12 June 2018

New AAPPL Style Listening Task!

I feel pretty good about my DIY AAPPL tasks for reading! It's not too hard to get text to do what you want on Google Slides, so making tasks that look like the real thing is totally doable! HOWEVER, the listening can be a whole other ball of wax, because as far as I know, you can't insert audio in Google Slides.

Video has been working fine for my purposes, but it doesn't really work like the little moveable audio clips--or even the static ones--that you have to match to pictures or descriptions. What's more is it makes it kind of hard to break the listening up into digestible chunks, especially for novices--ESPECIALLY if you don't want to spend all day downloading and uploading and editing and downloading again.

I think I've figured out a pretty handy video solution, though, that allows me to break up the videos without going gray in the process. For this process, I need three online tools:

  1. OnlineVideoConverter
  2. Nimbus Screenshot Chrome Extension
  3. Adobe Spark Video

And then what I end up with looks something like this:

On the right, you can see the video I created in Spark using the audio I stripped using the video converter. I also took screenshots of various phases of the original video so that they can be matched up with the numbers I have used to split the video into one big series of pseudo-clips. So the process looks like this:

Collect audio

  1. Find a video on YouTube (or upload one!) that is appropriate for novice comprehension levels (thought it could be used with intermediate--it's just that these drag-and-drop type questions are usually novice on the real thing).
  2. Convert the video to MP3 by copying its URL to the converter page.

Create video

  1. Create a new video in Spark and add 5 slides with one number on each (plus a citation of the video of course, on the final slide).
  2. Upload the MP3 of the video and click on the time in the lower right corner of the slide to adjust the length of the slide to fit the length of the clip you want (I measure this by listening to the video on YouTube and noting the timestamp where I want to stop for each there.)
  3. Download the video and upload to Drive for easy embedding.

Collect images

  1. Screenshot a section of the video that corresponds with each of the segments you designated with the numbered slides as well as some after the end of the pseudo clips (the AAPPL usually has extra distractors I find).
  2. Insert and scramble the screenshots on the slide, making sure that you have selected images that clearly fit or do not fit with the selected "clips."

If you wanted to get REALLY fancy (read: tricky), you COULD make a video with more than 5 "clips" so that you could download your clip video, RE-upload it into multiple separate slides with different segments of your FIRST clip video. This is pretty much the only way that I can think of that you could scramble the order of the audio or otherwise skip around the MP3 sample and omit segments without having to turn to a more complex editing program than Spark.

But there you have it: a way to create multiple "clips" without endlessly uploading and downloading separate videos!

10 June 2018

Videos in English for Spanish Class

Tim McGraw perfectly captured why language learning is essential for everyone.

When I started teaching Spanish, did I ever anticipate seeing the words "Tim McGraw" and "language learning" in the same sentence? I mean, did YOU?

But his new video--and his video explaining it: 100% pure renewed faith in humanity.

Now, I had been toying with the idea of introducing Spanish class without Spanish since I saw this video last year:

Don't get me wrong, we will still be rocking out to ChocQuibTown and Bomba Estéreo when they walk in, but I've given a lot of thought to the WHY of learning Spanish, and I think it's important to address that question directly and immediately. And though this video has ZERO Spanish, I think it is a crystal clear demonstration of the TRUE power of learning another language:

In the video, Juliet Lyan describes her work encounter with a deaf man and his smile when he realized "someone in the hearing world would want to know about his culture."

I want that smile for my students.

I want them to recognize, to empathize with that feeling of not belonging, and to recognize also that they CAN do something about it for someone else. I want them to SEE how they can positively impact people on a daily basis with just a few words, that they can help heal someone else's isolation, and thereby heal their own.

This video is actually going to be toward the end of my "Why Spanish?" playlist/lesson, the climax.

Before I get to Juliet's perfect encapsulation of everything I want for kids out of language learning, I want to show them some practical applications, a true PBLL project that really demonstrates how vital it can be to reach out with their new language and how strong that bond can be. (Incidentally, 10th graders at our school take Spanish I AND participate in service learning at the local retirement center!)

Now this particular project is the result of a system that is peculiar to the U.S., and so more authentic for English language learners. (Funny, there aren't as many large groups of lonely elders in other countries...) However, it is a further demonstration of how students can seek out others and use language to drive away loneliness, to build relationships with just the desire to reach out.

And the desire to reach out is what Sr. McGraw lays out in his video explaining why he felt the need to release his hit "Humble and Kind" in Spanish: 

So this, THIS is where we are starting Spanish I this year. Everyone knows how widespread Spanish is, so the Top 3 thing is not going to move anyone who doubts that they need Spanish. They know how prevalent it is, they see it everywhere. They also know that they can function without it just fine. HOWEVER, there are two things that Sr. McGraw hits right on the head:
  1. "If you can reach in and touch someone with their own language, when it's not yours, I mean that's kinda cool!" The power of just the effort, the willingness to make yourself vulnerable for the sake of communication
  2.  "And to be in a position to be able to give it a shot, may not be perfect, my accent may not be perfect, my lilt may not be perfect, but I think you feel where I'm coming from." That that effort need not be diminished by imperfections, that the message, the connection is actually strengthened by earnestly opening yourself up in spite of potential for error.

So those messages--plus the part about touching someone else's heart that just makes me melt--are why we're starting with Sr. McGraw. And ending with him.

Because if there's a dry eye in the house after watching this video, well then we have more important things to do teach than vocabulary anyway.

24 May 2018

How Your Students See You

I was so frustrated with all of my failure this year. I honestly felt like I peaked two years ago, and it was all going to be downhill from there. There were no more competition trophies to put in the display case, no more FLANC awards to be won. I just didn't have the energy to pull off any more shipments to Colombia or festivals. Sure, the enthusiasm for the Sister Cities exchange with Peru is at an all time high, but only a handful of kids can participate each year. Plus my plans to engage my colleagues across the county with Sister Cities and communication-based instruction just, well, fizzled.

