Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Differentiation and more: Back in the classroom!


I spent the first three weeks of school…in school! I was invited to take over for 3 weeks while a teacher was out on paternity leave- so I got to start the year with students! 

Some students were those that I knew from way back in the Before Times- when I was teaching one section of 5th grade, writing curriculum for grades 3-5 as I went, and mentoring an elementary teacher in addition to teaching my regular schedule of Spanish 1 honors, Spanish 2 honors, and Spanish 1b.  Then the pandemic hit, and the rest was…well, you all know.

I did a week-long sub job last year for a colleague in Texas as well, but it was a short, quick week at the end of the year, and while it was wonderful and worthwhile, I didn’t really get to try a lot of new things. 

I got to try A LOT of new things this time! 

And wow, I had a lot of new things to try!  I was so lucky to get to spend time in the language labs at IFLT this summer with Marta Ruiz Yedinak, Skip Crosby, Annabelle Williamson, Hayiun Lu, and others, and to be a facilitator-coach at the Agen Conference (IN FRANCE!!!), embedded in Spanish with Adriana Ramírez. From all of that came a list of things that I wanted to try, observations, things I wanted to think about, etc. However, the theme of the summer for me seemed to be Differentiation. I watched as some incredibly masterful teachers modeled a TON of different differentiation techniques- some that were familiar and some that were totally new to me. 
In my next few blog posts I am going to share some of the things I saw, learned, and tried. Let's start with Differentiation and the Amazing Skip Crosby!

Differentiation: Skip Crosby Style

Skip was a language lab teacher at IFLT this summer. 

I should mention that Skip is a master at differentiation. It’s so subtle that if you aren’t looking for it, you will likely miss it, which is incredibly impressive because the students don’t even notice it. All they seem to notice is how successful they are any time he asks them something.  If you ever get a chance to watch Skip teach, treat yourself. 
(Side note: He hosts the annual TCI Maine conference, which is open for registration as of September 2022 and although I am not going, I am 100% sure it will be amazing. Click here for more information: TCI MAINE 2022)

Some things that I observed him doing included (some are very differentiation focused, some are just Skip being amazing). 

Accepting non-verbal answers

    As a learner (of Chinese) myself, I can not stress the amazing value of this practice. There are many times when I understand a question and even know the answer, but may not be able to or confident enough to verbalize. I have seen this over and over again. 

Using cognates

    Cognates, if you teach a cognate-rich language, are great *so long as everyone understands them!* Cognates are a literary skill and can backfire- imagine being the person in the class who doesn’t know the word that is “obvious”. Making meaning clear for cognates is one trick. Mike Peto taught me this: use a gesture (I use my two index fingers coming together) to indicate a cognate. When I do that, students can shout out what they think it means in English. Then I confirm. 

Changing the question when it was not understood

    I watched Skip ask a question and then realize that it wasn’t a good question for that student- that is, they weren’t able to understand or answer it- and smoothly repeat the question in such a way that it was understandable. I can’t quite wrap my head around how to do this in such a way that it isn’t obvious-like Skip did- but it is something that I aspire to. 

Letting one student repeat and translate to the shared language any time it was needed

    This practice is something that I have really struggled with. It was really eye-opening for me to see and hear Skip model this and to recognize how it didn’t interrupt or disrupt the flow of teaching or language. I know, based on research and practice, that using the shared language in class does not do harm to student acquisition of the target language, but I have always stopped this when it happened in my class. (Like last week.) Re-reading my notes from watching Skip, I wish that I had just let it run its course, and recognized that the student was getting what they needed in that moment.


    Personalizing our classes is one of the core practices of a comprehension based classroom - after all, getting to know our students and talking with and about them is in our standards! And it takes a while- and practice- to use the information we get from them in a way that works in class. Skip reminded me of the importance of this. Some of the things he did included referring to their pets and their interests and hobbies throughout the class.

Staying in-bounds- only using language that had been used in class and referring only to what had happened in class that day. 

  Out of all the skills that are necessary for a comprehension based class, staying “in bounds” is maybe the hardest. ESPECIALLY when you have students who are at widely differing levels of proficiency. (Like me, last week, with an 8th grader who had never had language instruction and the rest of the class who had 2+ years of proficiency driven instruction…) It takes a lot of intention and work to make it automatic, and compassion for ourselves when we don’t get it right.    

Differentiation in the Moment: A Game 


Using a simple game format, the teacher asks questions of students that they are confident they can answer. The teacher asks different questions of students depending on the student. 

