Category Archives: Reflections

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!



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!


This summer, during conversations about classes and kids and management, I told a number of people about one of my biggest regrets: that I’d never been able to reach one particular student. It was four years ago, and he was in my Russian classes for a second year. He was incredibly smart and talented, but had drawn awful cards in life. And he seemed to need a place where he could let out his anger. That place was my classroom.

I didn’t handle his behavior well. I couldn’t find a way to connect. Even though I’d had tough kids before, and even though we didn’t always solve everything, I could always find a connection. With this sweet-faced boy, I couldn’t. I got frustrated with him. I have been kicking myself ever since. And that was unexpectedly my last year at that school. I’ve wanted to go back and find him to tell him how much I thought of him, but couldn’t remember his English name, and the counseling secretary who would have remembered him and would have helped me had also changed schools.

So instead, I’ve told people about my regret, and I’ve tried to be a better teacher to other kids who have rough lives through no fault of their own.

Then today, in the grocery store, a tall young man stopped me, and there he was. I had to ask him his name. That was it. I told him I’d been thinking about him a lot since the end of that year. He told me that he’d been thinking about me lately too and wondering what happened to me. I told him that I wanted to apologize, and he said that it had all been his fault.

It wasn’t his fault. I was the adult in the room. And maybe not being able to connect wasn’t completely on me, but I still feel so much better to have met him and talked with him. He looks as though he is finding his way. I will be continuing to think of him and hoping for the very best in his life.

Surprises at school

I’m back to school at last. Better late than never!

The first thing I didn’t expect was the hugs I would get. High school was never like this, and it’s endearing to have elementary kids who actually know me this year.

The second surprise was the kind comments from teachers who said that their kids learned a whole lot of Spanish from me last year. Sometimes that feels as though they have to be kidding. I’m that person who didn’t know how to tell them to give me their papers, and I only recently realized that I somehow know all the days of the week now.

Next is my lack of fear, compared to last year. Having acquired at least another year of this language myself, I am much less prone to experiencing complete panic in the classroom. Now, if I don’t know a word, I just shrug. Sometimes I look it up, sometimes I don’t. We needed “cotton candy” yesterday, for instance. I looked it up. The State Fair is still going on, and kids need it.

And here is a real biggie. After using Terry Waltz’s Teacher’s Discovery skinny Super Seven posters in my Oregon classroom this summer, I now have my own to put up, take down, repeat, in every single room. (Thanks to Christy Lade, who shared her traveling classroom technique of putting pins in the wall and rings on posters, I transform each room into a Spanish class instantly.) And guess what: by having those Super Seven words on the wall, my fifth-graders wrote a range of 47-100 words in five-minute fast-writes. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I never had them do that last year, but I wanted a baseline this year. They were thrilled. So was I. Of course, it is also true that at least one of them earned 24 Wooly badges over the summer. But weirdly, none of them seemed to lose any Spanish over the summer.

I am still going to be taking Spanish lessons from the amazing Alice Ayel. I am still trying to limit the bulk of my book reading to Spanish (or Russian, of course). I have a very long way to go. But I’m thrilled to say that I can now have complete conversations with Spanish-speaking moms, instead of hiding out in the copy room when I see them coming. I was able to talk for three hours (!!) this summer with a Costa Rican Airbnb owner in Boston, and I understood 97% of a presentation that was in Spanish for Spanish teachers at iFLT this summer. I almost can’t believe it. This CI/ADI stuff truly works, for learners of any age.

Not news: Boxes aren’t compelling

Yesterday we found a boxed Spanish course in a closet. I thought it would be worth my time because it has transcripts of conversations, and I don’t get enough comprehensible spoken Spanish in this ongoing experiment.

I decided I would start rolling through the mini lessons (I did 55 of them last evening). I wasn’t sticking to the transcripts alone, thus breaking a rule I’d set for myself: no focused grammar study. I laughed about 30 lessons in, when the tip on the side said, “You have learned how to conjugate ar verbs. Now learn er verbs.” I didn’t know what one of the verbs meant, but I could fill in the blanks because I’ve been hearing and reading the correct forms. I don’t know how anyone would have “learned” ar conjugation by then from the box.

When I finally rejoined my family for the evening, I was exhausted. It was nothing like the prior evening, when the same room decluttering process had yielded Mira Canion’s Agentes Secretos. I read that book in about 40 minutes, and was jazzed because it was so easy to read, and I immediately wanted another one because it was so compelling (yes, I have contacted Mira). This morning, I came to the breakfast table and saw that box. I felt my heart drop. And yet, I’m the one who set myself this task.