To say nothing of the three sick days I have had to take because, dammit, depression is a sickness.

Most of the time, I do not actively survey students for feedback on how things are going. There were the pitiful posters for the dog show event that I had a straight-up English come-to-Jesus talk* with my Spanish II's to find out where I went wrong and what we really wanted to show at the Parks and Rec event to represent our school (most groups made them look better before the big day...or in the car on the way to the show, at least).

I do usually give an end-of-course survey, though, about the activities and assessments and projects (that I can remember, at least), with a little, "What do you want Sra. to know?" at the end. Honestly I'm mostly fishing, hoping something hit that I didn't know about, but overall, it's almost always exactly what I anticipated they'd say.

This year, though, La Maestra Loca, Annabelle Allen, shared a survey that really demonstrated "The POWER of Positivity!" So I decided to save myself a little trouble and make a copy of the survey that she told her kids that "every language teacher in the Nation was giving" and fill in my own class activities (I actually forgot Puedos for the first round, if you can believe it.)

So I confirmed a few things that I already suspected:

  • Sr. Wooly is by far the most popular activity in class (a close third for most useful).
  • One-Word Image and Mascota Especial were the next most popular activities.
I don't know if it's the way the survey is structured, making students think first about their teacher and their relationship with her, but the rest had me exactly like Mme. Farabaugh:

First, I was overwhelmed that 100% of responses said they thought I enjoyed what I did. I mean, yeah, Srta. Allen, it's pretty obvious she does like every minute of every day. And sure, some of my kids hinted they needed a "maybe" option, but I did not know that's how they all saw me.

It's certainly not how I thought I looked, especially around those three sick days.

When they had to explain how they knew I enjoyed it, their responses surprised me even more.

(For the record, I don't get paid for my Twitter--but I am open to the possibility! Also I know exactly who that is because I told her I was tweeting silly things her classmate said under #niñanerd)

Here I thought I was just a grump sitting at the computer with a headache more than I should instead of getting out and mingling PIRATE style like I knew I was supposed to. But instead of seeing how I've been feeling about myself, all they see is how I feel about them:

Not only that, but almost all of them said they would tell another teacher to use my style/method:

YES! It is really affective. Your students will succeed if you us this format and they actually grasp it like we did.
Use the same method! Sra. Sexton is such an incredibly talented teacher who puts so much work into what she does and it definitely pays off.
YES. I never feel stressed because of this class and I know she grades harder than others but she's also more leniant and relaxed about when or how you do things and she doesn't grade based on favorites.
I would give a big yes. Sra. Sexton's teaching style has helped me majorly in learning spanish and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Sure, there were some "eh" responses, and a few people who thought they were being asked to teach, but WOW did that change how I was seeing how they saw me.

Also, there were a few of the tearjerkers under "Is there anything else you want your teacher to know!?"

Did I mention that third sick day I had to take was last week? Pragmatically I know that reading these regularly would not make me less sick. But it would still probably be good medicine.

While I tear up reading the sweet things that my students noticed about me, their teacher, I flat out bawled over a final exam. Under the prompt I gave them to describe their "best class ever," I like to think that I was not unduly swayed by those who described my class effusively, bearing in mind they absolutely knew I was grading that one (though I did have fun texting their descriptions to my colleagues they described--sometimes with translations, sometimes not.)

You see, after those first two sick days, I had a random after school discussion with a few of my girls who were hanging out to talk. They had noticed that I had backed off on some assignments and adjusted to accommodate them--they appreciated it. I'm not sure why, but I told them that I understood exactly what it was like when you "literally can't even," with those two sick days as an example. Two of those girls sent me a check-in email on the third sick day, and I was just so overwhelmed.

But then on the final, students were supposed to describe their favorite experience from that "best class ever," that they chose, and one of the other girls who had stayed, had described in half a page--of Intermediate Mid Spanish, no less--exactly what happened that day after class.

She ended with:
Esta mi favorito memoria porque mi maestra explicar que esta bien a ser no totalmente perfecto dodo el dia. Es un bueno cosa a aprender.

It was something I had not actually learned myself until I read that, to tell you the truth. I'd said it, to them, but I hadn't felt it.

Until then.

My amiga Eryka up in Quebec tagged me in a challenge from Dave Burges Consulting with her favorite memory of the year:
I didn't share that memory because I wouldn't say it was my favorite exactly.

But it sure was some excellent medicine.

*I learned about these after living in the South for 10 years. It's basically a lecture on getting your act together. Colorful, right? 

16 May 2018

The Truth Is...Why I'm not at the protests

The truth is my protest unit failed. When I couldn't get my seniors to read or write anything else, I had hoped controversial topics would hook them, make them question things, make them stand up and make a change--or at the very least think about texts in a way that would allow them to succeed on the NC Final Exam.

Really, I was hoping they were going to tell me what you should do when you think something should change, get fired up about something and figure out what I should do when I'm dissatisfied with the world around me. The truth is, I don't feel like I have really any say in education beyond my classroom (and a smattering of classrooms headed by people who stayed awake for my presentations.)  I don't feel like I have a lot of say in my government or even my school. I feel I would be a supremely unelectable candidate if I ran for office, and that my opinions are less than blips to anyone who is electable (other than a few select homies: Vote for Kristine Keefe-Hassan!)

What I got, though, was mostly a bunch of "raise awareness" with billboards and social media campaigns that I knew they were never going to ponder again after the class.

Today I'll find out if it at least prepared them for the exam.

Not only did I not get my answer, but here I sit wearing red all by myself in an empty classroom grading and blogging. Enough of my colleagues called out to go protest in Raleigh that we got an optional teacher workday. And here I am, doing more teacher stuff.

The truth is I needed the teacher work day. Aside from dotting i's and crossing t's for Senior English before graduation tomorrow, I have three sets of portfolios that have to get in the gradebook by next week, and I just haven't been able to make myself look at them.