What’s the point? 

Teachers can use a game format to build student confidence and motivation by asking differentiated questions during the game. Plus, this is a great “sponge” activity to use when only a few minutes of class remain. 

Teacher Directions: 

  • Students stand or sit in a circle.
  • Teacher throws a soft object at a student OR students pass object around until music stops. 
  • Teacher asks a question about the day’s input (or other known information) that the student can answer.

Student directions

  • Catch or pass the object as directed.
  • Answer the questions. 

For some ideas of differentiated questions:

  • What does ___ mean in English? 
  • How do you say ____ in [the target language] ?
  • Where did [person] go first in the story?
  • What is one fact about [topic]? 
  • [in target language] Yes or no: ______. 
  • “You ask me a question” (for more advanced students, in the target language) 


You can play this with a lot of different kinds of games- any game where you ask questions about something that you make up on the spot. I have done it with The Lucky Reading Game and also with a variation of 4 Corners.

STAY TUNED FOR MORE - Coming soon I hope! 
Differentiation and observing Adriana Ramírez, 
The Student who is new to Class and how she read a whole page of a story after 3 weeks
Not Quite Plan B, Not Quite Anything goes (adding structure when kids are squirrely) 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Live! In Person! Two-day training! Salt Lake City, here I come...

Warning: Shameless pitch about a workshop that I am leading. 

(It's my blog, I can pitch if I want to!) 

I am so excited to be able to bring a 2 day workshop to our Mountain West region. I have been working very hard at creating trainings that actually mean something- and frankly, I am really proud of the work I've been doing. I'm really proud of the aha moments I see from teachers, from the feedback that helps me grow, and of the confidence that teachers have reported feeling after the workshops. I'm also (and yeah-I am tooting my own horn here) really proud that teachers of languages other than Spanish (我 看 你们 中文 老师)feel supported. 

I also tried to make this particular workshop as easy as possible for people coming in from out of town- based on all the things that I find hard and expensive when traveling! 

The workshop location is in a downtown hotel, easily accessible by quick and simple public transportation (direct ride) from the airport, near places that I would actually want to eat. (I know, because I actually eat at the near by restaurants.)   We were also able to negotiate a reasonable hotel rate.  Finally, I designed it so that participants could potentially fly out on the second day (workshop ends at 1:00, with optional coaching in the afternoon), because who needs to spend another night in a hotel unless you want to? 

Oh, and you can earn graduate credits too!  

Here are the details:

Click here for registration

August 10-August 11, 2022

Teach and Assess for Acquisition 

Salt Lake City, UT 

Cost  $150.00

If you are interested in doing some in-person training with me, please take a look at the information on this link- all the details are here, including information about the hotel, what's included, more about the workshop content, contact info, and more, check out this link: Teach and Assess for Acquisition in Salt Lake City 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Projects in World Language Classes: An Opinion

image: classroom background with text overlaid that reads: Do projects support language acquisition?

Let's talk about projects, shall we? 

It's something that comes up a lot.   I am basing this on the number of posts about projects in every language teacher forum, even those that are dedicated to comprehension based teaching.  
Important: I am writing this piece, on my blog, about what I think. I am not intending to judge anyone for their instructional choices. I *do* want to explore some ideas that have been sloshing around in my brain around projects and their various purposes. Again, I am not writing this to say that anyone is bad or less good or anything else. And maybe, you might find some ideas that support you in your journey to be a little bit more comprehension based and/or a little bit more equitable, which *is* what I hope to do. 

Some teachers build their whole language curricula around projects. Others use projects to manage an otherwise unmanageable set of school expectations and duties (e.g. coaching, directing a school play, etc.).  Others have such fond memories of their own projects in language class that they can't imagine not doing them! And, finally, some kids love them, parents and admin often love them, and they do seem to part of the unspoken list of "Important Things to Do In Language Class."

What are projects? 

When I think about projects, I am thinking of things like:

  • Students write, edit, illustrate, and publish a text to share or include in the class library. 
  • Students make a craft of some sort, usually culturally relevant.  They might present about the craft as well. 
  • Students research a topic and produce something- a written or oral presentation or product on that topic. 
  • Students work together to create a skit  to perform in front of other students. 

Project Based Learning (PBL), a super hot New Thing, has a lot going for it too, and many schools are jumping on the PBL bandwagon to show how their students are using real world skills to solve real world problems.  Now, I have some love in my heart from project based learning as a general educator, and I have a lot of questions and critiques of it as well- again, as a general educator. Having watched my colleagues move to an integrated project based learning system (and being dragged along for the ride), I see how it *can* result in meaningful learning.  IN GENERAL EDUCATION CLASSES.  As a language teacher, I have a lot of concerns. 

