Category Archives: Lesson Ideas

Sentence Frames from Señor Wooly and Ben Slavic

Diana Painter is our new AFLA president. We have had a trio of powerful women leading this organization lately. Yesterday I convinced Diana to come listen to some music and then pumped her for lesson ideas. (The most recent president is leading a group of Germans around the state this weekend, and the one before that is going to present her class novel unit to our PLC next Friday. These teachers go well beyond the class day. I am honored to know them.)

One of the ideas Diana shared with me was from Señor Wooly’s website. It’s a simple sentence frame: _____ is better than _____. The teacher starts by filling in the blanks. Students who agree stand, students who disagree sit, and those who are unsure or ambivalent hold their hands out to the sides in a visual question mark. Once everyone has responded, a new student can use the frame for a new statement.

Diana says that this activity has filled her last five minutes beautifully (and sometimes longer) lately. The kids get into it. They learn who likes biking better than skateboarding, who follows the same teams, and who likes the same foods.

This morning, I came across a series of blogs about sentence frames on Ben Slavic’s blog, posts that were started by Robert Harrell, one of my other heroes. One suggestion was to write out little sentence frame stories that use high frequency verbs, let the kids fill them in, and then use those for the next while as class stories for story asking, reading, and listening. Wild idea! _____ wants a _____. _____ has a ______. ______ gives the ____ to _____. It’s so simple! (Kids could negate the third sentence.)

Or ______ wants to buy ______. _____ goes to _____. At _____, there is a _____, but not a ______.

I’m going to try both these ideas. I think they’re genius in their simplicity and potential punch for a short amount of planning. I’ll let you know what happens!

After AFLA

Map for partners

This map idea comes from Bryce through Jenny. We were discussing our delayed attempts to pair kids. I didn’t assign partners last year at all, a practice that would have kept cliques from developing. How do I get partners for pair work and for seat mates? Two years ago, I just assigned everyone a new partner about every week and a half. That was a bit of a pain, because they would forget. Jenny reminded me of what we used to do with clock faces: kids would assign themselves different partners for each time slot.

Jenny said that Bryce assigns partners with a map, or maybe with Spanish-speaking countries. “Meet with Columbia now!” We have only one main Russian-speaking country, but I did have a convenient blank map with dots for cities. I had kids stand in order of family members, shoe size, a rainbow of what they’re wearing, hair length, etc. to get them next to new people. Then I had them fill in a line near that city with their partner. (In Russian 1, we’ll learn cities along with the partner assignments.) We did a “domino line” of pairs turning to each other from one end of the line so that we could switch kids around if they ended up next to a former partner.

I used a partner activity in the middle of class today so that everyone would have to stand up and find a new partner. One of our presenters today would tell us just to stand up to answer processing questions he would assign. Teachers groaned a bit, and my kids hate that. I have to give them a reason to move. Sometimes it’s still just for the sake of a brain break of course.

We sat down and started the “Persona Especial” interviews. Since many of the kids know one another, but we do have new kids in the class, I asked the class some of the basic questions first, and if they knew the answers, I circled with those. Bryce was right. A big question was age, because if the kids are 16, then we find out whether they have their license, and then we find out about cars.

I also found out that both the kids we interviewed in one class really want to be called by Russian names. They are going to go research names tonight. We can ask them tomorrow.

It seemed to me that this language would be too easy for level 3 and 4 kids. It turned out that I haven’t used a bunch of words, including “prefer” and “name.” (We use “is called,” as does Spanish.)

I’m always blown away by how interested kids are in one another and in getting time for all.

Oh, and we still had time to begin the next story in one class, but the second class took all the time possible to get “through” some simple information on two kids. Wow.



At the beginning of the school year, I typically have trouble deciding which interesting road to take with my students.

I’m trying to stay calm and teach SLOWLY.

One of my goals is to use the same story, embedded reading, video, and anything else for every level. That’s been an ongoing discussion topic on Ben Slavic’s blog.

