Friday, December 4, 2015

The best part of flipping

When I began using the flipped class, I thought the best part was that I would not have to do direct instruction of grammar. The next year, I was sure that being able to allow students to practice listening exercises at their own pace, as many times as they needed was the best part of the flip. The following year, the best part of the flipped class was being able to group students by ability to be able to better structure their learning.

It has occurred to me that through my years flipping my class, the one thing that was the BEST thing that happened was that the students became the center of the classroom universe.This has taken many forms, and has looked different as time has gone by, but the fact remains it is the student-centered aspect of the flipped class that has made all of the difference in my teaching and their learning.

What does student centered learning look like in my class?

  1. Students have the opportunity to choose their own personal vocabulary to learn in each thematic unit. 
    1. In each unit, students must choose 15 - 20 words that they want to know. For example, in the house unit, when students are creating their dream house, these words should be included. (ie - the gun room, the horse stall, the arena, mud room, etc.)
  2. Students can allocate their time to activities that they feel need the most attention to obtain proficiency.
    1. If a student is an excellent writer, but struggles with listening activities, they can spend more class time on listening activities and less on writing activities. 
    2. Students can also be directed by me to repeat activities to ensure comprehension as many times as it takes for them to obtain proficiency. 
  3. Students have the choice between different activities and assignments whenever possible to spark their interest.
    1. For example - projects about books must show comprehension, but can be presentations, posters, written assignments, cartoons, art projects, etc. depending upon the students interests. 
    2. Students can adapt written practice depending upon their level. If a student can demonstrate knowledge of a concept after 10 practice sentences, they don't need to do 25. If a student needs more than 25 to demonstrate knowledge, that is what they need to do.
  4. Students have the responsibility to make sure they understand the concepts presented. 
    1. If a student does not understand, they must make the effort to redo assignments.
    2. If they need additional help, they are responsible for speaking up and asking questions. 
    3. When students are assessed on the can do statements for the unit, if they cannot successfully complete the activity outlined by the can do, they need to go back and redo it until they can demonstrate comprehension.
  5. Students can ask to demonstrate their proficiency with an assessment I did not propose. 
    1. If a student has another idea of how to demonstrate their proficiency of a concept, they can propose it and use that as an assessment. 
  6. Students can become teachers of their peers.
    1. When a student teaches another, that is when they truly understand the material. Whether it be word choice, word, order, pronunciation, or colloquial phrases students are empowered to support their peers through peer instruction. 
The freedom that the flipped class gives the students to control the class can be overwhelming at first. However, it is the best way for them to understand their learning needs and increase their proficiency in the language. By continuing to keep the focus of the class on them, the material is relevant and inspires them to learn. 

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!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

My SWCOLT takeaway

Colorado was fortunate to host our regional SWCOLT conference at the end of February. Since it was hosted by my state language board, CCFLT, I was working the majority of the time. It was fantastic to see so many colleagues (I finally got to meet Amy Lenord and Don Doehla in person), see some interesting vendors and pop in on many sessions. I was fortunate to pop in to many sessions, but never got to see a session in its entirety. So, I have many things I want to explore further. I want to learn more about PBL from Don Doehla and have to find time to dedicate to reviewing his presentation. I want to learn more about OWL (they were having so much fun in that session!). There were tons of other great sessions that I was so sad to have missed out on.

But, there was one clear awesome moment for me. I had sneaked into the Avalanche room (a session where five people give 10 minute presentations and participants rotate) to check out what I could tweet about. A few minutes later, Amy Lenord came in and we began talking. We talked about the types of sessions that conferences offer and how there seems to be a lack of sessions for more experienced and frequent conference going teachers. So, this had me asking the question, What types of sessions do experienced teachers want to see? What kind of professional development can conferences offer teachers that are familiar with comprehensible input, trying to stay 90% in the TL and Can-do goals? What do I want to learn?

It is a harder question than I had originally thought it would be. How can I take what I am doing to the next level was the answer that we had come up with. I want some specific "how to" training that will show me how to better show my students not just the language, but the cultural aspects of the language. I want to be able to take comprehensible input, train the students how to derive information from it and then be able to find comprehensible input of their own. I want to be able to begin with giving my students the input and move to them finding their own input that interests them and then teaching it to all of us. Isn't that going to be more meaningful for everyone? Can't we teach vocabulary and point out grammar structures using this method? Would it give students the desire to learn, not just get through the class?

Share with me....what do you wish you could see at your conference? Comments appreciated.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Making the best of less class time - 20% time!

This last week has been a struggle for me, as I am sure it has been for many of you (or will be soon). This has been a week of standardized testing. This has turned into a completely lost week for me since 9th, 10th and 11th graders are all testing. Between kids that took the test, opted out, and just stayed home, my classes have looked like a ghost town. In hindsight I realize I should have taken this time to work individually with the students that were there (5 out of 29 in my Sp 2 classes). However, since I had missed so much of the week prior because of the SWCOLT conference and grades are due on Friday, I chose giving the kids a study hall and have been grading like my pen is on fire.