A recent post in a language teacher group got me thinking about what the purpose of projects might be, why kids (and admin) ask for them, and how we can meet that purpose in a way that supports language acquisition.  

My Opinion: Most projects do not support language acquisition. Especially for novice and intermediate leaners. 

Teachers might choose to do them for other reasons, so again #nojudgement.  

 I have written before on this subject, but here's a summary of my thinking:  (excerpted from this article):
  • Projects are usually not level appropriate.  Most teachers overestimate what their students can and “should be able to” do, and most projects involve specific, contextualized vocabulary that will require time to look up and memorize, as well as discourse beyond their level. A good rule of thumb is “if they struggle with the activity, the task is too challenging.”
  • Projects are incredibly time consuming for both teachers and students, using time that could alternately be used to do things that help students acquire language (e.g. input). 
  • If the students have to produce something to share with others, either it is fairly low quality (because they don’t have the language yet) or it requires a great deal of time- consuming editing and correction on the part of the teacher.
  • Dr. Bill VanPatten talks a bit about project based tasks in chapter 6 of While We're on the Topic, and points out that project based tasks are not intended to practice language, nor are they appropriate for beginners. He gives some solid examples of tasks that might work in upper levels. He also speaks very specifically about Project Based Learning (PBL) in Target Language.  
Most PBL is beyond what students of language can do at the lower levels. Imported from educational contexts, PBL assumes ability with language. This is why it is a popular approach for learning science, history, and other subjects; speakers work in their first language to complete PBL projects, but beginning students don't have skills in the second language equivalent to their first language skills. So PBL in languages might be better for more advanced language proficiency levels."   (VanPatten, 2019)
  • Research in second language acquisition (SLA) tells us that practice is unnecessary for language acquisition. Students do not need to speak or practice to acquire. They need to listen to messages and read messages, that they understand. 

Background of bookshelves with text that reads: What need is not being met when stakeholders ask to do projects?

What do projects accomplish?

This is some new thinking for me: to really consider what it is that projects accomplish. 

When kids/parents/admin ask for projects, what is the purpose? 

What need is not being met (or not being visibly met)? 

In asking for projects, stakeholders might be asking for:

  • more "fun"
  • opportunities to follow their interests and personalize learning
  • opportunities to create with language
  • more time interacting with peers

Background of classroom with text that reads "How can we meet those unmet needs in a way that DOES support language acquisition?"

So my question becomes: are there other ways to directly meet some of those needs, while still giving students lots of input?

Yes! I think there are! My first idea is centered around reading, aka Free Voluntary Reading / Self-Selected Reading / Free Choice Reading. 

Background of books with text that reads "Free Choice reading accomplishes many of the same goals as projects".

Personalize Learning & Following Student Interests

Free reading is a great way to let students personalize their learning, follow their interests, acquire vocabulary that is relevant to them, and of course, to differentiate. When one student is reading about music, another is reading a story about immigration, and another is reading about a favorite sport, students are personalizing their learning. 

And remember- you don't have to have a huge budget to buy readers in your target language. There are many ways to get free and low cost texts in your classroom. (Hint: a printer and dollar store page protectors can go a long way!)  

You can read more about how I set up my free reading program here,  and from Alina Filipescu here: SSR/ FVR Reading Program.  Bryce Hedstrom recently wrote an entire book about it (which I have not yet read but plan on it!): High Impact Reading Strategies 

More time interacting with peers

Letting students talk about their books with each other is a very simple, quick way to let students socialize. Yes, I *do* let them speak in the shared language (English, in my case) because I only want them to do this for a couple of minutes. The payoff is huge as they get excited about their books, hear about different books, and engage in the habit of readers everywhere: telling people about their favorites. Andrea Schweitzer has a great activity for this as well- you can read that here, on Martina Bex's blog: Speed Dating your classroom library.

What about Game of Quotes? This game, from AnneMarie Chase, is social, fun, and lets students feel like they are creating with language...while re-reading. It's brilliant.

More Fun

Have you ever played Game of Quotes? Go do that. Have you ever gotten pleasure from telling someone about a book that you enjoyed? Let your kids do that! 

Background of school hallway with lockers with text that reads: "Co-creating narratives is fun, community building, personalized, and interactive."