I have already diverted, because in one mixed, upper-level class we have a Russian-speaking exchange student, and in the other a student came back from a UW-Madison Russian program. In the first class, we had a speaker the first day for 15 minutes about the Great Baikal Trail, and in the other, she spoke the entire hour.

And in the class with the exchange student, a girl was absent, so we had to figure out where she really was. (She had freed a dolphin from a pet store and was riding it in the ocean.) Our exchange student perked up for the story. He’s been looking a little bored.

Meanwhile, the beginning class is learning “This is.”

But still. I am planning to merge again. The mixed classes will continue/create a parallel story about stealing, because I happened on a news item about a fox who stole a Norwegian boy’s telephone and then sent him a text. I created enough levels of Embedded Readings that even my level 1 kids are going to be able to do the first one. I will start at about the third version for one of the mixed classes and the fourth one for the other. In both classes, I will give the most advanced readers the final version for home reading and challenge.

I hope that when we have drawings of these stories displayed, kids will recognize the similarities from class to class. Maybe we’ll share the drawings or use drawings of one group’s parallel story as the oral prompt for retells in another class.


I’ve been working on an assignment for the class I’m taking lately. The instructor doesn’t believe in non-authentic resources or TPRS, but she works to make input comprehensible to a certain extent.

My unit is St. Petersburg, for novice-high students. The students and I came up with the summative assessment together. They are to pick places that they would like to visit in St. Petersburg and we will all hear about them and vote on them.

As part of my planning, I was to come up with two lists students would need to complete the task: knowledge and skills.

On the knowledge side, I had the following vocabulary and culture: types of buildings/landmarks in a city, names of specific landmarks, transport forms, how to say where things are located, knowledge of historical figures connected to sites, adjectives for describing the places, ability to express opinions about sites, ability to tell where you’d like to visit, “I’d rather,” and to ask questions: who built, who founded, when, how much does it cost, why do you want to visit.

Under skills, I put in listening, comparing, researching, responding politely, reading/skimming for facts, creating google maps, reading maps of metro and bus lines, using google presentations, computing exchange rates.

Wow! That’s a lot! And every time I turn around, I end up adding to that list.

I started creating some vocabulary lists and some games on Quizlet and ClassTools, set up a demo of what I want out of the kids, and slowly realized that the students know much of the vocabulary already because of our looking at pictures and telling stories. Mostly they know how to use google, but because of creating these lists, I can tell what I need to do to get them to the summative project.

I’m going to do a bit of “flipping” of the classroom by asking them to do the Quizlet games on their own time, because most of the vocabulary is familiar. If they review it, they’ll feel empowered. Once back in the classroom, we’ll use stories to acquire the structures that they’ll need to get around a city (Hurrah!). I’ll give extra points to teams who manage to get the vocabulary from the Quizlet lists into our stories. Probably I’ll need to print out the lists for them or hang them on the wall.

That’s all for now. The big ah-hah is that I am figuring out additional ways to combine what I know to be the best practice for my kids (giving them comprehensible input and control over the classroom direction) with the need to demonstrate a lesson and teach specific content. Usually I do one or the other, and the second turns into a forced march, during which the kids beg for stories.

I’m off now. I’m obsessively watching the news in Ukraine and Russia.

Poems and connections

Another random ideas post here.

First, I wanted to share a “stand up and practice” activity. This is just getting kids moving with the side benefit that they will practice a poem and maybe learn most of it. It’s not CI! They should have already done prep stories or vocabulary and they should understand it well and be able to say the lines if you gesture them–in other words, they should be ready for output. This is not a beginning activity with a poem.

First, give the kids the text of the poem, either in a handout or (better in my case) on the projector or wall. Assign each student one line of the poem. It’s okay if more than one kid has the same line. The students write the lines legibly onto 3×5 cards. Run through the entire class for pronunciation checks. Then each student passes the card down two kids, and check again to make sure that the cards are legible and that a new kid can pronounce the lines. Rewrite if necessary.

The class stands in either inner/outer circles or facing lines. The complete poem is still accessible, on the board or projector. Half the kids read their lines to the other half. The opposite group tries to recite, but is allowed to look for, the following line (this teaches scanning). Then the second student reads his line and the first one says the following line. If a student has the last line, her partner responds with the first line in the poem.

