Big Changes, Little Changes

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I lived in San Francisco, CA in the United States all my life until January 1, 2014. Since then, I have lived in México. During that time, I have lived in Mexico City, Oaxaca, Mérida and now, for the last four months, in the state of Jalisco, México near Lake Chapala. After receiving permission from the Mexican government to work independently (no easy feat), I started my own business teaching language to private clients. As you know, I teach with comprehensible input techniques and specifically with TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storyasking).

I had always taught in a school setting and with large groups of children, young people or adults. Now, I work with individuals and small groups. This setting is making me a better TPRS teacher. I see immediately what works and what doesn’t. I have never been MORE convinced of the efficacy of using Comprehensible Input to help students acquire language.

This blog is changing.

  1. If you teach Spanish or any other language and want to learn more about CI and TPRS, this blog may help you out.
  2. If you are interested in Mexican culture, this blog may help you out.
  3. If you are interested in visiting México and becoming more fluent in Spanish, this blog may help you out.

So, here we go.

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Capítulo Dos – Kids Get Hooked In

Carta náutica del Caribe

In Chapter Two, the action really gets going. Antonio, a couple of important shipmates (Felipe and Carlos), and Raquel get together to make “the secret plan”. The plan involves lying, breaking the law, and getting rich. Sounds good, huh? We’ll see. I won’t tell you the plan because you really need to buy this book so you can enjoy every plot twist and turn!

In Chapter Two, we find out more and more about the characters–why they do what they do, how they treat people, what’s important to them, etc. This kind of stuff may be the best part of the book for me. The characters are complex and imperfect. Mira doesn’t explicitly state these things. They come out in the characters’ actions. Students begin to identify with the characters, be disgusted by them, find them useless, etc. Now, students have AUTHENTIC reasons to use adjectives to describe the characters. Descriptors start to really matter as students defend the acts or gasp in horror at the things the characters do or say. Way better than “describing myself and the members of my family” on workbook pages. Way better.

ASIDE:  This part makes me cry. My last year’s kids are in seventh grade–one of the “most hooked-into Spanish” groups of kids I’ve ever had. The teacher, who has them now, told me they don’t know anything. When I asked her what she meant, she said, “They don’t know things like adjective agreement.” I disagreed and said that, of course, they do. She agreed, adding, “Well, yes, but they don’t do it correctly in speech.” Restraining my urge to scream very loudly, I reminded her in a neutral voice (she may not actually know this), that “adjective agreement” is very late acquired in Spanish and that no reasonable teacher of beginning students would expect them to be able to do that. She agreed again and said, “Well, I’m just following what other schools are doing. I have to prepare them for the tests they’ll take to go to high school.” I asked whether she’d noticed how well they understood, spoke, read, and wrote Spanish. She said that she had, but that she had to start at the beginning of the textbook because they have to learn that stuff. I truly felt sick. I did some deep breathing, prayed a little, and will stand firm in my knowledge that I am doing the right thing. I no longer feel defensive, just very sad.

In Chapter Two, the quartet (see above) visit the big mercado, dividing up along gender lines to look for things they want:

  • Antonio – una pistola
  • Felipe (the first mate) – un telescopio
  • Raquel – zapatos

Oh, me, oh, my! Wonder of wonders! Antonio finds the pistol he desires (and more). It’s not for sale. However, Antonio is not deterred. Being of an arrogant and superior-feeling nature, he piles enough money on the table to change the seller’s mind. (Motivation/Character lead to logical action). I won’t give away what happens next. I will say that at the end of the chapter one of my students commented, “Wow! Is every chapter going to end with a cliff hanger?” Hmm. Maybe. They’re hooked. More on what we did later.

THE SPECIAL CHAIR – La Silla Especial

Four legs on the floor. Wooden seat. A back. It’s a chair, just a chair. Is that so?

I asked my fifth graders to give me their thoughts on “the chair”:

Antonia and others:

“It’s cool. It’s different than any other chair in the room. It’s higher. You can swing your legs and they don’t touch the ground. When you sit in it, you’re higher than everybody else. You can see everything. You feel empowered. It’s the chair the teacher sits on sometimes, so it’s kind of prohibited or something.”

