31 March 2017

#FLENJ17 PBL Building Blocks Workshop

I want to help people get started with their first PBL project, but I don't have any one set strategy that I, personally use to get started. Even if I did, the chances of everyone else's brains working like mine are (thankfully) slim.

When I've conducted "building block" type workshops in the past, people have typically wanted to see a few different things:

  • Ideas and examples
  • How everything fits
  • Day-to-day activities
  • Ways to assess effectively
Now, we only get 2 1/2 hours for this workshop, so I definitely cannot guarantee people will leave with all of those things. They absolutely HAVE to have an idea of a project they want to develop before they leave, and we'll take some time to tinker with the rest (because that's really what a workshop is all about, right?). I make only 4 promises for takeaways though:

Everyone will leave with

  1. A Driving Question that is worth developing into a project
  2. An audience to invite to project presentations
  3. At least one text for students to interpret to support project development
  4. A list of language structures--functional chunks--to focus instruction
Now, they may leave with a question or text they poached from their new best friend from the workshop, but they will leave with one. In fact, I am hoping everyone will post their results in the comments here!

4/3 Update: Still waiting on those comments! BUT here are my 10 absolute favorite questions!

  • Is celebrity a blessing or a curse? (Agnes is my new hero)
  • Does social media help or harm people?
  • How did people communicate before social media?
  • Should I go after my passion (music career, being an artist...) or be safe and attend college? (also Agnes)
  • ¿Prefieres usar snapchat o instagram? ¿Por qué? ¿Qué peligros tiene? (Maria)
  • ¿Que factores hay en que una persona llegue a ser popular e la vida? (Ruth)
  • What makes a family? (Bridget)
  • How do athletics influence culture? (Dana)
  • Are zoos bad? (elementary contingent)
  • Why do you dress the way you do?

22 March 2017

The World Doesn't Need More Language Teachers

I said it before, and I'll say it again: I hope school subjects are abolished in my lifetime.

The archaic notion that understanding can be split into neat categories and segregate "math people" and "artist types" is doing no one any favors.

If you want to know something now, in the Information Age, you simply look it up between Pokestops. No library card or fees or rides to and from campus required. Good Will Hunting never had it so easy. But still we insist on playing this outdated game of Schooling.

Because it's what the colleges want. Because it's what we did. Because it's what we can understand.

Because we love it.

We relish the familiarity. We bask in our small bastion of certainty. We define ourselves by our subjects and excuse ourselves from not knowing others.

 We are wrong.

Time and time again, thought leaders tell us that we are preparing students for career fields we can't even imagine now. No amount of conjugation or comprehensible input is going to prepare our students for that. Not really. Not if we're honest about what it is our classes can offer beyond stringing different words together.

Sure, language can be a metaphor for all of the problems students can solve from scratch. It forces new perspectives into our expression and understanding. But unless we EXPLICITLY parlay that into real-world contexts with our students, we are LIARS.

This will get you a better job. This will get you a sticker on your diploma. This will get you into the college of your dreams.

So. And. What.

Those aren't young people's real needs  their driving forces. Yeah, some of us will jump through just about any hoop for a shiny sticker, but the stickers can't hold us together.


These are what Daniel Pink saw as the primary factors to motivation. I've seen it in my own life. I've seen it in every successful person with whom I've had the privilege to correspond. It's what makes me teach, what makes me blog. It's what makes my husband fix the phone system at the local police department AND what made him keep up his Duolingo streak for a month after he got home from his first trip to Mexico.

Don't get me wrong. Your students need you. Mine need me. But it's not because we're healing their monolingualism.

It's because we know the way.

We are adults. We have had problems we didn't know how to solve. And we have solved them, or at least survived them. And that is no mean feat.

Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell tells us the Babelfish is coming (does anyone else remember the Babelfish before Google Translate? No?). The language isn't what our students need most from us anymore--if ever they did.