The class rotates so they have new partners. After five or six rotations, everyone passes their cards to the right or left, and the class begins again.

This can be a two-minute activity, once the kids know the drill, or it can be a longer one, if you’re working on memorizing. Pretty quickly, students learn the line that follows, and you can challenge the group by turning off the projector. Kids can help their partners.

I haven’t tried, but it could possibly be used with pictures from a storyboard if you want kids to just tell one piece. Hmm…

In other thoughts…

This AP brief talks about how parents don’t need to limit their sentence length for young children. The idea that we talk comprehensibly, but above the level of the speaker, is exactly what should be happening in a world language class.

I thought about the idea of being ready for information while my book group discussed The Good Earth this morning. I read it in high school, taught it in my first years in high school, and yet found it to be a completely different book now that I’m an adult. The process of taking in as much as you are ready to comprehend is not limited to language, but to ideas and experience as well.

And (after a too-long FB search to find the post), I am waiting to hear the “con” side of this story. I love this post! It’s a typical TPRS story, if that exists. I admit to being jealous of those who learned about TPRS before having taught 23 years, but am glad I did at that time. The correct link to Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell’s blog is now on the right column, under Musicuentos.

Now I’m still trying to fit all the various CI pieces together. I’m realizing that different parts of CI work in different situations, for different purposes, and with different sets of kids. I was trying to force Movie Talk and TPR and Scaffolding Literacy and TPRS stories and Embedded Reading into every lesson. The down side to pure TPRS is that it can’t work for everything, with every kid, or in every situation.

Anyone who used to think I’m smart is probably dumbfounded by how obvious that statement is, but I’m a slow learner. CI is king. TPRS was the tool by which I learned (and keep learning) to do CI. TPRS is magical at the beginning levels, but isn’t necessarily the only way to teach the beginning levels.

The main “con” for me is that “TPRS” puts off so many language teachers. I’m sad that people are offended before they even hear the rest of the story, or before asking questions about how TPRS teachers address reading, writing, speaking, or the biggest target, grammar.

TPRS is what we do with our own kids. “Let’s tell Mommy where we went today! First we got into the …. CAR! Then we drove, and drove, and then we stopped at the…ZOO! And Katie made a…funny face…” Every time I think about how we retold our together time, either for someone else or at bedtime, I realize that we were telling stories.

Enough said. I could go on, but if you’ve read this far, you’re part of the choir. Happy belated Valentine’s Day. In Anchorage, we spent Valentine’s Day on three hours of Danielson training, first in a series of five. ‘Nuff said on that too.

Today’s plans

People write me all the time asking what I do during class. Today I had a bunch of fun with my kids, and we mostly followed what I was hoping to do, so here’s a report.

Advanced Russian
Warm-up: Work to extend readings with vocabulary lists. (They were extending the stories by writing in extra ideas on copies of what the Russian 1 kids came up with yesterday, using last semester’s Russian 1 vocabulary to make the stories longer and more interesting.)
Thematic Piece: Read Fairy tales (LRR and GL) (They read a parody of Little Red Riding Hood and Goosi-Lebedi in groups. The groups who finished early got to sit with me and retell in past/present, depending what the original was written in. I didn’t expect this to take as long as it did, and it turned out that it was very helpful to nail down some verb forms.)
Fill in missing bits: Watch videos (We were going to look at a video program in which a grad student from San Diego State had gathered a whole bunch of clips on getting acquainted. Since we tend to touch on getting acquainted only in the first year and never do much to advance them, this is great material. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to it.)
Play categories game (they have a minute to come up with a word for each category starting with one letter. Same letter adjectives or adverbs add to their scores; we played this for five minutes at the end of the period):
set #1 food
set #2 house
set #3 store
fairy tales