The box has an ongoing story about a Mexican student who is moving into an apartment with two others in Spain. It’s not very engaging, partly because the authors are moving thematically, rather than trying to tell a story, and partly because grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary notes keep interrupting the story. There’s also too much English on the pages.

I finally understand with my body why a grammatical-thematic approach is less effective than a CI method. Real communication does not stick to themes, and we don’t usually interrupt conversations to correct pronunciation or to practice grammar (only Moms do that). We can shelter vocabulary and still communicate. But we have to go to weird lengths to communicate while concentrating on an imposed theme, and it doesn’t feel right.

Back to my rule. No more focused grammar study, unless it’s to answer a question.* I’m going to listen to everything I can, even the box CDs. Searching for (free) materials at my level is time consuming, but there are still a few TPRS teacher videos out there that I haven’t watched. Muchas gracias to those valiant souls who are editing my writing, and thanks to all who have posted their videos. I hang on your words!

*My fabulous teacher editors provide occasional pop-up style grammar to explain their edits. And sometimes I ask a question. My current one is why there are accent marks on words like río, even though those follow the pronunciation rules that I finally looked up. (And why is there not such a simple rule in English or Russian???)

Just talking

I have a wonderful period 4 class. We haven’t finished doing interviews with all the students, so today I sat one down in front of the screen and started doing our simple “Our star” interview with him. We milked the interview. I remembered part-way through that the point I’m trying to stress right now is use of the infinitive, and that I hadn’t told the kids. (Some of them like to know what our grammar focus is.) I wrote up three major times we use it, and students were suggesting extra pieces to add to the explanation (in Russian). Then we continued doing the “Our star.” I honestly don’t know what we were doing but talking to one kid, making comparisons, and answering questions, but all of a sudden, some of the girls started giggling. I wanted to know what was going on. In little fits, they pointed at the clock. We had interviewed this one poor boy for almost an hour. We hadn’t gotten to our song, to the end of our “Are you an American?” survey, to the story we were working on, and I had completely forgotten that it was “Thursday Quiz.”

I asked the kids if they minded. No. Were they bored? No. Did they know more about the student in front? Yes. Was spending all this time simply speaking Russian okay? Yes.

Whew! Sigh of relief. I played the song that the last question reminded me of: it was “What kind of person are you?” and he had agreed that he is kind and dear, so I played the song, “Oh my dear,” at which the students laughed…and left…because the bell rang.

I could have used the same slides for a first-year class (and have), but they work really well for any group, because every answer leads to many more questions, if a person is interested. The one thing that I have added lately is that we backtrack through the slides so that the class gets to practice telling the critical information about the student we’re interviewing. I put the correct verb forms up so that they see them as they review. I’m hoping this tactic will help with spelling in the end.

My ah-hah moment (which I’ve had many times now) is that it’s easy to use the same material for every class level.

Lessons from Celebrating Salish

I left the Celebrating Salish conference two days early to be able to spend family time this spring break. I still got to attend three workshops that made a deep impression on me, even beyond the inspiring keynotes and cultural evening sessions.

The first of those workshops was an introduction to weaving TPRS into Salish storytelling, presented by Janice Billy and Kathryn Michel. I felt very much at home in a room where we learned an elementary-level mini-story that would lead to a a longer cultural story. So many elements of the workshop were those that TPRS beginners need to hear, and experienced folks must repeat: the need to limit vocabulary, to focus on meaning rather than grammar, and to use repetition as a key piece of compelling, comprehensible input. Kathryn gave a beautifully concise overview of TPRS in her limited time.

One of the points that resonated with me was that Kathryn was suggesting a form of what Laurie and I might label Embedded Readings, if they were written. (Blaine might refer to the continuing practice as “Digging Deeper.”) Kathryn said that sometimes elders grow impatient with the simplicity of stories she prepares for the youngest beginners, but she explains that this is just a first step. The original stories can last 45 minutes, and there’s no way a young beginner can listen that long, much less comprehend the level of language. Kathryn rewrites stories so as to use comprehensible language and to communicate just the most critical parts of the story. Even then, she might reduce the story to smaller chunks that might take weeks to teach. But she emphasizes that each story part still has to have a logical beginning, middle and end, because humans are hard-wired to understand narrative with this structure.

