Online teaching

I’ve taken a couple of courses in teaching online, but they were focused on managing online groups so that they feel like communities and creating materials that students could do independently (and then assessing for university credit). Requests for ongoing online Russian classes have made me realize there’s a market out there, but I don’t have the hours and hours that it takes to put all that together.

Now I’ve taken a few wonderful language classes online myself, and colleagues have sent me interested students, and all of a sudden I have an assortment of online Russian sessions happening with people in three countries. I don’t have to create online exercises, only plan an interesting lesson, and it turns out that getting to know students, one-on-one, is fascinating for both sides of the equation. We converse, then I type up what we talked about, and send them a little Quick-time video of myself reading the text out loud, along with a resource or two that they can examine for our next class. That’s all there is to it! And now that we’re getting some faster Internet in our house, maybe I’ll be able to comfortably host a couple of people at once on either Skype or some other platform.

Life changes. And we learn from our colleagues. (Yes, Alice Ayel, I’m channeling you in every way possible.)

Redemption

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.

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.