Monday, November 23, 2015

ACTFL 2015 reflections

As I am on the plane on my way back home, I can't stop thinking about all of the great sessions and conversations I was a part of at ACTFL. There is something so special about being together with thousands of World Language teachers who, like me, are looking for ways to continue to improve and be a better teacher for our students.

The best place to start my reflection is from the most basic question, which was posed by Amy Lenord in her session this afternoon - "Why should we teach in the target language?". The question sounds so simple, but was really a fantastic way to revisit why we were all there. What are we trying to accomplish? How can we best accomplish our classroom goals? Why is it important to never give up on reaching for that 90%? The answer to her question was clear - students cannot and will not learn a language in a vacuum. It needs to be modeled and encouraged by us, their teachers.

I am thinking about the yearly goals I have my students write down at the beginning of the school year. They can write anything, they just need to focus on what they want to do, not a grade they want to achieve. I then post what they write in the wall. Their comments are all about communication. They want to speak more fluently, they want to be able to talk about their past, they want to be able to communicate with someone when they are on vacation in México. Nowhere did the student write they want to learn perfect grammar, or they want to be able to translate sentences. As a teacher, I know what they want. The question then is, what am I doing to ensure that they are getting what they want and need? How am I facilitating their learning. Am I encouraging true language learning that will follow them as they leave my classroom? Am I giving them the tools they need? Or, am I encouraging their most basic desire to just memorize and get through the assessment? Am I teaching students to parrot vocabulary I have chosen with concepts I have chosen? Am I spending their class time teaching them they way they will learn best, or what worked for me as a student in the "old days"?

As I write this, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. We do lots of great things that get the. Students excited and using the language and encouraging them to learn things that interest them. However, I also believe there is way too much "I" in some of the decisions I make about my class. With this honesty fresh in mind, how am I going to change?

Luckily, there is so much inspiration available at ACTFL. There were great sessions that can help me find new ways to increase the target language use in class, engage my students, and make the class more meaningful for my students. Here is a list of some of those ideas.

1. Use more pictures - in Mira Canion's session, she described how pictures can be used to get students to use the language that they know and push for more acquisition. Show a pic upturn and have students describe what they see. Have a series of pictures to help students tell a story. Use a vanishing cloze (where words disappear from a story) to encourage students to think about what is missing. Have students create and retell stories.

2. Lose the Vocab List - in Amy Lenord's session there were tons of ways to move away from vocabulary lists. One great example was to use logos of known companies and products to help students acquire words faster. Give students verbs already conjugated with English translations to help jump start conversations and get kids speaking right away. Have students create their own vocabulary notebook with their own lists of new words. Focus on production with vocabulary rather than a specific word list. Who cares what specific words our students use if they can express themselves on a topic. Don't say "Describe you house" ask "How is your house comfortable/welcoming".

3. Authentic resources - Sara-Elizabeth Cotrell's session was full of great ideas to make authentic resources "just right" for different levels. Use Edupuzzle to cut down videos and add questions to help students comprehend listening selections. Choose selections carefully to meet students' interest. Don't expect students to hunt for a great resource if you know it might be challenging. Give them three resources to search and choose the one that they think is best. Use target language Brain Breaks. Best of all, Sara-Elizabeth has begun a document for teachers to share their great authentic resource activities. Please check it out and add to it!

4.  Start with culture - This is going to sound like a shameless plug, but this is from my session Flipping for Global Competence with Sara-Elizabeth Cotrell and Meriwynn Mansori. Find a cultural tidbit that will interest students and lead them to inquire more. Use real world examples to make your point about a desired topic. Get the students interested and they will WANT to learn more language. Use authentic resources that are in English for the flipped portion and then students have the base information about culture to apply what they know for the in class activities.

5. Use movies - sometimes I still forget to factor in fun. Movie Talk was a great session from Noemi Rodriguez with tons of video resources. Use movie clips, commercials, silent films or clips with no sound to get students to tell a story in the language. I know that all of my students in levels 2-4 would love to do movie talks and the resources that she has provided will help me (and you) get started.

And of course, my favorite part of any conference is being able to have those meaningful conversations with the fantastic members of my PLN (personal learning network). They help me to take my thinking to the next level, remind me that feeling like a failure is important for real growth, and just fuel my desire to continue to improve.

If you like these ideas, want to hash out some of the things I wrote, or have comments, lets chat. Email me, comment on the blog, comment on Twitter (@srawitten) or Edmodo. I am always looking for more people to join me in my quest to be the best language teacher possible and it doesn't happen in a vacuum.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thematic Units

One of the things I have often struggled with when working on thematic units is how to make them build upon one another. Too often, I feel as though the class really gets one theme and then all is abandoned as we move on to the next one. This has a variety of impacts, but the largest one is that students perceive that they know longer need the knowledge and vocabulary that they have acquired as we move to new material.

