Saturday, January 9, 2021

ASSESSMENT: a new three-session course focused on learning to love assessments

 I am super excited to share this news! In February, I will be launching a new Teacher Lab series focused on assessment and grading.  This has been in the works for a LONG time but it has taken me a while to figure out how to fit the content into something that actually makes sense for teachers.  

I truly believe that the way we assess and grade students can help us become more equitable educators and I want to share the work that I have done with teachers.  I also believe that grading doesn't have to be the worst part of the job.  Did you know that for most teachers, grading is the #1 least-satisfactory part of their job?  It doesn't have to be!  It *is* something that we have to do, but we can at least take the agony out of it.  

Grading for Equity (Joe Feldman) is a book that I recommend to all teachers.

We will look at some research about language acquisition (how our brains acquire language) and consider the implications, take a deep dive into what traditional grades don't do well and why (and look at alternatives), and finally, dig into assessments can we give in comprehension based classes.  We will also look at how to grade so that our reporting is accurate, representative of what students *can* do, and resistant to bias.   WHEW! It's a lot for 4.5 hours.  

Plus, I get to stretch myself and see how to make some Zoom classes more interactive and collaborative.   

Click on the picture above or visit our page for more information.  I am also revisiting a couple of great workshops from 2020, including Teaching for Acquisition (90 minutes) and All About the Texts (60 minutes) in January.  Please join me!  

Friday, November 20, 2020

Timed Free writes: one practice that serves many purposes

Timed Freewrites

 I have been thinking a lot about timed free writes lately.  Like, a lot!  I have been thinking about how they are a fairly simple, easy to implement practice that solves a rather large number of challenges in a comprehension-based classroom.  While timed free writes (aka fluency writing) do not help students acquire language (only input that students can understand does that!), they are an amazingly useful tool.  In this post, I will share some of my big reasons for loving them, ideas about logistics for implementation, some frequently asked questions, and finally, some resources to help you. 

Here are a few common challenges that I feel like timed free writes have the potential to resolve:

  • Students, families, and/or administrators feel like they are not "learning" without having long lists of vocabulary and conjugation practice.  
  • Teachers need to write measurable goals for student learning (because they can't be trusted to just teach and assess, they have to do more than that...but that's another issue.)
  • Teachers need students to produce written work in order to comply with department, school, or district assessment requirements.
  • Departments want valid assessment that focus on student performance while allowing teachers the professional autonomy to teach in the way that they feel best serves their students. 
  • There is an increased pressure on teachers to create portfolios and evidence of student learning; in particular, for student reflection and evidence of growth.  

Timed free writes have other benefits too, based on my observations and experience:

  • They help students feel a sense of ownership of language; they can look at a page, or a chart tracking word counts, and see their growth.  This builds confidence, which builds motivation, which is, of course, a great thing.  
  • The freedom to just write about anything can be pretty joyful for many students.
  • Sometimes, students are willing to share what they really think and feel, and their writings provide a window into their lives and wellbeing.
  • The teacher ends up with a whole lot of very personalized writings that are student-centered and usually very comprehensible.  These are a goldmine if you choose to use them. You can just type up a few and add them to your class library, or perhaps share them in class the following day.

Timed Freewrites: A glimpse into the language in students' heads

So, aside from all these amazing benefits of Timed Free Writes, why do I love them?  Giving students the pressure of a time limit is the best way that I can think of to see what is really in their head. This leads to...
  • Evidence, evidence, evidence. Evidence of what they really have in their head! On paper! 
  • The joy of giving students their first writing from the beginning of the year on the last day of school: let them compare it to their most recent writing; there is truly nothing more incredible than listening to them share about their own growth.  
  • The joy of having a predictable routine: this is how we spend 15 minutes a week. No planning necessary.
  • When students write, so do I.  In the target language! If I knew the plot of the novel I am working on, it would probably be complete by now!  

Here's the nuts and bolts of timed free writes, as I use them in my classroom.  I learned most of what I do from Scott Benedict (Immediate Immersion), who deserves ALL the credit for helping me think this through and implement in my classroom.


1) Teach the kids the expectations.

Mine are: write the whole time, it's ok to use the word supports on the walls but I want you to write as many words as possible and that will slow you down, the prompt I give is optional, write one word per line, and your story does not have to make sense. If you don't know how to say it in Spanish, say something else. Absolutely no talking.

2) Give an optional prompt.  

Sometimes, I used a silly picture from the internet. (Here are some great ones!) At other times, I created a little scene from props and stuffed animals.  Students who needed ideas could use the prompt as a starting place, OR they could write whatever they chose.