They need to taste Mastery, perhaps of a language, perhaps of tools and strategies that allow them to go on mastering other things. 
They need to feel Autonomy, that they can pick a purpose, a goal, and actually have the confidence to go out and achieve it through carefully considered plans and reflection. 
They need a Purpose, any purpose--that doesn't get us fired. They need to be the change they wish to see in the world, to identify problems in their communities, immediate and abroad, and not despair.

My fellow teachers, linguists, experts in solving and surviving the problems that life throws our way: pass THIS on to your students. Use another language to do it so you can double their possibilities and horizons. But do not be a language teacher any longer than you have to.

Be the guide that shows the young people in your care how they can live life.

19 March 2017

#SCOLT17 I Won!

I will never be the SCOLT Teacher of the Year, but I have to admit, I found success at SCOLT. No, not in a Moonlight kind of way, but more in a Ralph Waldo Emerson way. After all, I have always loved his definition of success.

To laugh often and much

You guys, the dinosaur ATE his roommate while he was trying to sweep. I just...I cannot. I cannot not laugh.

To win the respect of intelligent people

These ladies. They are tops in my books, and to get to hang out with them just rekindles me every time.

and the affection of children;

They really have been pretty sweet this whole trip--and not only to get to the Magic Kingdom today.

To earn the appreciation of honest critics

This lady and all of my awesome #langchat tweeps keep me going in ways they'll never even know. I'm kind of pulling for her and Sr. Howard at ACTFL.

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;

I thought of posting the LEGO rose my husband got me in LEGOland after the general session, but I think this group is actually the most beauty I found in one place on this trip. Just the joy and the compassion and the creativity that exude from these ladies...how cool to get to see it all together.

Emerson has a few more descriptors to scaffold success, factors that aren't necessarily evident in one weekend. I think as teachers we all can rest assured that we have succeeded in this respect:

I don't have a conference photo for this one, but there was a student I mentioned in my Teacher of the Year interview, the one who led me to my advice for new teachers that "It is never about you," who gave my SCOLT post on Facebook a like. I gave her my number years ago, and now she's in the home stretch of her junior year of college to become a social worker.

I mean, I didn't win ToY, but I think it's safe to say I've succeeded. I'd be willing to bet every teacher reading this has too.

13 March 2017

10 Tips for Organizing Online Spanish

There is ZERO room for confusion in online courses. Even if I could answer every email immediately, their emails are the ONLY cue I have if they are confused. Forget about checking for comprehension--much less compensating with compensating with circumlocution or figuring out when it's time to switch back to L1!

In an online course I simply have to anticipate questions, and eliminate them before they're possible.

In my second semester, I've happened upon a few strategies that I think made my job (if not my life) significantly easier--hopefully for my online students, too!

1. Screencast EVERYTHING 

In a pinch, screenshots can fill in a lot of blanks for things I would usually demonstrate live, but they are still going to send me confused emails--or worse, just skip the assignment--if I don't go ahead and walk them through exactly what I want and how to do it with a narrated screencast--in English--of me doing the same thing they have to do. I've done it for blogs, Thinglinks, Adobe Spark, VoiceThread, Vibby; even broke down and got the paid version of Screencastify so I didn't have to convert the videos to uploadable formats every second.

2. Weekly modules

I thought it would be logical to organize tasks and information thematically in an online course, like I do in real life. I thought very wrong. I simply HAVE to have everything broken down to a relatively predictable weekly cycle so there's now way they can say they don't know what they need to do when. They should expect to have their warmups done by Wednesdays, their project-related reading/listening/speaking/writing practice and blogs done by Saturday, and then I'll post the next week's work by Sunday. The Spanish is confusing enough, so everything else HAS to be 100% predictable!

3. Title dates

Patterns and routine can eliminate a lot of question, but again, there can be NO room for doubt. So I've taken to putting the due dates EVERYWHERE. The modules have titles like "WEEK 6  (DUE 3/4)." Headers for weekly warmups include the Wednesday due date, and headers for the project work  and blogs include the Saturday due date. Discussion boards all include "***POST BY WEDNESDAY***" at the end of their titles and then an extra indented text header that says "RESPOND TO 3 POSTS BY SATURDAY!"

