22 February 2017

Mexican Independence and the Imperfect Tense

History and grammar are not always the most obvious hook for capturing students' attention, but when it's history and grammar in a cartoon, who wouldn't be hooked?

This year Spanish II and III decided they would win first place at the language festival in April by finally teaching people the difference between Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day.

So while the Spanish III kids in fourth period worked on the script, the rest of the class got a little background on both through authentic infographs:

And cartoons! First of all, did you know there is a 2010 full-length movie about Mexican independence? Héroes verdaderos is available on YouTube in its entirety! We didn't watch the whole thing, but we got into the revolutionary spirit listening for key words in "Con fe en el corazón": the goal was to pick out all of the important words they thought they heard then narrow it down to the ONE that best summed up the message of the song.

We had a good talk about the significance of libertad, hermanos, corazón, victoria, and more.

Then I frontloaded a little vocabulary: sacerdote, cura, and indígenas, words that would appear in the next cartoon about el padre de la independencia--and could help answer some of the questions the infographs brought up, like WHY did Mexico want independence?

I had them let the video just wash over them the first time. Confession: I had hoped they'd recognize some words as it played, but really it worked out better as sort of a pre-viewing exercise. I didn't do a full-on movie talk, but we discussed some salient points about el Cura Hidalgo's life then dove right into to grammar part.

In their notebooks

I had them create a simple T-chart, labeled ía on one side and aba on the other. (I said the word "imperfect" for those hungry for that sort of thing, but mostly I side with Sra. Cottrell on not teaching a new language for teaching about language before you get TO the language.) I told them (yes, in the target language) there were (hay4 ías and 6 abas. HINT: they will not be able to hear them on their own; you WILL have to pause the video for each one, and probably replay at least once.

In the T-chart, they were to record:
  1. The form of the verb they heard (e.g. conocía, gustaba)
  2. The present tense form of the verb, and 
  3. An extra space we'd talk about later (spoiler, it was going to be for the infinitive form)


So I started the video then paused when an imperfect word popped up. I replayed it, and when someone was able to pick out at least whether it was ía or aba and guess at it, I wrote it under the write column on the board. Then I would ask, "¿Cómo se dice ___ en el presente?" Now, they hadn't heard some of these words before, in imperfect OR present tense, so they were kind of guessing around--which is GOOD. I always tell them guessing is good for their brains, as long as we verify ASAP. (I'd always write the correct form on the board to model.) The guessing helps them start to notice the patterns.

So really what I was doing was a sort of higgledy piggledy PACE lesson as we discussed, Presenting the verbs with the Hidalgo cartoon and drawing Attention not only with the chart, but by connecting to prior knowledge and familiar forms. I also paused to do some questioning with some of the new words in present tense but also work in a few object pronouns under the radar ("¿Mucha gente TE respeta? ¿Mucha gente le respeta a Sra. Dixon?"--hint: EVERYONE respects Sra. Dixon...it's fun contrasting with others in position of power though...)

I did have students add one more verb form--the infinitive--for each entry, to really draw that Attention to the patterns forming before them. You may notice that we had plural and singular words in both columns, too. That made for a nice little review of that present tense structure that we hadn't emphasized much the year before, but it could also have confused the issue, the rules at play.

So with the imperfect, present, and infinitive forms of each verb, it was up to the students to Co-construct and describe the grammar rules they were observing.

To help, I said they had to include the following in their description:
  • past
  • present
  • plural
  • -ar
  • -er
  • -ía
  • -aba
Note: make sure you go over some co-constructed rules together. For those who are truly lost, it helps to have one rule that everyone can copy, just to make sure their guesses are appropriately redirected.

Up next

I ended up only doing a PAC lesson this time, and not Extending OR Experimenting. Taking the time to go the next step might have resulted in students using the past tense more actively afterward, but for right now, it appears to just be in their "recognize" files--which is fine, too. However, my plan to Extend is to have students do some reflecting using the ías and abas, maybe in their personal practice blog posts or as we look back at past videos of their first run-throughs for the "Cinco de Independencia" skit.

Either way, they got to watch cartoons and get a little more comfortable with Padre Hidalgo and verb tenses.

13 February 2017

Online Students: How do you know what they know?

You could just assign a writing task to see what they can do. And they could just run the whole thing with a translator.

You could have them upload a video of themselves speaking. And they could script the whole thing--and then run it through a translator.

You could have them record themselves talking through a video or text interpretation on video. And then spend hours--even on double speed--reviewing every video for evidence.

Look, "Gotcha" is an unwinnable game in an online class.

So why not just ask them?

I'm used to knowing my kids before they walk in--I'm used to them walking in! Getting a feel for people I haven't met and won't meet (at least before we can arrange a time to meet at a local restaurant), it's a conundrum. I mean, I WISH I could design a curriculum that would work for anyone anywhere, but the fact of the matter is, that's not how I work. I have to know what tastes and personalities I'm dealing with before I can set a satisfactory direction for the course. Otherwise I fall into the same old traps, just like any face-to-face class.

