Friday, May 24, 2019

Play-doh Day!

Here is a great activity that might make your class feel like a shiny new toy.

First, get some play-doh. I recommend dollar store play doh, because that is my budget.  I got 16 little pots of the stuff for a couple of bucks. I know it won't last, but it will work for a while.

Second, get a comprehensible text.  I used stories that I story-asked the previous day.  Click here to see what one looks like.  These are stories using the script in SOMOS 1, Unit 9, but since it is the end of the year, they are written in past tense.

Next, pass out the play doh.

Come up with some expectations- I let the kids help me decide these in L1.

They suggested no grinding the play doh into the carpet or anything else, and to make that positive we decided "keep it on the board."  I added no mixing colors.  Again, framing it in the positive turned it into "one color only."  We also decided to use the reverse side of my whiteboards so the white part would
stay white.

Their task: create 2-3 elements from the story while listening to me re-tell it.

My task: retell the story twice, going quite slowly, and making sure all the students understand all the words.

Once they had their "elements", we did a quick walk-around to see each other's art.

Finally, I had them group up with 2-3 people and combine their elements (but not colors). They had two minutes to try to visually tell as much of the story as possible.

I took pictures (because we ran out of time).

On Tuesday, we are going to do some kind of secret input activity with the pictures- maybe I am going to project them and point to an element, and they will have to find the best phrase to describe that element from their copy of the text.  Or maybe I am going to print the photos and have them walk around and find the phrases.  I *might* even have them use the picture of their little sculpture-montage (3-d mural?) to do a blind retell in a group.   I honestly don't know.

UPDATED: What we actually did on Tuesday, post Play-doh
I quickly imported the photos into a google slides presentation while the kids read the paper copy of the story with a partner.

Then I projected the photos, one at a time, and circled one element in each photo.
Kids had to go back to the text and find the best text to represent that element and copy it onto a whiteboard.
BUT...I also made it a competition.  The kid who made the element that I circled wrote what they were representing and put a star on their board. The kids who guessed what the artist intended got a point.
I almost never do this kind of competition, but it worked out really well because then the artist became the expert which made them feel special, and others got to correctly guess, and they read all or parts the story at least a dozen times trying to find the exact phrase to write down (so they could win).

Total engagement!

I do know that it was an awesome way to review a story and class flew by.  They all said it was one of the most fun things we did all year.  From my perspective, 100% of the students were engaged and they all got a ton of input.  So that's a win on a Friday in May.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Great Grammar Compromise part 1 (with activity idea)

How do I teach grammar? (the philosophy bit)  
(scroll down for the activity!) 

One question that seems to come up for many teachers new to teaching with comprehensible input (aka acquisition driven, proficiency oriented instruction, and comprehension-based communicative language teaching -CCLT) is what to do about grammar.

By the way- in my own Second Language Pedagogy, I believe that grammar is basically useless for language acquisition. I believe that so-called rules and patterns are *not* language, and that students do not internalize rules.  I believe that with enough input, students create language in their heads, and there is nothing at all in that process that is grammar related.  But I understand that is a pretty radical paradigm shift and that everyone is on their own journey.

Here is a great article by Alina Filipescu about the extent of grammar in her class. (Can I just say that I have linked to this article SO MANY TIMES that all I have to do is type "the extent..." in my browser and it just pops up. How awesome is that?)

For me, it looks like this:

Instead of teaching about the language and patterns and rules,  and expecting students to internalize that information and apply it immediately, I use language for input.  When the time is right (when students have a lot of language), I point out what students can already do and give it a name.

Here's an example. By the way, my kids have only ever heard the word conjugate...well, never.

So the other day, I asked them how to say "I go."
-Voy.- they replied.
-How do you say 'He goes to the bathroom'?- I asked.
-Va al baño.
-What word in that sentence means 'he goes'?
-And 'they go'?
-What you are doing- changing a verb to say who is doing something (or when it is being done)- is called conjugating.

I quickly pulled up a verb chart, using notes from the Grammar In Context series from Martina Bex, and we quickly filled it in.  (This one was about ir + a, or one way to talk about the future.)

Boom. They already knew all the words. (Or most of them, at least.  Note to self- we need to talk about us more- like us as in using the "we" form of verbs because for whatever reason this year, it seems to be harder for them- which to me means I have not been giving them enough input.)

Verb chart + conjugation lesson complete in about 5 minutes.