The truth is I'm lazy and I kind of hate driving or even riding across the state, especially on short notice. Despite my organizational shortcomings (or because of them?) changing plans is one of the worst forms of torture I can imagine. We were going to have awards today, and I actually harbor a little bit of resentment about having to move it.

The truth is I also haven't felt like getting in front of the room and teaching teaching for a week or two already. I could use a break.

The other truth is that I'm also reliving the failed satire unit from this year. As shocked as I was that several young women argued against feminism--unironically--here I sit, unironically echoing their thoughts about women outside of the U.S. having it worse: "I make above the average teacher pay, my district just passed bonds to attend to almost all of the upkeep needs for our schools, and I don't even use a textbook. Really, we could have it much worse." I think of Darcy Pippins looking like a rockstar in Oklahmoa like they think of women ripping off their burkas in Iran.

The truth is it took me almost 15 years, a master's degree, and national boards to be "average." The truth is the Master's Degree made me the teacher I am--2016 FLANC Teacher of the Year, in fact--but there's no compensation for my friends who got theirs after I did.

The truth is I didn't even change my registration in time to vote for bonds to fix my children's school.

The truth is that I have internalized anti-feminism as much as my senior girls, recognizing the unhealthiness of the martyr complex I've developed, but giving into it to get grades done to make my bosses happy instead of going out and trying to make a change.

The truth is that teaching is the only way I ever felt I could change anything. Teaching was going to be a backup job to feed more artistic and hermity habits, until Mr. Bancroft said in junior English, "Really, what do you think? I don't know!" That's why I outsourced my desire for change to my seniors. Because I don't know what I need to do to make things better, but I am certain somewhere in them, they do. And if I can just get to that, then it will mean more than my slacktivist T-shirt or even witty signs ever could.

The truth is that one of my most brilliant seniors spent the silent time after she finished her test yesterday doodling--I kid you not--"An education based on standardized testing is sub-par at best." Seriously, little font flourishes and everything. I suppose it might have been an accusation of how I'd handled the year, forcing Romantic poetry that even I hated on them. But I chose to probe.

I asked her what "par" is, how understanding should be measured, whether anything really needs to be measured. She took the time to write out some ideas, but mostly she indicated that teachers should be able to make their own curriculum. I asked if she was going to the teacher protest in Raleigh today.

Her reply?

"Honestly, probably. It's important and needs to change."

The truth is, maybe the protest unit didn't fail.

15 May 2018

GUEST POST: Empathy in the Language Classroom

If you spend your days reading teaching blogs and connecting with other teachers on Twitter, I’m sure you can relate to my total and utter Spanish student nerdiness. I would spend hours on my bed practicing conjugations and memorizing vocabulary, but when I think back to school, I’m sad to say that I can’t really remember a single lesson. Sort of a depressing realization for someone who spends hours upon hours lesson planning, amiiiright?

What I do remember, however, are the experiences that were either absurd, creative, emotionally-charged, or built around community. I remember the time my very first Spanish teacher in the sixth grade taught us reflexive verbs using a toothbrush the size of a yardstick, the time my AP Spanish teacher let us work together to make piñatas from scratch, and I will never forget the first day of college Spanish when my professor sauntered in singing Bésame Mucho at the top of her lungs. (P.S. she and I are presenting together on empowering student voice at the AATSP centennial in Salamanca this June - someone pinch me!)



You won’t forget these images when contemplating whether an action is done onto oneself!

But guess what?


Let’s start with the big question: 

Why empathy and how do we build it? 

Check out the EdPuzzle I made for ACTFL below:

(If you haven’t tried EdPuzzle yet, I highly recommend it. You can even upload videos of your own students and have them reflect! Look back at the beginning of the year and notice how much you’ve developed. Talk about fostering growth mindset!)

Instilling empathy, or asking students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, is one of the most valuable skills we can give our students. The foreign language classroom provides the perfect outlet to do so. We’ve spent a lot of time this year building habits around empathy.

1. Daily Gratitude Journals throughout November


2. Using activities to understand different perspectives


3. Inviting students to reflect on their own behaviors or thought reel in their heads 

4. Empowering students to STAND UP and be agents of change

Our final unit is focused on differently-abled people. The reason I created it several years ago is because it was perfect for the subjunctive. Although we did not get to the subjunctive with this particular cohort, we decided it is still a beautiful way to end the year.

To begin, I asked my boys (yes, I teach all boys and they LOVE our empathy lessons) to come up with their personal 10 commandments, using tú commands, for being a good person.

Next, we watched this newsclip about a class of 5th graders who gave up their recess to learn sign language so they could communicate with their classmate. I know what you’re thinking - this isn’t in the target language but I made the choice to use this resource in English and then MovieTalk it en español.


Students went into groups and filled out a simple 5 W’s organizer due to time restraints, but ideally I would have used my current events organizer.

For homework, they were asked to reply honestly if they’d give up their free time to learn sign language.

The boys responded with honesty:

Some with vulnerability, expressing their probable discomfort:

And some demonstrated empathy, the ability to feel with others:

This was a great jumping off point for the unit which we will continue with the cortometraje El Regalo, a PSA showing what children with autism experience in 90 seconds, and lastly, with the beautiful Movie Short called Cuerdas.

So even though it’s the end of the year and I really wish I had covered everything I wanted to, (irrational teacher thoughts- how will my students ever survive Ninth Grade without the subjunctive? ¡Qué horror!), I feel the closure all teachers want knowing that I helped my students to feel proud of who they are, what they’ve done, and knowing they leave with an understanding of what they can do to make the world better. Afterall, at the end of the day we just want our students to be good human beings.


