Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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.

Teaching adults is different after all

I just finished the second of an eight-week (once weekly) hour with parents of our local Russian immersion program. Last week I had only one student, so used the Star of the Day slideshow to support our conversation. This week, when the rest showed up, I put some of the “Super Seven” verbs (thanks, Terry Thatcher Waltz) on the white board, along with a few other important words as they came up, and we spent the entire hour just reading about that first student and comparing her with others.

In the past, I’ve run my adult classes the same way as I did my high school classes, with lots of brain breaks and varieties of activities. But this time, after reviewing some gestures that I’d be using, we spent the entire hour on the reading. They were responding well to questions about the text and themselves and to “what did I just ask” questions, working on reading the Cyrillic, and showing interest in one another.

In the deep of winter and spring, there probably won’t be the same level of energy, so I plan to drill deeply into the lives and interests of these students and of their children now, and then we can study songs and read other pieces later on for variety.

My ah-hah understanding: I was ever so pleased to see that students could use a (heavily supported) reading in Cyrillic on their first night. I won’t try to tiptoe around the Cyrillic from now on.

Finals done!

I am relieved and pleased to have administered some successful post-secondary language finals yesterday. I owe colleagues big time!

  • First time teaching at a university
  • First time using a dedicated textbook curriculum
  • First time with only three hours a week over only two sessions

In our second-semester Russian class, we started the final with a listening section, taken from the many recordings that we’ve heard this semester, and which students had a chance to review. Thanks to Señora Chase, that was easy to administer and to grade with her three-level assessment. I adapted the form to fit university classes.

I’ve been using “Star of the Day” /”La Persona Especial” interviews for years, thanks to Bryce Hedstrom, and I had tweaked slides to fit the themes of our textbook throughout the semester. For the oral part of that exam (timed), students had a list of questions they could ask one another in conversation pairs, and if they were comprehensible to this sympathetic listener (me), if they understood and responded to the questions their classmates asked, and if they asked at least three follow-up tag questions about comments their partners made, they could get an A on that part. Understanding and communicating were the key to a solid B. Long pauses, missed communication opportunities, and answers that didn’t make sense lowered the grade. Our class has learned a lot about one another, so I was impressed that new information came out during the orals. I also enjoyed the laughter that ensued.

Finally, we had a 25-sentence discourse scramble, thanks to Bill VanPatten’s direction. This particular mini essay was based on the answers that one student had given to all the Star of the Day questions. Again, it followed the grammar, vocabulary, and the themes of our text. Each student had to reassemble the essay into a logical flow, with introduction and conclusion. I hadn’t truly expected grammar to be important when analyzing the form of a paragraph, but I am now a believer because of the mistakes some students made. Again, it turned out to be very easy to grade, though students came up with several different ways of making the pieces flow. We had done only three of these in class, so I will try to use this format much more often in the future. I would also make this section significantly longer.

This wasn’t the most flashy or creative final, and it was certainly not what the students have been used to, but I am pleased that they were able to demonstrate their level of ability to communicate in and to comprehend Russian. They extended what we’ve been doing in class but they were able to be completely prepared by following my review suggestions.

Native speakers in the university language classroom

At the start of my first semester teaching at university, I was a bit horrified to find that I had four native speakers in my Russian language classes. I didn’t think to ask my experienced colleague in time to find out how she handled that situation, so bumbled on.

I’ve had a lot of native speakers in high school classes, and have even posted how to use them on this blog. But those were usually exchange students for whom the Russian class was a chance to relax in their day at an American school, or children of Russian speakers who had missed the reading and writing of a Russian school. In either case, they were basically captive audiences, and I did my best to engage them and use their talents in the best way I could.

But at University, I forgot that these are students with a choice, and was tormented that they should be in a class they were paying for, with a non-native speaker in charge.

Fast forward, and I am just delighted by their presence. One participates fully in the class as a regular student, sometimes becoming my “dictionary,” looking up concepts and vocabulary for me. He often gets to help model our activities for the rest of the class. His homework is not the same as the others, as he is reading novels — and discussing them outside class with another, older, native speaker. That man was a computer programmer in his native country, and he is a whiz preparing Quizlet, Kahoot, and game-like Powerpoints based on our text’s grammar and themes. I love it!