Mind you, this is the second year of being exposed to the word goes in all kinds of forms (goes, went,   is going to go, etc.) and we just spent a week talking about the future, using the construction is going to g...[do something].  So it was not new to them.  The only new thing was this word conjugate and a verb table.

 They have already acquired *most* of the verb forms without direct instruction.  

The grammar lesson was complete in about 10 minutes, then we moved back to more input.

But wait, is that it?  Well, actually, no.

I know that 100% of my students are going into combination grammar translation classrooms/"communicative"  classrooms. (I am using that description to mean classrooms where the focus is on practicing language rather than communicating with language.)  They have a ton of language and I want them to be surprised at how much they know, not shocked by how many of linguistic features they can't name.   But I also want to make sure that they are still getting a ton of input.

So how do I find that balance?

1) I utilize some Grammar-in-context notes from Martina Bex in class.  (Not many, and not often.)

2) I send some Grammar-in-context notes and readings (more input) home as *optional* supports for summer work for students headed to high school.

3) I also send home a list of novels and say that if it is one or the other, the novels are much better for acquisition if they are both interesting and easy. For a list of all novels, click here. I take this list and make an edited version of it based on what books are in the Spanish library in my classroom.

4) Horizontal conjugations.  Although I often model this throughout the year, I tend to do a lot more of these in the late spring because students have acquired so much more by then.  Click on the link for more info about how to do it.

Here is a "Secret Input" grammar activity that is not new, but has worked VERY well for me this week.  I did this in both my Spanish 2 honors class and my Spanish 1B classes.

First, we read a text together.  I made sure it was comprehensible by personalizing it, bringing actors up to act it out, and checking for comprehension.

Then, I gave each kid a copy of the text and asked them to re-read it out loud (with a partner) or silently.

Then, they had re-write the text from a different perspective. (In my honors class, they could choose one of 3 texts written from either 3rd or 1st person perspectives.  To further scaffold, one was a text that we had already done as a group.  )

Students worked together if they wanted (yeah differentiation!) and re-copied the whole story, changing it from 3rd person to first person. (Or vice-versa, depending on the text.)

When they were done, they came up to get a copy of the horizontally translated story and self-checked, marking their errors in red (I had them do this not so I could grade them, but so I could see if there were patterns.)

I moved around and helped them out.  This gave me the opportunity to sit with a few groups who I knew might need more support for one reason or another.  The fast finishers self-checked and then had the option of helping another group or reading their FVR book.

Why I love horizontal conjugation:  in order to change the perspective, they really have to understand the words- so it it is one more way to get comprehensible input in their brain.  They have such a sense of satisfaction when they do it because it shows them just how much they can really understand.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Spring has sprung and NOBODY wants to be inside

Here are some quick tips for teacher survival and getting kids motivated while still keeping the input flowing:  

Take the time to go over expectations. Every single day, every single class period.  It may feel like wasted time in L1, but I promise you that it is not.  Take the time to re-teach key procedures if you are not happy with how students are doing them.    

This is the time of year I start with classroom points.  For more information, check out all these posts by La Maestra Loca.  These lead to a Preferred Activity Time or a fiesta.


I don't love games. It's a personal thing.  But this is the time of year where games become a life saver.  Here are some of my favorite INPUT based games to play during those hot, unending last period-of-the-day classes.

The Unfair Game
Lucky Reading Game
Word Chunk 
Paper Airplane Reading    (You could do this one outside too!)

Click for more games from Señora Chase (games)and Comprehensible Classroom (games)- both teachers who are much better at playing games than I am!  

Spicing up familiar games: 

There are a bunch of games that involve throwing things for points-get creative.  (But maybe not lawn darts, ok?)  Look at the dollar store for inspiration. I once got a throw the ring on the cactus for $5 from Target.  Nerf bats, whiffle balls, and anything that involves throwing things at other things are fair game.  

Spicing up the secret input:

Use sidewalk chalk to recreate scenes from a reading
SIDEWALK CHALK:  After a class story (or reading a text), take the kids outside with chalk and have them draw scenes on the sidewalk. Have them go around and find the chalk scenes in the text. (Click here for some other secret input ideas.) 

PLAY-DOH:  Use play-doh to recreate scenes from reading (and use secret input activities to get them to re-read)

BUBBLES:  Get bubbles from the dollar store.  One student has to blow a wand full of bubbles while the other student tries to read as much as they can of a story or reading, then switches- their partner blows bubbles while the first student reads from where the other left off.  

Scrambled eggs (modified running dictation).

What do you do to keep sane?  