3) Use special paper. 

This paper that has a space for each word so it is easy and fast to graph word counts. I downloaded mine from Scott Benedict.  I copied mine on the back side of copies from the recycle bin in our school's copy room to save paper. 

4) Don't grade them at first.  

When and if you decide to grade them, read this first:  Grading Writings.  If you prefer to watch a video, here you go: Assessment Hacks and Hope.

5) Start when students have a lot of language in their head.  

My advice: start with novices about 9 weeks into the year, after a very rich diet of tons of listening and reading to language they understand.  I usually start 2nd year students writing in about the 3rd or 4th week of school.

6) Be consistent. 

Do this once a week.  If students complain, remind them that the expectation is to smile and be positive. In fact, I tell them that they are expected to cheer.  I have also been known to tell them that if they groan when I announce a free write, they have to do another one tomorrow. That usually ends the groans very quickly.  

7) Write for a predictable, short amount of time.

10 minutes is a good amount of time for students to write.  From start to finish, the whole activity, once we got into the swing of things, takes about 15 minutes.  

8) Set a goal- but remember it is just a goal, not a requirement. 

A common goal is for all students to be able to write 100 words in the target language in 10 minutes, and then reduce the minutes while keeping the goal. So, after everyone can do 100 in 10, try 100 in 9.  The purpose of this may be because a reasonable goal for fluent speakers is to write 100 words in five minutes in their first language.  

9) Students track word counts.

Ask students to keep track of their word counts in a graph and save their writings!  These portfolios are immensely powerful.  (Scroll down to download a data tracking sheet.) 

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some questions that I see all the time about implementing timed freewrites. Hopefully my answers will help you feel like you can do this in your own classroom!

What if a kid just writes one or two words over and over? Honestly, I have never had this happen.  My students with IEPs and 504s, students who struggled with writing, students who hated writing...they all were generally able to produce a few sentences.  But, if this happened,  I would consider the following: the student does not yet have much of a mental representation of language, so the task is not appropriate for them, yet.  Maybe while everyone else is writing, you sit with them and read texts that are comprehensible to them. 

There could also be other reasons for this- did they just have a terrible day? Is this more evidence that they need support and relationships rather than an assignment? Did their dog just die?  I would look at the whole picture of the student and decide how to respond based on a lot of different kinds of information.   

Do you let students look at the word walls in your room? Yes! But..I tell them that if they are relying on the words in the room to impress me, they are going to write less, and I want them to just spill out all the words.  But it's fine if they do!

Do you read all of them?  Nope. Not at all. *If your district requires you to read everything that students write, I would consider doing something different than what I suggest.* I did choose to read one group's worth of writing a week. And I tell them that! They didn't know which class's writings I was going to read!  However, after a few weeks, students started asking if I would read their writing, even if it wasn't for a grade, because they were proud of what they had written.  So, I invited them to put a star on the top, and when I collected them, I made sure to read those and either comment or talk to the writer.  

How do you grade them?  Read this: Grading writing for details about rubrics, error correction, and keeping the workload manageable. 

Do you let kids type? Actually, no.  Even when teaching virtually, I asked students to hand write their free writes and submit pictures of their writing immediately afterwards to our Learning Management System.  I know that for some teachers, this might be madness, but I don't want to open the box of translation/accents/etc.  Handwriting is just fine.  

Finally, I will leave you with this joyful piece of writing from a very special young lady.  Because it makes my day! 

Here is a collection of my favorite resources about timed writing.  Please leave questions below if you wish! 





Friday, October 9, 2020

October, 2020: Really? Just...REALLY? A reminder and an update

 I haven't written much for a long while.  Well, that isn't true- I have been writing a lot, and thinking a lot, and trying new things- A LOT- but not over here on this blog.  Truth be told, I miss this old friend, but I am struggling a bit with a) who wants more screen time? and b) what this blog is, now that I have this whole new job (Director of Training, Comprehensible Classroom).

And, just like so many of you, I am overwhelmed by the new unexpected demands placed on teachers right now.  I never expected to be training teachers how to use Zoom, or advising teachers on how to connect and build community with students that they have never met, online.  I never expected to be working in my 8 x 11 foot office, with a (new) obnoxiously green wall (my green screen) and a whiteboard.  But I am surviving. Not necessarily thriving, but right now, survival is enough.

