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!