The testing has been challenging this year, and I am sure it will be a whole new ballgame when we have to do it again (yes, again) the first week in May. However, I will have a better plan when that happens. I always do my choice projects in Spanish 3 at the end of the year, but I am working on a plan for a similar project for my Spanish 2 classes as well. This way, no matter who is in class, they can be working on something for class. 

In Spanish 3, the choices are wide open for the end of the year project. They can choose anything that they want to learn more about. I believe that in Spanish 2 those students will need a bit more structure. So, I am thinking about letting them choose to expand on any topic that we have covered this year. That will give them families/friends and communities, celebrations, travel and health. These are all topics that we have covered the basics of, but there is so much to learn. 

Once the topic is chosen, Sp 3 is required to find two audio selections, two readings and write two letters as they research. Then the create a presentation for the class which includes something the students watching can do to interact with the topic. But again, I think that is quite a bit to expect from the Sp 2 students. Maybe I need to conference with each student about their topic choice and help steer them in the right direction as far as resources? Can I require my high achieving students to have more resources than the lower achieving students? Will I still require the audience participation portion of the presentation? I am trying to juggle what I would like to see with what the students can do and the amount of time they will have. 

I would love some advice from anyone who does a 20% project. (Next year, I am doing this differently and we will work on it on Fridays throughout the semester.) 

As always I will keep posting.....

PS - My PLN is the best! Check out this great idea for student created finals from Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell - this is exactly what I was hoping for. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

We are the medium

(This is a post I started a month ago, but only now am finishing.)

Last night, I was helping to facilitate a webinar with the inspiring Laura Sexton, who is a leader in the use of project based learning (PBL) in the target language. I have seen Laura present before at ACTFL, and always look at her blog for ideas and inspiration, so I wasn't really expecting a big Ah-ha moment last night. But, I was wrong.

Laura said something that really resonated with me. We (WL teachers) are the medium for our students viewing the world. Without WL education, students rarely see and experience the culture of other countries beyond their own towns. How powerful is that???

There is so much focus on target language use and comprehensible input that I know sometimes I miss the bigger picture. I am not a just a teacher of the Spanish language. I fell in love with Spanish so many years ago, not because I can conjugate verbs or know the difference between the preterite and the imperfect. I fell in love with the Spanish speaking world....and that led me to travel to many other countries to discover a love of other cultures as well. This is what I want to do, I don't want to just teach Spanish, I want to open the world for my students.

Exposing students to culture is sometimes very easy. I plan trips to Costa Rica, Peru, etc and the small number of students that accompany me get a real picture of the world outside the US. All of my students know that almost every Hispanic movie has a sad ending. :( However, I think to really open up the world for our students we have to open the door for them, teach them something they can relate to in another country. Then, we need to encourage them to take what they learn as a stepping stone to learning more.

Students have to have time and the freedom to make some choices in their learning. That is when learning truly becomes their own and has the added benefit of wanting to continue their Spanish (or other language) learning to continue to learn more about the world around them. So, when you hear people talk about 20% projects, Project Based Learning, or other methodology, remember our job is to facilitate the learning. Just teaching is depriving our students of so much life has to offer.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Revealing student feedback

As promised, I began all my classes with a discussion about last semester and how to improve this semester. Sadly many of my students just stared at me when I asked them for feedback, but some of my level 3s had some good thoughts as to what they need to work on. Many of them carefully avoided eye contact as we talked about how copying the beginning practice work of a unit didn't help the, when it came time to apply their knowledge. Many now understand that by doing that, they end up struggling on the benchmark assessments, summative assessments and the final.

However, as testament to our poor start, many said direct object pronouns are confusing, or I still struggle with the past tense, rather than the application of that knowledge. I was hoping to hear....I still really need to work on improving listening skills, or I still struggle expressing myself while speaking. This mindset is something I have to change. There is still too much focus on grammar. I feel like we spend more than 2/3 of each unit working on application of knowledge but with this feedback, there is still too much emphasis on it.

With that in mind, I have created a weekly calendar of our focus for each day. I have tried this before, but it I such a struggle with the alternating block. It is even more of a struggle in the Spring semester with days off, testing, etc. but I am determined to make it work and have enlisted the help of the students. (I know they love to tell me when we get off task.) I have written the weekly schedule on the board - Monday-writing, Tuesday-conversation, Wednesday-Conversation, Thursday-reading, Friday-listening. So the plan is to begin each class with activities with the appropriate focus. Then students will move on to their assigned work, which also includes these activities.

I also am going to do more one-on-one feedback with the students with their homework phone calls and journals. When I grade them, I almost always give comments to the students, but I know the majority of them don't really look at it. So, every week, I am going to have a mini conference with the students about these activities. My plan is to divide the class into groups of 5 or 6 so I can get to everyone once a month. With the 3s phone calls, I am thinking that after our initial feedback session, I am going to email them their audio and have them evaluate their own speaking first, and then we can go over it together.

Hopefully these things will help the students focus more on the communication, and less on the grammatical portion of speaking Spanish.