Category Archives: Writing

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!

I want my cards back!

How many people are like me, old enough to have used the card system for writing extensive papers in high school and college? I used to have stacks of cards for any paper longer than two pages. One set was for the resources. I would label each one with the correct MLA/AMA form and number it. As I took notes, I would label another set with the resource number, the topic of those notes, and the order of the cards with the specific notes. When it came time to write, I put all the cards with notes into order by topic, and was thus able to see whether I had support from several resources on a topic (and could thus claim it was common domain) or whether I needed to credit the information to a resource or two. I could re-order the cards so that the information would flow as I wrote. Sometimes I’d write the whole thing out by hand, and only then type it up … on a typewriter!

As much as I love my laptop and word processing, I wonder how many writers are still writing their manuscripts by hand. My little book is really just a long story that is going to be a bit thick in print because it will have illustrations and an extensive glossary. But even so, I couldn’t keep track of what I’d said in one part and how it flowed to the next. I have been wishing for the card system. In fact, if I ever write another book (no, Cindy, definitely not happening soon!), I want to come up with a card system to keep track of the chapters or themes or something. What I had to do the other day was print most of it out, lay it all over my floor, cut it into sections, then crawl among the pieces, labeling what they were before crossing pieces out and cutting even more apart to move them into new places. I compared them to the 40 or so sticky notes that I had with comments on them for changes or improvements, scribbled on the pages whatever I’d forgotten, taped them together in a new order, and went back to the computer in despair that I could ever fix it.

I still have twelve sticky notes next to me as I write. Some are reminders to go back to the real story and read up on what truly happened with the artists, and some are notes I couldn’t make sense of while crawling around on the floor. But hurrah! My kind, surely exhausted, editor reread and said that I made it flow. Her words: “I read it in one breath.” Well, “Я прочитала на одном дыхании,” to be exact.

I’m so relieved. I was thinking it was going to be another couple months just tweaking the writing. And it may. But I feel a lot better. Authors out there: what systems exist for writing efficiently that don’t involve printing out entire manuscripts?

Attend our Second Friday CI!

On Friday, Karen Cafmeyer presented our Anchorage CI group with two big ideas: a cartoon story for the first week of Spanish and a class novel unit that she does twice a year at every level.

Karen is a well-prepared presenter. Her advice to teachers is so specific anyone can follow it, and she’s so enthusiastic that some of us are going to take the leap and do it this time. As Diana said, it takes listening to the presentation twice before you think you’ve got it. Luckily for anyone reading this, you can see it twice too! In fact, you can come to our meeting by clicking here, since I recorded it and then messed with the sound files so that you can hear everything, including occasional pithy comments from Martina’s sweet Ellis, except for the couple of minutes that I somehow turned off the sound. It’s long, but Karen doesn’t waste any time during the presentation.

We had a small but mighty group in attendance, including three past and one future president of AFLA, our AFLA secretary, with French, German, Russian and Japanese languages represented. (We also had many food groups represented: caffeine, chocolate, fruit and pasta.)

As Betsy pointed out, the novel unit can be used to answer requirements for inter-disciplinary teaching, given the different ways Karen offered to frame it.

After the presentation, Karen asked for feedback on her way of circling, which turned out to be a creative way of using pictures on powerpoint. We discussed the downsides of circling and shared ideas to keep it from getting deadly. We also talked about how to implement and use fast writes. Then we got onto the topic of sentence frames, which Diana demonstrated. Our group drops big names all the time! Classroom jobs: Bryce Hedstrom and Ben Slavic. Circling: Susie Gross and Carol Gaab. Numbered blanks for fast writes: Scott Benedict. Comparison sentence frames: Señor Wooly.

Hope you’ll join us!

Writing and Video

I’ve taken a hint from what Bryce said he observed in Betsy Paskvan’s classroom. Her students are already writing long pieces in Japanese–on whiteboards. They write what they remember from the day’s story, then turn to a neighbor and read it.

