another head smack

I’ve been struggling with spending waaaaaaay too much time prepping lessons lately. We ask or tell a story, and we learn about students as we discuss the story or the reading or the history, or when we’re actually doing an official Star of the Day interview.

The student whose job it is to keep track of information in the classroom sends or gives me the information in English (or in Russian/Spanish that I then need to correct), and I create slides with the story/info and required support terms that the class may have forgotten by the next time.

What’s wrong with this picture? I remembered, right after giving a presentation yesterday, during which I said, “We always follow up with Write and Discuss.”

Well. I have been forgetting to stop after we’ve done a story to do Write and Discuss. “Write and Discuss” is not asking the students to write it. It is asking them all the questions referring to the story, possibly digging for new details, as I write it on the projector or shared slide, so that they can read it and process the repeated input at a slower pace. That takes time in the class, during which I have recently been instead adding new information. Without this part of the class, I spend a bunch of extra time on it after the lesson, when I should be planning instead!!

It’s still very useful to have those notes, as that person can supply whatever the class forgets, and I can use it later, but wow. I pledge not to take the entire load from now on. Thanks, ABC Boot Campers, for letting me remember.

Fast writes

I have been joyful for a week now about a group of adult Russian students in my Express Fluency class. For the ninth session, I had found the perfect picture for a story prompt. I asked the students to write for just three minutes, in Roman or Cyrillic letters, and WOW!! In those three minutes, after only nine class hours, they all wrote –in Cyrillic – as much as some Russian I students used to write in five or ten minutes after an entire semester. I’d never asked short-course students to write, and I was blown away.

What does this tell me? Well, first, that I had genius students. Spanish teachers, all. Second, that I shouldn’t be so fearful of asking for limited output, and third, that my students might enjoy an occasional short challenge. Mike Peto suggests that three minutes is probably the longest that I’d want to dedicate to writing during an online lesson, given that the piece students need from me is hearing the language. The quick sample works!

Students told me the story of this conversation. They made my day!

Weird words/tandem teaching

Any of you who’ve used Snack Attack in class know that “vending machine” and “train station” are important words for the video. It’s true that a wiser teacher than I am could easily get around them, but in Russian, they’re pretty useful words anyway.

Enter my co-teacher for a class today. I sent her a little note asking whether she could work those words into our lesson, and otherwise didn’t have time to plan with her. I got a Special Person slide ready that would ask her how she gets to work, and included “train” on it, but other than that, was out of ideas. And the words were still not really part of that question, though I think I could have found out whether her town has a big train station, and whether she ever eats from the vending machines –

So what did she do? When I asked her how she was, she said right away that she was fine, but that Turin (she is teaching in Alaska from Italy) is in red-zone lockdown. All the restaurants and bars have to close by six o’clock. We were all appropriately horrified and interested, and she went on to say that some people don’t want to eat at home. The only place they can go for food after hours is the train station!! And guess what…her sushi-loving husband can get his treat out of a vending machine at the train station.

When I think of all the times that I have written critical words on the board and done personal questions around them, when I could have just asked a tandem-teacher to jump into story based on fact … oh, yeah. I’m not usually this lucky. I love teaching with Victoria!

A recent prediction said that the online “foreign” language business is going to grow by leaps and bounds in the next few years. I hope it’s true, and in that case, all of us need to find our tandem teaching partners and get ready for an explosion of opportunity and fun.

I want my cards back!

How many people are like me, old enough to have used the card system for writing extensive papers in high school and college? I used to have stacks of cards for any paper longer than two pages. One set was for the resources. I would label each one with the correct MLA/AMA form and number it. As I took notes, I would label another set with the resource number, the topic of those notes, and the order of the cards with the specific notes. When it came time to write, I put all the cards with notes into order by topic, and was thus able to see whether I had support from several resources on a topic (and could thus claim it was common domain) or whether I needed to credit the information to a resource or two. I could re-order the cards so that the information would flow as I wrote. Sometimes I’d write the whole thing out by hand, and only then type it up … on a typewriter!

