ella la abuela que más la amaba porque ella nunca tuvo una hija.

Grandaddy (de Charlie) y Abuela
Lo que me impresiona de como funciona mi familia es que ni mi mamá ni mi suegra le niega a Armida su niña única. De hecho, Armida es una invitada querida en casa de mis suegros cuando Paolo quiere los espaguetis de Granny en su cumpleaños. Hasta a la abuela de Charlie le da risa como se chivea Grandaddy cuando Armida le da su abrazo o besito.

Y yo, yo traduzco todo. Y es así que sigo con mis estudios del castellano.

Bisabuela con los dos bisnietos
Yo traduzco cuando la mamá de Armida nos recibe a los cuatro de mi familia en su casa y se preocupa que Charlie (también conocido como "mijo") necesita más huevos o chorizo o tortillas de harina cada mañana de la semana. Yo traduzco cuando el esposo de Armida quiere decirle a Lena del chaleco tan bonito que le compró en Zara para que Armida lo trajera en su visita anual para el cumpleaños de Paolo. Yo traduzco el razonamiento de mis hijos cuando insisten en llevarles agarraderas como regalos para Abuela y Bisabuela (es que les gusta cocinar) o cuando Charlie NECESITA expresar su agradecimiento para la milanesa de Armida o para sus tortas ahogadas.

Paolo va aprendiendo un poco. En otro año o dos voy a tener ayuda con la traducción.

¡La felicidad de tener una niña por fin!
¿Pero como explico todo esto sin decir plenamente que soy divorciada? ¿Cómo explico que somos relacionadas, pero no en términos técnicos hoy en día? No hay título que clarifica que esta es la única madre que he tenido con quién puedo compartir la ropa. No hay nombre, ni en inglés ni en español, para la muer que te quiere después de la disolución de todos lazos legales, quien quiere a tu nuevo esposo y tu nueva hija sin reserva alguna.

Entonces cuando la gente me pregunta cómo es que aprendí el español, les puedo contar sobre los cursos universitarios. Puedo decirles de mi práctica en Guadalajara y tal vez mencionar el muchacho que conocí en Puerto Vallarta en Semana Santa, omitir los cuatro años antes del nacimiento de Paolo cuando tenía apellido español.

Pero cuando le preguntan a Armida en la aduana dónde se quedará en su visita, ella no tiene un término exacto para explicar quién es que puede responder por ella. Ni yo tampoco--a lo menos no uno que puede comunicar nuestra conexión sin tener que contar la historia entera.

En su visita reciente
Hasta el día que alguien invente un nombre para una madre extra quien comparte sangre con tu hijo, quien comparte el amor con todos que amas, quien siempre te decía que tan fuerte y digna de respeto y cariño eras durante todos los tiempos difíciles--pero quien ni crió ni parió a ti ni a tu esposo ni a un amigo--no tengo término que tiene sentido para los que no conozcan ya quién es ella para mí.

Pero para los que sí saben, saben que aprendí mucho de mi español de--y para--mi madre del alma.

21 October 2016

#TFLA16 Presentation: PBL Building Blocks

What a treat to get to join some of my favorite language educators in Texas! I was called in to talk PBL with TFLA teachers last weekend in both workshop and session format.

In the workshop, we worked on actually getting started on that first PBL unit using resources I collected on a Wix site (I finally caved, @carmenscoggins!)

Note to self: collaborating on Google Slides is tricky from mobile devices. Still, we got some good ideas started, and I'm excited about the pet care and social media topics we discussed! I hope my new Texas amigos will add more to the sites as they get more ideas!

To tell the truth, I think the session went a little smoother than my first-ever workshop, in part because I got to riff with my roomie, the inimitable Amy Lenord of the Language Coaching blog, to prep for the second day.

Both presentations, though, centered on preparing a unit with four steps that can be spiraled, recycled, scrambled, and resorted as needed:

Of course having more structured interaction with Nearpod never hurts either.


One thing my guru Amy advised was to take time to take the temperature of the room. I really liked how the (trick) Nearpod quiz worked for that, but also the responses I got on why PBL is and is perhaps not the best choice for those there.

Here are some of the best responses, with my reactions, in case they help you make more informed decisions about whether PBL is for YOU.

What makes you think PBL might be a good choice for you?

  • It would allow more student choice.
    True--but not the only way to do that.

  • I want students to be engaged during the whole process.
    True, too--but something that must be carefully scaffolded and nurtured as in any context.

  • I think this will help put learning into the hands of my students, or at least feel like they are the ones who are discovering.
    Inquiry-based learning is more lasting, and even with carefully structured input, students can still find their own answers with PBL.

  • I want my students to love the language, I want them to use it on a daily basis and feel comfortable with it.
    This can certainly be accomplished in other ways, but PBL is a pretty solid way to hit all of those if done carefully.

  • Creating a product fosters engagement
    Absolutely--having something tangible to show for your learning make the whole thing seem worthwhile.

  • I am looking to have more meaningful assessments / have more purpose/ meaningful direction in my lessons
    I think this is the biggest advantage to PBL--Real World purpose right now.

What makes you think PBL might not be for you?

  • Not sure were tests grades fit in.
    Ah, the eternal struggle. The truth is tests can still fit in much as they did before--only with PBL, they're stops along the way, not the destination.

  • I am not sure how to use it for teaching grammar.
    The OTHER eternal struggle. As with any communication-based program, PBLL means that grammar fits where it is needed to communicate. It just happens that with PBL, the communication goals are generally aimed at completing and presenting a product.

  • Not knowing how to align with curriculum.
    If you're stuck with a textbook or pacing guide, find the good stuff and really focus on finding a meaningful purpose for that. The rest goes to the chuck-it bucket--because honestly, that's where it ended up for 80% of students anyway, right? PBL lets you be more intentional about what they still remember and can use next year.

  • Can take a lot of planning and time
    Well, amigo, you ain't wrong. That's why I advise starting slow--with ONE unit in ONE class. Make it worthwhile and then make it work. It might not work the first time. Don't sweat it. Reflect, revise (or reject), and try again a different way.