Over time, Kathryn introduces more and more details into the story. She pointed out what we all know about ourselves: we hear and tell a good story many times. We like that repetition. But Kathryn’s increasingly longer versions of the stories come to the students over a period of years! I absolutely loved hearing this concept, as it crystallized for me what some of us have been doing: using the same stories in all levels. The only difference is that Kathryn gives us permission here to keep using the same stories over years.

Laurie taught me to separate versions of Embedded Readings with activities; knowing that the story can potentially spread over years makes it much easier to spread out retellings or re-readings. I can relax, not worry about always “getting through” a certain number of story versions in a specific amount of time. If students like a story and enjoy the acting and telling, leaving it for a longer period might make it even more exciting to return to.

Besides introducing TPRS, a crucial point of Kathryn’s presentation was that we use cultural figures as heroes in our stories, and if we are adapting stories, not to change the underlying message. Children learning Salish find out that Coyote is a trickster, that Bear is kind, if not smart in the same way as Coyote. Over time, students can not only begin to predict how those characters will act in a story, but they can identify their own behavior and that of others in terms of the cultural figures. The reason not to change the message (but without having to state a moral) is that “children are smart. They absorb messages with stories.”

In TPRS classes, we often personalize our stories by using characters that students suggest from modern-day American culture. But when I introduce Russian cultural figures to my students, students start bringing those characters into the stories, and the heroes typically act within the confines of their stereotypes. What a wonderful way to easily address cultural concepts with storytelling! I had never thought about using the folk heroes on purpose in a story. As with my use of “accidental CI” in my years before TPRS training, I had never considered using those characters in stories on purpose.

It occurs to me that as the stories grow in length and detail, part of that detail will include comments about the folk heroes’ personalities. It will be a natural “aside” to add to the telling.

We often talk about bringing authentic resources into the classroom, and we don’t always don’t know how to bring TL culture into storytelling. Now I feel I have another intentional tool to add to my teaching. From now on, including Russian folk heroes as participants in stories is not going to be an accident in my classroom.

I can do it!

Thanks to Toni Thiesen and Christine Lanphere’s table talk at ACTFL, I have more ideas about how to use Can-Do statements as I teach.

Either Toni or Christine (sorry, can’t remember which) gives students a “can-do bubble sheet” to kids at the beginning of a unit. The kids pick three of the can-dos that they want to master. They write a reflection about how they plan to learn them, and at the end of the unit, they write up how successful they were.

I’ve been using the can-do statements in a much less structured way. But as I’m writing my finals, I figured out how to use a bubble sheet with the can-do statements to help kids prepare for the oral part of their semester final. I’ve put 15 can-do statements (with one blank one) on a page. My year one students are going to pick between 12 and 15 to demonstrate for their final. They get to organize them in whatever way they want: they can work them all into a story that they will tell, or they can put symbols onto a picture or presentation to guide them. Whatever they do, it will be scanned or turned in electronically to become a part of a class powerpoint for presentations.  Here’s a picture of their bubble sheet:

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 3.19.12 PMI will advise them that they can tell a story with a lot of dialogue, or they can just demonstrate each piece one at a time, whatever suits their style. Each day until we have our final, we’ll do five minutes’ worth of different activities for them to practice and feel secure about this final: inner/outer circles, highlighting the ones they have done; time in the lab to scan or send their pictures and practice with partners, volunteers coming to the front and showing their stuff. But I will also give input each day so that students hear all of these things from different points of view, with different pictures.

We’ll also have listening and reading sections for the final. I don’t assign writing on finals because we have to have our finals graded so quickly.

While I’m on the subject of Can-Do statements, I realized I’ve learned something. We’re learning a Russian New Year’s song, one we practice every year. We always talk about the story of the little tree, but because of the Can-Do statements, I decided to be more transparent about our goals with the song. The song starts with talking about where the tree was born. We’ve talked about where people were born in class, and this was a wonderful opportunity to connect that. Then it goes on to how she grew up in the forest, later how she slept in a snowstorm and finally how she got all dressed up to come to the party with children. A bunch of the Can-Do statements I have in the bubble sheet came out because of thinking about what students could do if they used vocabulary from the song, or if they told the story of the song. It has everything, from season, to holiday, to weather. It’s pretty cool! I don’t think of myself as “doing” units successfully, but by planning around this song, I realize that we are pulling a lot of pieces together here at the end of the semester.