Two young Russian-speaking women are in charge of finding me appropriate support for our texts. Often they will write up texts about themselves and their families for me that supplement our book, especially the book for the lower level class that has almost no extended texts. I use their shorter texts as discourse scrambles (thanks, Bill VanPatten for this bridge to writing). They find videos and blogs that are reasonable to understand and appropriate (in my mind), especially after I went on a search for blogs and came up with some that had pictures I never want to think about again. (They know which words not to search.) In class, they allow me to divide up into reading and interview groups, and they are again great models for conversations. Today, one of the young women will bring her 12-year-old sister to be the subject of an interview. I’m excited!

And just now, one of them sent me a list of blogs–I wanted readings with first-person accounts–and she offered an extra suggestion that we follow Russian celebrities on Instagram. I had done that on Twitter, but forgot about it, and was thrilled to search for каюры (mushers…we’re on our third day of the Iditarod up here) and find great pages of Beringia mushing, complete with lots of text and comments. Wow. I asked her to suggest which celebrities we should follow, because she will know who’s top of the list.

Students control acquisition

Fighting words.

I played about seven minutes* of BVP’s latest podcast for my university students last night, pausing occasionally (podcast-talk?) to discuss some of the vocabulary (SLA, “head-initial,” acquisition). Two worlds – the textbook/tradition and my understanding of the process of acquisition – are constantly at odds during my lesson planning. Sharing the podcast allowed me to show students that I’m trying to do right by them. Bill’s direction for teachers helped. “Make classes engaging, compelling, and enjoyable” in order to support acquisition. Tall order.

One of my students who has told me that he appreciates the homework (“spend 5-7 hours outside class weekly with input you understand and reflect briefly on it”) was meeting my eyes the entire time we listened to Bill’s podcast. He is the one who told me he had dreaded this class and is now motivated again to learn Russian. Another student, who had been a little dismissive of my homework assignment, but who has most successfully shared what she feels she’s acquiring, stayed after to tell me that she “gets” it now. She said that whenever she understands something new in one reading, she starts to see and hear it everywhere. She is getting the kind of mass input that I want them all to get. I so appreciated her acceptance!

Something clicked for me during the podcast too, and I hope to explain it correctly. As I understood it, Bill talked about how students don’t notice grammar unless the sentence forces them to need the grammar to understand. So during our story-telling, when the cat was telling its owner that it wouldn’t be eating any of the dishes the owner was bringing, I left out unnecessary pronouns as we told and retold and asked questions. (Russian, like Spanish, has verb forms in the present and future that are pronoun-specific. Only third person pronouns can apply to either a male or a female, but in the midst of a text, they can be dropped.) And though I don’t really believe that just one day’s worth of such input has an impact, when my students later had to Google Voice a little conversation, every single one of my second-semester students got the Russian future verb forms correct. I tried the same idea while guiding the advanced students through choosing the correct imperfective/perfective past forms. Their Google Voice results were about 75% correct, compared to the last time we tried this and I felt like a complete traditional grammar failure.

I’m not sure whether there’s a way to direct student to materials that don’t include the pronouns or other hints that make acquiring the grammar possible, but it’s possible that, once having noticed and understood that the pronouns aren’t necessary, students will start to comprehend their own choice reading and listening more effectively. As it is, every student in my two classes is reading different material, often venturing beyond the five pages of suggested resources that I gave them for potential CI. A few like the textbooks. An advanced (native speaker) is reading novels and discussing them with our local tutor. One has found a huge supply of cat memes (I never would have expected this, but her oral output is improving rapidly). Others use the 3Ears videos; one found a bunch of pirated-online children’s books, and I have been enjoying those myself – though I can’t in good faith share the link with the others.

In the end, I hope that the students heard not only the admonition for me to be an engaging teacher, but the statement that they are the ones in control of their acquisition. They can’t control all of the constraints: time, mindset, basic “talent,” or access to social interaction, but they can control whether they are getting input that matters to them and that they understand. I’m going to keep reminding them that they are the drivers here. I’m only the highway, and for now it’s probably only a two-lane, country highway at best. But the views…

*from about 08:30

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.