One of my goals for my Spanish two class this year was to try to improve the flow between units while still covering the necessary material. I love the flipped elements of my class and being able to know that the majority of the "why?" is covered before students come to class. I have needed to improve on the activities that go on during class time. Although I still have plans to implement PBL, it has not happened yet and my class activities and practice have become stale and aren't as interesting to the students as they once were. And, as we all know, when students don't find the material presented interesting, they lose the interest in the class and it goes back to something they have to "check off" their list.

In my Spanish 2 classes, I have revised the thematic units and it seems to be working. I have also found a class schedule that is working more efficiently and helping change things up often enough to keep students engaged. Here is what I have done this semester:

Review unit - Self and Family

Each year I begin with a review unit. This gives me the opportunity to asses the students as a group and begin to assess them individually. We use a familiar topic - self and family. I include activities in each of the communication areas - listening, reading, speaking, writing and a little bit of culture.

Can do statements for this unit include
I can describe myself and my family (orally and written).
I can tell someone what my family and I like to do.
I can ask someone about their family.

Grammar concepts reviewed/practiced
Present tense
Word order

Appropriate addresses (formal v informal)

Who am I writing
My family presentational
Speed dating - describing myself and family
Reading - Piratas by Mira Canion - Orally in class and in small groups

Unit 1 - Where I live

Can do statements for this unit include:
I can talk about where I live.
I can describe my house.
I can ask questions about someone's home.
I can compare my home with someone else's

Grammar concepts introduced/reviewed/practiced
Present tense (focus on irregulars and stem changers)
Word order
More complex sentences using cuando

Spain webquest
Euro v dollar - conversion
Comparing home types in US and Spain - House Hunters International
Comparing home listings in US and Spain - Internet search

House plan creation and written description
Selling my house presentation
Comparing my house to yours - conversation
Listening to house descriptions and drawing floor plan
Reading in small groups (aloud) - Mi propio auto, Problemas en paraiso, Fiesta fatal

Unit 2 - My neighborhood and how to get around

Can do statements for this unit include:
I can describe places and services in my neighborhood.
I can give directions to someplace in my neighborhood using a map.
I can listen to directions to get to a destination on a map.
I can compare my neighborhood to someone else's

Grammar concepts introduced/reviewed/practiced
Informal commands
Present tense
Asking questions

How to move between tourist attractions in Spain on map
When to use formal v informal commands
Structure of towns - plaza, church

Using student created neighborhoods students- give and follow directions, make comparisons between neighborhoods.
Reading in small groups (aloud and silently) with comprehension checks

Unit 3 - What I do in my neighborhood/free time

(This is a unit covered basically in Sp 1, but my students are struggling with vocabulary. Therefore I went back to this theme using more advanced vocabulary and high frequency verbs)

Can do statements include:
I can talk about what I like to do in my free time
I can have a conversation with my peers about what I did last weekend
I can talk about places I like to go
I can write about a favorite event in my past

Grammar concepts introduced/reviewed practiced
Difference between preterite and imperfect
Beginning use of past tenses
Asking questions

Cuba webquest
Music and leisure activities in Cuba
Cuba and US relations

Conversation with peers about free time activities
Movie/ book review written
Reading in small groups (aloud and silently) with comprehension checks

Final exam
Listening, reading, writing, culture

Class schedule
In my school we have 90 minute blocks, and structuring them for success is an ever changing puzzle. This year, my students work best with a short warm up activity to practice unit vocab and concepts, then 20-30 minutes of reading in small groups. Then, they work on some written practice as well as conversation and listening practice in class. As always, grammar is done for homework by watching videos and students taking notes.

Student do work independently for the majority of class. I am facilitating learning and helping the struggling students individually. I have many more students on IEPs this year and it has made class more challenging to help those students with accommodations and keep the rest of class moving at a good pace.

Reading is still my favorite way to differentiate in class and I love when I get students grouped correctly so that they can work with their peers and continue their learning process. Giving students that opportunity is what makes the class more engaging to them. I try to give as much choice as possible with the assessments as well so students can personalize their learning. In every u to students must find personalized vocabulary which they must use successfully in assessments. This allows me to keep the required vocabulary lists short and the students to be able to invest in their own learning. It is also a great way for me to get to know my students better through the vocabulary that they choose. I have also expanded my own vocabulary learning the words and ideas that are important to my students.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why give awards?

This is a departure from the norm for me. This is definitely a post that shares how I am feeling at this exact moment.

This has been a tough year. I am questioning what is going on in my class and looking to improve my game. The curriculum needs a rehash, so I haven´t been posting about the classroom as much this year. I have had many challenging kids, and frankly a part of me has been wondering if I am the teacher I was when I started. Then just when I was ready to chalk this year up and work on doing better next year this happened.