Special thanks to Laura Sexton for asking me to write a guest blog. Big time shout out to my incredible Spanish department that energizes me every day! I must acknowledge Camilla Iturralde who has co-developed a four-part unit that scaffolds the building blocks to empathy and continues to create beautiful, SEL inspired units with me. You may have caught our session about it ACTFL, but if not, feel free to reach out for resources! For now, follow my work on Twitter @sspielb and please feel free to email me (samara.spielberg@gmail.com) for further information.

03 May 2018

Braggin' Rights - AAPPL scores and seals

"What did you do to these kids this year??"

Kimberly was an amazing student last year. She's one of my THREE Spanish 3 kiddos this year (woohoo! record for non-native speakers!), and, based on her AAPPL results last year, she's going to be one of our first students to get the Seal of Biliteracy when she graduates in 2019.

This year, though, Kimberly is mixed in with one of my Spanish 2 classes (enjoying not having to take the real AAPPL again). She's a great sport and engages well with her juniors. But neither I nor the test-takers could wait today, knowing that the reading and listening AAPPL tests are scored immediately. If you look at the scores below, you'll see why!

Now I should clarify that I've included all results I have currently for this class, but these numbers represent a little less than half of my Spanish 2's this year. This is because I did not feel right charging kids to take the test when they didn't think they had a shot at the Seal of Biliteracy. So these are only the kids who chose to take the test and either paid themselves or got a little help. To offset the comparison, then, I only took the top 3 tiers of last year's results.

Still pretty freaking amazing, right?

So what did I do to these kids? I'll tell you. I would say there are probably three major contributing factors (outside of their natural brilliance--which: IN SPADES) to this behemoth bump in performance.

1. Fake AAPPL's

Familiar format
First and foremost, I have to say my little Google Slides "AAPPL Bites" assessments for reading and listening are pretty spot-on. The kids are well-prepared for the kinds of questions and texts they can expect, and how to make the best guesses possible. Of course this could mean the bump is artificial and more a result of their test-taking abilities...buuuuut Apple/Manzana, right?

2. Novel groups

Comprehensible input for fluency
This was admittedly a little thrown together, but I do think the sheer amount of input wormed its way into their little brains. I really do think reading novels forced them to think more holistically about their interpretation--exactly as its intended to do. And while most of the kiddos who opted to take the test were not in my personal storytime group, some benefited from talking through each chapter with their group members to realize they understood way more than they thought they did.

3. Fancy tech tools

Active interpretation and processing
The holy trinity of language tools for me has to be EDPuzzle, Actively Learn, and Señor Wooly. While inserting questions directly into authentic videos and texts, EDPuzzle and Actively Learn force students to pause and consider what they do know, weekly Wooly songs help fill in the vocabulary gaps that I--for some reason or other--have yet to fill. With the first two, I mix in the multiple choice vocab questions and the fact recall short answer questions in English, plus a little life-application short answer (in Spanish by the end of the semester). And with Wooly? I pick a song and give 'em until Wednesday to finish the ten nuggets that go with it, maybe playing it in class once or twice to introduce it or just for a bit of a low-key brain break.

Of course these are just my theories. There are bunches of other things I've done in between these activities, though not necessarily that different from last year. That being said though, I just gotta crow for a minute if you'll pardon me:

  • NOT A SINGLE NOVICE. I mean, yeah, sure, it was only confident kids--but I really do think some of the nervous kids who opted not to take it definitely should have had more confidence based on these results. These are NOT the scores these kids were getting on my fake AAPPL's! I didn't even MAKE any that went up to advanced! So by that logic, I think just about EVERYONE could have hit intermediate in these categories!
  • ADVANCED. I only had one native speaker in this whole group and, yes, she did contribute to the A rate. But that means four NON-NATIVE speakers hit advanced after TWO semesters! (Okay, one went to Peru and keeps a Spanish grammar journal for fun...but still.)
  • SURPRISE SUCCESS. I had faith that the kids who signed up could reach intermediate. What I didn't anticipate was that even the kid who LITERALLY complained about how little Spanish she understood EVERY time I saw her in the year between Spanish 1 and 2 would get I4 on BOTH!
  • BILITERACY SEALS. We're still waiting on speaking and writing scores, so I can't guarantee we'll have as many Seals of Biliteracy as these results kind of hint. Right now it looks like we'll have 18 from this class--that's almost HALF of the graduating class of 2020!

So what did I do to the kids this year? I stuffed them full of comprehensible input, made them pause for active interpretation, and made the test format second nature.

And, you know, maybe got half of them official biliteracy seals when they graduate!

30 April 2018

Intercultural Attraction - Tianguis style advertising

Saturday is the day! We're taking the Just Plain Dog Show by bilingual storm! Parks & Rec has agreed to provide us with some tables and chairs, and groups have been preparing materials on a variety of topics related to animal welfare that they want to promote at some exhibit booths at the show!

We have topics from exotic animal trafficking to common pet diseases to proper training techniques to adoption (by far our most popular topic).

Students have coordinated activities, evaluated attractive qualities of booths at the local college club fair (just when I wanted to get outside anyway!), and prepared activities and elevator speeches to engage people with their topic.

But all of that work would be for naught if they can't get anyone to stop!

So first we took a look at a video I scrounged up on "El callejón de la Belleza":

We just watched the first minute or two, and I paused to have students write down what they noticed and what they wondered. I considered doing this in the target language, but frankly I was too pooped to TL that day. They picked up on a lot of colors and big signs, and I meant to show them the vendedora roping the narrator lady in for a demonstration, but we didn't actually get that far in either class.

Today, though, I hit Google gold when I found "10 frases que sólo escucharás en un tianguis"! It's not exactly Authentic, as it was designed for language learners, but it was everything I dreamed it could be! I tried the notice/wonder thing with some photos from the article, but it wasn't nearly as effective as the video. Then I had the class interpret the introductory paragraphs kinda choral style as I projected them, and it was pretty cool seeing how much most of them grasped.

Then came the piece de resistance: grito matching cards. I basically turned the article into a set of cards by copying the grito onto one Google Slide and its description onto the next: rinse, repeat.