I’m using that tip in conjunction with Bryce’s Persona Especial. The whiteboards vary the writing mode, and the reading to a neighbor adds in accountability. Sometimes the kids misspell words, and get the grammar wrong, but I’m going to trust that if they also read all of this later, they’ll begin to get the spelling right. (I have kids typing it up at night so I don’t have to.)

I am amazed by how much my kids even in first year can write already. The intermediates have seen their writing increased by 30 to 50% since the second week of school. I’m keeping this writing business to only ten minutes for a fast-write weekly attempt, and ideally to only three or four minutes toward the end of class for them to process what we’ve covered.

Today I also hit a new idea for quiz-writing (because my quiz writer was sick in one class). I handed everyone a sticky and asked each student to write a quiz question. I lined them up on my planning book, labeled them with question numbers, and away we went. It worked really well! Since the quiz covered information about four different kids, there were many question options, and there were numerous reps of the structures I’d wanted to focus on during the quiz.

And in other news…the video of Bryce coaching me in Spanish to tell a story in Russian is up here. (Our prop mistress gave Bryce the hat. Don’t judge him.)


Great day…then bummer!

Today was a mostly great day.

Our exchange student wrote up some information on the lead singer of the group whose song we are learning, and I created an embedded reading from it. It turns out that we had serendipitously chosen one of his favorite songs from this group, so it was interesting for the kids to read his take. Now I have to do screen shots of the music video for kids to talk about. Next time, I plan to do that in advance. Thanks, Cynthia Hitz, for the ongoing examples of screen shots.

We re-read the parallel story that had preceded our watching of the song’s video, making comparisons with the video.

I was all excited, because I finally found two things: a picture from Carol Gaab’s presentation, in which she had questions based on readings: probably/probably not statements, and probable professions for the main character in a story. I also found my notes from her reading workshop this summer that helped me remember how to bump reading responses up so that they require inferences in numerous ways.

But my phone disappeared from my desk, so I’ve been going through the mess that entails, and therefore I don’t have the picture any more. A student who probably took it promises to “help find it” in the morning. Don’t call or text me!

And I’ve been grading comp books. They still stay in the classroom, except for the ones belonging to two kids who try to take them away. So far we have a couple of listening quizzes, a sentence-combining exercise, and two fast-writes, on top of the usual daily structures list. We also have some storyboards and a couple of handouts taped in, including spelling of numbers, a cloze exercise for the song, and a listening rubric. The kids tend to grade themselves lower than I do on the listening rubric.

About the sentence-combining: I was trying to lead kids to higher-level writing. I put a (lower-level) story on the board and asked students how we could make it sound more interesting and more educated. They suggested taking out some of the repetition, adding a few details, and using conjunctions to combine the sentences. First they worked in pairs and shared their answers aloud, though I think the sharing wasn’t as helpful for the rest of the class as it was for me to know whether they got the idea. Students mostly used “but,” “and,” “because,” and “therefore.” They had to really think in some cases about which pieces to connect. I was happy with the results. It turned out to be a differentiated assignment, because some kids just connected two adjacent sentences, and others really worked to pull information from different parts of the reading. I complimented them hugely on how they improved the writing.

Going home now!


PDL combined

I decided to put all my PDL information in one place, since I couldn’t even find it all myself. This post is very long and full of information; it circles back on itself and has too many sources for anything but a workshop. My apologies!

Here’s the first writeup, after the 2013 ACTFL conference, when I tried some things with kids. There’s a comment with follow-up.

Here’s another post that includes info on PDL and has a comment (but it starts with info on Michael Miller).

A post about PDL with beginners, and a step-by-step addition in the comments.

Here are the answers that Eugene Schaefer, the PDL presenter at ACTFL 2013 sent to my questions about PDL activities and how to follow up with writing. He explained that for a role play, we need polarity, or there isn’t any story. That seems obvious now that I think about it, but wasn’t clear to me at first.

The second email is just recent, with more on my specific questions on what to do with writing, and gives permission to post these answers.

