29 August 2017

Slow Down - Asking cultural questions ain't easy

Once upon a time I went too fast. It was long ago, too long for most to remember: let's call it last Wednesday.

It was week 2 of Spanish I, you see, and I had been watching eyes and noting attitudes, making gestures--going despacito. Everyone seemed to be with me, or at least catch up quickly when I caught that absent or betrayed look when I got ahead. I'd asked them about a bazillion question about foods they liked and didn't like as well as about their designated personas especiales for the first go-round. We'd talked about what they like to do and doodled it on Seesaw to collect vocabulary.

I talked so much about the Peru trip and the amigos who are coming in October that when I asked "¿Quién quiere ir a Perú?" I had to make an extra 20 copies of the applications I got for all of the hands that were raised.

So I thought they were ready to ask a few questions about Peru, right? They'd heard a bazillion or so examples,  and they definitely wanted to know more about Peru. I had my essential verbs and Creative Language Class question posters on the board, some key umbrella terms in their notebooks. What else do you need?

It turns out a lot. I deleted those first questions I let them collaborate on as a group. We do not speak of those questions now.

I went on to break the questioning and research process down still further in a Google Doc. I was still going too fast. My promesa ratings today indicate that even when I slowed down the Google Doc process, I was STILL going too fast.

So here's what I decided I should have done to slow down the process and prepare students.

  1. Practice stating familiar facts.I finally feel like I'm getting somewhere with cultural comparison and analysis! But if students are going to ask questions about other cultures, they have GOT to know theirs. They must practice saying what they already know with words they already know. So many wanted to dive in and ask like they would in their native language. I forget about that impulse when I'm making myself speak baby Spanish all the time.
  2. Analyze assumptions.
    We have got to hold up that cultural mirror and categorize what we know about our surroundings according to whether those familiar facts are necessarily true elsewhere. I myself had never heard of Pelican's Snowballs 6 months ago, but I had kids asking how many there were in Peru! If we had spent time sharing and comparing the familiar facts, the language would be a lot more familiar AND some things we though we knew would come to light.
  3. Prioritize new vocabulary.
    They wanted to know so many new words, and some legitimately needed--and could handle--more than others. The girls in one ropa adecuada group are all about some mangas cortas (or Magna Cartas as they like to tease), but a casas and familias group has to cope with the idea that "garden" and "yard" are the same thing. I'm thinking each group could have a vocabulary wishlist that I could just slice and dice down to the essentials and refer them to alternatives. (Of course I might need to know the context of the questions they're thinking of here.)
  4. Brainstorm key phrases.
    Supposedly this generation just types questions into Google? I don't usually find this to be the case, but if the kiddos could figure out exactly what they want to type into Google to find more information, then they would have the vocabulary they need in order to ask the questions they want to ask.

There's a reason that asking questions is considered an intermediate writing skill, but it's a skill we need to start practicing and developing as early as possible if we are aiming to produce language learners who keep learning.

Let's just make sure that we develop the skill in a way that keeps students feeling curious AND confident.

18 August 2017

GUEST POST: Hope for Higher Ed

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I have the pleasure of picking Dr. Karen Tharrington's brain regularly on #langchat, and once as a co-presenter for SCOLT! @kltharri is a Senior Lecturer and Methods Instructorat North Carolina State University and an advocate for online Professional Learning Networks, technology and online learning, as well as future language teachers everywhere.

Also, she constantly renews my faith in university-level language learning.


I love the idea of PBL, I preach about it with my methods students. We develop ideas that could be used in the language classroom. We read this blog.

But I’ve never been able to fully implement it in my own classes.

I am an educator to the core, but sometimes teaching at the Higher Ed level is challenging. We don’t see students every day, the contact hours are so much shorter, college kids are “too busy to collaborate” these days, blah, blah, blah….

And then I met my academic soulmate.

Dr. Goknur Kaplan Akilli is a TEFL professor from Turkey and she was invited to give a talk at my university this summer. I was intrigued by the description – designing an instructional technology course for pre-service teachers who are technology-resistant – so I made the drive to campus during my summer break. And wow, was I rewarded for it!