I gave each group a pack of nine pairs to match (I didn't bother figuring out how to get the 10th printed, alas). They negotiated through interpreting the descriptions and asked me what new words like cobra and barato meant. Then I displayed a "grito" on the board and asked, ¿Quién tiene la descripción? A volunteer (or victim) would start reading the description card they thought was right, and if they read the right first line, I clicked to the description. If not: another volunteer/victim could try.

Now this is where the interculturality comes in.

We paused after each to analyze whether these gritos and whether they would be useful or not. Here, too, though, I confess to lapsing on the target language (but you know, chill pill, right?) I mean, it's one thing to pick out the ones that talked more specifically about selling products (something that we did NOT run by Parks and Rec), but it was still more enlightening to ponder why la mujer mexicana "deja de ser morena o castaña y se vuelve güera" for one of them. Are the vendedores insulting the morenas? Or are they using racially charged flattery? I suppose I could have told the story about my first experience as a blonde girl at a club in Mexico in Spanish if I had really tried...

So if the infomercials catchphrases are any indication, we should hear plenty of Pásale and Pregunte sin compromiso among the Dog Show exhibits!

19 April 2018


It was me and two other English teachers. We about had a knock-down-drag-out with a teaching guru visiting our district who told us in no uncertain terms:


We were told that the rubrics were slayers of creativity, that they stunted our students, and moreover, they were for lazy teachers who just wanted to finish grading as quickly as possible.

I may be exaggerating the tone a touch, but my English homies and I were not going down without a fight. It's not because we disagreed that we wanted to grade quicker (we do) or that we did not believe that they capped students' desire to push their own boundaries (they might). It's that we were 100% convinced that our students NEEDED rubrics to understand what was EXPECTED of them.

Teenagers are not mind readers, after all.

Our point was that we were indeed lazy teachers if we could not--or DID not--define what successful task completion looked like for our students. It was pure anathema that Guru Dude would suggest that we should be so vague and wishy washy with our students and just tell them to impress us then sit back and watch them blow our minds. I knew for a fact that that was not how MY students would react to such instructions. In fact, as another guru guy, Sr. Burgess, reminded us at our local conference this past weekend, there is freedom in framework. We all need a place to start at the very least, right?

The NFLRC Project-Based Language Learning Online Institute really drove the point home for me in Lesson 13, where my NEW guru (who doesn't yet know she's my guru), Yao Zhang Hill, laid it all on the line for me and got to the heart of what snooty Guru Guy's real problem with rubrics was.


 Dr. Hill described two types of descriptors that sum up everything wrong with bad rubrics:
  • Deficiency Descriptors and
  • Empty Descriptors
My contention is that single-point rubrics are the solution to both of these blemishes on rubrics' reputation AND Guru Guy's insistence on pushing our students beyond our own expectations.

Deficiency Descriptors

Tell me I'm not the only one.

I describe EXACTLY what I ideally want to see in each category I'm scoring, then I copy and paste it into the next column and change one word or one number to designate the separate levels. I know I did it back when I was using ForAllRubrics (actually, columns just said "nearly," "consistently," and "emerging").

Dr. Hill makes the point that these are great for US to ASSESS, but they don't do much to help our students hit their goals. They explain why we mark them down, but what do they do for students who are trying NOT to get marked down? Do they actually convey the clear expectations my English amigos and I so vociferously championed? Or do they kind of enable us to be a little lazy as graders without actually helping the kiddos read our minds?

Empty Descriptors

Dr. Hill's whole take on rubrics is really the point we English teachers were trying to make: rubrics are necessary for learning. But the thing is, if they're not in terms that help BEFORE evaluation time, are they really serving that purpose, or are we just arguing with Guru Guy because we can't stand the thought of spending six hours grading for every class every time we assign an essay or project? 

Kids don't know what they don't know, so they CAN'T count the problems! They can only edit as carefully as their training and retention allow and then hope for the best when we're counting what's wrong with their work AFTER they've turned it in to us. I mean sure, we could close the feedback loop, but the rubrics are still not assisting the learning, as we insisted they must.

Single-Point Solution

Not only does our district bring in all kinds of guru guys to keep us in the know (George Couros next month, anyone??), but we have our own stable of gurus among our Instructional Facilitators. So while the more boisterous among us were having it out with the Guru #1, my facilitator amigo Chris was googling in the back to send me a solution that would

  1. Communicate clear expectations to students without points or empty deficiency descriptors getting in the way and
  2. Encourage the kiddos to surprise us.
I've shared the single-point rubric I use on Spanish portfolios before, but I've since expanded them to pretty much anything I want to grade without an AAPPL rubric, including:
  • Senior Project products
  • Senior Project presentations
  • Plan for Change presentations
  • Spanish portfolios
  • Mejor yo videos
  • Amigos animales dog show booths

You may notice that I had to add points to calculate scores on one rubric for my principal's benefit. Basically if all of my expectations are met, students get a B (I don't care if it's grade inflation, so there). If they do something that goes beyond my expectations (hint: just changing the theme or colors in a presentation is still pretty expected), I explain briefly what impressed me, then a 10 gets averaged in with the 8s. If, however, my expectations are NOT met, I explain what more I need, and average in anything from a 0 to a 6.

And voila! Grading is still quick, but this time it's more targeted and personal! They can get feedback on what they personally need to do to improve!

I do want to point out that there are a few practices you will still want to put in place for maximum rubric efficacy here:

  1. Close the feedback loop - Sometimes I just set up a Google Form to have them basically parrot back to me what they need to work on--then I make sure they have time to work on it.
  2. Recursive opportunities for improvement - Even if they're not doing the same thing with new portfolio artifacts next grading period, maybe they can take their presentation feedback and do some revision before they actually have an audience.
  3. Provide models - Some students may feel stuck on how to exceed expectations, but we wouldn't want Guru Guy to think we're stepping on their little creative spirits by spelling out what that is. However, I've found I get better results when I pick out examples of student work that SHOW the above-and-beyond factor, especially if we pause and compare it to the rubric itself.
So that's it. That's my -- or rather Chris's -- solution to rubrics that stunt creativity and punish kids for factors beyond their control.