***The way of dealing with writing is another twist on the way that Ashley Hastings does re-writes with students. I like it!

Dear Michele,
Thanks for giving me more time for an answer.  This has given me the chance to work on an answer while riding in trains to and from Berlin and wrapping it all up now at home.
You touched on a number of questions, so I hope you don’t mind if I jump from one to the other in free association.
I read with great interest the description in your blog of your very successful implementation of “The Chairs” in your classroom.   Maybe I’m starting at the end, but you were wondering how writing exercises could be integrated into  that and other PDL activities.
The answer is not black and white.  Any writing activity integrated into a role play would have to grow out of the role play itself.  As role-playing in PDL is unpredictable, so too is any writing task.  Spontaneous creativity is needed on the part of the teacher.  In the case of couples therapy / marriage counseling, there are a number of possibilities.  Either as support group work or individually, the therapist can write up a report, the counseled can write each other (or the therapist) letters clarifying their standpoints, offering reconciliation, stating demands, or they can each write letters to a divorce lawyer.  If written replies fit in with the task, then the activity can easily be extended as homework for as long as interest can be maintained.    The letters can also lead to further encounters, depending.
Another possibility would be to have the students write up a neutral – or biased! – report for a local newspaper, be it a daily yellow rag, a respectable local paper, or even a professional journal.
The couples therapy situation clearly has one element fundamental to PDL role playing –  polarity.  This doesn’t mean a simple yes-no argument, though such can be used as a warm-up activity.  There needs to be something to be discussed and resolved involving negotiating, compromising, problem solving, reaching mutual agreement, achieving mutually beneficial results while having diverging goals.  While achieving agreement is not mandatory, reaching a consensus of some sort should be encouraged.
It was interesting to hear that the two who took the seats as the couple were, if I understood correctly, a couple in real life as well.  I’m usually leery of situations where fact and fiction might become difficult to differentiate, endangering the “play” in role play, but you seem to have had the situation well under control.  There are of course always elements of oneself in any fictive role one plays, but one is freer to “play” with a role if it is not identical with the player.
The three-people-on-a-bus situation can pose problems, as there is not automatically any sort of conflict to be resolved or problem to be dealt with.  However, your students mastered that problem well with the unhappy Russian grandmother and a potentially romantic encounter with complications.  A possible written exercise here could be writing a letter full of advice for the grandmother – how to deal with her family here, how to better adapt to life in Alaska – , a letter to the son suggesting changes in his treatment of his mother, the grandmother giving advise to the young people, a cautious or not-so-cautious letter of interest between them, a written rebuke of undue advances, etc.   Of course, you would be the best judge of what could fit your class’s needs.
Recirculating situations and language is exactly what needs to be done.  I’m always on the lookout for an element I can alter.  There’s no simple recipe for doing this, just a good sense of dramatic tension and classroom management.
Rephrasing, reformulating, offering alternative ways of expressing something – this too is fundamental to PDL.  To students weaned on PDL as beginners, being “doubled” and “mirrored” by the teacher will be second nature.  It’s a great way for the teacher to intervene when lack of language gets in the way of events.  The teacher speaks as the student being doubled or mirrored, allowing him or her to repeat after each short chunk.  The language being offered is occurring spontaneously, though of course the teacher has put some thought into what is needed – vocabulary, grammar, content.   This short barrage of language should be repeated two or three times, depending.
This sort of intervention can be done as a sort of intermission from the role play, a break or cut in the action before resuming where the cut was made or a bit before that.  It can also be done while the players are in their support group strategy sessions.
From what I read of your use of The Chairs, you are well in alignment with the ideas behind PDL.
I am not sure I understood your comments on the value of learning by talking.  Perhaps you could fill me in briefly on the place of talk time in TPR classes.  I have to admit I am not well acquainted with TPR, but was impressed by the ability of your TPR classes to adapt to PDL.  While PDL was originally conceived as an all-encompassing method, classroom reality has let it find its place as a supplemental method as well.
As to the structure of PDL:  PDL for intermediate and advanced follows no strict sequence of activities.  What Bernard’s book should illuminate is the specific selection of warm-up  and energizing activities leading up to different types of role plays.  At the advanced level, he advocates using myths and fairy tales as well as literary excerpts as lead-ins to creating freely associated role plays.  That in turn can be good in creating interest in the original texts being taught in a more traditional mode.
PDL 1 does follow a clear sequence.  The seven basic steps start with individual doubling  and end with the teacher assisting the learners with simple dialogues.  Again, variations of doubling and mirroring play a key role.   As the teacher is always present, learners receive the support they need as they need it.
PDL 1 is traditionally done either on two weekends or on five or six consecutive days. Aside from the core activities of doubling and mirroring, there are numerous warm-up and interlude activities tailored to the core.  Poems are also orally introduced, with the learners repeating the words and the accompanying movements of the teacher.
PDL 1 can be repeated as often as the learner needs before moving on to PDL 2.  Two or three times may be enough for some, especially if another language in the same family of languages has already been mastered.  As PDL is most strongly represented in the teaching of Romance languages, we have seen this in the teaching of Italian, French and Spanish.  However, experience has shown that those with no previous experience with a Romance language may need to repeat PDL 1 up to six or seven times.  I would assume the same of Slavic languages.  My own experience in teaching English as a foreign language in Germany is more atypical, as it is rare to encounter adult learners of English who are absolute beginners.  I can usually send any PDL 1 students straight on to a PDL 2 level class after only one week of PDL 1.  PDL is designed for classes of mixed abilities, so it can prove beneficial to have “true” beginners together with “false” beginners.
So, enough for now.  If you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.
For a bit about the ideas behind PDL, I refer to Bernard Dufeu’s “Hypotheses” as translated at the following link :
By the way, there is only one PDL teacher of Russian that I know of, Natascha Margulis in Fribourg, Switzerland, .  Her students are, I believe, mostly intermediate and advanced.  If you ever film and post on youtube The Chairs or some other PDL role play in Russian, she would be more qualified to comment than I.