Co-creating narratives (aka Asking a story, story asking, TPRS)

For some teachers, asking a story is really stressful and doesn't work for them. I get that, and also, it works for me and it one of my favorite things to do with students of all ages.   You can read more about story asking here and watch me do it with students here and here. 

When I co-create a story in class, I have a script outline (usually, but not always!). I ask the students for details about who the story is about, specific events in the story, and often the end of the story. Students contribute their ideas, and often these ideas are glimpses into what they are interested in. 

Personalize Learning and following student interests

When you co-create a story and are able to incorporate student interests in that story, it is all about them.  I know it seems like story asking is very teacher directed, but when student suggestions and interests are incorporated, the story really does become their story. From watching Storage Wars to riding on the backs of giant bison (a reference to some popular animated Netflix show), their ideas that are included (and even the ones that aren't included) create a sense that the language in the classroom is theirs. 

More time interacting with peers

I ask students to interact with their peers in a lot of ways, both during the process of story asking as well as after.  During story asking, I might let them turn to a shoulder partner to do a quick recap of what happened so far (in our shared language or in the target language, depending on the level), or to make a prediction, or to decide what happens next.  After the story is done, I might do any one of a variety of interactive activities.  Play doh scenes comes to mind, as do any of the small group variations of Secret Input. (You can even see a video of my kids doing some interacting here: Breathing Space, Resting Space.)  Some of my favorite activities from the SOMOS Curriculum, like Running Dictation, Write Draw Pass, Fan N Pick, and 9-Square and variationss all involve some level of peer interaction (depending on how you do it).  And don't forget all the input focused Kagan activities and cooperative learning that Martina has adapted! The Lucky Reading Game, from AnneMarie Chase, is a blast and is virtually no prep. 

Heck, I have even been known to let students write, with a peer, their own version of the story (I give them 20 minutes and very specific directions). Although they spend their time speaking English during the process, the payoff is a bunch of different stories that I can type up (correcting any irregular language), and that we can then read, illustrate, vote on (funniest, most probable, least probable, most creative, etc.), and add to our class library. 

More fun

Story asking is usually pretty fun, in and of itself. And playing with play doh? Yep, also fun. Any of the post-reading activities I listed above are pretty fun! Some are more prep, some are low prep, and some are no prep.  

Creating with language: Some musings 

Now, you may have noticed that I haven't really mentioned a lot about giving students more opportunities to create with language, although that may be one reason why projects are requested. 

Here's the thing: I think that it is possible to give students lots of opportunities to create with language, but I tend *not* to create activities that force them to do so.  The one glaring exception to this is when I ask students to do Timed Free writes (Fluency Writes).  Please read more about why I choose to do these, if you are curious. 

The reason I don't force them to create with language (with that one exception) is that I strongly believe that forcing them to create won't help them acquire, and it has the strong potential to raise their affective filter- that is- to make them stressed out, which will inhibit their acquisition. 

I will work on a future blog post about how I create opportunities to create with language at some point. Annabelle Williamson (La Maestra Loca) has a lot of brain breaks that support students creating language as well- take a look at her blog for some ideas.

One way that allows students to create with language is to give them rejoinders. 

I use rejoinders all the time, and I find that they are a great way to let students express themselves, even when they are beginning language students. For more about rejoinders, hop over to Grant Boulanger's blog and learn more. 

So, to sum up: when stakeholders ask for projects, it's worth it to ask ourselves: what needs are not being met that they think projects will meet? How can I meet those needs in a way that will support language acquisition?  

I hope this blog post has given you some food for thought!  

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Breathing Space/ Resting Space

Image: desert sunset. Text reads: The Exhaustion is REAL.  How do I provide input and give myself a break?

The Exhaustion is REAL

Over the last few months, I have been getting a lot of requests from teachers for activities that give them a break- activities that are still input-focused but let students work independently or in small groups. I hear you!

The feeling of being on all the time, of being the one who has to guide the conversation, to monitor every kid's comprehension, and the sheer emotional weight of taking care of every person in the room is exhausting.  The thousands of decisions we make each hour are overwhelming. Deciding which word to use, when to walk over to that student to check in on them, when to ask a question, when to stop and give students a break, all the while that we are managing the actual humans in the room, while speaking in a different language and navigating between's really, really hard.

Image: Desert sunset. Text reads: Breathing Space, Resting Space

Breathing Space/ Resting Space

So what do we do to make it feel like we aren't on all the time in a comprehension-based classroom? How can we give students input, that they understand, and not feel like we have to be captivating their attention 100% of the time? 

