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Basics, again!

A red ribbon is tied around a finger to remind of something important.

I participated in a La Maestra Loca (Annabelle Williamson) webinar a few weeks ago. Whether I attend a class, teach a group, or present to a group, I always learn something new. This time I learned that I also need reminders about the basics! The theme of the webinar was “Slow.” Ironically, I showed the members how important it is to go slowly by not going slowly enough, and I committed two other errors that I will be working to evict from my practice.

My first error was to call on the class as a group for answers without allowing time to let students think. If there isn’t enough think time, the faster processors will answer quickly, making slower processors feel frustrated or even tune out. Annabelle does a countdown in her classes after asking a question. In my Pre-K through third-grade classes, I have been occasionally raising my hand to encourage students to raise theirs, calling on them only after several have raised their hands. I have not been able to make that gesture a consistent part of my toolkit. I am going to return to a countdown. I’ve experienced a countdown variation in a class with Diane Neubauer. Diane asks students to wait to send their answers (in chat, on Zoom) until her hand moves from the top of the screen to the bottom.

The other improvement I will make during presentations is to be more mindful of giving brain breaks. Adults and children alike need brain breaks from input in language classes. Because I am on triple engagement mode when I’m teaching or presenting, it’s easy to forget that others aren’t at the same level of engagement or that they may be experiencing overload. Simply pausing to ask whether someone has a question or comment can help slow things down.

The new idea I plan to try is “turn and talk,” a technique La Maestra Loca recently shared in her podcast. She said that having children turn and talk when she asks a question increases engagement beyond the typical students who answer every time, even though it increased the amount of brief first language that students use in the classroom. I will try it in break rooms on Zoom for now (until I recover from a COVID attack) and then we’ll see whether I can use it in my lower school language classes.

Reminder image: by geralt


Star of the Day/Special Person

A teacher on Twitter recently remarked on the benefits of using slides that students provide to generate Star of the Day interviews. I concur! If we use student slides, we don’t have to wonder what is important to students! Students also get to ask a question about others. (Thanks to Skip Crosby and Cynthia Hitz for this teaching hint; elementary teachers can ask parents for slides.)

Victoria Maximova and I volunteer to team-teach a weekly beginning Russian class for OLE (Opportunities for Lifelong Education). Some in the class have now had two years’ worth of eight-week sessions, and some have only recently started. One of the more advanced students types words into the chat that she thinks beginners might not recognize (a trick I learned in an Agen French class with Daniel, Sabrina, and Carla). We have grown to know one another fairly well by sharing pictures and questions.

Because I wanted to use a particular video this session, we have been asking students about their favorite cuisines and dishes. We also ask who likes to cook, who likes to do dishes, and who in the household does those things.

Today two (married) students said that they like Italian cuisine. It happens to be International Pizza Day, information that I had shared as part of calendar talk. There are laws in Italy about everything having to do with preparation of pizza! Victoria lives in Italy, and she added that there are laws about preparing espresso as well. We started talking about who likes coffee, tea, whether with milk…

And then, because the man in the couple said he liked pizza best, we talked about the Italian law. We explained that Anchorage pizzarias do not follow any rules. A student said she likes pizza, but not Hawaiian pizza. What is Hawaiian pizza? Off we went, and we learned about legal pizza ingredients.

Suddenly it was the end of class again, so naturally we never got to the slides in our program about the little video we were going to watch. We may never watch it. Discussing “real life” always takes priority, and it is especially interesting with Victoria, who has fascinating stories about Italy and Russia to share. I wish I could team-teach all my lessons with her …

My takeaways here: 1) use students as the curriculum. 2) team teach if possible.

New toys

Two new toys this week!

  1. Wordle, which I can play in English, Spanish, and Russian. It is also available at least in German and French. Yesterday I got the English only after two tries, but had the Spanish in two and the Russian in three. Score!!
  2. Seeing ai – a great tool if students have visual impairments. But for others, download the seeing ai app – iPhone only, sadly – and make sure your phone is in the language you want to speak. Click on the house and tree icon, and take a picture of something; or click on the person icon, and take a picture of someone. I just took a picture of a scene on my laptop, and it says, “Imagen de hombre con la puerta abierta.” (image of a man with an open door) And then I pointed it at myself and it said, “Mujer de 50 años con cabello castaño con gafas que parece ser neutral.” (50-year-old woman with brown hair and glasses, neutral expression) I can’t wait to point it at kids in class. It took more than a decade off my age, so that was kind! In Russian, I checked out as older if I was smiling. Does it show more wrinkles? It says “52-year-old woman with brown hair in glasses who seems happy.” (And yes, I just took off a hat before taking this.)