Opening a dialogue in English has been the truest measure I have found to figure out what these new strangers can do. Just asking them what they have studied and what they do--and don't--feel comfortable doing has helped me A) put them at ease and B) decide where exactly we need to start.

I confess. I had no chill last semester. I told them as soon as we walked into the restaurant, we would speak ONLY Spanish, so I could attempt to simulate 90% TL, if only for one hour a month.

But it wasn't worth it.

Sing Along

Now, I still give them tasks to complete in Spanish from the get-go. My favorite, of course, starts with music. But instead of having them get the hang of Vibby and interpret right off, I used it as an excuse to see their faces, hear their voices. That's right, they have to sing Week 1--or at least recite. They say the words to the chorus from a song I hand pick from my list (I give them the words), and they pause between each line and explain in English what it means, then just quickly say in Spanish what they think of the song. This way I can see them, hear them, pick up on how script and translator-dependent they are without having to penalize them.

But this is just a hint--and an excuse for me to see their little faces. The real feedback comes from just asking, but with the right scaffolding.

AAPPL Graphics & Thinglink

I love, love, love the cool people I work with in my district. But I know they struggle with teaching for proficiency. So I know these kids are probably not coming to me with a firm grasp on the three modes or proficiency levels. Fortunately, I made some charts out of AAPPL rubrics so I could understand proficiency levels better.

So I shared these graphics with the kiddos in the form of three separate ThingLink images to help them start to figure out where they fit in the grand scheme of proficiency for each mode.

Their job was to add tags to show where they thought they were, like so:

A few notes on the logistics of this process:
  1. Make sure you set it so that "anyone" can edit it, so when you link it in whatever LMS you're working from, they will actually be able to add their own tags.
  2. If I were a moneyed person, I would get school accounts so everyone could mark it with a different color. Not being quite that moneyed, I did not indicate that they should change colors, though it was nice that a couple took it upon themselves to switch up theirs anyway.
  3. I did have them include their names in brackets at the beginning of what they typed and added tag examples with my own name, and the tags indicated where I expected they would be starting and where I hoped they'd end p.
  4. I only asked them to put one tag, but I really liked that most decided to mark in each category (for example, blue is one person and green is a different person--quite a range there with just one!)
  5. In retrospect, I think I would also do more to emphasize that this chart starts with the easiest at the top and gets more complex as it goes down. Some seemed confused. I did have them comment on a discussion about surprises, but I think I would have them just ask questions in the future. That might take care of some of the confusion more organically.

Now, I have met online or in person only with about half of the class at this point, but I feel like just opening up this dialogue, exploring proficiency visually and personally, has made this semester a lot more...worthwhile.

I feel like we can really hear each other now.

And not just because I made them sing Enrique first thing.

04 February 2017

SEESAW INSIGHTS: Making Memes in Spanish

If there's one thing that catches my students' attention as surely as music, it is memes. Sure you can have students read memes for some authentic input. But how exciting is it to see what kind of jokes and jabs they can come up with?

And it doesn't matter if meme generators or Instagram are blocked on your school wifi. I just posted this template to Seesaw, instructed the young ones to

1. copy & edit my image and
2. add labels to their copy in Spanish
All they had to do beyond that was make sure the result was directly relevant to class topics.

If they were having trouble coming up with an idea, I had them refer to the classmate blogs they commented on the day before to see if they found any errors they could use.

This is my favorite meme to come out of my first attempt at a meme making activity in Spanish II:

I mean, I like Axel as much as the next Spanish teacher, and I did have to have her resubmit this one with toca instead of jugar, but I bet she remembers those words now. And by golly, she's got her some opinions on pop latino!

Not all of the memes were as opinionated. Some were, in fact mechanical--maybe posts I could go back and tag with the chronic offenders' names on Seesaw. Some were cute, and some were blunt. But all gave me insight into what the kiddos understood and what they could do.

And so we have the spelling memes:

We have the grammar memes:

We have the memes making fun of Sra.'s quirks

One of my favorite sayings in "¿Cómo que 'thank you'?" and you can't get out the door without looking me and saying adiós.

We have the memes expressing their distaste for certain types of assignments from blogs to portfolios to assessments:

I didn't realize how unpopular the simplified vocab blogs were, but I probably could have guessed everyone felt more comfortable reading than listening or speaking. But this is valuable insight, you know? They get a chance to quickly express what they're thinking in a fun way and share with the class as I go through approving the memes to the feed!

 We also have the suck-up memes:

And the tell-me-how-you-really-feel memes:

The them's-fightin'-words memes:

And of course the we-have-a-new-crush-after-chatting-with-a-Canadian-Spanish-class memes:

I suspect that other memes might not end up this adaptable, but I bet we could get some brutal honesty and maybe some suffix awareness out of this one:

Plural endings are coming?
vienen las infografiías?

Maybe some more class procedures commentary and/or adjective agreement awareness out of this one:
Dices que quieres a tu mamá, pero le pones "bonitO"
...pero eso no es asunto mío.