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Mindset reminder: as the new trimester starts and pressure to get kids "ready" ramps up

Shortly before the grapefruit knee
I decided to get knee surgery after 2 years of PT, tons of doctor's appointments, and a grapefruit-sized knee after our second day of bike touring in southwestern Utah.

When I started paddle boarding because cycling was getting to be too much, I realized that I really needed to do something about it.  (If you don't know me, it might be helpful to know that I started teaching cycling in the public schools, and my previous career was as a cycling educator and advocate. So not being able to ride is major. And I ride to work every day possible.)

Back to school:
I sat on a stool, I put my knee up, and I tried to teach. I tried to follow my plan. I tried not to cry.

I sort of mostly succeeded, in that I didn't usually cry until I actually got home.  Usually.

Some days, the pain was so overwhelming that I could barely form words in English, and the thought of trying to do anything hard in another language brought those tears back.

So I let go.

I let go of my plans.  Instead, I did lots of card talk- only I would give the kids like 10 minutes and sometimes colored pencils to draw, and then collect their papers and make a slideshow for the next time I saw them. (Sounds like a lot of work- it's really, really not, with airdrop and a phone. Here is an old post about how I do this.)

These, plus some other pictures, ended up being an hour of lesson plan
in 2 different classes!

I decided to try Special Person interviews, something I had tried 4 years ago and hated.  The kids loved them and begged for them.  I tacked on some Write and Discuss, and voila, that was the lesson plan.  For an assessment, I had them write about themselves.  (And the results were mind-blowing.  Not a single student said "Yo es 13."  (I is 13).

I even showed funny videos, and used them for input, but I didn't always do a reading afterwards.  (The copier is a LONG way from my classroom.)

I leaned very heavily into FVR.  And Sr. Wooly.  And Weekend chat.  And small talk.  And whatever I could do to keep the language flowing, minimize trips to the copier, or even trips that involved standing up and writing a new word on the board with a translation.

I got REALLY GOOD at keeping my vocabulary in-bounds- and I was already getting good at it!

I'm not counting down. You're counting down.
I guess I want to write this for myself- to remind myself as I stare down the calendar at 40 more days of school, 8 of which are Mondays (at least according to the daughter of the kindergarten teacher, who is good at knowing things like how many days are left), that input is input.

Input that kids are interested in listening to and input that they understand and are interacting with is all good.  In fact, it's the best thing I can do for them.

There is no rule that says I have to follow my scope and sequence. (Thank goodness.)

There is no rule that says I have to cover this or make sure to teach that. (I am very fortunate.)  

There are only the constraints and demands I place on myself, and I really want to cultivate a different mindset.

I am incredibly lucky, I know, and I think I need to remember and acknowledge it.

I know myself.  I know that if I am not careful, I am going to look back at January, February, and March of this year and ask myself what the heck I was even doing those months.  There is hardly anything glued in our interactive-ish notebooks, and if it weren't for Anne Marie Chase's quick quizzes and weekly timed freewrites, there would be no assessment grades in the gradebook.

But you know what I was doing?  Getting to know my kids.  Exploring their interests, and mine.

Shooting the breeze with them, in Spanish.  Watching videos of cats and sloths and penguins and then talking about it. We literally spent an hour discussing the gross things that pets do and eat.  It was one of the funniest hours of my life as kids shared horribly funny stories of their pets bringing them dismembered bits of other animals.  We spent another hour talking about their class trip and what they saw, felt, and experienced in the nation's capitol, which led to an intense discussion about what is feminism, what is sexist, and what is culture.  I could not have planned that if I tried.

I want to remember that some of the fastest and best hours of teaching have gone by when we just read, or chat, or look at interesting pictures and talk about them.

I want to remember (in May, when the pressure to have my 8th graders "ready" is really building up) that I am preparing them to communicate, not to conjugate.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

CI Overwhelm: practical tools for coping (#1)

Do you know that CI overwhelm feeling?  Like you have gone down into a black hole of resources and ideas and videos to watch and handouts to read and blogposts to follow and...and...and....

Which stage of CI are you in?  

Where do you even begin?

I have some ideas.  First, and foremost:


Now take another one.  Just for fun, take a couple more.

You are not alone. You are not the first person to have this experience.  Since I started focusing on speaking so that my students understand and want to engage in communication with me, aka providing Compelling, ComprehendED Input, there has been an actual explosion in resources, communities, trainings, blogs, readers, webinars, and more. *

Regarding all the amazing things you want to do/think you should be doing/feel bad about not doing:  Angela Watson over at TruthForTeachers has a lot of great ideas about being enough.**

It is really easy to think you have to be all of that.  And more.  That video that you saw? That person has probably been doing this for a long time.  (For some perspective, you might want to take a look at this post from Chris Stoltz:  You are now playing the long game.)