Pierce:

“When you are on the chair, it is a safe environment. You can be whoever you want to be. It feels natural that it’s in Spanish. You just think about making the story better. Other people add to the story when you’re up there. It’s like a circle. You have to listen and then you think about how to make the story better. I don’t have to think how to say it. I just think about how to make the story better.”

My thoughts on the chair:

• How do I keep all of this 11-year-old energy contained?

• How do I keep the kids’ focused on the language and the story (board and teacher)?

• How do I keep from boring the faster processors or losing the slower ones?

• How do I keep from losing control of “everything”?

I had always known that having young children come to the front of the room to stand while I asked questions (circling) and helped the class weave the story/mini-story/PQA could be a disaster in the making: the fidgeting, the fiddling with stuff on the chalk tray, the turning around, the touching each other, the kicking the wall, the goofy behavior of all kinds. Yikes! So, I have always hauled a chair or two from behind their desks to the front of the room for them to sit on during the process. It was always a pain, and most of the other students couldn’t see the kids anyway.

However, it kept me from losing my mind and having to redirect behavior every three seconds. The kids in the front stayed still, got up to act only when directed to do so, and returned to home base after each change of location in the story. The rest of the class focused more easily since the target (actor/actress) wasn’t moving all the time.

When my friend, Beth, gave up teaching to live a life of sanity and happiness outside the classroom, she left me her teacher chair. It was really a stool with a chair back. It was tall and kind of cool looking.

http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/00199208/

It changed my life. 😉

For each class I have some sort of small container with their class number on it. Inside each container lives a small binder clip and a ticket with the name of each student written on the back.

Each time we do a story, act out reading, or do a parallel story based on a reading, I choose a kid’s ticket out of the box (sometimes more than one). It is truly random. I ask the child if they would like to take part. It is not mandatory.

Rarely, does a child refuse. It’s only a matter of time before they will “kill” to get picked out of that box. I still marvel. They come to the chair while I put their now used ticket into the binder clip. They are now “a clippie” until everyone else gets a chance to do something in class. Keeps it fair. This is important to them.

Having the kid sit in a “high” chair means that when I stand next to her/him and talk, we are almost at eye-level–a small, but very meaningful detail when communicating with another human being.

The chair has rules, of course–basic classroom courtesy and the “special” rules.

•  No dissing of the person in the chair, not ever, no way, no how.

•  You do not have to tell the truth while sitting in the chair. It’s up to you.

•  People may disagree with you, but they may not change your mind. Only you do that.

•  You have the last word and then Profe has the last word after that.

•  You must follow the rules or risk being replaced by the next lucky person in the class box.

If you think they follow the rules just because the rules are explicitly stated, you would be mistaken. We practice them and practice them and then, practice them again. Much modeling and much “replay” happen when someone makes a mistake–much elation and praise when they follow the rules. Emotional SAFETY for my students is my #1 concern. When students feel safe, they can take in the meaning of language. Worry and anxiety not only affect language “ingestion”, they greatly affect language “production.” “If it can’t get in, it can’t come out!”

Please read more of the students’ reflections about the chair. I got a beautiful peek into what their experience in Spanish class has been like. They think it’s the chair! They are sold. I am going to miss them so much. I hope you can connect the dots from these remarks and try to create a little of this kind of magic with your stories, pictures, songs, chairs, or whatever! If you are teaching with compelling comprehensible input, you likely already are.

My students were very pleased to know that I would include their thoughts here.

Colin: “All of the attention is on you.” (Me: Is that always a good thing?) “YES.”

Omar: “When you go up there (on the chair), you wonder what’s going to happen. It’s exciting when it’s like that–like a mystery.”

Benny: “Going on the chair is an incentive. We want to get picked. We start thinking about the things we want to add on to the story–which makes us want to know more words in Spanish. Going in the chair inspires you to want to know more.”

Karson: “We learn so much Spanish in the stories that we don’t think about it. It just comes out.”

Ellie: “We don’t have the chair in any other class. It reminds us of when we were little and when we got to do “make believe”.”

Jeannie: “You don’t have to tell the truth when you are sitting the chair if you don’t want to; and that is really fun. People don’t really argue with you and make you stay in reality. I like that.”

Anna: “After class, I can’t remember if we were speaking Spanish or English. I am not aware. It’s weird, but cool. I just “know” what we talked about.”

