Author Archives: MJ

Blissfully teaching

I am not sure, like the kids in The Sound of Music, what I did to deserve my current teaching situations, but I’m loving them. Granted, it’s been a tough week because I realized a big thing that I was doing wrong (thanks to a tactful observer), but it feels like this train is back on track to improving and connecting.

What the observer pointed out was that I seemed to have lost sight of what the point was during lessons in her room. Immediately, it was clear the same thing was happening everywhere. There’s so much material that it was flying at the students (from K-Uni) and it wasn’t ever going to be clear what was sticking.

As a CI teacher who had complete control over a mixed-level program in high and middle school, I had been used to picking a theme with the interests of kids in mind and following them down a path until we felt we’d “arrived,” whatever that meant in each group. But with a new language in elementary school (and the unlimited materials that exist in Spanish, even if I do stick to only one of my beloved resources) and a couple of new university Russian textbooks, with the overload of information in them, I was grabbing and flinging.

I used to purely follow kids’ ideas (and IB/AP themes) for lessons. By trying to answer questions and include their interests, themes would emerge for planning. When I asked myself what these new students might want and need to get out of the lessons, lessons fell into place. I knew what was worth doing and could stop flinging. Instead of drilling verbs of motion and case endings at the university, we discussed who wanted to go/travel/move where, with lots of support and with the idea that we were looking for surprising information about classmates who thought they knew one another. We did learn some surprising information: one student wanted to go get a glass of wine after class (tough day), another wants to move to Australia (farther from Mom), and another would like to move to the east coast of the US (even without ever having been there). Plenty of opportunity for me to increase the input including verbs of motion and accusative case. Lovely.

And really, it turns out that my Star of the Day questionnaire eventually covers everything that the textbook does. So when we needed to talk about food in the lower-level class, it was easy to hone in on that part of the questionnaire with our Star, personalizing with specific questions for him. (Sheer luck for me: he turned out to have formerly been a chef at one of our better local restaurants!) After talking, I projected the “class notes” document to add information about him, and students remembered information and reminded me with about specifics.

How long have I been teaching? Why did I need to relearn? I guess the answers don’t really matter.

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Moving to university

“Use the material to get to know the students, rather than using student input to get to the material.” (Laurie Clarcq)

I started teaching at the university level this week. Terrified! And it’s going to be a learning curve, since there are a lot of moving parts, many of which have to do with the LMS, and many others of which have to do with the fact that these are new textbooks to me, with vocabulary lists a mile long. Textbooks have never been my thing. But I’m plunging ahead. And honestly, these are great textbooks: they have lots of readings and exercises that I can use easily and that are appropriate for the context in the classroom.

Skip from Maine saved me by suggesting what he did for his first class: students sent pictures: one that showed something they liked to do, and another something they used to do. My students added their pictures to a Google slide show. Because their names were on them, I was able to recognize almost everyone. And we spent much of the first class (90 minutes!) talking about their pictures. A (native speaker) took notes and typed them up for me, so I was able to use the writing as a reading, then chop it up into a Quizlet Live game, and then we’ll use it for a Google Voice quiz.

While the projection system was freaking out on me that first night (no – I was the one freaking out), students in pairs answered three of the chapter questions with two truths and a lie. That gave me some time to mess with the computer, and it also gave me a chance to hear their speech levels. Then everyone had to explain in front of the whole class what the lie was that their partner told. In the advanced class, students had to line up by height as a way to form pairs. They looked at me as though I had two heads. Guess that doesn’t often happen in university classes! They’re already getting used to me now.

Tonight, we read the notes, corrected a few mistakes, did some vocabulary review (but personalized), and led up to the story that was told by a music video. Unfortunately, the previous instructor had used the same music video, but luckily I knew in advance for the higher level class at least, so I could really string out our parallel story. Then we watched the video, and they realized we’d pushed in a direction to match it. Finally, we discussed the presentations that they’re going to be doing on songs: everyone will find one, translate it, present it, talk about the band, the singers, the topic…they seemed very enthusiastic about this assignment. For the more advanced group, it fits well with the focus on biography.

After class, a student told me he’d been dreading this semester, and now he’s motivated. What a relief! What we do has to support what they need for further coursework, but the teaching has to remain true to my principles. Use the material to learn about the students. It works!

Ups and Downs

Mira Canion suggested I check out the Netflix show Trotsky. I kept the audio on Russian and put Spanish subtitles on. And guess what…I understood most of the Spanish, even when I couldn’t quite catch the Russian. I’m blaming my Russian deficiency on the poetry that opened the show and the fact that I was trying to crochet while watching. But recently, a Russian commented that my spoken language is now permeated with a Spanish accent. Uh oh…

I’m about to embark on teaching at the college level. I’m daunted by needing to learn the LMS, which is Blackboard in this case. Luckily, I am staying with my sister, whose husband is an expert. He helped me set up the grade book. Otherwise, it would have taken me many frustrating hours, and I might still not be happy with the results. I am not quite sure how college students will react to my system of Interpersonal and Interpretive standards-based grading. We’ll see. I’m going to follow an implied suggestion on BVP’s former podcast website: to substitute essays with Discourse Scrambles in the second-semester course. (That means I have to create the scrambles, but no problem…someone commented on how Kahoot has introduced a twist on scrambles, so I will try to find that for class practice.) I wish wish wish that Russian were as well-supported as Spanish is in the teaching world, but thanks to ACTR webinars, I have a long list of sites I hadn’t heard of to use.

My Spanish classes start up again in two days. I don’t have the language to talk about what kids did on their vacations, so I’ll be looking for resources on line. But then, I’m going to get back to the solid curricula that was supporting me instead of doing all sorts of crazy stuff. I think I was confusing kids. Two days a week is really not enough.