4. Announcement video

It probably takes me an extra 30-60 minutes every week to turn announcements into video on Adobe Spark. (It took WAAAY longer on Powtoon, and there's no "costume and makeup"--ie getting out of pajamas--if I don't have to actually appear.) However, I KNOW they don't read or retain every single word when I type it all out, and this way is also just a little more personal. And I think the little visuals with minimal text are helping the message stick better, whether it's mistakes from the previous week I want them to fix or quit making or a heads up for what's coming this week.

5. Anticipation emails

This is probably THE best step I've added to weekly warmups. It was especially useful when I was taking time out every Monday to respond to them, but then it was a pain when some were trickling in Tuesday still, so I confess I've slacked until Wednesday or Thursday a little. This way, at least, I have some record of whether or not kiddos have even looked at the assignments for the week, and I can answer questions before the second-to-last minute, maybe even create another screencast if several are having the same issues. Some make detailed overviews of exactly when and where they are going to work, so if I am checking a little later in the week, I can check the Canvas analytics and see if they are actually sticking to their plan! And if they're not, and I know they have work/rehearsal/meets over the weekend, then I can send a heads up to get back on track before the deadline!

6. Language practice

Those people who can make a curriculum that anyone can use beginning to end, I envy them. What I'm doing the next week in any class depends largely on what I see the prior week. I know about 14 years into the game, I can predict a lot of problems, but not all of them, so I always have a little activity where they can work on something I see popping up in multiple assignments or conversations or blog posts. They try to tell me they NEED notes, but a little quiz (that's really only a practice grade) that they can take as many times as they want in the Weekly Warmup section seems to be working at least as well for getting people to use "O" on the end of yo verbs and to put object pronouns in front of verbs. I always put a "content page" before it that spells out EXACTLY what I want them to do so they can easily ace the quiz--in writing and sometimes with video too.

7. Singalong songs

This might sound terrible, but I find it harder to care about my online students. Part of the problem is I have such limited face time with them. Prescribing a chorus a week that they have to A) sing or chant along with, B) interpret, and C) react to the song. It lets me look at their little faces at least, and hear their little voices. (I know most of them are high school seniors--but they are precious babies, dangit!) I also get a nice quick peek into what they struggle with or excel at while they get exposed to cool music. Win-win!

8. Discussion board protocol

I use discussion boards primarily for interpretation, but also for making class decisions. The key is to have consistent expectation across the board (pun not intended a little). While interpretive discussions are in English and decision posts are in Spanish, the same rules apply. For "original" posts:

  • Reference - If I designated a text to interpret, they copy and paste specific lines to analyze; if they're picking a text, they link it. If it's a discussion topic, they have to pick a stance in response to the prompt, e.g. which topic they like best, which UN millennium development goal we should focus on, which country they want to research.
  • Response - If interpreting, they put what they think the line means in English and why they think it is interesting/important. If deciding, they have to say why that is their choice. Very simple--just a sentence or two.

For reaction posts for classmates (at least 3):

  • Reaction - They have to pick something specific the classmate said and respond in a positive, supportive way.
  • Question - They have to ask the classmate a relevant question--it can be as simple or as complex as they're ready for!
I recently started building answers to the questions for the next week's weekly warmups, and I think that will prove useful.

9. Portfolio week

In another case of trying to teach my online class like my face-to-face class, I thought I would have students submit one portfolio a week: reading, then writing, then listening, then speaking. This was tough. For one, the first couple of weeks, they didn't have a whole lot of evidence. For two, having to explain (screencast/screenshot) procedures for a new type of portfolio each week really messed with the flow of the week--and added to the stress. Since I cut back to 1 IPA per grading period, generally in the middle to avoid the four-class pileup at the end and give me somewhere to work from, the last week of the six-week period is the perfect time to pause, assemble their work, and reflect.