Alex: “When you sit in it, it turns into a magical, wonderful chair.”

Henk: “The spotlight is on you when you sit in it.”

Jack: “Sometimes you get a little nervous, but it’s ok. It’s much easier to be on the chair if the class is behind you (rooting for you).”

Gloria: “You never have to do it if you don’t want to. You always tell us what things mean.”

Cameron: “When you’re on the chair, it makes you feel powerful. I like the acting the best.”

Byron: “You get to be in charge when you’re on the chair. There should only be ONE special chair.”

Nicole: “When you get to contribute to the story personally, with your own ideas, putting yourself in the story, you remember it.

It’s fun to share a bit of yourself (fantasy or real) with other kids in the class when you’re on the chair.”

Griffin: “I enjoy the experience of sitting in the chair and making “new worlds” that the class helps you create.”

Sam D: “I think the chair is important, but I think there’s something else that is more important–the teacher–because you make it all work out; you help us make the story good; you ask the questions; you repeat the things so much that we feel like we know stuff.” (I reminded him that none of this can happen without the students’ cooperation and willingness to play the game. Without them, there IS no story.)

Sam P: “Even though the story stuff we make up is crazy, we can use the things we learn to talk about other regular stuff. (gave examples)”

Sam got extra points for his reflections. (I was sitting in the chair when I wrote the part about the extra points. He, he.) Jody

 

Una silla en la finca, Havana, Cuba

 

 

Differentiation in a Foreign Language Class (How is that for a boring title?)

Differentiation is mostly what my boss talks about (on most days). Of course, differentiation is a very old sheep, wearing a new fancy-colored wool coat now instead of the old wool-colored wool coat she used to wear. What’s really new is that all most teachers at my school are expected to make differentiation a priority in their classrooms. We must show evidence that it is occurring, and that by differentiating, we are meeting more of the needs of more students.

In the little lonely vacuum that is my classroom, I sit by myself and concoct stuff, on a daily basis, hoping always to do a better job of teaching and meeting needs of my 130 students. Here’s some stuff I’ve been thinking about (specifically as it relates to acquiring language through reading the short novels). You will likely notice that the bulleted items are mostly “teacher will do” items NOT “student will do” items. Paradigm shift from most FL classrooms. That, of course, doesn’t mean that students sit around and do nothing. However, they are not responsible for differentiating instruction and assessment. I am.

Am I using a variety of instructional accommodations (hate this word, too), to enhance the acquisition experience for all students? Am I meeting my students “where they are” in their own acquisition journey and providing them with the supports needed to help them extend that acquisition? (I have not used content, process, and product jargon too much here. I feel it obfuscates more than illuminates.)

  • providing visual cues (writing the structures on the board with English translation/drawings/physical objects/pictures)
  • attaching physical gestures to structures/vocabulary
  • provide reading material that is or can be made compelling to the students (great story, personalize, parallel stories, etc.)
  • summarizing text knowledge (in first language and in target language)
  • providing variety repeated readings (reading alone, reading while listening, reading and translating, etc.)
  • targeting vocabulary/structures (high-frequency structures in the book)
  • help students to create an individualized word library (flashcards on their metal rings)
  • paraphrasing students’ responses during discussions
  • pointing out cognates
  • linking the content to their personal experiences-PQA (personalized questions and answers)
  • using tiered questioning/assignments/assessments based upon the students’ level of readiness (yes/no, either/or, who/what/where/when/why, on up the taxonomy)
  • providing choice in assessment (how they show me what they know-answering orally, drawing, writing, acting, traditional comprehension assessments)
  • permitting social negotiation-time to talk to each other/to me about the meaning of what they are reading
  • using facial expression, voice dynamics, hand and body gestures as I read aloud be an effective communicator of language
  • give students time and space to grapple with the reading quietly and on their own (knowing the text is within proper reading range for them) in addition to the teacher reading to them as they follow along in the text

I know there are probably a ton of things I am missing, but I just wanted to get it down on “paper”. I think of it all as sort of a “template filter”. I must sufficiently train myself to do these things automatically as I plan and teach. TPRS and differentiation are really a match made in heaven with a few tweaks. This stuff works for all kids in all subject areas. I am so glad I teach foreign language this way. In addition to becoming Spanish speakers, I really believe my students improve overall academically because of the kind of instruction they receive. It just makes sense.