Just to answer your two questions posed in your email of 28 December(!):
For corrections on student papers, I usually don’t write on the papers themselves if I can avoid it.  If it is hand-written, I type into the computer, making corrections as I go along, but rarely highlighting them.  When I hand back both the original and the corrected copies, I give them the task of finding the corrections and having them ask me why the corrections were made if they are not clear.  As some mistakes are usually common to many in a particular class, I often do discuss those common problems right away.
If the students have used a computer, I correct using a highlight-the-changes-in-color function in Word and again request students to ask why I changed things.   What I hand back is a copy of their original text on one side of the page and the corrected version on the other.
I do admit to having small classes, so I don’t know how practical this is for larger classes.
Also, please feel free to quote any and all answers I have given you.

Using the storyboards

Yesterday in the beginner class, the kids made six-square storyboards for the movie we’re in the middle of MovieTalking. They left most of them untouched, and so today we renumbered them (we count from one to six, or 11 to 16, or by tens to 60, or from 110 to 160…you get the idea) and I tried to tell what each picture represented. It was hysterical! I was trying to honor the artists, but I could simply not figure out what each drawing was, so the kids were correcting me all the time. One quietly asked me whether I was doing it on purpose to get more reps in. Nope, but it’s sure a good idea!

In the advanced group, I tried something that Ben has been discussing: setting up an outline for a summary. We’d just read a Chekhov story, so I put guide questions on the board:
Who is the story about?
Where are they?
What happened before the story began?
What is happening now?
What does everyone want?
What are the complications?
How does the story get resolved?

It turned out that there wasn’t full agreement on who had written the love letters, or what everyone wanted, as well as exactly what had happened before the story began. At first the kids said that they didn’t know what had happened before the story began. Then they realized they could make educated guesses, and the discussion took off.