As much as I love my laptop and word processing, I wonder how many writers are still writing their manuscripts by hand. My little book is really just a long story that is going to be a bit thick in print because it will have illustrations and an extensive glossary. But even so, I couldn’t keep track of what I’d said in one part and how it flowed to the next. I have been wishing for the card system. In fact, if I ever write another book (no, Cindy, definitely not happening soon!), I want to come up with a card system to keep track of the chapters or themes or something. What I had to do the other day was print most of it out, lay it all over my floor, cut it into sections, then crawl among the pieces, labeling what they were before crossing pieces out and cutting even more apart to move them into new places. I compared them to the 40 or so sticky notes that I had with comments on them for changes or improvements, scribbled on the pages whatever I’d forgotten, taped them together in a new order, and went back to the computer in despair that I could ever fix it.

I still have twelve sticky notes next to me as I write. Some are reminders to go back to the real story and read up on what truly happened with the artists, and some are notes I couldn’t make sense of while crawling around on the floor. But hurrah! My kind, surely exhausted, editor reread and said that I made it flow. Her words: “I read it in one breath.” Well, “Я прочитала на одном дыхании,” to be exact.

I’m so relieved. I was thinking it was going to be another couple months just tweaking the writing. And it may. But I feel a lot better. Authors out there: what systems exist for writing efficiently that don’t involve printing out entire manuscripts?

Writing: just the first step

Who knew how much work it would be to get a little Russian book off my computer and into the world? The answer: Annie Ewing, for one, every other author in the world, and Mike Peto, my writing group teacher, who never tried to scare us with the giant wall we were facing as we started writing.

It is with great joy that I can announce I’ve mostly finished producing a manuscript in 19 or 20 short chapters. But next, as I heard from Annie at iFLT 2019, there are many steps to follow. Right now, I’m in several steps at once. I have read the book in its entirety with a few students. I have read parts of it with beginning groups. A couple of dear friends have shared the entire text with single students, and one has taught a whole class with it.

A talented editor has worked through about the first half for me, making suggestions I could never have come up with on my own. She asked me to think about the purpose of every section. It’s hard to do. She made suggestions, but in the end, I have to look at the purpose and the piece, and make sure that they match. Can you hear my internal dialogue, asking why I have to do this? I didn’t know I was this lazy until now.

Another concurrent and scary step is sending each chapter out to a different Russian teacher who is not yet my best buddy, though some are becoming my idols as I speak, given their willingness to help. If you’re a Russian teacher and can help run a short chapter past a group of students, please connect!

And finally, I’m working on the glossary, even though I fear it will require a complete revamping if we change much. This is the most tedious task of all, given that every different form of every word must be defined, and any set phrases that will help also go in. Mike suggested reading the book, word by word, and constructing the glossary as I go, so that the meanings fit what I’ve written, rather than trying to make a mini dictionary.

The Russian words are bolded and in 14 point Cyrillic font. The meanings are in 12 point, not bold, but italic Roman font. Did I say “tedious” already? I would never have known to format this way, nor would I have known much of the other priceless information Mike has shared. Even if I were writing a book in English, I would probably sign up for one of his writing groups.

If I ever When I get through these steps, I will start working on illustrations. That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Wish me patience – and many Russian teachers!

Tandem teaching

I always come away from my OLÉ! classes with a big grin on my face. OLÉ! stands for Opportunities in Lifelong Education (for Alaskans 50 and older). OLÉ! is the brainchild of a local wonder woman educator, and there are courses of every possible type: from economics to languages, from philosophy to physics of breathing. (I’m personally taking a class featuring eight Alaskan writers.) I get to teach Russian to a group of interested, educated adults who want to learn, without grades or curriculum requirements. Nirvana.

My students are the easiest group I could have. Even Zoom is not an issue. I get to practice new ideas on them, and that is where this semester’s classes started: with an experiment in tandem teaching.

My colleague and I were both part of a summer French class (on Zoom), in which she was an intermediate and I a rank beginner. I was stunned that she and I could both participate, that we both felt challenged, and that we both understood everything that went on. I asked her whether she’d be willing to co-teach the OLÉ! class, and she was eager to join me.