To change the language on your iPhone, go to Settings, then General, then Languages. Be careful to choose a language you know, or it’s hard to get back to English if you want it.

Writing a book is not what I thought

That is not true. Writing the story was about what I thought it would be. It was the after-work, both for me and for all the people I needed help from – and whom I keep on needing.

The book is based on a the story of two young people from different ends of the former Soviet Union who meet in Moscow and fall in love. Their love is not “approved” because they are from different ethnic groups, but when Lena goes to Kazakhstan to meet Arsen’s parents, she sees a picture of a painting on the wall at the house. Lena asks Arsen whether he knows about the picture, and he explains to her that the girl in the picture has been his muse as he grew up. Lena explains to Arsen that her mother painted the picture – of her!

The fictionalized story was easy to write, first because there were many articles about this magical, true union, and the happy life that followed. Secondly, I had signed up for a writing class that kept me on schedule and inspired the first set of revisions. But then came the rest of the story of writing. I’d attended a presentation by Anny Ewing at iFLT one year. I hadn’t listened closely enough to understand what would follow.

Ten or twelve different groups read and commented on the story, thanks to kind colleagues and my own students. Rewrites ensued. A brilliant young editor taught me more about writing, though that meant tearing the story apart several times and revising many sections several times. Because I am not a native speaker, the Russian had to be edited and edited and edited. And edited again. In the meantime, a long-time student who is a talented artist researched the clothing, the hairstyles, and the way buildings looked in 1950’s Soviet Union. He drew illustrations and planned to lay the entire book out for me to self-publish. I kept re-reading it with students and fixing it. I took out chapters and rearranged them.

Tragedy struck: my sweet, brilliant editor died of a terrible cancer. By this time, we were friends. Another wonderful colleague swooped in and fixed the remaining Russian problems, once I decided to move on. Then my illustrator broke his hand, but when I was telling yet another colleague about the trials I expected to face in self-publishing and the temporary obstacle of the broken hand, she offered to publish the story for me! That was a completely unexpected dream come true, but it did mean that I needed to bring the vocabulary structures in line with her expectations for books for language acquisition. More editing. Glossing restructured. Glossary revised and corrected.

In the meantime, I’d been trying to get permission to use a photograph of the painting of Lena for the front cover. I connected with the Tretyakov museum, where the painting Morning (Утро) hangs, but the museum doesn’t have the rights and did not seem to know who does. My first editor had planned a trip from her home in Kazakhstan to where Lena lives today. She had once attended an exhibit of Lena’s – Lena had become a well-known artist herself, as had Arsen. But that chance was gone.

My new editor and friend recently connected me with Lena and Arsen’s son Zangar, who is an artist living in Minneapolis. He also doesn’t have the rights to the painting, but put me in touch with his mother. Can you imagine how I felt when he responded to my Facebook message! My characters were walking off the pages, into my life. And now, it looks as though he is going to let me use a picture of his painting of his parents for the book cover. Friends in Minneapolis are offering to help get to the physical location to take the picture. I am besotted with love for the universe that makes these connections.

another head smack

I’ve been struggling with spending waaaaaaay too much time prepping lessons lately. We ask or tell a story, and we learn about students as we discuss the story or the reading or the history, or when we’re actually doing an official Star of the Day interview.

The student whose job it is to keep track of information in the classroom sends or gives me the information in English (or in Russian/Spanish that I then need to correct), and I create slides with the story/info and required support terms that the class may have forgotten by the next time.

What’s wrong with this picture? I remembered, right after giving a presentation yesterday, during which I said, “We always follow up with Write and Discuss.”