Period 6 (Beginning Russian)
Warmup: Review new vocab: gestures
Correct quizzes from yesterday (oops, I’d forgotten this class didn’t take a quiz, and then I didn’t have a writer for one for today. BUMMER. No grades in the grade book this week.)
PQA: new vocab (This took an astonishingly long time. First I reviewed the numbers to count by tens so that the word counters could shout them out when I reached them. The entire back row did the wave every time I reached another ten. It was very supportive for me! It turns out there’s a lot to talk about when the words are “it is tasty,” “he is dreaming of,” and she is waiting for.” One kid dreams of riding a tiger in Africa, not in a zoo. Another one dreams of eating a tasty pizza. One of my favorite girls could not agree that borscht might be tasty. I am the only one dreaming of eating borscht. And all sorts of kids wait a very long time for mail, for love letters, for their girlfriends, for the world to have peace. In case you wonder, I said each word at least 50 times.)
Ask story: Bob, Bill, and (?) (I asked one of the stories the kids came up with yesterday. It was about this strange boy with no hair who dreamt of eating something tasty and kept getting served…pinkeye, crabs (yeah…), and finally pizza. We made it through only one story. Ran out of time.)
Read Bob, other stories (We did read them all.)
Do MT with M&M (Didn’t get to doing Movie Talk at all today. Tomorrow we have a bunch of birthdays, so I’m betting we’ll have to assign groups to kids to be able to get to the bear and the interrupted wooing.)

Sorry no timeline. And no singing. Both classes were 85 minutes long, but seemed to be somewhere under an hour.

Slipping input in

I wanted to review some of our vocabulary words, and wasn’t up to doing a story in the middle of everything else we’re doing.

Students took whiteboards and did “spelling” by syllable. As they wrote the words and I checked them, I kept on repeating information from our story and movie. Then we did a six-square chart and I dictated the words again, using them in sentences that reflected what we’ve been doing. Then they had to draw a two-minute storyboard about the movie we’ve been watching. I put up sentences about the movie on the projector, and they had to hold up their boards and point if the board reflected a particular sentence.

My counter got 123 reps on one of the vocabulary words, and it didn’t really seem as though I’d said it that often. I did try to work it in when doing Movietalk later in the period, but wasn’t focusing only on that word.

Group work ideas

Ah, lazy Michele…

I posted this a while ago on Yahoo in answer to a query about group work ideas. I was sleepy after my parent conferences, and had a no-prep day, followed by taking Russians to book stores (FuN!) and then a rehearsal…so I pasted it all in here and then forgot to publish it then:

Give students the structures for the day/week. They work for three minutes to
write a story line (I call them skeleton stories) on a post-it in English –
because these are new structures – and then I use them either for my real story
asking, to tell the story while kids act it, or to combine for an embedded

Retell: Once kids have drawn the story, they gather for two minutes into a group
of four, each of whom contributes one or two sentences to a retell.

Retell with twists: Once kids have done the retell, they gather in small groups
to tell a similar story with some twists. They draw the story out and tell it to
the class. (See Susie Gross for a more complete explanation.)

Reading: students are in homogenous groups to read (easy-for-them) novels
together. At lower levels, they read in English, helping one another with
troublesome words.. At higher levels, they read and stop only to discuss or ask
one another questions about such topics as character motivation or prediction.
They record their questions. (Lots of ways to read in small groups or pairs will

Or…students are in heterogenous groups, so that a stronger student can help a
weaker reader by filling in all the missed words.

Read/write: Pairs of students read a story together and add embellishments so
that the teacher can create embedded readings.

Susie Gross again on pair sharing: Students draw a story, using recent
structures, for homework. When they return to class, they work in pairs to tell
their stories. When their partners can retell perfectly, the partner gets the
picture of the story he/she can retell and goes to the front of the room to get
a new partner and repeat the process. They continue for a period that allows
everyone to tell and learn at least three or four stories. If a student ends up
hearing his/her story with some changes, it’s fun.

Fractured stories: The teacher hands out pieces of story; the kids read it and
try to find the other pieces by telling their little piece to other students.

Group murals: teacher hands out or tells a story, and a group tries to get every
part of it drawn by collaborating on the drawing.