And I can still finish a stack of projects in under three hours!

09 April 2018

#Snapthoughts - Video Reflection

I blame Snapchat filters and Carmen Scoggins. First of all, Snapchat filters are fun, and even with two teen wannabes at home, I wish I had more excuses to play with it. So what did Carmen do at our FLANC spring fling? Give me the excuses.

The filters are kind of my motivators to sit down and sum up my day: what I liked and didn't like, highlights, lowlights, and overall temperature taking to look for trends in my practice that aren't necessarily full-on Blog Post materical. Playing with silly filters is incentive, you know? And doing it on Snapchat makes me keep it brief (or it cuts me off an makes me start a new story).

I've been enjoying using Snapchat for things like Snap stories to interpret/retell songs, and I've been meaning to play with it as a student video editor like Noah Geisel suggested at a mini-unconference session at ACTFL a few years ago. This gives me an opportunity to play more with it, to immerse myself in the tool--or at least wade around a bit--so I can get more ideas.

So if you're looking to dip your toes in, too, it's pretty easy to get started (once I figured out I didn't have to download each individual snap and edit it together in WeVideo--the music is nice, though, right?) So here's my process.

  1. Pick a fun filter! (Hint: weird voices make the re-listen more fun.)
  2. Record and post a story between 30-60 seconds.
  3. Save the story with the little "download" arrow thingie and quick switch it to "My Eyes Only" (I don't especially want it on my snap feed--I think it would annoy most of the people who follow me more than anything.)
  4. Export the video to another app, i.e. YouTube. (I use my "professional" PBL in the TL one--not school or personal.)
  5. Add it to my YouTube playlist for further reflection later.

In the future, I think I would like to maybe establish myself a goal before the day begins, or even make that goal for the next day. I do like the freedom of just saying whatever I think of when I have a little time during fourth period planning, or what have you, but I think some sort of theme for the week might even make the reflection more effective.

Also, I want to play more with the after-effect filters and adding stickers and text to the video. Just because.

Below you can see my first four "snapthoughts," and I cover my dive into Spanish 2 novel groups, senior projects for my English class, our current project for the Just Plain Dog Show coming up in May, and just kind of an "eh" start back from spring break.

If you start your own "Snapthought" series, tag me on Twitter or Instagram or FB! I'd love to see what you're up to--and what filters you choose!

28 March 2018

Flipgrid for Managing "Puedos" Starters

I start my class with "Puedos" almost every single day. It makes for an active start to class that also gives me a little time to take attendance and get situated while making sure students can do some basics like pronounce tricky vocabulary, conjugate some essential verb forms, and answer relevant questions.

Students get about 5-10 minutes a day for a week to get everything checked off and then have me spot check a few for each of them. This is plenty of time for them.

It is not for me.

Enter Flipgrid.

I still collect everybody's Puedo sheets at the same time, but then I have a whole grid just for Puedos (paid version: TOTALLY worth it), and I make a new Puedo Topic each week (which you could totally do with the free version too).

To set up each Topic for my Puedos grid, I 
  1. Upload a photo of the week's Puedo sheet as the photo for the Topic. Each week is a different color to help kiddos tell them apart, but it's also there because, well, I collected their sheets, and they're going to need a reference.

  2. Indicate three tasks from the list in the Topic description for them to demonstrate for your spot check. I usually try to get a good mix of tasks that I think they should definitely be able to do but will also need to use a lot.

  3. Post the link to Classroom! 
For some more tips on managing and grading Puedos (perhaps with the help of enterprising six-year-olds), check out my Classroom Tips video below!

19 March 2018

Novel Groups - Robo en la noche & Bianca Nieves

I ordered 50 books from Fluency Matters in anticipation of my Spanish 2 animals unit. The thinking was that these would build students', well, fluency, as well as their contextual vocabulary and grammar as they prepared to make a plan to help their amigos animales.

I have been kind of wary going in whole hog on novels, but I think I've finally got a plan of attack for my students to get a personalized experience that fits their needs.

Group Setup

On the one hand, I want everyone to be able to read the novel that catches their interest, that they consider relevant to their goals and find engaging. On the other, I want them to feel like the reading is easy, like they don't have to look up every fourth word in the glossary. I want them to build from where they are, not drop them in the middle of an ocean with just that little lexical life preserver.

And on yet another hand, I only have 25 copies each of Robo en la noche and Bianca Nieves y los 7 toritos to split among 47 kids. Someone was not getting their first choice.

So I made some executive decisions based on our mock reading AAPPLs and the incidence of irregular preterite. I figured it they were getting intermediate, they were likely better equipped to swim to shore than those still stuck in novice according to our assessments.

I had also had students submit a note on Seesaw where they summarized the main idea and some supporting details then recorded themselves reading the chapter onto the note. Frankly, though, not enough of them actually followed through and submitted it, and those who did, there was no telling how long they spent on it.

Enter Plan B: the Twitterverse. And Carrie Toth's FREE One Novel Reading Club packet fell like manna from Heaven!

Seriously! Check out Carrie's survey and more on TPT!
I made the survey a Google Form--in baby-ish Spanish. I had to be out for PD the day they were doing it, so I okayed WordReference for interpretation "just this once."

Grouping was still tough for a few reasons. There were so many possible combinations of how to read and how to respond! Some people who liked to read alone wanted to do the creative responses. Some people who wanted to read together also wanted to do the comprehension responses. Sometimes only one person reading a book wanted to get help talking through it.

And you KNOW they'd change their minds after they're in groups anyway.

So I did what I could with what I had and squished everyone in groups of 2-5 based on their preferences. Not everyone was thrilled, but everyone appeared to at least be functional.