I wish that every language teacher could have the experience of tandem teaching. As one of the teachers who helped us practice said, having two brains makes everything easy. That uneasy feeling of being on the edge of a story cliff is relieved, because the teachers can talk about the development of the story, can throw ideas back and forth, and both can check the group’s understanding. The extra ingredient that was part of the French class — a third teacher, who provided translations of new words in the chat — is fulfilled by an advanced student. Chat is working beautifully in our class.

There may soon be a Russian tandem class available outside OLÉ!, but in the meantime, I would encourage pairs of language teachers who have classes at the same time, whether the groups are the same level or not, and whether the teachers are even in the same school or not, to experiment with tandem teaching. Ask a high-level student to chat out new structures, and restrict other student chat to important questions or responses about the story. You will love it. I promise.

Zoomsking, or asking stories in the time of Zoom

Yesterday on FB, I posted that after all the bells and whistles I’ve been chasing, I came back to realizing that stories are the very best for elementary students.

I’m not going to go into the limitations on my teaching here. Everyone has something in the way. But I had forgotten that it’s not about the fancy slides or games or how professional my class looked (or how non-professional). Language is about our connections and our stories.

So … I had mentioned a few tips: being able to use google search to find a drawing to copy while kids are also drawing, using slides to make it clear that I was asking whether a hero was a person, animal, or thing, and then what kind of being, including being kind, honest, etc. (because if characters are not honest, for example, I can later ask whether their statements are true). Also, older kids can use chat to develop stories. And finally, using a bell (in my case, the “No Yell Bell”) to celebrate when kids shows comprehension or when I love what we decided (every time). Thanks to Jason Fritze for using a shop bell this summer to ding wildly in celebration.

I also mentioned voting, which is easy when all the students are on Zoom (that’s when the bell is useful to applaud those who lose) but harder when I have part of a group all watching on one computer from school. Then I have one kid who is in charge of counting the votes, since I can’t even see all the socially-distanced kids. The same student is in charge of coming up to the computer and giving me the class’s ideas. Otherwise they don’t get much input. Jobs, as always, rock!

Then V.C. asked where my scripts come from, and I realized I’d better answer here. They come from the kids’ minds, or from a story I want them to read or see, so I’m guiding them that direction. We may end up with a parallel story or a similar story. The younger the kids, the more I make sure that the story involves them. Even on Zoom, kids can act out roles or sounds; they can all say repeated parts of the story as well. So there is a story about the witch Baba Yaga, who can’t find blueberries in her field, because the blueberries don’t like her. She’s mean. Instead, when a child is looking, they call out to her. The child gets the blueberries, and when Baba Yaga sees the basket, she takes the berries home. But the berries all jump out of the house, back to the child and the basket. And that’s why blueberries always hide low under the leaves, where children can find them.

I changed the story to the mountains, as that’s where our blueberries hide under leaves. The child is now children, all with the names of my students who want to pick blueberries. They get a basket (or a box or a bag) and look for blueberries. One child is the evil Baba Yaga…and so on.

There are also days when the kids pick everything about the beginning. Then I’ve got the choice of leading it, or trying to find a song or story that fits, or just enjoying what the kids come up with. I’m learning to limit a lot because Zooming seems to encourage really strange stories that don’t shelter vocabulary, and I forget that I’m in charge of the story. The fun thing is that our Zoom classes are too short (half an hour) to get a whole story in, which requires this old lady to need reminders about the story and helps anyone who missed to catch up. We can have new actors or extra ones — it doesn’t matter.

There are many ways to follow up, but I’ll save those for another time when I don’t have a Russian meeting coming up right now!

Back to school, slowly

Teachers are back to school this week in our district, and I’m happy to be the beneficiary of three different conferences where I honed my online skills and picked up new ways to repeat readings and stories.

But this morning, what I’m chortling over is having been amazed again by the truth of the Slow Rule. Laurie Clarcq says, “Go slowly to go faster.” I do listen to her. I know she’s right. But until I really do it, I forget that it is true. I’m sure I’ve written about this here before. And will do in the future!