Well. I have been forgetting to stop after we’ve done a story to do Write and Discuss. “Write and Discuss” is not asking the students to write it. It is asking them all the questions referring to the story, possibly digging for new details, as I write it on the projector or shared slide, so that they can read it and process the repeated input at a slower pace. That takes time in the class, during which I have recently been instead adding new information. Without this part of the class, I spend a bunch of extra time on it after the lesson, when I should be planning instead!!

It’s still very useful to have those notes, as that person can supply whatever the class forgets, and I can use it later, but wow. I pledge not to take the entire load from now on. Thanks, ABC Boot Campers, for letting me remember.

Weird words/tandem teaching

Any of you who’ve used Snack Attack in class know that “vending machine” and “train station” are important words for the video. It’s true that a wiser teacher than I am could easily get around them, but in Russian, they’re pretty useful words anyway.

Enter my co-teacher for a class today. I sent her a little note asking whether she could work those words into our lesson, and otherwise didn’t have time to plan with her. I got a Special Person slide ready that would ask her how she gets to work, and included “train” on it, but other than that, was out of ideas. And the words were still not really part of that question, though I think I could have found out whether her town has a big train station, and whether she ever eats from the vending machines –

So what did she do? When I asked her how she was, she said right away that she was fine, but that Turin (she is teaching in Alaska from Italy) is in red-zone lockdown. All the restaurants and bars have to close by six o’clock. We were all appropriately horrified and interested, and she went on to say that some people don’t want to eat at home. The only place they can go for food after hours is the train station!! And guess what…her sushi-loving husband can get his treat out of a vending machine at the train station.

When I think of all the times that I have written critical words on the board and done personal questions around them, when I could have just asked a tandem-teacher to jump into story based on fact … oh, yeah. I’m not usually this lucky. I love teaching with Victoria!

A recent prediction said that the online “foreign” language business is going to grow by leaps and bounds in the next few years. I hope it’s true, and in that case, all of us need to find our tandem teaching partners and get ready for an explosion of opportunity and fun.

Writing: just the first step

Who knew how much work it would be to get a little Russian book off my computer and into the world? The answer: Annie Ewing, for one, every other author in the world, and Mike Peto, my writing group teacher, who never tried to scare us with the giant wall we were facing as we started writing.

It is with great joy that I can announce I’ve mostly finished producing a manuscript in 19 or 20 short chapters. But next, as I heard from Annie at iFLT 2019, there are many steps to follow. Right now, I’m in several steps at once. I have read the book in its entirety with a few students. I have read parts of it with beginning groups. A couple of dear friends have shared the entire text with single students, and one has taught a whole class with it.

A talented editor has worked through about the first half for me, making suggestions I could never have come up with on my own. She asked me to think about the purpose of every section. It’s hard to do. She made suggestions, but in the end, I have to look at the purpose and the piece, and make sure that they match. Can you hear my internal dialogue, asking why I have to do this? I didn’t know I was this lazy until now.

Another concurrent and scary step is sending each chapter out to a different Russian teacher who is not yet my best buddy, though some are becoming my idols as I speak, given their willingness to help. If you’re a Russian teacher and can help run a short chapter past a group of students, please connect!

And finally, I’m working on the glossary, even though I fear it will require a complete revamping if we change much. This is the most tedious task of all, given that every different form of every word must be defined, and any set phrases that will help also go in. Mike suggested reading the book, word by word, and constructing the glossary as I go, so that the meanings fit what I’ve written, rather than trying to make a mini dictionary.

The Russian words are bolded and in 14 point Cyrillic font. The meanings are in 12 point, not bold, but italic Roman font. Did I say “tedious” already? I would never have known to format this way, nor would I have known much of the other priceless information Mike has shared. Even if I were writing a book in English, I would probably sign up for one of his writing groups.

If I ever When I get through these steps, I will start working on illustrations. That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Wish me patience – and many Russian teachers!

Tandem teaching

I always come away from my OLÉ! classes with a big grin on my face. OLÉ! stands for Opportunities in Lifelong Education (for Alaskans 50 and older). OLÉ! is the brainchild of a local wonder woman educator, and there are courses of every possible type: from economics to languages, from philosophy to physics of breathing. (I’m personally taking a class featuring eight Alaskan writers.) I get to teach Russian to a group of interested, educated adults who want to learn, without grades or curriculum requirements. Nirvana.

