Friday, August 2, 2019

Responding when comprehension breaks down, and a simple story

This year, I was invited to be an apprentice teacher in the Teaching Lab at iFLT'19.  It was a great experience, and a fantastic learning opportunity.

Co-teaching and planning with 3 other amazing teachers!  Teaching adults! No curriculum!  The set up was one master teacher and 3 apprentice teachers, planning each day and then team teaching and co-teaching.  Leslie Davison, the master teacher, brought some props and had a few high frequency (and hilarious) words in mind, and an idea about a theme for the week.  The theme: durian fruit.  It just so happens that I use a reading by Kristy Placido in my classes about the durian, so that worked out well. But that's not what I want to talk about today.

Instead, I want to talk about when comprehension breaks down, how I beat myself up, and how our team responded.  I also want to share a very simple story that anyone could use. (The example is written in Spanish. Scroll down for the English version.)  

I want to focus on the moment when we realized we had to slow down and how we responded.

We had a wide variety of levels, from total beginners to folks who could write full paragraphs in Spanish, although the class was advertised for beginners. (Sound familiar? Like any class in any school!)

We had just discovered (through some formative assessment and comprehension checks) that some of our students were not understanding our messages, and were not stopping us to clarify.  This was a huge wake-up call for me.

For a while, I felt like a real failure- my one job that week was to make these adult students feel positive and confident about their language, and to create an environment where they understood everything and felt safe to say if they didn't.  I was already out of my comfort zone (It turns out that I think that adults are terrifying.) and was feeling unsure of my skills and my role as a co-teacher.    (Not because my colleagues weren't rockstars- they were. But because co-planning is really, really challenging if you are just meeting each other for the first time!  It got a lot easier pretty quickly.)

Martina helped me flip my mindset about this- she pointed out that I *was* doing my job- that I was checking for comprehension, and based on the information I received, we made a plan to meet the students where they were at.  She also helped me see that I had developed a strong enough relationship with the students to notice when one was very uncomfortable and figure out what was going on.  

Our teaching group (me, AnneMarie Chase, Jahdai Jeffries, and our fearless leader Leslie Davison) decided to focus deeply on three structures and work very hard to stay in-bounds for just those three words.  They were wants, goes, and gives (to).   We had already introduced these structures, but we wanted to really spend more time on them.  We felt comfortable adding the expressions is feeling happy  and is feeling furious because one is a cognate (furioso)  and the other we had used a ton and could easily explain.

A very simple script
I wrote a simple script and made a slide in Spanish.

Click here for the slide, reading, extended reading, and activity

I think that this is a great example of a very tightly constrained story taught at the beginning of an instruction cycle.  If I do say so myself!

I asked the story, using all my skills to keep it comprehensible, checking for understanding, and most of all, personalizing the story so that it was fun and funny.  I went as slow as I felt I could go, and I challenged myself to keep the words that came out of my mouth very limited.  This is known as sheltering vocabulary.

I was delighted to find that a student who came late to the class was super excited to be an actor in the story, and although she had no prior language skills, she was a hilarious presence and knew how to have fun with the story.

Here is the first story:  (Click here for the English version)

Now here is the cool part.  Because we were co-teaching, once I was finished asking the story, AnneMarie got up and continued to work with it.  She decided to flesh it out and add more details- because we knew that everyone understood the base story.  She did a variation of this activity, while retelling it and adding more specifics.   Notice how Version 2  of the reading is more complicated and uses a bunch more words.  It's also way more interesting!

Student draw-along from our story
While she was teaching, I was sitting in the back of the room typing up the story, and adding details as she went.  I was also creating a very simple formative assessment (but also more input!) to give to the students when she was done.  I took sentences from the story and created two options for details, e.g. Risha (wants/has) a monkey. 

Students wrote the correct word on a whiteboard, but really, they had to re-read the sentence and make sure they knew what it meant.  To further scaffold all the reading, I added a glossary on the bottom of the page so all the words were easy to find.

I think that teaching adults in this situation was a good reminder that no one needs to be made to feel bad for not remembering a word- I put those words on the slide as support- if they needed them, great. If they didn't, they could ignore them.

I have never had the experience of co-teaching with other experienced teachers, and once we figured out how it was going to work, it was really fun!  Adults weren't really that scary, and I did actually know what I was doing, and there is ALWAYS room for improvement!

Carol Gaab, Jahdai Jeffries, AnneMarie Chase, me!, Jason Fritze, Linda Li, Donna Tatum John, Mark Mullaney, Dina Marshal, and Grant Boulanger, IFLT10 Closing 


  1. So fun to work with you, Elicia! I’m sure it won’t be the last time!

  2. The woman sitting between Paul and Grant is Dina Marsala; she co-taught the Adult French class with Paul Kirchling. She was terrific. My husband was in the class, and he enjoyed it a lot!

  3. Awesome account of that entire sequence. Thanks for all your hard work and innovation.