Luckily, there are a lot things we can do! Some things require some up-front work- either in finding or creating texts that are 100% comprehensible to your students. Here is an article that addresses that- but if you are working with a curriculum or novel that has texts that you are confident that your students understand, or you work to co-create a text (through strategies such as Asking a Story, Card Talk, Write & Discuss, etc.) you have a TON of options.

I decided to dissect a lesson, filmed when I was recovering from a major knee surgery, and share exactly what I was doing to give students input, allow for super low energy on my part, and get through a really rough time in my life.  (You can read more about some of the lessons I learned during this season of being on crutches here: Mindset Reminder)

Image: polaroid photo with colored pencils. Text reads: Listen and Draw.  Teacher reads a familiar text. Students draw events from the story. Activity Credit:  Laurie Clarcq, Hearts for Teaching

Strategy 1: Listen and Draw

I had students draw while I read. I asked a handful- a very small handful- of comprehension questions to make sure that they were really understanding, but what I was reading was the typed out text of a story that we had co-created, so it was familiar and easily understood by students. In this activity, I had students use whiteboards and markers, but any kind of paper/writing utensil combination would work.  I also had them draw 4 pictures, dividing the whiteboard in 4 boxes.   Read more about that here: Secret Input

Activity Credit: Laurie Clarcq, Hearts for Teaching  Honestly, I don't know where I learned about this, but it seems *likely* that I learned it from Laurie. It is one of several strategies that fall into what I call "secret input" strategies, that I have presented on a few times.  If I learned it from you, please let me know so I can credit you! 

See this strategy in the video below at 0:22. 

Image: Polaroid with an image of a stamp that reads Top Secret. Text reads: Secret Input. Students: find the text that matches the picture. Underline it in your copy of the text.

Strategy 2: Secret Input

 Find the text that matches the picture (Secret input variation)

Once we had pictures, I had students prop their whiteboards on their chairs, find someone else's whiteboard, pick a picture, and, using a written copy of the text, find the best sentence to describe the picture. Then they had to underline the sentence in the text that matches the picture. They had to do this five times. 

See this strategy, including how I give directions in the target language, in the video at 9:24. 

Image: Polaroid with students of color at a table looking at pictures. Text reads: Picture Share. Students highlight their own or another's picture and read the accompanying text

Strategy 3: Picture Share

Students highlight their own or each other's art.

After students glued their copy of the story in their interactive-ish notebook, they were invited to share their own or someone else's art. My role was calling on the kid, clarifying which picture, and listening. The kids did all the work AND celebrated each other! 

In video: 15:46

Brain break!

Brain break: Pikachu (From La Maestra Loca) 

Bonus! Practicing when students did not meet my expectation of going back to their seats silently. 

In video: 18:50

Image: Polaroid of chrysalis becoming a butterfly. Text reads: Before or After? The teacher reads an event from the story, and asks students to write what happened before or after. Activity credit: The Comprehensible Classroom

Strategy 4: Before or After

This is a low-to-moderate energy activity. While it is teacher led, it feels very low energy to me because all I am doing is asking students to re-read the text and find the answer to one of two questions (which required no prep on my part), then copy the answer on their white board.  I think that it feels low energy to me because while students are writing, I am drinking coffee, futzing with the music, reading over their shoulders, providing hints or support, etc. You can read a detailed description of this activity here: Before and After. I learned it from Martina Bex. 

In video: 20:20

Another Brain Break

Brain Break: Toe Tapping Brain Break

I have NO idea where I learned this from, sorry! If I learned it from you, please let me know and I will credit you! 

In video: 29:18

Strategy 5: Draw and Write a prediction

This strategy only works for some teaching contexts- specifically, when one is teaching a novel. In this class, we had read chapters 1-5 of Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro, then diverted a bit from the novel to  ask a story.  To bring us back to the world of the novel, I asked students to draw and write what they thought would happen next in the novel. This activity was adapted from the Teacher's Guide. 

Note: That day, before I went home, I picked 7 or 8 of the best predictions, corrected any language errors, and put them in a slide show to print out.  When we next met as a class, I put the printed slides around the room and had kids walk around, read the predictions, and then vote for funniest, most probable, most improbable, and most creative. This was another way for me to get them to interact with input without me leading the class- but it did require prep on my part.   