That writing sample where their kids are fluently using le passé composé?  Again, people don't post their student's worst writings.
And that bulletin board that is totally pinterest worthy and not in your classroom or even in your wildest dreams? (That teacher probably has a TA. Let's be honest here.)

Did you read that great blog post that makes you want to rethink everything and re-do it all, right now?  Do you think that you need to overhaul your classroom management system, assessment protocol, gradebook, and why not your entire teaching philosophy while you're at it?

Hang on.  More deep breaths.

You want to be a better teacher?   You want to get better at delivering input?

Slow down.

Slow down and get good at one thing. *** 

Just one.  OK, maybe that is not your style- you want it all, you are an overachiever, and you want it now. NOW.  Me too.  But let me tell you about the power of working on one thing.

Sorry for the poor quality- this is the
poster that is in my classroom
After attending NTPRS where, for the first time, I got to be a student in a less commonly taught language, I had a major aha moment.

I realized the power of going slow, and that the one thing I could change easily was to talk more slowly.

That was my only goal. SLOW DOWN.  I made a gigantic poster of my adorable cats lounging on my bed with the word "slowly" in Spanish, and hung it at the back of my room so I could see it every day.  And my goal for the whole year was to focus on that one thing.  And you know what, after about 6 months- six months!- of working on going slow, I was a better teacher.

I was better because I was more comprehensible.  I had to intentionally slow myself down by doing things like pausing. And pointing.  And writing new words on the board. And looking at their eyes.  So suddenly I was providing more comprehensible input and getting better at all kinds of discreet skills, by just focusing on that one thing.

A thinking exercise:  

Take some time, maybe your relaxing beverage of choice, and do some reflection. Below is a reflection form I created for a wonderful teacher I have been mentoring online. She was feeling all those emotions that I described above- like a failure, like she wasn't good enough, like she wanted to change everything right now but didn't know where to relate?  Me too.
Take your relaxing beverage of choice and do some reflecting.****

Look at your teaching life- your practice.  Fill out the Gut Level Teacher Reflection: CI Version (Click here for the printable version.)  Thanks to Jennifer Gonzalez' post over at Cult Of Pedagogy and her kind permission to adapt and share.

Download the form here:

Under each domain, list things that give you positive feelings (+), negative feelings (—), and mixed or unclear feelings (?) or questions.

Domain #1: Skills for Delivering CI

Which of these do you think you are good at? Which do you think need more practice at? Is there one that feels *more* manageable? Is there one that is overwhelming?
(asking circling and triangling questions, pause and point, staying in-bounds with vocab, slow speech, choral response, teaching to the eyes, checking for comprehension)

Domain #2: Techniques for delivering CI

What do you feel confident about? What activities give you dread?
(Calendar/card/small Talk, story-asking, PQA, PictureTalk, MovieChat, group reading, OWI, personalization, [too many to list])

Domain #3:Classroom management and relationships

What do you do to help build relationships with students and make them feel safe and ready to take risks? What are the behaviors that make you crazy?  Is there that one kid that you connected with?

Domain #4: Assessment

What do you believe about assessment? Do grades in your class reflect what students can do with language? What feels bad about grading? What feels ok?

Domain #5: The Why 

Sometimes, knowing why we do something paves the way for the what to become much easier. Take a look at some statements and note whether you have a positive, negative, or mixed/confused feeling. Some are statements about language acquisition, mostly taken from Dr. Bill VanPatten’s work.

  • A flood of input creates a trickle of output.
  • There are no such things as grammar rules.
  • What teachers call errors are indicators of developmental learning stages of the learner.
  • All students are capable of acquiring a language.
  • Language learning is stage like; more instruction does not alter the need to go through the stages.
  • Language is abstract, language is different than math.

Domain #6: Self-care 

Being attuned to the emotions and gauging comprehension levels and focusing on all the skills can be exhausting. Consider your work-life balance, your routines for self-care, your sleep and eating habits, and things that are important to you outside of school. Jot down what is working for you, what you feel is not working, etc.

Last step:

Take a look at your +, -, and ? notes.
Now pick one.

ONE, I said. Not one from each domain, you overachiever you.  Just one.

