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.

Improvement

It was my last day of teaching Spanish in 2019 today, and while I still had some very wiggly kids, I finally can recognize serious improvement in three areas: classroom management of elementary students, Spanish language ability, and storytelling (more telling than asking).

Following all the hints (eg “take no guff” from Amy Vanderdean) and knowing the school better, I am a lot more solid in being able to clarify my expectations for behavior. Kids don’t know what we expect unless we model, help them understand, practice, and remind. Wow. What a lightbulb … semester … since it wasn’t overnight by any means.

My Spanish is suddenly good enough that I could do movie telling — both pre- and during — without having to have the scripts or vocabulary lists in front of me. That led to being able to stand at the board in kindergarten and tell the entire story of a Peppa Pig story in advance of showing it. I realized I finally knew how to say that it snows, it is snowing, and that there is snow outside. I didn’t mix up verb forms or and which ending is the noun. I got to ask a whole bunch of questions, and once I was finally showing the little video, I could pause it and ask different kids to go up and touch objects and family members in the film. (Oh, and the kindergarten teacher let me use her computer…that was huge too!)

And finally, I could visit the second-grade “stores” and have conversations about the items the children had created with all of them. I’m blown away. Language acquisition keeps happening. And it’s possible to be learning forever. Happy holidays, all!

Gamifying the Special Person Interview

My fourth-graders can be a wiggly bunch. And I am not always good at varying routines. The Special Person (aka Star of the Day) Interview is sacred in my mind: I get to pay a lot of attention to one student, comparing that one to others, with the main goal being to create community. In a school where kids have been together for years, I often ask the class for the answers to the questions, rather than asking the interviewee first. Then I verify with that student. For a change, we do pair interviews, sharing later what we learned about our partners, or work in concentric circles. It’s harder to create the class books in those cases, but eventually every student will have a longer interview.

This time, I knew that the interview was going to go on for several days with one student who is leaving and whom we had not interviewed earlier. I want him to have a book to take with him, and we would need to spend a lot of time to get all the information. So I handed out mini white boards, and asked the class to write the answer to each question as I asked it. I asked them to hold up their white boards with the answers, saying, “Alex says that Ethan was born in Alaska. Is that true, Ethan? Were you born in Alaska?” If Ethan says “Yes,” I follow up with “Ethan says, ‘I was born in Alaska.’ Who else in the class was born in Alaska?” If not, I move to a different board. We get a lot of reps out of this, and every time the students have the right answer on their board, they get a point. Next, “Does Ethan have siblings? If so, what are their names?” They got points for the right answer, the number of siblings, and the names.

When class was over, they were begging to stay in for recess to continue the game. Points for the teacher! We’ll see how much mileage I can get out of this new plan.

TCI Maine

If you are a CI-minded teacher and want to feel part of a community immediately, sign up the minute that registration for TCI Maine goes live in March. It has an iron-clad registration limit. And, like our Lost Lake race in Alaska, it fills up fast. Skip and Beth Crosby should be in charge of the world.

For a person who missed all her connecting flights today, I am amazingly happy.*

A few TCI Maine highlights:

  1. Amy Vander Deen addressed an elephant in the room and talked about the true nuts and bolts of classroom management. If the key techniques for everything CI are (but are not limited to) establishing meaning, going slowly, pointing and pausing, checking comprehension, and limiting vocabulary, the key techniques for classroom management start with establishing and practicing routines and expectations, then insisting that students fulfill those expectations. Amy shared her early struggles with classroom management and how she realized that we tend to shut down or put up walls when the discussion arises. She included a mention of the system my new school uses (Responsive Classroom), and there are others that also provide the tools and techniques teachers need. She suggested The First Six Weeks of School, and read us some of Jim Tripp’s words on sticking to expectations–being consistent. Susie Gross’s words ring in my ears: Discipline Precedes Instruction.
  2. Rachelle Adams and Anna Gilcher led us through the creation of Cultural Jewels. Look at Elevate Education for more info. I am going to suggest Cultural Jewels for a staff/faculty meeting. I felt many connections with the four formerly unknown-to-me teachers after that experience, as well as having the idea that I would now “get” them better even if I had known them in advance. I would like to feel the same way about teachers at my new school. I am also re-inspired to try the activity with my students.
  3. Three-ring circus with Dustin (YIKES! Last name?) doing a great job of coaching. He was very sincere and thorough, and I liked his addition of asking the teacher what her concerns were before she started.We discussed it in advance, which set the teacher at ease, then she demoed, and it was fabulous! She started with just one student (eating), and had a conversation with the others about eating, then brought a second student on to sleep, having first found out whether anyone was very tired. She used Laurie Clarcq’s idea of a pause button during the circus. (I realized telling students we would do a 3-ring circus is probably why, in my first year of trying it, the room turned into a virtual circus.) When Annie Ewing asked about her motivation for the three verbs, including “play,” the teacher who demonstrated said that she had chosen her three verbs so that she could talk about weekends. It didn’t feel at all like a circus. It felt like a perfect way to establish meaning, to provide a brain break, and to have some fun.
  4. I’m quite sure no teaching conference has ever had better food. As examples of how overboard they went in allowing for preferences, picky me enjoyed oven-roasted autumn veggies and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies yesterday.

*it may be the fact that United Airlines put me up in a fancy hotel…and that I am not going to miss a day of school after all…and that Lois and Michaela shared their google notes on the parts of Amy’s presentation that I missed while being a doofus and while presenting…and that I’m still having all those feelings of having been with a welcoming group of people who also care passionately about finding effective, just, and community-building ways to help students acquire language. Maine TCI is close to my heart.

Rachelle and Anna guide the group

OPI: a favor

Just a quick note today. I’m finding that I can comprehend a book written for adolescent native speakers of Spanish, and am a whole lot better at circumlocution with sympathetic listeners.

I have been pretty accurate myself when people have asked me to guesstimate what their OPI Russian score will be (they have informed me after their official OPI).

So I wonder…is there anyone out there who is working on becoming an OPI interviewer in Spanish who needs someone to practice on? If so…I’d love to get a baseline to be able to gauge progress over the next decade.

Story Listening (adapted)

I am so excited! I have been trying to get to tell a story to my kindergarteners with the Story Listening technique that Megan Hayes and Cecile Laine have been helping me consider. Today was the day, and I told a story about four little monsters in our school. It was so much fun! As Cecile has posted on FB, maybe all my four- and five-minute activities are not the best for some groups. This group has consistently taken a long time to settle into new situations, so it might be some time before transition training kicks in.

We have some emoji balls that we roll to the kids who want to say how they’re feeling. I made sure to practice “angry” and “happy,” but forgot about “sad” and “scared.” Luckily, when we got to the part in the story with the sad and scared monsters, the kids remembered “sad” and figured out “scared” (thanks to Bryan Whitney, who shared some techniques to make drawing faster in his World Language Teacher Summit webinar). They were patient as I drew, and excited to find out that the monsters all became happy when someone reached out to them to be friends.

Whoo hoo! This teacher can still learn new tricks.