She began with a Polleverywhere, talked about wanting PBL to lead her course design, instead of the other way around; I couldn’t stop nodding my head. And then she shared her syllabus – an INFOGRAPHIC!!

People, I’ve NEVER seen a college professor use an infographic, in the words of Taylor Swift, “like, ever.” And it was beautiful. It showed learning as a journey.

She went on to explain how the course is set up. Think Harry Potter meets Game of Thrones in an academic setting. Students receive a letter à la Hogwarts at the beginning of the semester, inviting them to bring their WANDS (Wifi-Accessible Now Devices).

Throughout the course, students engage in digital learning and teaching WHILE digitally learning and teaching…whoa. She takes gamification to a new level and does it IN HIGHER EDUCATION. They compete in “challenges” with each other through collaboration, their reflections receive “Wordsmithing” badges instead of grades, and there’s a “Master” certificate at the end.

For example, one challenge required students to watch the Ron Clark movie and answer questions; simple and typical, but the way she formatted it was literally a game changer. With stars in my eyes, I started imagining all the ways I could implement this in my classes (insert dreamy music here).

I snapped back into focus and was reminded of what she said at the beginning – if she wanted students to use technology in their classrooms, they had to learn via technology in their classroom.

Just. Like. World. Languages.

By the end of her talk I was ready to ask for her hand in academic marriage. I want to collaborate with this woman! I want to learn from this Yogi! She has the same challenges but she gets it. There’s hope for Higher Ed yet.

Now, excuse me while I level up my online course…..

13 August 2017

You Can Do This: Promises for the first day of Spanish class

How and why are still probably the most important questions to answer for learning a language, but I forgot a very important question last year. There is one burning question that every novice language learner needs answered before they can even begin to explore purposes and strategies.

And it's a question that no one else can answer for them:

Can I do this?

Of course we've got the 4% who just thrill at the mere thought of diving into a new language, but when they find out Spanish class is not just going to be memorizing lists and facts, even the 4%-ers are bound to have doubts.

It is my job to cast those doubts from their minds, to show them the answer. This means I have to

  1. get them using the language and
  2. assure them that I am on their side all the way.
Now, my idea of what "using the language" means has evolved over the years. So after a little call-and-response to get them simply parroting the language as evidence that, yes, Spanish can come out of their mouths, this year, I tried a card talk to prove that, yes, they could understand when I spoke Spanish to them. 

And because I have decided to chill about the 90% TL thing for the sake of complete trust and transparency, we discussed--in English--how they felt about the activity and how much Spanish they were able to absorb. We even talked about whether or not they needed to speak the language as desperately as I felt I did at first, and decided to revisit the conversation later (over half said they did want to speak sooner rather than later though).

And then I made some promises--in Spanish.

Each promise was on a separate slide, with 3 clarifying mini-promises underneath. I had been careful to use cognates and as few words as possible, but I walked them through exactly what I meant by each. 

Basically, I promised to exercise the 3 basic skills M. Slavic and Mme Hargaden emphasized in the workshop I attended this summer:

I tried very hard to demonstrate doing these things as I went, and boy those eyes said a lot when we were talking about how I needed to watch them and use it! I did ask them to help let me know when I wasn't going "despacito" (see, we got Justin Bieber and Luis Fonsi in there somehow!!), complimenting kids who stopped me to clarify when they needed it.

Overall, I think they were believers by the end of class, but I'm doing three other things to emphasize those promises and keep them at the front of my mind and theirs:
  1. We revisited them Day 2 and made them the first page in their interactive notebooks. I had them match the mixed up mini-promesas to the three main promises with table teams and then discussed again what each promise looked like and why I would do it.
  2. I made posters that will go up Day 3 for us to review again so that they can...
  3. ..grade me on my promise keeping. I made little score cards which I will use as exit slips periodically, hopefully at least once a week. 
I decided to keep the score cards anonymous, too, though I would really like to be able to pinpoint who needs more help. I think it's more important to get an honest overall read, though. But if they want to talk or let me know they need more from me individually, I'll leave the option of signing their names too.