And I bet we could get all kinds of opinions and reflection and advice out of these:

The point is that Seesaw makes it super easy to upload, adapt, and share memes, and memes make it super easy for students to express themselves with as much language as they feel comfortable with.

So which templates will you be uploading to Seesaw?

02 February 2017

Chill Pill: Things I've decided to relax about as a language teacher

This year has been a year of growth, without a doubt. After the single most successful semester of my teaching career, I decided to start from scratch on almost everything.

I blame iFLT.

Since I'm also on an early college schedule, I only got a week or two to process a lot of really powerful, paradigm-shifting observations before school started back. It's left me without any solid framework this time around. Also, taking on teaching online with a whole new course in a whole new setting has not left me a lot of mental energy to catch up and start rebuilding (AKA blogging).

But that's okay. I'm giving myself a little grace this time, especially in areas that used to keep me feeling inadequate at every turn.

90% Target Language

I learned watching the great Grant Boulanger in action that THE highest priority HAS to be building our students' confidence--in us and in themselves. If they don't trust you first and foremost to provide input that they can comprehend, they will shut down--and rightly so. Also, if they don't trust that they really do know what's going on, they will shut down even faster. And so if at any time I feel like I am sacrificing their confidence to stay in the target language, I switch.

The result has perhaps been less input overall, but a lot more comprehensible input making it through. My kids just seem happier now, and some of the less confident kiddos from last year's Spanish I are now trusting their brains to figure things out in Spanish II. While we're probably around 70% TL most days, what I'm seeing in their daily interactions and assessments is showing me it's working way better than when I was pushing the arbitrary do-or-die 90%.

All authentic all the time

I was already experimenting with TPRS stories when Krashen and BVP convinced me of this one. See, the goal is to get them to intermediate so they can take off on their own with authentic texts and sympathetic amigos. But again, we have to keep their confidence up long enough to get them to intermediate!

I've since come to accept that storytelling is not my forte. Is is, however, Mira Canion's. I need to work on my novel follow-through, but the first few chapters we did get to in Agentes Secretos went over quite well. I could feel the energy of the whole room getting it. It goes back to priority número uno: build their confidence that you'll only ask what they can do, and confidence in themselves that they've got this.

This relaxation has also seeped over into my assessment. Did you know that the ACTFL Can-Dos for listening don't address interpreting anything beyond basic school stuff until conversations, announcements, and school stuff until intermediate?? Ads don't even show up in the examples until intermediate MID! This is another one of those situations where I need to go back and apologize to the kids from last year. Since, I've been recording myself and other sympathetic Spanish teachers for the listening IPAs for novices--because I was destroying their little baby parrot confidence every time I dug up authentic videos to TEST them with before they were ready!

Writing stories

I'm very picky. I demand texts that I can connect directly to the projects I'm working on. Projects are a non-negotiable for me by this point, primarily because I firmly believe everyone needs something real to work up to when they are learning anything. I also pick projects based on what the kids I'm looking at will actually let me get away with. I'm done with projects that fall flat because they're my vision instead of theirs. I'm also done with stories that are shoehorned in to get more input.

Because you know what? My questions are input. Having class conversations related to the topic is input. Needling kids in Spanish about crazy things they do and say is input. Their self-selected personal practice is input. I don't have to bend over backwards trying to come up with a twist after umpteen reps of three relevant structures.


It was MAGICAL watching kids spontaneously tease Sr. Boulanger in Spanish-- after TWO DAYS! That's what I want.

Despite relaxing my stance 90%, I am sold on input being the solution to pretty much every problem. So I'm cool with them just making eye contact and nodding along during class conversation, maybe interjecting a  or no or even a one or two-word response. As long as I can tell they are getting it, I don't need them to be able to give me full sentences. This means I have to have other ways to check if they are getting it, and really building that confidence and taking the time to pause and just ask if they understand takes care of a lot. If I doubt that they really understand, I'll pick someone I think does and have them rephrase what I said in English. The concern has always been that this leads to tuning out the Spanish, but if you are really serving up Spanish they have a hope of comprehending, it will start sinking in.

I am still giving speaking and writing assessments though (although half as many as even last semester). I'm also trying to offer more freedom in what they write and talk about, letting them lead the way on whatever they feel comfortable writing and speaking about (if they can connect it to the current project somehow). I'm not dictating WHAT I want them to produce, just getting out of their way to see what they can produce.

Your turn

I have to tell you, I have been a lot happier as a teacher and a human being since I took a chill pill. Embracing a less-is-more philosophy was the first step, but cutting myself some slack on strategies that keep me--and my students--from enjoying what we do and feeling confident? It's made the whole teaching experience more like what it should be. It gave me more time and energy to focus on relationships and proficiency needs--not enough time, still, mind you. But more.

So my question for you is, what kind of chill pill can you take--or have you taken? Where can you ease up on yourself--or your students--a little so the learning can get through? What can you swallow so you feel like you're really teaching again, or for the first time?

Find what makes you confident and focus on that.