At the risk of heading on tangents, I’ll still ask…what is new out there in the CI / TPRS world?

CI continuing to show benefits

I haven’t been in school for two weeks, having decamped for ACTFL and the school’s Thanksgiving week break. I expected complete disarray, but today I was almost open–mouthed because…my first-graders remembered and repeated for me what we’ve already read of Edi el Elefante, the kinders jumped back into our weather and cookies story. The fourth and fifth-graders were completely on task and excited about our Somos Corre corre story, and the second-graders knew their lines for the play we’ll do for their parents. Even my crazy wonderful third-graders shared thoughtful comments for why they want to acquire Spanish (in English; I was thinking we needed a bit of a reminder). And then…we went right to Es Una Ganga and they drank it in.

If I needed proof that kids acquire with great CI support, despite a poor speaker, I got it in spades. They hadn’t backtracked. If anything, their brains had been at work. Either that, or the admin who stood in for me for two days is a miracle worker.

Love teaching

It’s been a fun day up here. We made gingerbread cookies in an improvised kitchen in the first-grade classroom after completing Amy Van Der Deen’s Las Galletas unit, sang songs and told the Hungry Caterpillar in Kindergarten, made a story about a lost caribou and acted it out (which I link here, in case anyone is willing to correct before we make the masks and add the pictures of the acting) in second grade. My fourth- and fifth- graders did some PQA Star of the Day (though our attempt to use technology bombed), and my third-graders drew pictures of phrases from our story about Alex and Bob, traveling on the Titanic to the Nether and not having time for tea. That last was a parallel story before reading Señor Wooly’s embedded reading for Puedo ir al baño. Then, as a wonderful end to the day, my fledgling Russian class got to meet with a boy from Canada on Skype. He wants to take Russian, and I need star power. He provided it. This time, technology assisted in a grand way.

I’m reading reading reading in both Spanish and Russian, mildly panicking as ACTFL and the spring semester approach (presentation and class with textbook), but I keep feeling my powers increase. More and more, I can speak Spanish with confidence that it’s comprehensible at least, and correct more often than not. Another teacher told me today that one of the parents said that her kids are speaking Spanish in the car all the time as they go to and from school. My spies (that’s their job, thanks to Erica Peplinsky) alert me that their classmates are using Spanish to count and sing. And my first graders were using “Dame el rojo/el morado/el azul, por favor,” coloring pictures as a sponge while I set up the cookie-rolling station. I can hardly believe it. Language is coming out of their mouths, more and more. Sometimes, just like with my own children, I don’t know how they could possibly have acquired certain words, as I have had them on a slide or read them just once.

Back when I started using TPRS, I would feel my excitement rising as I headed for school. What would my kids come up with today? I’m having that same feeling again. It’s just wonderful. It’s so much fun to let them be creative and to spin out their stories.

CI is working!

Just a silly note. First, I am deeply appreciative of Mira Canion, whose teaching guides for novels are beyond wonderful. Second, did you all know that this stuff works on us? I know I’ve been excited before, but all my singing (thanks, Duke, for that long-ago experiment of 25 songs) and the box of books from Mira, who sent me the ones she bought while she was on exchange, seem to have just pushed me up a level. Suddenly, I can read the year three ones at almost the same speed I read in Russian. And I’m beginning to be able to make grammar pop-ups for myself as though for my kids: “fue is because he just went. Iba is what he was doing.” When I send my stories through my teacher helper, I get almost everything right (granted, it’s basic, but now mistakes are usually typos rather than stuff I had no idea about).

It’s SOOOO empowering!

Yeah, I’ve said that before. But I can feel my Spanish brain improving, and that is more fun than it has any right to be.

(PS if I have fue/iba wrong, please let me know. I have not studied Spanish! Right now I’m trying to understand why sometimes I see hacía and sometimes hacia, both in situations where to me it means “toward.” Could one be a typo? I understand that hacían means “they made,” as in “they made ceramics.”)

CI made easi(er)

Understanding how to provide comprehensible input makes teaching language easier. It means that a teacher can use any resource to guide acquisition. I mean anything. It could be a blog, a song, the back of a cereal box, the directions on shampoo, a video, a conversation, a question–

But it’s so, so much easier when there is a curriculum with options–a curriculum that a practiced CI teacher has developed.

I am having the best time imaginable using Martina Bex’s Somos curriculum, Amy Vander Deen’s Había Una Vez, and Señor Wooly’s website. I am also keeping an eye on Mira’s teacher’s guide for El Capibara con Botas. They are all worth their weight in gold. I am on the second lesson only in Amy’s curriculum, because they are all so rich that we are spinning these lessons out a long way, and because they keep giving me other ideas. Each of these authors offers tweaks that help me keep things fresh. I do a little mixing, but any one of them could also stand alone.

Luckily, I am the lower school teacher, so it’s okay to be taking my time. Lower school students have only two days a week of Spanish. But today I got such long series of conversations that I realized kids are beginning to trust our work together. They’re showing me our signs for words and phrases. They’re answering questions confidently. They’re contributing ideas for stories. They’re using Spanish outside class (two kids were counting up donated spoons for the school’s attempt to get away from plastic for events and they used “Vamos a contarlos” from the “Un mano, dos manos” song YIPPEE!!), and they’re excited when they can relate having understood Spanish outside the school.

My Russian side is a green-eyed monster when it compares the riches that are available to Spanish teachers, so I’m working on helping create resources for beginning Russian students (see this Nelly the Nerpa story, for example) and making sure that I learn about my students in both languages. Having a curriculum can become the tail wagging the dog if I get too excited, and that’s the piece that I have to remember: community, personalization, repetition and compelling input are what help students acquire a language–possibly in that specific order. But, having that knowledge, I am so very lucky to have expert, excellent guidance as I follow this new Spanish path.