My hope is that these promises will help keep me honest and connected with my kiddos this year.

And that they will continue to answer that burning question the same all semester and after:

Yes I can.

My first day promise packet is now available on TeachersPayTeachers.

10 August 2017

BRAIN BREAK - Name that Spanish cover!

If you could meet with all of your students before they got to your class, what would you do to get them pumped about Spanish?

My first thoughts were food and music--and keeping it as familiar and fun as possible. I didn't want them to Learn so much as I wanted them to observe, to realize. I wanted to get them thinking, "Hey, this could be fun!" completely sans stress.

So I kept it completely interpretive with no production, broke out the candy I brought home from Peru, and turned an activity I had previously used for a brain break into a little team competition. (They were in groups of 5-6, but it ended up being 45 + an English teacher against the 5 native speakers who tested out of Spanish I. They tied.)

Now this activity could be a whole game with 10 songs or just be a quick little break you keep in your bookmark bar at the top of your browser. You can even rearrange slides so songs you've used move to the end if you use your own copy of the presentation!

When I used this type of activity as a brain break in the past, I found 2 or 3 songs were pretty good--as long as they were easy.

I did hit some snags with my "sans stress" activity, so I have added additional slides with one key word highlighted that I think will be useful hints and replaced some songs entirely because they didn't have enough good clues. I think the 10 songs I have now should work, especially with the highlighted hints and perhaps a few high-frequency verbs under their belts as the year goes on.


  1. Split the class into teams: EVERYONE on the team must raise their hand to be called on.
  2. Project the chorus of one Spanish cover and read it out loud.
  3. Each team gets one chance to guess the original title (or artist if you like).
  4. If no one can guess in 30 seconds, show the hint slide and explain the highlighted vocabulary word (e.g. amar, hablamos, algo)
  5. When a team guesses right--or if no one can guess it--play the song (fast forward to the chorus if need be).
  6. Move on to the next song (or activity if you just want to do one.

Search tips

Now there are plenty of other covers out there, but they all have sort of a limited shelf life--though I have considered making an oldies version for my classic rock kiddos. Maybe some Taylor Swift songs can be resurrected in the name of nostalgia down the road, but I think it's important to keep this sort of activity fresh, so here are a few tips:
  • Filter searches with "This year." If someone is still recording them, they're probably still somewhat relevant songs.
  • Find versions that actually sound good (and familiar). Sometimes funny videos can make up for bad singing...but not usually. The instrumentation should be at least kind of close to help with that prior knowledge connecting.
  • Lyrics videos are handy. Some will spontaneously start to sing in Spanish if they can follow along, I kid you not.

Also, in my recent searches, I found some go-to Spanish cover artists. Of course everyone probably knows about Kevin y Karla, but here are a few more artists that seem to have a good Spanish cover repertoire:

And here's my actual updated playlist:

And updated presentation with lyric hints!

02 August 2017

Interactive Notebook Pages: Past with Participles

There's no point fighting the past tense. You're going to have to sneak at least a COUPLE of words (read: functional chunks) in even in Spanish I.

HINT: "Fue" will cover a LOT of your past tense needs. Some kids can survive Spanish 2 with pretty much only that one verb in past tense, and some smarty pantses might grasp "fui" before they beg for Spanish 3 to be added to the early college schedule, either through Duolingo or just constant grammatical questioning.

But then they start throwing in the "tengo comer" interlanguage, and it's all your inner linguist can do not to rip her hair out and start babbling in the present perfect.

Now, the single most successful project I've found to start Spanish 2 with is the self-improvement project (I'll be presenting on it at ACTFL this year!). However, one of the main components of the actual self-improvement is the reflection--they have to keep track of what they HAVE (or have not) done each day.

So I made a gesture to go with he, has, ha (thumb jerked back over your shoulder) and some sliders to help students form regular present tense verbs:

A post shared by Laura Sexton (@srasxtn) on

Basically you can have them fill in any relevant (regular) roots you want. I know that things like caminar and correr come in handy for the exercise crowd!