Chapter Routines

It was a little tricky getting books with 10 and 15 chapters to match up schedule-wise, but I made myself a calendar that I had students copy into their cuaderno calendars and refer to occasionally, and I think it's pretty fair. And the plan is to give them 20-30 minutes a day to read/respond/etc, so more than fair, right?

And here again, I borrowed from the great Sra. Toth's packet to try and get myself into a rhythm (in part so I could do small group speaking assessments). It goes something like this:

  1. Groups read the chapter: together or independently, depending on what they decide as a group. If I'm available, I can walk one "Alfa" group through pausing for questions. (I tried it today, and I was really pleased with how that went.
  2. Groups respond to the chapter: either creativa or de comprensión. For comprehension, I just have them create fact-based questions related to the chapter. Creative, I shake up a little, again, of course, taking a cue from Sra. Toth. We started off with a comic strip review (www.wittycomics.com was blocked on BYOD but not school devices--go fig), and we'll have other options from Sra. Toth like character tattoo suggestions/descriptions as well as maybe some diagrams, texts, diary entries, Adobe Spark summaries, extra scenes, character interviews, musical responses, and whatever else I can think of along the way.
  3. Class notes: mostly to learn past tense forms. I revived the PACE method that I tried several
    years ago. I've decided to focus on exactly one form at a time rather than all 5, and it seems to be extremely fruitful so far. Here's today's for singular third person preterite (regular):

  4. Make a repaso quiz for the next day. I use their best questions, turn them into a quick Google Form quiz with 3 multiple choice questions for each book--maybe pick out my favorite creative responses to show off, and then I'm ready to start again the next day!

14 March 2018


The surest way to make language learners SEE the value of a language is to give them real opportunities to USE the language. That's why I think the 5th C is probably the single most essential C. Without Community, there is no REASON for language learning. So in tomorow's #langchat, we'll be talking about ways to get community into your classroom--and maybe to get your classroom into the community too!

And when we're talking about community, we're not just talking about the occasional guest speaker from another country.

Community is target culture AND language learners.

Community is guest speakers, groups, and class connections.

Community is partners and participants, sideline coaches and expert judges.

Community is local employers, professors, friends, parents, and even former students!

You can connect with community asynchronously or in the same room at the same time!

So join us on Twitter at 8pm ET, 5pm PT by searching the #langchat hashtag to share your experiences with breaking down the barriers between class and community--good and bad! And tap into our Professional Learning Network's collective creativity to get more ideas to open up your classroom to the world.

Here are a few links to ways I've connected with local and global communities in the past:

And here are the questions for you to begin thinking about what you know and want to know!

06 March 2018

What PBL Is and Is NOT in Language Classes [SECONDARY SPANISH SPACE]

Projects are not Project-Based Learning.

My amigas at Secondary Spanish Space invited me to contribute a post about what PBL is--and is not--in language classes. Here's a sample:

Posters and videos and in-class presentations make learning tangible. They can become treasured artifacts of growth. On display, they can even inspire others to learn more. But if they are created as an afterthought, if they are tacked on after the “real” assessment as a sort of treat or distraction--as an intermission from Serious Work--they are not PBL. They are what the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) describes as “dessert” projects. 
In PBL, though, projects are the main course.
Project-Based Learning means the learning takes place through preparation of the final product, through preparation for the final presentation. The presentation part is especially crucial for language classes because there is nothing like an authentic Spanish-speaking audience to make believers of our students. 
BIE emphasizes eight elements that are essential to a Gold Standard PBL project, which I think can be broken down into three categories for world language instruction: Context, Input, and Output.

To learn more about how Context, Input, and Output align with BIE's Gold Standard criteria, check out the post on their site!

26 February 2018

Cheating in Spanish Class

It's a little rush of adrenaline when you catch a cheater. We language teachers, we can spot a translator sentence just skimming. That rush, though, it's always a teeny tiny tempest of emotions: a little bit of anger and insult with a touch of vindication and "I told you so!" I mean, it's not a good feeling, but it's a pretty strong one.

I don't really get it much anymore though.

But I'm not some mastermind who has figured out all of the latest tricks for sneaking a peek at a translator during assignments or assessments. I just think for the most part I've finally made it easier for them NOT to cheat. I don't think it has anything to do with fear of being caught either: it's just that it would take them more time and effort to look up the answer than to figure it out on their own.

What's more, the stakes aren't too high for them to handle. Every question missed is not automatically points off. With my imitation AAPPL assessments for reading and listening, they receive a holistic score based on the AAPPL rubrics, so it has more to do with which questions they miss and why. Did they pick an answer with a false cognate or the first number they saw? Does the answer they picked show that they misunderstand the underlying message of the text? Did they pick an answer that was almost right, just not precisely accurate?

Plus I have a fairly generous graduated grading scale, but one that also means that a student has to be performing at Intermediate Mid levels by the end of Spanish I to get 100%.

But you don't have to entirely overhaul your grading to get rid of that ugly "gotcha" rush. I figure there are four things any language teacher could do to make cheating a thing of the past:

  1. Establish proper "time and place" policies for aides.
  2. Over prepare before assessments.
  3. Discuss a range of appropriate targets.
  4. Monitor assessment scrupulously.

Time-and-place policies

Don't ban translators. Don't ban asking their advanced friends. After all, wholesale bans never work in the real-world, where people weigh decisions about risk versus reward daily (or don't weigh them because they like risk that much...)

Establish when it is and is not appropriate to consult another source and WHY.

I want my students to use a translator when they're practicing--I still use WordReference and Google regularly to confirm my Spanish. Heck, I couldn't write this blog post in my first language without consulting thesaurus.com--much less teach my English class without it!

However, I have very firm guidelines for how they should, which basically boil down to:
  • 10% or less of the task
  • Capitalize every time
On assessments, though, I stress over and over that all I care about is what they DO know. I do not care one whit about the questions they get wrong, other than to see where the limit of what they can do is. I want to know so I can provide input and exercises that are appropriate and not overwhelming for them. I will never take points off for guessing.