In the video: 30:15

High Energy Strategy: Weekend chat

For the last few minutes of class, I asked students what they did over the weekend. So you can see what it looks like! Read more about weekend chat here: Weekend Chat

In the video: 34:28

The Video

Here is a *very* long, unedited, un-captioned, imperfect video in Spanish that shows most of the  this lesson. I am sharing this so if you want to see what some of these strategies look like, you can! This video is unique in that I was about 4 months post-knee surgery, and I was on and off my crutches throughout the video. I was a real mess during this time period (because of the surgery and accompanying massive pain levels and stress of not being able to do anything that I wanted to do, e.g. ride my bike), and I think the video really shows how you *can* provide tons of input without being captivating or high-energy.  

About this video: Students are in a Spanish 1B class in April of their 8th grade year. For most, this is their 2nd year of Spanish in a comprehension-based program.  All students have permission to be used in this video. 

Minute by minute guide 


Directions for Secret Input: Read and Draw


Directions for Secret Input: Find the Text 


Secret input: Picture Share


Brain Break: Pikachu

Practice returning to seats quietly!


Before or After reading activity


Toe Tapping Brain Break


Make a prediction: Draw and write


Weekend Chat (brief!) 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Becoming, always becoming, a MORE Equitable Educator: Reflections on my learning

Image of a woman with a handbag on a purple background.
 Text reads: MIT Teaching Systems lab Becoming a more equitable educator.


In my role as a community teaching assistant for the MIT Teaching Systems Lab course Becoming a More Equitable Educator, I have learned a lot, interacted with a great variety of educators, and written more than I could have ever imagined.

However, my learning, both from being a student in this course and from participating as a teaching assistant, has been wide ranging and also very action oriented. This is the place for me to talk about what I've done with some of that learning.


image of a two people chatting on a computer and table. 
Text reads: Using community assets. Who are the experts in my community? 
What assets do I have?
During the course, educators are asked to develop a map of community assets. I did not realize that this asset map would serve as a foundation for a great deal of the work that I would do for this past year. I found allies and tapped into an amazing community of educators who had a lot to share about their own work in becoming more equitable.

I felt empowered- because of a new job and a strong sense of wanting to do something- to bring some educators together and create some trainings and resources to address equity in my teaching community. 

Here are some of those trainings and discussions:

Staying true to yourself (with Elicia Cárdenas)

This is equity related, just not directly. It is about making principled choices in teaching, albeit in a very specific context of comprehension based communicative language teaching. The more I explore this topic, the more I am sure that this is about equity.

A conversation on equity and engagement: what does it look like in 2020
with Bob Patrick, Meredith White, John Bracey, Dahiana Castro, and Elicia Cárdenas


image: stack of books. Text reads: examining our status quo. 
What are commonly accepted practices that no longer fit with my goals of becoming more equitable? 

There are a lot of commonly accepted practices in world language classes, especially around assessment, that I felt like I needed to really dig into and ask if they were practices that were in line with my goals of becoming more equitable. It turns out that I had a lot to say about engagement, grading accuracy, participation, and more. I *still* have more to say, so when I write more, I will add it.

Addresses equity in our choice of pedagogy 

Things to Avoid: Grading Accuracy, Participation, and Engagement/Effort


image of a woman with a large heart. Text reads: Understanding the role of self care. 
How does taking care of myself help me be more equitable?

This idea has been slowly coalescing and is still in its infancy. It started with a truly transformative experience at the People of Color Conference in a session about the trauma of equity work. I realized that I was carrying around a great deal of trauma from my experiences in working as part of an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion team. Like- A LOT. While that workshop was specifically focused on healing from trauma, it made me start to wonder:

How can taking care of myself and putting myself first help me be a more equitable educator? Here's what I came up with:

I can be my best self, more often.

If I am well rested and not stressed, I am less likely to react, and more likely to either notice a situation that is going off the rails before it happens or respond in a way that is kind and patient. Hangry me just snaps, gets annoyed, and kicks kids out or shamed them (we have all done it, and I am not proud of it). 

When I show up with my best self, I am much more likely to have an equity mindset. I am more likely to look at any student in any given moment with an asset based and context centered mindset.  

I can focus on what is important, more often. 

If I am taking care of myself and not spending every extra minute doing things that I hate (e.g. grading for the sake of grading, marking errors, etc.), I might also be taking more time to plan better lessons, to create time in my lessons to check in with students, creating or finding better resources, or (gasp) even connecting with other teachers to support my practice. 

This has played out for me in some really significant ways: by being more intentional about how I spend my contract hours, by setting clear boundaries with myself and with others (and still keeping my job!), and being intentional about how I spend my time at school, I found that I had a lot more energy to plan better lessons and find amazing resources, with which to plan better lessons. Prioritizing a manageable work-week was a game changer. Also, it made me sleep better, spend more time doing the things I love, which led to less stress and me being my best self.