Pick one thing from your notes and work on that.  There might be a million more other things that WILL help you be a better teacher, but what, to you, today, is the one thing for you?  You can come back to your list later.  It will still be there. (Unless you lose it. Quick- snap a photo!)

* When I started, and I am one of the newer practicioners having only done this for five years, there were no facebook groups. There were no newsletters. Gosh darnit we had to connect via a listserv.  That's right.  Email listserv.  Occasionally I would send an email to that nice lady Martina and she would email me back a couple months later.

**Favorite blog posts by Angela Watson:
Getting out of the day-by-day lesson planning trap
The culture of cute in the classroom
The simplest way to stop feeling overwhelmed and over-scheduled 
When is it ok to feel like you have done enough for a student

***I realized, while watching Faith Laux's presentation on ComprehensibleOnline, where I learned the  "One thing" advice from: The amazingly influential Karen Rowan.  Thanks, Karen!

****Yes, I did just discover bitmoji.   And I am totally, utterly charmed by it, way more than I have any right to be.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Teaching about proficiency levels

At the beginning of the year, I take 1 whole hour per class to teach about proficiency levels. In English. (Gasp.)  It is a day where I provide virtually no input in the target language.  Double gasp!  But aren't you a CI teacher?  Don't you have to speak in 90% target language for students to acquire language? Yes, yes, and yes.  But I also have to teach in a school, which means I have to do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with language acquisition. I have to make compromises. I bet you do too!

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I do my best to use standards based grades, and that I try to spend as little time as possible assessing (in class) and grading (out of class) for many reasons.  (Curious to read more about how I actually do it? Here you go: Assessing writingassessing reading, and what goes in the grade book.)

Those reasons include (but are not limited to): it takes time away from providing input (unless it is an input-based assessment), it takes time away from planning great lessons, developing relationships with students, and taking care of myself. Since learners can't control their rate of acquisition, it is kind of pointless.  (See this post for a long, philosophical meditation on standards based grading.)

AND the ACTFL proficiency levels were *not* developed for schools.  Wait. Please go back and re-read that sentence.  My understanding is that they were originally developed for the Foreign Legion- to categorize overseas workers.

I KNOW!  So why do we used them?  Well, I use them because they come from our national organization, they provide common language, and someone else already invented that wheel (click here for resources regarding that wheel)  so I don't have to.  And, using these standards  means that I have a great deal of professional discretion in teaching what is going to be most effective for language acquisition.  Because the standards say nothing- NOTHING- about accuracy and grammar.  

Providing clear targets for learners *is* good practice in other subjects, and I have to squeeze into the school box and the grade box for my job.  And since I switched to talking about (and assessing with) proficiency targets, I have seen a HUGE shift- like earthquake level- in the mindset of my students when it comes to acquisition (instead of grade grabbing).

That in and of itself makes it worthwhile.

This is what it looks like at the beginning of the year:

I tell the kids that my goal for them is to have a certain level of proficiency at the end of the year.  My job is to give them as much input as they can, which is the only way to get there. Their job is to engage with the language.  But, I teach middle school. They want to know what that proficiency level actually means!

I use this activity from The Creative Language Class to introduce the different levels.  (Note: the authors have updated the original lesson plan from what I used- use the updated one that is linked!)

1) Show the first slide and come up with something that the class is going to describe.  Basically, there is a new kid in town and you have to describe something to that kid, but you can only use the kind of language you are given (novice low, intermediate high, etc.)
We have used these in the past: a watch, grocery store, taco, bicycle, cat, and circus.

2) Group students and give them markers, an 11 x 17 sheet of paper, and a card from the lesson plan.
     I have them glue the card on the paper.

3) Ask them to do their best to follow the directions on the card and try to explain what the thing is - IN English (or L1).

4) With time remaining in class, stop the kids and invite them to present.  They can read their card, then read their poster.

Here is a video of them presenting with a bonus peek at how I manage my classroom (making them practice routines, walking and pointing to the rules).

5) I usually project the slide for that level after the group goes.
Novice Mid poster

Intermediate Mid poster

6) Feeling frisky?  Good at making displays?  (I am not. See below.)  Make a display of the posters.  I leave mine up all year and have gotten very positive feedback from parents and administrators.  I also print up some of the slides to display.


Make sure that you remind them multiple times to write in L1 (English, in my case).
Check in often with the group that has novice low and novice mid.  They tend to need the most support.
If you have big classes, do 2 or 3 different groups for the same card.
This takes much longer than you think it will. That's fine. Go with it.
Have fun!