I swing day by day between relief that I have a job, a home, and that my family is healthy and safe, and all the other really big, scary emotions that living in a pandemic has brought.  I still grieve for the goodbyes I didn't get from my graduating students, from the farewell party that I never got when I left my school, and for the teaching I didn't get to do in the spring.  Oh, and all the conferences and weddings that I didn't get to go to in person.  I know I am supposed to focus on the positive, but sometimes it is REALLY hard. You feel me, right?  I keep reading and re-reading this article:  For Teachers Who Are Not OK right now, Angela Watson (Cornerstone for Teachers).

So, what is going on with me? I am teaching. A LOT! I have been running small cohort style virtual classes to support comprehension based teachers teaching online/hybrid/whatever, and adapting the courses as new realities are hitting us (scattered, anyone?). I have been thinking a lot about the kinds of issues that come up again and again, and trying to create resources to help address those issues.  I have been busy!  

Here are some of the things that I have collaborated or created in the past few weeks. 

Blog about Becoming an Anti-Racist Educator - Blog about assigning work in different Learning Management Systems- Virtual Assessment Video- Unboxing Flex video- Conversation with John Bracey about Connecting with Students of Color, tons of short articles and resources about really important things, like 90% Target Language and Distance Learning Resources and Projects in Comprehension Based classes- Upcoming: Trainings abut SOMOS Flex, Pear Deck, Differentiation- Rewriting the curriculum of my Methods of Secondary World Language Class and making it 100% virtual / synchronous, and creating all my assignments to be virtual (some synchronous, like our starters, and some asynchronous), and adding demos to every class.  Playing with new tools like Go Formative and Interactive Digital Notebooks- Planning a really extensive series of courses on assessment (coming in the new year, probably)- doing a small # of district trainings- trying to stay active and not get too sad.

On the other hand, even if my summer was spent in front of a screen, I had a blast at the various virtual conferences in which I participated and presented/moderated.  I had the joy of attending Latin class with Justin Slocum Bailey and Chinese with Diane Neubauer, two of my favorite humans and brilliant teachers who were using the teaching labs to experiment and push their own practice.  I watched a ton of other teachers teaching kids in a few different languages, including one memorable class where the students had no cameras, some had no mics, and they *still* created community and acquired language and participated.  (Note- they were there by choice, and highly motivated, but STILL!) 

I attended some mind-blowing sessions from brilliant presenters and teachers and started to remember that all we need to support language acquisition is a way to talk to our students (or give them things to read) and a way to check that they understand the input. Input, that students understand, works. All the other things are shiny and pretty and may or may not actually support learning. (And they ARE a huge time suck for teachers.)

Also, I made some new friends and collaborators. That was really lovely! 

Anyway, as we all struggle through the pandemic and the new realities of teaching, I hope you will give me grace as I find the new identity of this blog and my own teaching practice.  

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Stay strong, Stay Input-Focused (with some ideas)

Staying input focused in a distance learning world where almost every on-line company seems to want you to use their platform to teach the subjunctive, give speaking assessments, and study vocabulary is really hard!

I have been a little discouraged by the trend I see in teacher collaborative groups to move away from input focused, comprehension based teaching to...well, the opposite.

And teacher friends, please don't take this as an insult- we are all just doing the best we can with the tools we have.  If you are struggling to remain input focused, please know that you are not alone!

For me, staying input focused means rejecting all the tools that are being thrust at me that don't align with what I know about how languages are acquired.  It means staying strong against the pressure to give speaking "tasks" and grammar study.  

It means going back again and again to what is known about language acquisition.  

It means working harder- because to make something comprehensible that students can do independently is really, really hard.  

But I refuse to give up.   I refuse to send out grammar packets and I refuse to give busywork and I refuse to make students speak before they are ready.  This is where the part of my personality that is stubborn and sometimes downright contrarian comes in: I have to say no. A lot.  But, being a comprehension based teacher in a system that is designed for something else has never been the easiest road, and I accept it.  I accept the challenge!

Now, what on earth am I going to do in my synchronous sessions?? What kind of work can I assign students that will be input focused and comprehensible...independently?

At the end of last week, Dr. Bill VanPatten, a leading researcher, teacher, and author (as well as being the Diva of SLA!) hosted a webinar for the CI SOS group.  I was fortunate enough to participate, and during the Q & A, I asked him: how do we keep input comprehensible?  How can we do our best to make sure students are understanding the input?  

His answer was surprisingly simple:  give learners easy short texts, broken up very frequently with questions that help them understand the reading, and follow that with some kind of meaningful reading task, such as a discourse scramble (or 9-square).

Wow!  So, basically, doing what I already do.  Cool.  Now...which of the BILLION platforms will do this?  