10. Appointment calendar

Would that ALL online classes could take place in the community where they're being taken. In my interview for the online position, I asked if I could mandate "field trips," and Bossman said he thought it was a great idea. It was originally to get some interpersonal practice, but really, like the singalong videos, it's so I get to love them...almost like face-to-face students.

So I asked which days were off limits the set up a calendar with at least 6 dates that students could meet with me: 2 or 3 at the Mexican restaurant, the rest online.

This way I know

  1. Everyone is going to touch base with me in real time at least once or twice a month.
  2. Who needs to make room to touch base with me in real time.
  3. When I maybe don't even need to show up.
  4. What they need from me that is NOT coming across through email or assignments.

Teaching online has forced me to reflect honestly on my organization, communication, and motivation. Language learning online may never be as fun or fruitful as face-to-face, but I do think with some adjustments, it can be possible.

05 March 2017

Pizza Faces - Maintaining conversation for intermediate performance

I think I should have been starting online classes with pizza faces from the beginning.

I mean, sneaking in a few Spanish essentials and practicing with a useful tool early on--those are noble pedagogical goals, right? And starting with such small, familiar language chunks can help hit the ground running but in a way that is totally comfortable and confidence building!

But more importantly, their faces are HILARIOUS. Starting off with reaction videos to your teacher's pizza preferences sets a fun, intimate--yet totally school appropriate--tone for the course.  And taking silly selfies first thing? What better way to get the positive vibes flowing?  Plus it could give me the perfect running gag to acknowledge common ground and individual quirks.

Intermediate skills

The truth is, though, that I was actually a third of the way into my second semester of Spanish III online when I thought of this activity. Several of my kiddos were giving me complete sentences in conversation, asking and answering questions, and they were ready to move up.

You see, one important thing that intermediate speakers can do is maintain a conversation in the target language. It is one of three indicators that separate I1 from I2 on the interpersonal AAPPL rubric (the others being "more than one sentence" and "questions" rather than just "simple questions.")

But what does "maintaining a conversation" look like?

My first thought is of course follow-up questions--questions that are completely spontaneous and completely dependent on what your conversation partner says. But if you're really maintaining a conversation and not just rattling off memorized questions, there needs to be an in-between step that really demonstrates the listening. You have to acknowledge the answers that the other person gives.

So I whipped up a list of some standard responses (based loosely on my interpersonal playbook) that they might need to use in various situations. Since I wanted them to hear it, I made the list a Spark Video too!

Task setup

So I knew I wanted them to speak, and I knew I wanted them to listen, but if there's one thing that makes online language learning so frustrating, it's the near impossibility of getting those to happen in the same place at the same time. What's worse, is trying to work gestures or facial expressions in across time and space to help ensure your meaning is clear.

Fortunately, there's Adobe Spark videos (formerly Adobe Voice). Now Spark has been giving me some issues on Chrome, why I know not, but I've been able to pull it together week to week for the online class video announcements using Firefox. Also, pretty much ALL of my students have iPhones, bless their hearts (my IT esposo is virulently anti-Apple).

So I figured I'd snap a few selfies of extreme reactions and pick a universal topic. Pizza, of course, was the first thing that came to mind. It's not necessarily target-culture appropriate (though I did pick up my pineapple and ketchup + hot sauce + worcestershire sauce habit in Mexico), but it can evoke passionate reactions without actually burning anyone.

Here's what I came up with:

All my kiddos had to do was
  1. Watch and react.
  2. Snap exaggerated selfies of their reactions.
  3. Match their reactions with the suggested list of reactions.
  4. Create an Adobe Spark video, then copy said reactions into their own slides, upload, and read the reactions aloud.
Some actually took it a step further (probably because they didn't fully read the directions, but still) and added reframing of my original statements in their responses, which BONUS intermediate-ness!

So now they have a few auditory and contextual examples at their disposal. And I know who appreciates the finer things, like pineapple on pizza, and who is so perverse as to actually eat olives and mushrooms on purpose.