My students are the easiest group I could have. Even Zoom is not an issue. I get to practice new ideas on them, and that is where this semester’s classes started: with an experiment in tandem teaching.

My colleague and I were both part of a summer French class (on Zoom), in which she was an intermediate and I a rank beginner. I was stunned that she and I could both participate, that we both felt challenged, and that we both understood everything that went on. I asked her whether she’d be willing to co-teach the OLÉ! class, and she was eager to join me.

I wish that every language teacher could have the experience of tandem teaching. As one of the teachers who helped us practice said, having two brains makes everything easy. That uneasy feeling of being on the edge of a story cliff is relieved, because the teachers can talk about the development of the story, can throw ideas back and forth, and both can check the group’s understanding. The extra ingredient that was part of the French class — a third teacher, who provided translations of new words in the chat — is fulfilled by an advanced student. Chat is working beautifully in our class.

There may soon be a Russian tandem class available outside OLÉ!, but in the meantime, I would encourage pairs of language teachers who have classes at the same time, whether the groups are the same level or not, and whether the teachers are even in the same school or not, to experiment with tandem teaching. Ask a high-level student to chat out new structures, and restrict other student chat to important questions or responses about the story. You will love it. I promise.

Zoomsking, or asking stories in the time of Zoom

Yesterday on FB, I posted that after all the bells and whistles I’ve been chasing, I came back to realizing that stories are the very best for elementary students.

I’m not going to go into the limitations on my teaching here. Everyone has something in the way. But I had forgotten that it’s not about the fancy slides or games or how professional my class looked (or how non-professional). Language is about our connections and our stories.

So … I had mentioned a few tips: being able to use google search to find a drawing to copy while kids are also drawing, using slides to make it clear that I was asking whether a hero was a person, animal, or thing, and then what kind of being, including being kind, honest, etc. (because if characters are not honest, for example, I can later ask whether their statements are true). Also, older kids can use chat to develop stories. And finally, using a bell (in my case, the “No Yell Bell”) to celebrate when kids shows comprehension or when I love what we decided (every time). Thanks to Jason Fritze for using a shop bell this summer to ding wildly in celebration.

I also mentioned voting, which is easy when all the students are on Zoom (that’s when the bell is useful to applaud those who lose) but harder when I have part of a group all watching on one computer from school. Then I have one kid who is in charge of counting the votes, since I can’t even see all the socially-distanced kids. The same student is in charge of coming up to the computer and giving me the class’s ideas. Otherwise they don’t get much input. Jobs, as always, rock!

Then V.C. asked where my scripts come from, and I realized I’d better answer here. They come from the kids’ minds, or from a story I want them to read or see, so I’m guiding them that direction. We may end up with a parallel story or a similar story. The younger the kids, the more I make sure that the story involves them. Even on Zoom, kids can act out roles or sounds; they can all say repeated parts of the story as well. So there is a story about the witch Baba Yaga, who can’t find blueberries in her field, because the blueberries don’t like her. She’s mean. Instead, when a child is looking, they call out to her. The child gets the blueberries, and when Baba Yaga sees the basket, she takes the berries home. But the berries all jump out of the house, back to the child and the basket. And that’s why blueberries always hide low under the leaves, where children can find them.

I changed the story to the mountains, as that’s where our blueberries hide under leaves. The child is now children, all with the names of my students who want to pick blueberries. They get a basket (or a box or a bag) and look for blueberries. One child is the evil Baba Yaga…and so on.

There are also days when the kids pick everything about the beginning. Then I’ve got the choice of leading it, or trying to find a song or story that fits, or just enjoying what the kids come up with. I’m learning to limit a lot because Zooming seems to encourage really strange stories that don’t shelter vocabulary, and I forget that I’m in charge of the story. The fun thing is that our Zoom classes are too short (half an hour) to get a whole story in, which requires this old lady to need reminders about the story and helps anyone who missed to catch up. We can have new actors or extra ones — it doesn’t matter.

There are many ways to follow up, but I’ll save those for another time when I don’t have a Russian meeting coming up right now!

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.