Jason Fritze’s running dictation: sentences are posted in the hall. One student
in a pair runs to read the first one, comes back and dictates it to a partner,
who writes it on a white board. Teacher is moving around the classroom. When
that sentence has been written correctly (student may run back out to check
again), the students switch places, until all the sentences are written.

Out of time…hope this helps. Don’t do it all on one day!

Robert Harrell…more notes!

From Robert: The book that gave me ideas and help was “Move Your Students to a Virtual City” by Sue Fenton. It’s available from Teacher’s Discovery. The book is in English and is intended for teachers of any language.

I’m working on a new website: – a couple of things are on it, but I need to do some real work soon.

From Michele: The rest of the notes are a jumble of answers he has sent me…not his fault they are disorganized but mine.

Thanks to Robert for letting me share!

Robert on Virtual City

The A year we do Vienna – Poesie – Märchen
I use the second-to-last chapter of Sabine und Michael to help introduce the city, and I have various materials I have prepared to set up a “virtual move” to the city. During the second semester when we do poetry, students write a “poetry book” using highly scaffolded templates for poems. One day we have a “Vienna Coffeehouse” where we sit around drinking tea or coffee or hot chocolate and eating pastry (I get Apfelstrudel from Costco), then students stand to read one of their poems. It’s a great setting for students to do an oral presentation – very low affective filters.

The B year we do Berlin – Middle Ages
Berlin provides an opportunity to look at the modern Germany, Reunification, Cold War and Inter-war years. We read Emil und die Detektive, among other things. For the Middle Ages I have developed my own semester plan, based around my book Ritter von heute.

I chose not to do Munich because we cover the city with Sabine und Michael.

Michele’s note to Robert
Could you be a little more specific about the “various materials” to set up a virtual move to a city? I have been thinking that first kids would read about hostels, then room rentals, then jobs, and after that (and after having reported or argued about which ones are better or worse, or maybe having written e-mails to their teacher about their success as opposed to the reality) they would start checking out reviews of restaurants and clubs and dry-cleaning establishments and so on. I’m not really sure what to have them read as an entry into the city, but I have friends I can ask.

From Robert
One of the things I do for the set-up is create a “passport*” for each student. I created a template that I use. Students fill in the blanks, and I take their picture to past or staple into the booklet. Information does not have to be true. Then I stamp the entry and exit visa spaces when we start the year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks and at the end of the semester. By the end they will have about six stamps in their “passports”.

Last year I added another aspect of role-playing to the project. Have you ever played Dungeons and Dragons? Using the same idea, I had students roll dice and create older versions of themselves. They were all graduate students enrolled at the University of Vienna and working for the UN at UNO-City in Vienna. The dice rolls determined the following:
Major at the university
Number of classes per week
Job at UNO-City
Number of work hours per week
With that information they determined what kinds of things they would do based on amount of free time and funds available. Most formed groups to share an apartment and then traveled together. They had to take a couple of trips during the year – most went to Oktoberfest because it wasn’t that far away – and report later about it. Each week when we talked about plans for the weekend or what they had done on the previous weekend, students had to talk about their activities as if they were in Vienna.

Students had to look up prices for hotels/hostels to stay in upon arrival and apartments for long-term living. One group wound up camping while another stayed in a luxury hotel. (Difference in money available.) They also checked out restaurants, and we talked about typical Viennese foods. A couple of supermarket chains have websites, so we compared prices and offers between the US and Vienna. Students had to visit some of the big tourist attractions in the city but also decided what they would do in their free time during a normal week – lots of skateboarding, bicycle riding, going to cafes, playing sports, going to Danube Island for swimming, etc. We talked about where they could do that. We also looked at the layout of the city. Next time I might have them look at the Austrian soccer league. I didn’t do anything with laundry or dry cleaning, but that would be a good thing to do – do they have laundromats? What does it cost to do wash?

My idea was to have students be old enough to go and do things on their own, have them be self-sufficient (jobs), but at the same time have some responsibilities (jobs, classes) so they had to figure out how to manage their time. I also wanted them to imagine what they would talk about as older versions of themselves – school dances became club nights, school sports became club sports, concerts took place in Vienna, etc.