Martina’s QAR

We had our regular Second Friday meeting last week, with Martina Bex as presenter. Martina is awesome. She takes what seems like it could be an interesting idea and crafts it to become a connection device for all lessons. Then she reports on it, as though she weren’t the lead, here!

I have had QAR sessions before, but I must not have been paying attention, or maybe it’s the repetition that is helping. The first thing that I (re?)learned was that the meaning is “Question-Answer Relationship.” (I always thought it was something else that I won’t say here or it will confuse others.) QAR was created to help students with testing, so that they know by the form of the question how to answer it. Wow. QAR can be linked as a support directly to Common Core, to Danielson, and any other number of requirements our schools are heaping on us, but this one actually works, helps engage students better, differentiates for students, and can help us teach better. Talk about Big Bang for the Buck!

As I thought I already knew, there are four levels of questions: Right there, Think and search, Author and Me, and On my own. A big takeaway for me was how to pose the “Author and Me” questions. If they are yes/no questions, we have to add “explain,” or “why?” to the questions as tags. I have missed that step! Martina pointed out that the “On my own” questions are great for finding out more about students. I think that sometimes I’ve glossed over those, feeling that I already do a lot with kids to get to know them.

Another critical step that I’ve missed is to make the practice text with kids very short. I have used longer texts than would fit on a screen with my kids. As Martina demonstrated, it’s very effective to show how much a person can get out of a short text. My poor students!

(Tangent: I was talking about coaching with Laurie this week. She was telling me how she set up the coaching at Skip’s Maine conference to require coaches to give only positive feedback to teachers. When a teacher got to see someone else praised for something that first teacher had not done or needed to have done, it stuck more firmly in the first teacher’s mind, according to the participants. Laurie reported that teachers would have an ah-hah moment and then ask for a re-do to get that right. What I had on Friday was an eighty-minute ah-hah moment.)

Teachers out there who are going to Martina’s upcoming presentations at conferences or workshops in their own districts, you are in for a treat!

Martina followed up by sharing a couple of follow-up activities to extend work on the reading: “Fan N Pick” and “Grab and Go.” Hmm. Another ah-hah for me. I typically move on too quickly after a reading, even though every time I manage to milk something for a long time, I realize how powerful extension activities can be. But these aren’t just any follow-up activities. They require kids to re-read the material, to re-think the questions, and they have a game-like atmosphere.

At the end, we got to learn one last little activity with a Wordle picture, one that Martina evidently has blogged about. I’m going to hike right over there now and read about it.

I did record the session, and at some point will post about fifteen minutes of it. I was participating in the session, and we were moving around a lot, so sometimes the video was pointing at a space with no one in it. We need professionals!

Happy ACTFL week!! EEEK. I’d better call my co-presenter!! See some of you there, I hope.

Stop Stress!





This week of Halloween has had its ups and downs. I started to feel really stressed out over some political wranglings, but eventually remembered that stress starts ramping up every year around this time.

The first quarter and the honeymoon with kids is over. It’s dark (it will be really dark until it snows now with the time change here in Alaska), and everyone is going to have had too much sugar after this weekend. As the semester end draws closer, kids and parents are more worried about grades, and holiday drama enters the mix.

My first impulse is to make hot chocolate and curl up on the couch with a book for the rest of the winter, but luckily I have an inservice today with colleagues. (Mild sarcasm there, but also some truth.) This week, I managed to go to three good school concerts in a row at school, partly because my kids demanded it, and they took me into dreamland. I made sure that there was motion in every class period, even if it’s just to tell the kids to go outside and run around the relocatable one time. And I’m getting at least my minimum steps in every day.

At our school, we have a system of little cards called “High Fives.” We fill them out to tell colleagues what we admire about them. One copy goes to the colleague, and another to a box that is used for drawings at our holiday party, when recipients of the High Fives get a chance at gift cards. I’ve started a ritual of asking one class a week which teachers deserve the High Fives. It’s fun to hear their answers, and I get to write things like, “Rachel says you still help her with her homework, even though she’s not in your class any more,” or “Eric says you make math fun with your pineapple jokes.”

Finally, I’m trying to make sure that there is a chance for kids to share in class every day, a time for them to work in small groups, and a moment when we will all laugh together at something like a video that I’ve found or that they’ve sent me. I’ve continued to take pictures of them at every school activity possible, and I share those for us to talk about them.

So as we move into the dark time of the year, here’s my four-part prescription for my own well-being, and for my students as much as I can control: movement, positive thinking, connection and laughter.