Improvement

It was my last day of teaching Spanish in 2019 today, and while I still had some very wiggly kids, I finally can recognize serious improvement in three areas: classroom management of elementary students, Spanish language ability, and storytelling (more telling than asking).

Following all the hints (eg “take no guff” from Amy Vanderdean) and knowing the school better, I am a lot more solid in being able to clarify my expectations for behavior. Kids don’t know what we expect unless we model, help them understand, practice, and remind. Wow. What a lightbulb … semester … since it wasn’t overnight by any means.

My Spanish is suddenly good enough that I could do movie telling — both pre- and during — without having to have the scripts or vocabulary lists in front of me. That led to being able to stand at the board in kindergarten and tell the entire story of a Peppa Pig story in advance of showing it. I realized I finally knew how to say that it snows, it is snowing, and that there is snow outside. I didn’t mix up verb forms or and which ending is the noun. I got to ask a whole bunch of questions, and once I was finally showing the little video, I could pause it and ask different kids to go up and touch objects and family members in the film. (Oh, and the kindergarten teacher let me use her computer…that was huge too!)

And finally, I could visit the second-grade “stores” and have conversations about the items the children had created with all of them. I’m blown away. Language acquisition keeps happening. And it’s possible to be learning forever. Happy holidays, all!

Gamifying the Special Person Interview

My fourth-graders can be a wiggly bunch. And I am not always good at varying routines. The Special Person (aka Star of the Day) Interview is sacred in my mind: I get to pay a lot of attention to one student, comparing that one to others, with the main goal being to create community. In a school where kids have been together for years, I often ask the class for the answers to the questions, rather than asking the interviewee first. Then I verify with that student. For a change, we do pair interviews, sharing later what we learned about our partners, or work in concentric circles. It’s harder to create the class books in those cases, but eventually every student will have a longer interview.

This time, I knew that the interview was going to go on for several days with one student who is leaving and whom we had not interviewed earlier. I want him to have a book to take with him, and we would need to spend a lot of time to get all the information. So I handed out mini white boards, and asked the class to write the answer to each question as I asked it. I asked them to hold up their white boards with the answers, saying, “Alex says that Ethan was born in Alaska. Is that true, Ethan? Were you born in Alaska?” If Ethan says “Yes,” I follow up with “Ethan says, ‘I was born in Alaska.’ Who else in the class was born in Alaska?” If not, I move to a different board. We get a lot of reps out of this, and every time the students have the right answer on their board, they get a point. Next, “Does Ethan have siblings? If so, what are their names?” They got points for the right answer, the number of siblings, and the names.

When class was over, they were begging to stay in for recess to continue the game. Points for the teacher! We’ll see how much mileage I can get out of this new plan.

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.

Story Listening (adapted)

I am so excited! I have been trying to get to tell a story to my kindergarteners with the Story Listening technique that Megan Hayes and Cecile Laine have been helping me consider. Today was the day, and I told a story about four little monsters in our school. It was so much fun! As Cecile has posted on FB, maybe all my four- and five-minute activities are not the best for some groups. This group has consistently taken a long time to settle into new situations, so it might be some time before transition training kicks in.

We have some emoji balls that we roll to the kids who want to say how they’re feeling. I made sure to practice “angry” and “happy,” but forgot about “sad” and “scared.” Luckily, when we got to the part in the story with the sad and scared monsters, the kids remembered “sad” and figured out “scared” (thanks to Bryan Whitney, who shared some techniques to make drawing faster in his World Language Teacher Summit webinar). They were patient as I drew, and excited to find out that the monsters all became happy when someone reached out to them to be friends.

Whoo hoo! This teacher can still learn new tricks.

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.

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.