At the start of the project we read and discussed a vignette from Michael Miller’s Sabine und Michael in which Michael goes to Vienna and has a nightmare experience. I also showed slides of Vienna that I have taken. Students learned their way around the city. We explored the transportation system and did an activity in which students looked up what films are playing in Vienna and where they are playing, then made a “date” (not necessarily romantic) with another student to see the film

We also read a short story about a robbery in the Art History Museum that I adapted and translated from a story created by the COACH group I work with. After we read the story we looked at articles about a real theft that took place in 2003 and discussed similarities and differences.

A lot of what we were doing involved output, but by level 3-4 students are ready for it. I structured the assignments so that students could do a lot or a little output and graded on what I knew about their ability.

The “culminating event” was a presentation about what they had done during their year in Vienna. It was a group project, which allowed students to take roles that supported their abilities. As part of the evaluation, each member of the group had to sign a statement about whether each member of the group shared fairly (not equally) in the work. The presentations were very creative, and we enjoyed them a lot. The language was also good. I believe I mentioned in another post that one group had some grammar errors on their PowerPoint slides, but when I engaged them in a conversation about their trip, they corrected all of the errors in their spontaneous speech. Another group had a member who works late at night and has a hard time staying awake in class. We of course give him a bad time and do things to help him stay awake. In the presentation he kept falling asleep and having things happen to him, like waking up at the end of the streetcar line and not knowing where he was.

Second semester we continued with the Vienna idea but shifted focus from the city to literature. We looked at German poetry of various sorts, then did the project that finished with a “Viennese Coffee House”.

*I use card stock for the outside of the “passport” and regular paper for the inside. The cover has the Great Seal of the United States and looks like a real passport. The inside is designed to look like a passport as well (though I think I need to update this – just got a new passport). For anyone who doesn’t know it, all publications by an agency of the federal government are public domain. You do not need permission to reproduce them – 0f course, you can be prosecuted for using them for fraud or other illegal activities, but we aren’t doing that. NASA photos are also public domain.

I hope this answers some of your questions. My intention is to get all of this collected and publish a how-to manual. The basic idea is the same, no matter where you go, but it would be great to have materials and guidelines for specific cities from various target cultures.

I originally posted this in Variety Pack 4, but here it is again:
I do a two-year rotating curriculum for my combined 3-4-AP class. For it I do the following
Year One
-First semester is a virtual move to Vienna: learn about Austrian culture, students role-play older versions of themselves at the University of Vienna and UNO City*, readings based on Vienna, get to know the city. (*for example, Monday chats revolve around where they went and what they did in Austria over the weekend; did you take the train to Munich and visit Oktoberfest? Did you go skiing? Did you go to Danube Park with friends?)
-Second semester study fairy tales and poetry; enjoy a “Viennese coffeehouse” experience

Year Two
-First semester is a virtual move to Berlin: talk about modern Germany, Re-unification, Cold War, interwar years. Similarly to Vienna, students talk about where they went and what they did “in Berlin”.
-Second semester is a trip back to the Middle Ages; my medieval book is the organizing principle for the semester, and we use it for jumping-off points to explore medieval history and culture 

Robert Harrell’s Virtual Move

We have started our virtual move to Moscow. The kids brought in their job descriptions from the job site today. Some had forgotten and therefore got the ones I’d picked out.

The students are so excited about this that it’s almost hard to run the class. They have many more ideas than I do, and they want to go with them. What I noticed is that taking on a persona is making what might have been a boring, repetitive conversation be interesting to them all: what is your job (“As whom do you work?”) and how much do you earn? It’s so funny…those two questions kept us busy for most of an hour today. I wouldn’t have known what to do if someone had told me I had to teach them. The kids figured out right away that those with the higher salaries were going to get to do more fun things in Moscow in their free time. I didn’t point out that higher salaries also demand more time. Might have to talk about that some other lesson! They’re already deciding who’s going to room with whom, and realizing they have to know what different areas of Moscow are like. We might need some guest speakers on the topic of “the city.” Whoo hoo!

I am grateful to Robert for this crazy, wonderful idea! It’s a reality story!