I had intended to make them write this out, but due to the fact that I got my van stuck in our snowfall yesterday, I didn’t get their notebooks back to class, so they had to report orally in pairs, once we’d talked about it in the full group. It worked out really well! It was a simple way to get a good discussion going, and now we’ll have something to write tomorrow. This is really not so different from the kinds of story-asking questions “drilling down” that Blaine has always talked about, but it gives me a new perspective and more structure for that activity, especially after having done a reading.

Quick Writes

Today I took a different tack on quick writes than I have before, and was surprised at how well it turned out.

I was going through some vocabulary with a German II class in preparation for a song we’ll be looking at tomorrow and nothing was working.  I had a good line of PQA questioning set up–asking about whom they would let ride with them if they were seen on the side of the road–but there was just nothing happening with one class.  They sat and grumbled.  One student just flat out told me she wasn’t going to do anything at all that day, and I had might as well show a film.  Other students just stared down at desks.  I was enforcing rules, coaxing responses, etc., but just absolutely nothing was doing.

So, tired of doing all the work when they weren’t giving me anything, I instructed everybody to pull out a piece of paper and write for five minutes using as many of the words on the board as possible.  Normally I’d go longer, but I barely got the five today and I knew it.  Grumble grumble grumble.  I gave them a few words they requested, but mostly that was an exercise in pulling teeth as well.

Now with a pile of reluctantly-written papers in my hand and still a good fifteen minutes left in class to fill, I just started reading them aloud.  Normally I would wait a day, rewrite them into proper German and get a reading exercise out of this, but I didn’t have that luxury today.  I asked them to guess who wrote what, and then just started acting out and reading what they had.  I pulled in all the scaffolded literacy tricks of using voice inflection, pantomime, referring to words on the board, you name it.  I needed these stories to work.

And for some reason they did.  People perked up, started laughing at the examples, and just appreciated what other people did.  Most of the stories were some really clever varieties of the PQA discussions I was railroading through earlier, but they totally made them their own.  It was interesting that a few sourpusses had basically set the prevailing mood when speaking, but in writing the majority of them opened up somewhat and the investment was there.  By the end of class, several people were lobbying to do this type of quick writing / instant feedback reading in the future.

So, one more arrow for the quiver.  If I can’t get something going verbally some days, I’m going to use the quick write / instant read to shake things up a bit.

FOCAL Skills training

Dr. Hastings allowed me to share these two links to training materials on FOCAL skills.

Co-Author skills

Movie Talk Directions

I like them both very much. I think I could start using Co-Author in the middle of second year, while it looks like the movie plans could work right away with beginners.

Like SL, FS seems to have a wonderfully similar philosophy (as well as theoretical underpinnings) to TPRS. I’m excited to find that there really are like minds out there.

Class write

Now we’re finally at the point where the newbies are fairly solid in the Russian 1 class. I’m not sure what I think of this experiment of having new kids come in at semester, but I do find that they have to “wanna,” even more so than the usual kids. They have to learn the new alphabet and just go with the flow of kids who know more than they do. They have to be willing to step out on a limb and show their ignorance and not feel embarrassed.

Today we did our first class write, which is nothing spectacular, except that we were doing it in Cyrillic cursive, which is different from Cyrillic print, which is still not exactly like typed print. Having an alphabet of 33 letters look three different ways is probably still nothing like learning Japanese or Chinese, so I’m going to stop thinking we’re special, but it does contribute to halting progress when we get newbies.

It was a huge relief to be able to stand at the Smart Board and write in cursive as we told our story so that the kids could write it too. There’s so much that comes up as we write: I can ask questions about how the story went, ask the kids to draw pictures, ask them to answer questions about what’s written already, or then go back in to add details. I find that it’s easy to get bogged down in adding details when we’re writing, and then kids get behind or need to edit, so I have learned not to do it too much until their notebooks are put away. Or I do it when I have remembered to enforce the writing every third line, but we still don’t add extra details until the story is complete in their notebooks.