And of those platforms, which has the easiest learning curve for me and my students, has strong privacy protections, is compliant with any kind of copyright requirements, and works with few headaches?  

Well, Garbanzo* comes to mind. Short bits of text, with comprehension questions...check!  What else....hmmm...Sr. Wooly works like that too.   Fluency Matters e-books certainly fit.  Textivate, which I have never used, but hear great things about seems like a great idea, but a) it is a new tool, b) it costs $, and c) do I really need to learn how to do something else????   I might explode.  Kahoot is offering free premium subscriptions right now, and they offer a puzzle feature....maybe?  Google Slides?  Nearpod...GoGormative... Edpuzzle... Peardeck....
Flipgrid...SeeSaw...TeacherTube...oh wow.  Just typing this makes me feel overwhelmed.

Back to square one, so to speak.  What can I do right now, that feels manageable for me and my students, that is input based?

Here are some ideas that have worked so far:  

StoryAsking Adaptation for Synchronous Classes

I took a story from a previous year's class and instead of doing a more open-ended story-ask, I did more of a story-listen, where I basically re-used an old story (from a previous class) and let the kids decide character names.  

I used Zoom and created a document camera from my phone- just google "Document camera hack for zoom" and find a million ways to do it.  It worked *really* well.  I also used a whiteboard that I brought home from school, but my colleague did it on paper with a sharpie and it worked fine for her.  

I modified the classic TPRS story in a couple of ways as well- instead of being a  3 scene story (like most TPRS stories), ours was 2 scenes to keep it short. I also made sure that the elements in the story were things that I could draw quickly on a whiteboard.  

I used the chat function for kids to give suggestions and comprehension checks (e.g. what was the character's name? What did I just say? What does x mean in English?).
Finally, I had them draw along with me.  I would draw something and say a couple of sentences, do a comprehension check, then I gave them 10- 15 seconds to draw it too.  They held their drawings up to the camera and we all had a good laugh.  

Now, I have a story that is familiar to our class, and we can do a few things with it!  Plans for the next couple of weeks: CHECK and DONE! 

So, how to do this yourself?  Here are some tips and ideas for how to use the story in later lessons, both live and for independent work.

StoryAsking Adaptation for Live Zoom Class

  • Find a story.  Here is a link to some stories to adapt:  Collab Drive Unit Files or Tripp's Scripts (click here for TONS more resources about StoryAsking).
  • Simplify the story. 
  • PRACTICE the drawing once ahead of time with thick markers or whiteboard. 
  • Make a document camera out of your phone/ipad. (Google it.)
  • Have kids draw along- but only give them 10-15 seconds to do so, and intentionally pause for drawing time.  
  • Instead of asking for all the details, just ask for new names.
  • Use the chat function for student suggestions and to check comprehension.    
  • When you are done, use the story in a few different ways. 

Ideas for SYNCHRONOUS adaptations using the same story

Make sure that students have read and understood the story before doing any of these activities!  

For Asynchronous lesson adaptations using the same story

Make sure that students have read and understood the story before doing any of these activities!   

  •  9-square on google slides with story  (blank template to use) (original activity
  • Comprehension focused Kahoot* 
  • Read the story and illustrate it (as a mural, as a comic, etc.)  
  • Any of the activities from the COVID-19 Revista Literal Choice Board 
  • Edpuzzle reading of the story with questions and your delightful whiteboard illustrations.   (This seems really work-intensive because you first have to record yourself reading the story, but it would work AND provide listening input!) 

Some Resources to use and adapt  

What's missing? 

What is missing from these lists?  That's right.  Any kind of speaking or writing.  Why? Well, in class, we do speak. We speak a lot!  We talk and discuss and connect and we write too.  But, we are not in class.  (Obvious, but that has actually been incredibly helpful to remember!)  I have a limited amount of time that students are supposed to spend on language class, and a lot of levels to prep for, and I know that speaking does not help them acquire*. Nor does writing.  I am going to stay input focused for the rest of the year. 

*For some research and reading to back this up, please see While We're On the Topic, by Dr. Bill VanPatten (a publication from ACTFL), as well as Research Talks, by Eric Herman (available from Amazon).

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The New Normal Part 2: Synchronous Teaching

(If you want to read part 1, my outlook and what I actually assigned to the students, click on "The New Normal Part 1: Shifting Gears" post.)  

This is the 2nd part of my personal process of dealing with the new "normal", trying to keep it simple, and accepting that this is my life. 