I have more energy and resiliency.

I have more energy and resiliency to have hard conversations, to take risks as an educator, and to practice being aware (instead of avoidant).  

I started to explore this idea in a handful of earlier blog posts (What Matters Most and Simplify) but the difference between what I wrote then and what I am thinking now is that self care is not just a nice thing to do, it is vital to be able to engage in the day-to-day work of becoming a more equitable educator. 

Image: people dancing with joy. Text reads: I can be my best self, more often. I
 can focus on what is important, more often. I have more energy and resiliency.


What a funny thing to write! There is no end. It's not like I have magically reached "equitable". It is a life-long process. I am constantly learning and un-learning. I am exploring the intersection of anti-blackness, fatphobia, and the role of white supremacy in eating disorders and the thin ideal. I am examining my own intersectional identities as a white skinned chicana, as my family digs out evidence of our very near indigenous roots, and looking at my role as a descendent of colonizers and of those who were colonized.  I am grappling with social media activism (and its harm) and growing my own capacity to be a leader. These are not easy things. 

So, no conclusion, sorry! 

(The course from MIT Teaching Systems Lab ends on August 26, 2021.)

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Simplify: A blast from the past

Image:Light pink background with a cassette tape.
Text reads:Blast from the past: An unpublished post from 2019


I was digging around in my blog recently and found this post. Whoa! It is from late October, 2019. Pre-Covid. Yeah, remember that? 

I was teaching 5th, 7th, and 8th grade- exploratory Spanish, Spanish 1 Honors, Spanish 2 Honors, and Spanish 1B. I was also mentoring a new teacher and teaching a graduate methods class as an adjunct. I think I was too busy to actually publish this! So I am publishing it now, almost 2 years later. 

Interesting fact: I didn't change anything in the post, other than to do a bit of light editing and add some images and links. This is one way in which I don't think my thinking has changed.  Except to add this:

If you love any of the things that I recommend against, it's ok! You are the expert in your life, in your community, in your classroom. My suggestions are based on my years of mentoring teachers who are trying to implement comprehension based teaching in their classroom, observing trends and common concerns from teachers. #NoJudgement. 

Now, in 2022, as I have transitioned to a formal training role, I am trying to create resources and trainings to support teachers. Thinking about these things continues to be a good use of my energy.  As we move into the 2021-22 school year and yet another year of unknowns, I hope that the idea of simplifying might help someone out in making their teaching and lives more joyful. 

October, 2019

I have a lot of half finished posts, and a lot of chores on my to-do list.  In fact, I am leaving to go camping for 5 days with the whole 7th grade...tomorrow morning! And I haven't started packing.

But today, instead of focusing on that, I want to offer a #mindset shift for those of my colleagues who are feeling overwhelmed.

Because, frankly, starting anything new is overwhelming.  And hard.  And rarely 100% successful.

I recently responded to a post on the SOMOS Collab facebook page from someone who's admin wants data to back up their new approach.  I wonder..would the principal ask the math department for data immediately after adopting a new text?  Would the principal expect significant gains in writing directly after adopting a new program, or would they invest in training, time, and let the teachers do their best?  Why is language any different?

Anyway, here is my advice: Simplify. Simplify your planning.  

Image:Light pink background with 80's geometric shapes. 
Text reads: Simplify.

Stop creating more work for yourself- we have so much to do already!  Here are some things that I see teachers doing that seem to make things harder:  

1) Powerpoints (or Presentations)

Feel like you have to have a powerpoint for every minute? Reconsider. Making powerpoints is a huge time suck. What would it be like instead to step away from the projector and sit down with your students? What would it feel like to give them a text and read it with them, without projecting? What would it be like to orient your room away from a screen? Can you just project the page that you want to share instead of putting it into a slideshow? What would the time savings be?

Image:Light pink background with 80's geometric shapes.
Text reads: Do you really need that presentation?

Note: I did make a master powerpoint for one class, for a book study. I did it to see if I liked it since it seems to be the main format for so many teachers, especially language teachers. While it is nice to have that resource now, the time investment overall seemed to be not really worth it, for me.  Others are different, so take this with a grain of salt.  

2) The search for more resources

First, I suggest that you find a curriculum. Or if you are teaching a novel, get the teacher's guide.