It started in February. It was the time of year where teachers are asked to nominate students for the STARS (Students Taking Accountability and Responsibility Seriously) awards. These are my favorite awards because they are not geared toward the super A students, or the most successful students. These awards are for students that (in my opinion) can slip through the cracks. These are those kids who have a great attitude, work hard, are kind to their peers, and just make being in the classroom a pleasure. Most years I have a student to nominate, and this year, I nominated two seniors.

Fast forward to Monday...

One of the worst things that could happen to a school - the death of a student had touched our lives. One of the young men I had nominated for the STARS award was his best friend. He was completely devastated by the loss. On Tuesday, he was visibly upset and when I took him aside, he ended up in my arms crying. It is one of the hardest things about being a teacher. What can possibly be said to comfort someone whose friend died suddenly in a senseless accident?

All week, I put myself in this students´path. I checked with his other teachers and his counselor. On Thursday, he told me that he had reached acceptance and was trying to come back from the sorrow.

Saturday morning - The funeral

What more needs to be said?

Saturday night - The awards ceremony

They really make a big deal of the awards ceremony. First, there is a dinner and then each student is interviewed, like in a talk show, by the emcee. He reads what the teacher wrote about each student and then asks them some questions. Every award winner gets their turn in the spotlight.

There are about 40 award recipients between 5 - 12 grades, so the ceremony is long. Both of the students I nominated were recognized in the first half of the ceremony.

One of the first recognized was my student who had lost his friend. He was there and tried to plaster on a smile, but it was difficult. He touched my heart though by getting through it and even winking at me during his ¨interview¨. Afterwards, his mother (who is Colombian) called me his beautiful angel and was so glad that someone had recognized how special her son was. His father, who I had sat through two years of parent-teacher conferences, who was normally a gruff, no nonsense guy, hugged me! Needless to say it was very touching. The young man told me at the end of the night, ¨I never thought I was the kind of kid that would win a school award. This has given me the self-confidence to be successful.  (To my credit, I did not cry....but I was so touched.)

The second young man I nominated is one of those really smart kids who is a bit of a smart-alack. He has been in my class for the last two years, and although is a whiz and math and science, he puts forth real effort in Spanish. I was surprised when he had continued to Spanish 4, and although he is not my best student, he is a hard worker that often surprises me with what he can do. When the emcee read what I had written about him, he turned around in his chair and stared at me like I must have him mistaken for someone else. I just shrugged and smiled. His parents were also so kind to me. They told me what a good influence I was on their boys (I have his younger brother as well), and how much they talk about me at home. Their father turned to me and just said, ¨You are really a great teacher.¨ I didn´t cry then, but I am now.

There was one other very special nominee that night, one I had to wait for until the end of the ceremony. That nominee was my daughter Kate. Kate is a freshman at my school and had decided to come to the school where I worked, not our neighborhood school. From the beginning, she has worked to make a difference in the school and she is kind to everyone. I have heard from many teachers how wonderful she is, but for her to receive this award, was confirmation for her that she had made the right choice. She was touched and surprised to be nominated. She handled her interview with poise and grace, and her father and I are so proud of her. I had never realized how wonderful these awards were for parents.....for someone to realize what we already knew.....that our kids is a great one.

For me, this has made me remember why I teach....why I get frustrated-angry-happy-mad-sad-encouraged.....and why it is all worth it. Although my students won the awards, I really felt like I was the real winner - for having the privilege of getting to know them as their teacher. So, to answer the question, ¨why give awards?¨, for me the answer is to show your students their worth and how much you care for them. And, if you are as lucky as I was last night, to receive some of that love and respect in return.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Re-energizing resources

Every once in a while, I actually get a chance to sit and read some of the great blog posts that come across my computer. There have been some really good ones lately and I thought I would share.

  1. Any post that talks about ways to boost class conversation is always a winner with me. I think that there are some great reasons to focus on memorization in the class, and incorporating more advanced phrases is at the top of the list for me. Check this one out!
  2. I am always looking for ways to work on how to better assess student communication without inhibiting their growth. Luckily, even though I can't ever seem to get to #langchat on Thursdays (or Saturday mornings) there is a great recap available. Here is the recap of the most recent chat about assessing student communication. 
  3. On a slightly different note, I love being challenged to make sure my students are not just engaged, but learning. That is why I love posts like this one. If we are not continually evaluating ourselves, it is easy to fall into the "of course it is working trap".
  4. The Free Tech for Teachers blog is one I always turn to when I am looking for more/better resources. This post is a great reminder about the wonderful tool we have in Google Earth. As I discussed in an earlier post, we are the teachers that really bring the world to our students, and Google Earth is a great way to do this. If you have never tried Google Earth, it can be a little daunting. Check out this site full of advice and tutorials. 
  5. While checking out Free Tech for Teachers, I found this great video resource for World Language teachers. 

Hope this inspire you to check out some new resources over Spring Break to re-energize for the end of the year!