Just musing. As I was finishing this, I remembered Susie’s administrator’s checklist which probably has all of this and more on it. Well, it was good to just sit down and pound it out of my brain to see what I really think and do.

Please feel free to add, subtract, illuminate me, or not. I teach alone and really like the idea of talking to others in my field (who use tprs) about these things.

My Truths and their Truths – #1

I always get so excited when my classes and I begin this book. I know what’s coming, but they don’t. That’s good and bad of course. I teach this book to two pretty sharp sixth-grade classes.

Truth #1: OK, they’re pretty sharp overall, but I have a group of low kids in each class (special ed kids-slow processors, poor memory, difficulty with integrating concepts and content, etc.) who are much lower than the rest of the kids. Much lower. Sometimes, I find myself avoiding asking them questions and putting them on the spot because it is so hard for all parties: for them, for the rest of the class, and for me. I remind myself over and over (reading Ben’s blog yesterday reminded me AGAIN) about the power and necessity of SLOW when delivering comprehensible input to students. It goes for “print” input also. I have to remember that NOTHING bad will happen to my fast processors if I make class and text comprehensible to my low kids. (More on this and differentiating for the “fasties” later.)

WORDS from Grant Boulanger – How Fixed Is Your Mindset?

Changes are coming in our local language instruction ecosystems. Administrators who are paying attention to what happens in their buildings have become openly concerned about the lack of equity in language education in the United States.
When administrators understand that method is important (it isn’t important in all subject areas) and shifting method (which we can do if we have a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset) can increase results, they begin to understand that the goal of comprehension based language teachers is not a personal vendetta against colleagues who do things differently.
Rather, it’s about college readiness for more students by getting more and more people of all shapes and sizes through second year language classes and into the upper levels. It’s about growing, changing and adapting as professional educators to improve what we do for the benefit of our students.
Darcy Pippin, a teacher-leader in Oklahoma, has some amazing statistics as her department has transitioned to comprehension based instruction (TCI – Teaching with Comprehensible Input) over the last six years – going from approximately 15 kids in 4th year and 15 in AP to 30 in each. Besides that, she went from around 30% passing the AP test (that’s about 5 kids of 15) to around 75% passing (that’s about 23 kids of 30). Those are impressive stats.
If we contrast this with existing district statistics where TCI (Teaching with Comprehensible Input) is not used, it’s all the more powerful. What is your district’s retention rate over four years? Retention rate in a traditional public high school, which will be mirrored across the country, will be less than 10 % over 4 years.
Those students who make it to upper levels of study will be mostly white, mostly female, nearly all high-achieving students. Does that reflect your district’s student demographic? If not, why not? Does it reflect your district’s dedication to closing the achievement gap? If not, should it? If so, what changes do we need to make?
But these are just statistics. And people are naturally skeptical of statistics, as they should be. It’s only one part. The stories that are being told in schools across the country right now are what people are starting to notice and respond to. It is the stories about comprehension based instruction that will create in other teachers the feeling that they can be a part of this change.
Everyone wants to feel successful and feel like they’re good at what they do. Everyone wants their kids to buy in and feel successful too. So, there’s the special education student who shines in your class and, in fact, outshines many higher-achieving kids.
There’s the social outcast who raises her head, laughs and smiles. There’s the obnoxious kid who gets kicked out of all his other classes but not yours. There’s the high-achieving kid who is writing better by March than many level three kids from grammar-centric classes.
There’s the shy kid who doesn’t say a word, yet scores at Intermediate Low on listening and writes beautifully. What’s the common denominator here? How do we tell these stories to colleagues and administrators?
Then there’s teacher X who, just three years ago was a staunch traditional grammar/book based instructor, honing his explanations and packets for years and who had written off TCI (an umbrella term that includes TPRS) because of an underlying fear of change. It probably sounded more like, “I tried that already and it doesn’t work”.
But, after more encouragement and better understanding of the method, he now says things like, “Wow, my kids are so much more engaged. They’re not resisting me anymore. We have so much more fun and I’m so much happier.”
These are the stories that are now being told in various parts of the country and tipping points are being reached inside many WL departments, one teacher at a time, even as the corporate model applied to education is moving students into a more robotic mode.
Teachers are being evaluated now largely in terms of work accomplished, and kids are increasingly becoming mere robotic memorizers plagued with more work that can reosonably be accomplished in one day. There is less pursuit of happiness and more pursuit of work.
When comprehension based instruction/TCI is used in a classroom, however, the opposite happens, as described in the examples above. The human part of language education, which alone guarantees mastery of the language, is preserved in language classrooms that are based on comprehensible input, and great gains in actual fluency (vs. bogus testing) are the result.
In my district, we’re reaching the tipping point. Working from within the existing structures, we have crafted and presented a TCI-friendly goal statement that will be adopted for the district secondary language classes. It’s only a starting point, but this statement is clearly drawn from our district’s own language around equity and the ACTFL 90% statement published in 2011.
It’s a statement of district intent that is very hard to argue with. The harder part will be putting the goal statement into action. But our district is supportive. They’re implementing Balanced Literacy in language arts and it’s a big shift for a lot of teachers.
So, the district people are saying that they will support our department in the same way, with ongoing training and a transitional period so people don’t feel as if they need to change tomorrow. This is critical. They’re recognizing that change is scary, but that transitioning to a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, is the first step.
Grant Boulanger is a teacher of Spanish in St. Paul, MN.