Translators are useful. Asking your friends for help is useful. But only insofar as it helps you build up what you CAN DO.

Over prepare before assessments.

I want them to think the test is easy--at least part of it. I want a sense of glee at how much they do understand and how much they can say to erase all intimidation (or at least as much as possible among the stress-ridden youth of today).

I'm not here to weed anyone out of anything. There are no weeds.

I'm here to cultivate, so I practice the skills they're going to need so much in the days leading up to the assessment, with texts that push their limits just a little beyond where the assessment is actually pushing--yet scaffolding it all the while with easy EDPuzzle or Actively Learn questions.

And there's always something for the novices to latch onto, so nobody ever bombs completely.

Discuss a range of appropriate targets.

Limit judgment: Provide a range of goals, levels that are all valid goals appropriate for their stage of development. Talk about these goals, what they mean, how to meet them, where to go once they're met. Show them the proficiency babies, and remind them constantly of where they should be if they're keeping up (and Sra. Cottrell at Musicuentos.com tells me at least 80% of them should be able to keep up without problem, especially if you're over preparing as directed in step #2).

For some people, getting any Spanish out is fine, and it will always be better than a zero. For some people who have to have 100% at all times, they should have something that's a little, well, impressive to achieve in the time frame allotted.

Monitor assessment scrupulously.

Finally, give them an excuse not to cheat.

I do have reading and listening assessments online, but writing is on paper, and speaking is face to face.

Also, things like walking around, using tools like DyKnow to keep them honest, it shows you're paying attention. My own son is a living reminder that all students who trust us really need is a little proof that we see them in order to do what is right. Just walking by, making sure those tabs in the browser are the tabs they're supposed to have up, glancing briefly at everyone's screen and just generally taking account of their progress: it makes my teenagers AND my ten-year-old from getting too far from what they're supposed to be doing.

A quick caution, though: this does NOT work when your students assume you're out to get them. If they know you will pounce on that "gotcha" high, if they know that you're just checking boxes to cover your...self, that would NOT be scrupulous monitoring. And they WILL rebel: either because they feel compelled to spite you or because they don't feel the connection holding them to you, and they feel adrift.

16 February 2018

Strategies for Reading and Self-Improvement

I had a choice.

In theory my students have been working on one self-improvement goal since the snow days in January. In practice not so much. The cool thing is that they can totally express to me in Spanish "No he cambiado" perfectly clearly and explain how they need their goal, but they don't like it.

So. I could accept the scripts where students confessed to making zero improvement over the last month of the "Mejor Yo" unit, or I could keep pushing them to grow before sending them on to the recording phase for the public service announcement. I mean, the goal of the project IS to help other people who have the same habits they want to change, and I suppose knowing what doesn't work is not a BAD thing. But really they hadn't answered the question: How can I change one habit to improve my life?

Now I've been tuning into the PBLL training from NFLRC lately, and I got a really helpful tip for phrasing the Driving Questions that put this quandary into perspective for me. The recommended BIE format never quite did it for me, but Cherice Montgomery suggested this format:

  • Collaborate with...
  • to investigate...
  • and develop a...
So. We are collaborating with other Spanish students across the country to investigate strategies for self-improvement and develop a video to help teenagers make positive changes.

That means we have to keep investigating, right? Or else what we develop really won't help teenagers make positive changes!

So I started googling around (like ya do) and came across "10 increíbles apps para mejorar tus hábitos." Not only did it have 10 new ways my kids could try again to get on track with their goals, but it was using structures we had been practicing with, like perfect tense and, well, nosotros forms!

I decided to set the interpretation up in five phases:

  1. Highlight all of the words you understand. I want to A) emphasize what they DO know and B) literally, physically see where any unanticipated gaps might be. For this, I just gave them the two intro paragraphs.
  2. Make a list of 10 new words with your partner. I had them discuss they word that they had NOT highlighted, fill in some gaps for each other, and write up to 10 words they thought would be useful on little whiteboards.
  3. Chorally interpret the intro and respond. Basically I'd read a phrase at a time, have them say it in English (a la CI Liftoff), pause to repeat a whole sentence and say ¿Cierto o falso? with a thumbs up/thumbs down. Let me just say: there was a lot of nodding and agreement. Of course sometimes I suspected some playing-along nodding, so I'd add some follow-up questions for specific students here and there.
  4. Jot down new words to use. Students pasted down their highlighted paragraphs in their cuadernos, and on the blank page opposite, I had them write down 2-5 words they thought might come in handy revising their scripts or on the next Writing AAPPL Bite. During the choral interpretation/response, I filled in any gaps they weren't able to themselves, and I could see several of them wanted ALL the new vocabulary.
  5. Circuito--pass the app. I had split up all 10 app descriptions into little card sets to give to each group. Each group member took 2 cards and read over both, deciding which they liked better (either because they understood it better or they liked its features better). The one they liked less, they passed to their left, and they just kept going until they had seen all the apps. This took about 5 minutes all told, but I think in the future I would make them hold on and compare each pair for at least 60 seconds.
After all of this interpretation, we debriefed, and I told them I would postpone the video due date if they agreed to try out one of those apps for a week. Though there were some whines, most really did seem to like the idea. We did find out a few of those apps have since gone defunct (also, I don't know how I feel about them contacting an ACTUAL coach beyond the classroom with Coach.me), but we discussed as a class who wanted each app and why, so they were able to at least find something with  characteristics that appealed to them, ie hecho para mi telefono or puedo usar la app en mi computadora or me gustan las alarmas  or no me gustan las alarmas, pero necesito.

All in all, so far I'm glad I decided to keep pushing them to improve. I think there's some real potential for growth in their personal habits because of this extra step. However I have already seen some definite growth in their interpretation skills just today!