I have two online students who have recently jumped from needing a lot of support to being able to retain and produce language, rather the way that our raspberry bushes, having had what seemed a slow start, are burgeoning with red jewels. They grow, grow, grow, and suddenly there is a rich crop to harvest. This morning, one student came up with a story that ended up using almost all of the vocabulary that I was planning to introduce for a reading. We asked the story (“Traditional TPRS”), then I wrote it out with him (“Write and Discuss”), and then I started pre-telling the reading…and boom! There was all the same vocabulary, even though I hadn’t guided him to use it. He came up with it, seemingly by osmosis. He’s got the noun endings, and the past tense forms. I’m in awe of the human brain. And in the power of Slow.

As I head into teaching my groups of young children, I hope that I can remember that even if I have to start very slowly to bring in the newbies, it is worth it for everyone to move more slowly than seems necessary.

Going slowly is important for setting classroom expectations too. Usually I go over those too briefly, but having watched a bunch of demo lessons this summer, I can see that the best teachers keep asking students how they are to respond, modeling, repeating the expectations, noticing the students who remember them, and asking-modeling-repeating-noticing again! Going slowly works.

We’re all in this together…

… and I’m so relieved by our stretchy communities, as well as being overwhelmed.

I’ve learned a few things about teaching with CI online. One is that it works. But I’ve also learned that, with kids, you have to be faster than they are. Figure out how to keep them on their toes. And you have to figure out how to keep yourself from being run over by the possibilities. I started to make a list of the people whose resources I have been collecting for both Russian and Spanish, and I just couldn’t, because I would certainly leave someone out.

I have learned that simpler is better, and that if we can find a way to laugh together, that makes it all easier. My Russian class laughed all the way through class today, and I got so much energy from them that I am still writing and reading.

I’ve learned how important it is to power myself with good food, good tea, exercise, and visits with friends, ideally visual ones. And then, as so many have said, to give myself a break when I think I’m not doing enough.

And speaking of not doing enough, I am going to answer a question Nicole asked today. How did I come to be teaching Spanish?

About four years ago, a community college prof came up after a presentation in Oregon. He asked whether I would come teach for his summer immersion program. I was delighted! I had just been cut loose from my 30-odd years of teaching high school Russian, and it felt like a wonderful chance. But then he said he wanted me for Spanish. He said it didn’t matter if I didn’t know Spanish well. (I knew about six words.) He said it was a grammar-based program, with a book I could easily follow. I was baffled by what he clearly didn’t understand about my methods, but took on a small group at my new tech school to teach while I considered the idea. I used Bryce Hedstrom’s La Llorona. I followed a very strict program of creating parallel stories with the class, based on my growing vocabulary of about 30 words. I questioned students like crazy. By the time we had finished the story, a guy who’d poo-poohed the idea of a non-speaker teaching a Spanish class came in for the day. After class, another student reported that he’d asked her how in the world my group could be so far ahead of his 102 Spanish class. That report gave me the confidence to take the summer job.

I had a great time that first summer, though I felt like a fraud from beginning to end, fearing every potential encounter with regular faculty members. They all must have thought I had a weak bladder, as every time one approached me, I had the sudden need to dash away. In the meantime, folks like Anny Ewing were correcting the stories my class wrote, and Martina Bex was sending me story scripts. I had a lot of help! The one thing I couldn’t do was decipher the grammar booklet. We’d open it occasionally and I’d find something that made sense, but it was under the guise of “I’m stealth-teaching you grammar. Ask me questions if you don’t understand something.” They didn’t ask. And I got rehired for the next year.

That fall, Mira Canion sent me a box of about 30 books, and Carol and Pat Gaab supplied me with about 25 more, so I read a lot. I watched movies and listened to podcasts and videos (Pablo Pancun Roman!) and news channels.

The next summer, Laurie Clarcq joined the summer CC faculty, and her support meant that I could hear what the words were supposed to sound like in real conversation. Laurie saved me by taking over when a bunch of Spanish teachers showed up for a beginning class on jokes, and when I was reading the wonderful Juliana with a group of supposed beginners, she swooped in and took the advanced folks. She also stepped in when the Spanish department head came in to hear an embedded reading. She never blew my cover. Alina sent me to Alice Ayel, so I got some real Spanish lessons from an expert CI storyteller. (Again, I shouldn’t even start mentioning people, as just about all the gurus in the world came to my aid at some point.)