Then of course there were the irregulars, so I went back and created some little door flaps that could be added on a separate page or perhaps separated to scaffold a little better:

  1. Gesture icon + AR slide on one page
  2. ER slide + irregular doors on next page
So, for this year's TPT Back-to-School sale, I went ahead and put all of those doors and slides together for you to copy and print! 20% off today!

Find more information on how I have used interactive notebooks in Spanish I here and check out these other resources on sale--or free!--on TPT:

01 August 2017

IPA Template

Integrated Performance Assessments typically have three components based on the modes of communication:

  • Interpretive
  • Interpersonal
  • Presentational
In my class, each component is a separate test grade, making it easier for me to compare and contrast progress in the three modes--since I can't technically do standards-based grading.

I have a sequence that served me well last year, so I combined the documents into a bundle for TeachersPayTeachers for Back to School this year in hopes they might help other people!

Here's what you will find in the bundle!

1.  Interpretive Reading Template

You can select any text to go with this document and simply plug in the type (e.g. infograph, blog post, Wikipedia article), title, and URL if it is online. Some texts I have used on previous IPAs include:

    NOTE: I do tend to change them up every year, for interest's sake, and it helps avoid cheating.

    I mostly post this to Google Classroom with the text linked and give them a 90-minute class period to work on it. Some will only fill in the 5 slots provided, but most will keep going, in my experience. I grade whatever they want to give me--it's in their hands.

    I have also printed this on a 2-sided page before and copied the text I wanted to use. I let them highlight and copy when I do it on paper, but it's a little more tedious. I also had to print extra copies of page 2 for MANY to get out everything they understood!

    This template could also work for listening in a pinch, but again, it's almost necessary to copy the Spanish to know what part of a video they're referring to, and looking up time stamps is tedious. I tend to use Vibby for the listening portion, which is not something that can be turned into a template.

    2. Speaking Template & Score Cards

    Interpersonal mode is by definition spontaneous, but spontaneous speech in the second language is by definition intimidating for most normal people. Having them prepare a presentation helps provide
    1. direction for what they want to say
    2. nonverbal cues when they forget or get lost
    3. a sense of confidence
    The truth is that I'm generally not scoring the presentation itself, but the (spontaneous) questions they answer afterward in a small group as well as the (spontaneous) questions they ask when it's their other group members' turns. See more about how I set up the small group speaking assessment here.

    The bundle includes a very, very basic Powerpoint template which I post for them on Classroom at least 3 days ahead of time as well as printable score cards like I use (when I don't resort to index cards) while they speak. If you don't have access to Classroom or another LMS, you could also just have them draw on index cards for their cues, or, heck! Bring back cutting up magazines! I do, after all, count the preparation as a separate "homework" grade, but students are still required to speak when it's their turn, with or without it--and I have had some AWESOME results that way too!

    I recommend setting aside at least 2 class periods on the block schedule for getting through all the groups and probably 3 on a non-block schedule.

    3. Writing Template

    This one is mostly lines. I do print this and have them write by hand instead of posting this to Classroom because it helps avoid Translator temptation and gets them to work more from their brains. The AAPPL descriptions are on the side, though, and I have them highlight how they think they did at the end (I do think it makes a few go back and add more!) 

    I find having them write anything they can think of gets a lot more out of their heads, and having a few suggestions of topics they could write on at the top gets them thinking when they run out of things to say.

    The good news is that this typically only takes about half an hour for most students (although some who fill up the back will take a whole class period if I let them.)

    4. Google Classroom Instructions & Score Conversion Scales

    In case you want to copy and paste these into Classroom, this page has what you will need beyond the attachments themselves above.

    AAPPL descriptions are included on the Reading Template, the Speaking Powerpoint, and the Writing Template, but the performance level I expect shifts every six weeks in my semester-long course, so I provided an easy to copy version of each shift that you could add to Classroom assignments for clarity.