And also teaching online in a synchronous 30 minute slot,  three levels, three times a week. (3 total; one for each level.)  

Before all this happened, I had planed some cool activities. Like- I was super proud of them and spent a little extra time prepping because it was Parent/Teacher conferences, and by the end of 8th grade, there aren't a ton of parents that really need to meet with me, so I had some time.  

Storyasking is actually the most fun ever.
I had story asked in two different levels (three classes total) and we had not yet spent much time with the stories.  

In another class, we finished the story and interacted with it in a few ways, and had moved on to more content-based discussions and resources.  

My plan *was* (pre COVID-19): 

Spanish 1 Honors: Re-read class story, play a quick round of Quick Draw, do a mash-up of "Around the world" and "Who said it?"- only with all the sentences in 1st person, a quick listening assessment, and then have students fill out a 2 truths and a lie form about the story, to be played later.  This was probably going to take a  couple of class periods, and I would have added on some weekend chat with a write and discuss, and maybe finished the week with another story.  All in all, a lot of reading and re-reading our (incredibly hilarious) class story.    We were working in SOMOS 1, Unit 6.  


(I am teaching, they are joining in a zoom/meetup)

Bonus Documents: 
(because I made them, might as well share them; directions are linked in the documents) 


Changing the Around the World/ Who Said It activity to the new format was awesome.  

Reading the story in breakout rooms worked pretty well.  I need to try to work out at least one way for them to do that each session, and also remember that it is kind of time consuming for me to jump in and out of breakout rooms.   

I needed to do more brain breaks. Like more than one. Seriously- how could I forget this?  

Comprehension checks are HARD.  It is really hard to see if they understand.  I did ask them to move so that the light wasn't behind them if possible so I could see their faces.   Using the chat function on Zoom for students to do L1 comprehension checks worked out pretty well- all I did was ask them to type what I just said in English.  They did.  

*Note- if you use Zoom, you can change the settings on Chat- you can make it so that participants can only chat with host, can not chat at all, can only chat with everyone...I decided to try "only message everyone".  I might play with that so that they only message me if I continue to use that function, but maybe not.

And in the "kids say the darndest things" category:  One kid told me that another kid's internet was out, and wanted to know what to do about it.  Um...I told him that was part of this new normal and he needed to be patient.  

Spanish 2 Honors: 

Pre-COVID-19 Plans
Continue with the SOMOS 1, Unit 17 Past Tense lesson plans.  We just finished the reading assessment and discussion about immigration to the USA, and I was planning on using the video suggested in the lesson plans, doing a gallery walk for students to respond to some questions, then leading another discussion based on the gallery walk.  Students were going to work on reading and responding to a PDF document about border controls, and then we were going to do a writing assessment.  We were also going to do a cool jigsaw activity using some texts from Mundo en Tus Manos.  

*This class is more like a Spanish 3+ class in terms of their abilities to create with language- I would *NOT* do something like a jigsaw activity in a lower level class.  

This was the first class I actually taught online this week. It was the least smooth, but also the class that I have had the longest, so I felt confident that they would be supportive and understanding if it was a massive fail.  I really missed them!!! 

We did a little check in chit chat, then I adapted the video activity from the lesson plan and we did that.  The original activity had a series of phrases from the video for students to mark off as they heard them- a very challenging activity!- and then questions to provide input that is more comprehensible than the video dialogue.  

I decided to play a variation of (st)RIP BINGO and had them write down 6 of the phrases, making sure they were comprehended.  Then I played the video twice, and students marked what they heard.  Then the input came from a discussion.


Despite the fact that these kids have a TON of language, I would say this was a bit of a flop.  Chit chat/ small talk was pretty hard.  Having a discussion was hard- it was hard for kiddos to come up with contributions to the discussion even though I am actually 100% sure in this case that it was comprehensible.  More about how I will do that differently below.  I mean, they demonstrated their understanding of the main points of the video, but when it got to the meatier parts of the discussion (do you agree with what the people are doing, would you do it, etc.) I realized that I couldn't use the same scaffolded techniques that I use in class (e.g. turn and talks, gallery walks) to give everyone a chance to form thoughts and contribute. In this case, I couldn't do a gallery walk, for instance.  

What I can do for next time is to give them the questions in advance, put them in breakout rooms to talk to each other about the questions, and then come back to a big discussion. (Hey, this is why I am writing this blog- reflection time!!)  

It wasn't a total failure- having them do something with the video was good and I think they liked that it felt like work, and that it felt like a bit of "normal class".  

OK, I am done writing. This post has been more screentime than I wanted...more later!