Then I retired suddenly. I thought my world was ending. I don’t know anything but teaching. And I love this vocation. There is almost nothing better than connecting with people while watching them also magically acquire a language. And as I discovered, acquiring language (Spanish, in my case) gives a person a sense of confidence, of power.

That August, a local independent school somehow figured out that I had been teaching summer program Spanish at a CC, and they hired me based on the fact that I had trained their current teacher in the method that everyone loved. I argued with the administration for close to an hour that I was absolutely the wrong person for their K-5 program, and got them to promise that they would let me go as soon as they found a better applicant.

I spent my first semester dashing into closets, the copy room, even the boys’ bathroom once, when Spanish-speaking families came around on tours. Fast-forward to now, in my second year of truly speaking and teaching Spanish, and I’m giving lessons online to children, some of whom speak better Spanish than I do. Oh well. Can’t do anything about it. I can’t care about what they think…just keep on keeping on and doing my very best!

If the world were a normal place, I’d be going back to teach for my fourth summer at my now beloved community college. The world isn’t a normal place, so I probably won’t be…but I keep learning more Spanish, so in this isolating time I get to see my little ones’ faces and laugh with my Russian students about stories involving Baba Yaga and Karl Marx. I’m grateful for Zoom and for those who are generously sharing their materials, and for my family, home, friends and colleagues.

Thanks so much everyone, for what you do to make our communities stretch out to cover many needs. We’re going to have to extend further than we ever thought we could. But we can do it. Hugs to you all.

What’s working

Laurie Clarcq tells us to go with what works, concentrating on our strengths. It’s hard to do sometimes, but right now I’m feeling pretty good about a few things.

First, I had a really fun time doing a webinar for Voces Digital last week, and people have been enthusiastic about changes and tweaks that they’ve made. A local teacher called me up to tell me what a game-changer starting with the name questions was: she has a student from Ethiopia, and her class learned who in his culture names the child, who gives nicknames, and many other tantalizing facts that had the class on the edge of their chairs.

Second, I’m realizing that my version of story listening techniques work really well with my kindergarteners. It seems as though the older my students are, the less they enjoy the gentle confusion they might experience when not understanding every word. My kindergarteners, on the other hand, settle right in to storybook demeanor, lying on the floor or propped on their elbows, suggesting how the story might go, and commenting on what is lacking in my drawings. (Yesterday it was “El papá no tiene piernas.”) Yeah. I had drawn bobble-head bear heads. They wanted complete bodies.

Third, I’m having a fun time sharing a playlist of Russian YouTube videos. I posted on FB, hoping someone would know which person it was who wanted Russian class videos. That got shared on the Russian TPRS page, and a lot of Russian teachers seem to be appreciating the videos. In the past, Russian teachers have not been very complimentary (to say the least) about the one video that our school district posted. I’ve tried to explain, but the comments keep flowing in. Having an unlisted but accessible playlist seems to be the way to go, because only those who want it and have access through CI portals can get there.

In those Russian classes, I started right off with practices that might have scared off some of my attendees. We act out folk tales, they stand up and move to songs, and now the big hit: they are drawing up stories that they created so that we can talk about them and read them. Even though they are older adults, they are completely open to these activities and talk a lot about how much fun it is to be in this kind of language class. They make me want to teach them more and more.

In another series of Russian classes, also for adults, I realized anew how powerful it is to write with classes. We had interviewed a guest last week, and I explained to the group that I had forgotten everything he told us. I said I’d be embarrassed if he came back and I didn’t remember any details. So we reconstructed the interview. They remembered a lot. I typed it up on the screen for them. I compared what he had said (where he was born, what sports he liked, what instruments he played) to everyone else in the class. One guy walking out commented on how powerful it is to see the words in sentences they comprehend as we’re talking. (I love having adults for this reason. They recognize what makes a difference.) And the guy who was brand-new to class last night was able to hang in there, even though he admitted to being a little overwhelmed by the flow of Russian.

Other things are fun too…I can’t wait to try everything in Wooly Week and hope to apply to my Russian lessons somehow, though the WW plans are so thorough and creator-heavy that it will be an interesting challenge.