Then teach the curriculum.  Unless you absolutely MUST add content because of things you can't control, just teach it.  Live with it for a year or two.  See how that goes. Do some reflection.  Then...start adding.

Don't like the song that was suggested in the curriculum? Consider skipping it or, try teaching it.  I mean, it was put in the curriculum for a reason.  Decide if your gut was wrong- later.   Rather than spending time looking for or creating new materials, maybe just don't.  It won't kill the students to not listen to a new song every week. (We do one song about every 3-4 weeks. My kids are ok!)  Of course, use your professional judgement and don't use materials that will get you in trouble.

Image:Light pink background with 80's geometric shapes. 
Text reads: Pick a resource. Stick with it.

Feeling overwhelmed by resources? Take a look at this blog post that I wrote with some helpful links (I think!): CI Overwhelm: Practical Tools for Coping

3) Theme days

Joke Thursday, Cat Wednesday...they are great ideas!  But wow, the amount of work to collect those resources, and then make them comprehensible to different levels...that sounds absolutely overwhelming.  And if you use them in every class, then you have to keep doing it- day after day, year after year.   

While I love the idea of using the same resource for each class (and I have done this), what that means is that each year, you have to find new resources. That is  lot of work! 

Image:Light pink background with VHS tape.
Text reads: Are theme days worth it? What could you do instead?

4)Assessment Data Tracking for Planning

I am not saying that we should eliminate assessment. (But imagine! What would that look like???) I am saying that some of the things we do, e.g. some kinds of data tracking, and using that information to plan, may not be a good use of teacher time.

I have written a lot about assessment.  I really like talking and thinking about assessment.  
(Most of my assessment writings are linked here, and here.) But really, I feel like we spend WAY too much time talking about assessment when we know it doesn't really help with language acquisition. In fact, it doesn't even help for us to see what the students don't know- not really!  

Since language acquisition is stage-like and ordered, there is pretty much nothing to do but...give more input, and make sure it is comprehended.   That's it.  So, again, try to simplify.  This is a video I made with Martina Bex about how I simplify assessment- and more. Take a look! Assessment Hacks and Hope in SOMOS.  

In all seriousness, I used to use a data tracking form where I listed an objective at the top (e.g. uses time indicators correctly- son las 3:00, es la una, a las 2:00) and then listed the kids who could do it and the kids who couldn't. It looked great in terms of admin data requirements. And took a TON of time. Like SO MUCH TIME.  And that time- well, I can say with all seriousness that it was wasted time. Wasted for me, wasted for student learning. 

And this is why:  The present-practice-produce-assess-reteach cycle that is drilled into teachers doesn't fit so well in a comprehension based framework.  We know that explicit instruction does not lead to implicit language. And those features will develop in stages, in a particular order, and those features will be developed independent of instruction! So, tracking that information *only* shows me what students can not yet do.  

Re-teaching how to use time indicators is not going to help students use it in the long-term. It will certainly be boring and not really affect their language system at all, except maybe to impede acquisition of that form.  There might be some short term effects for some students. If I re-teach it, then re-test it, how much time am I spending? How much time am I giving up that could be spent doing something that does help them acquire? And what about the kids who have brains that are not yet ready to get it (which is NORMAL)?  What will it feel like for them to fail an assessment-again? Ug. I feel kind of gross just thinking about that.  

If you are in a district that requires you to read every word that students write, assign fewer words!  Instead of a 10 minute freewrite, do a 5 minute freewrite. Don't assign them to every class at the same time! Interested in reading more about freewrites? Take a look- Timed Freewrites: One Practice that Serves Many Purposes

If your district requires you to track data, here is an article that might help: Teacher Goals and SLOs.

Image:Light pink background with a cassette tape labeled Tea with BVP: Ordered Development and a walkman. 
Text reads: Keep SLA principles in mind when using assessment data. 

People are often surprised that I don't bring work home with me.  I don't, even with having fewer planning hours and more preps, because I am trying to keep things as simple as possible.  I found a curriculum.  I like it, I teach it, and I rarely supplement it because it's pretty robust. If I do supplement it, it is because I have something I really want to try out, or I am really passionate about something, and it only takes a little bit of time and effort to prep. 

How can you simplify? What are the time sucks in your planning process?

Image:Dark pink and black background with 80's sunset, cityscape, and palm trees.
Text reads: How can you simplify your teaching?

This post was inspired by the book Fewer Things, Better, by Angela Watson.  I *HIGHLY* recommend her work, and this book in particular, for focusing on what matters.  I am not an employee or in any way recompensed for recommending this book.