Showing What We Read – Reprise

The six-ring circus went off without a hitch. *Something in me always worries that if I ask a class to do something “again”, I will get a lot of negative flack and lack of “ganas” (desire).

I told them what I wanted to try:

  • dividing them into groups of four (chosen at random from the box of names)
  • having them choose roles (I could have assigned them–just didn’t feel like doing it.)
  • me reading Capítulo 6 one more time (They had no access to the written text.)
  • them hamming it up to the max
  • them gesturing everything I said when it was something that no particular character was doing or saying

Result:  They were eager to get started. *Teacher needs reality check. Silly me.

We cleared a few spaces in the room for them “to act”. I did not let anyone sit on chairs or desks. We got started.

Of course, it was a hoot! I read and tried to observe at the same time. Every time I saw someone doing something cool, spectacular, risky for them, funny, on task, whatever, I would make a huge thumbs-up gesture in their direction and say something positive about what they were doing in Spanish. I loved watching them lose their inhibitions in the smaller groups because no one was really watching except for me. Everyone was busy listening, gesturing, and acting. There was lots of laughter and lots of moving of bodies. Was it kind of loud? Yes. All good. I paused several times (without chastising them), so that they could calm down, quiet down, and center themselves to hear the next chunk of text. One interesting thing I noticed was some kids’ willingness to switch gender roles in their play. Nobody went over the top or was disrespectful. I may have just been lucky. I think they like this kind of thing so much that they don’t want to lose the privilege by “going too far out-of-bounds”. Many of my more shy children didn’t look very shy during this activity. I was really surprised at some of them. Yes, there were a few reticent ones (very few), but the others in the group really included them and made it work. Much of that has to do with the text itself–it really lends itself to “connecting” all the players.

After we finished, I told them I had some observations and some questions.

Observations:

  1. Everyone appeared very engaged in listening and trying to make meaning of what they heard. Most students really got into the activity using their bodies and their voices to express the meaning of the text.
  2. When someone didn’t “act” in the group, others in the group helped them, repeated the text to them, showed them what it meant, etc., so that they could act.
  3. They seemed to “know” the dialogue before I even said it. They appeared to know what was coming before I said it.

Questions:

  1. Was it true that they knew a lot of the dialogue already? Yes.
  2. Why did they think that was? There had been several repetitions of the text.
  3. Did it feel natural and easy? Yes.
  4. Why? Because we’ve done it a bunch of times now.
  5. Was it fun? Yes.
  6. Why? Because we got to act, move around, be a little silly, and have fun.
  7. What is the value in doing something like this (repeating an activity several times in different ways)? Yes, it starts to get easy. It feels natural. Things stick in your mind.

Mira Canion, the author, tells me that Chapter 8 and 11 will also be great ones for dramatic play. What are some things people do in their classes to bring text to life through acting it out? Please share.

Jody’s favorite line from Capítulo 6: “Tus ojos son divinos.” I say it to every kid who walks through the door. They can’t believe that people really speak this way in Spanish. I tell them that they do. Great jumping off point to talk about cultural differences.