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.  

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Part 2: What I taught as a Grammar Teacher

If you have not yet read part 1 of Title: Grammar Teacher, Goal: Language Acquisition to see my context as well as the planning process that I used to arrive at this unit plan, please take a moment to do so as that is key to understanding why I made the instructional choices that I made! 

This post is meant to address the question of "What did you actually do in your class?" as well as outline some of the differentiation techniques that I used to manage a split level class. It is *really* long. No apologies. This stuff takes time to explain! And I wanted to include what I did for differentiation (faster and slower processors) as well as modifications for an adult class. 

Quick recap: I had 2 levels of students placed in a class called "grammar class". I had a bunch of grammar concepts that I needed to teach but I know that isn't the best thing for the students. I had to make some instructional choices to balance the syllabus, student expectations, and what I know as a professional. 

Day 1


Image Description: photo and text on a light green background. Photo shows a  family photo from the 1950's.
Text reads Soy Mexicana-Americana. La familia de mi padre es del norte de México y el sur de Colorado.

I took the time to introduce myself, share some class norms, gave an introduction to my teaching philosophy and did a  little bit of myth busting of some common misconceptions about how language acquisition works. 

Image description: text on a green background. Text reads: 1. Have fun. Smile. Laugh. 
2. Tell me when I am unclear or you are unsure. 3. Short answers in Spanish are GREAT! 
4. 2-3 words in English are ok! 5. Don't expect to speak much until you have heard and understood a lot of Spanish.

Five minute timed free write

I did not collect this paper, so it isn't a formative assessment for me. It *is* a tangible piece of evidence to answer "What Did I Learn in Spanish Class" and when I have been an adult in a class and later as a teacher in an adult class I thought this was super valuable.

Read more about Timed Freewrites here: Time Freewrites: One Practice that Serves Many Purposes by Elicia Cárdenas (Deskless Classroom)  

2 Truths and A Lie (Preparation)

Students filled out a google form to share 2 Truths and a Lie about themselves. I *really* did not want them to use any kind of translator so I gave them explicit directions to not do so, encouraged 1-2 words in English, and gave them a list of sentence starters with definitions. This was also a bit of a formative assessment for me, because I know that when I look at it later I will get information about the students. My job is to create  slides with each student's statements to provoke conversation.  

You can make a copy of the google form that I used to edit and share with your students.    If you tried to make a copy of this earlier, my apologies- I had my settings set incorrectly! 

Read about 2 truths and a lie here: ¡Mentiroso! by Martina Bex (Comprehensible Classroom)  

Reading activity disguised as Song/Music

I knew that I wanted to include at least one song activity that was really a reading activity in disguise because songs are fun and I wanted to see what kind discussion might be sparked by the reading. (It turns out that students were super nervous and we didn't have much of a conversation, oh well.)

I introduced the title of the song (Oye como va) and, as outlined in the lesson plans from SOMOS 1, Unit 21 (free download from Martina Bex's Teachers Pay Teachers store), discussed the meaning and then shared the chorus. I went on to share a reading about Celia Cruz, the artist, and a little bit about meaning of specific words used in the song. Then I gave students a choice of just listening, counting instances of the word oye, or a more challenging task of counting instances of a handful of words. Instead of giving them a printout or computer activity to do while listening to the song, I decided to keep it simple and just invite them to count (if they wanted).

If you are familiar with the sequence of SOMOS units, you might notice that I did this sequence of learning activities out of order- usually, plans call for establishing meaning, translating, asking personalized questions, then doing a song. I decided to change the order up because I wanted to start with a bit of a splash, and music is always a great way to get buy-in.

Modification for adult class: none, really, except maybe to re-order the activities from the suggested outline. 

Differentiation: I made sure that the text was written to be as comprehensible as I could, and included glossed words, cognates, and made available the meanings of many high frequency words (Being comprehensible). I also asked processing questions to check for comprehension while I was reading (Asking processing questions) and started to ask differentiated questions to students who seemed to have more language. (Differentiated questions). Finally, I gave students the choice of how to interact with the song (Student choice).

Establish Meaning

I introduced vocabulary from SOMOS 1, Unit 21 by telling them what the words meant, then we translated sentences to see the words in context. 

Modification for Adult Class: I did change some of the sentences that were caregiver/child focused to be more adult focused. 

Differentiation: students worked individually with think time (Processing time), then volunteered to be the translator (Inviting participation), and all had access to the meaning of the words (Being comprehensible). For faster processors, I started inviting responses to questions based on the sentences once I clarified the meaning (Asking differentiated questions). And always: Accepting responses in any way- gestures, one word answers, L1 within reason, and full sentences (Accepting all responses).

Think Time for Personalized Questions and Answers

I had questions prepared that used the core vocabulary (goes to sleep, wakes up, and hears). I asked the questions. They answered. Sounds simple? Keep reading. 

This activity was very intentionally designed to give a ton of support because I had no idea how much language these students actually had, and I knew this would be the first time that I would be asking them to create with language. Balancing the need for input with having a conversation (which, by definition, means at least 2 people talking), keeping the affective filter low, and also not knowing how much language students already had was incredibly important to me.  

©The Comprehensible Classroom, used with permission and adapted by The Deskless Classroom Image description: black background with a yellow tent and yellow & white text with sticky notes and vocabulary words in English and Spanish. Text reads: ¿A dónde vas para acampar? and the sticky notes include responses to the question.

Personalized Questions and Answers (Discussion)

Finally, I led a discussion. I showed the questions and asked "who said that they get up at 8:00?" (in the target language) based on a response from the Jamboard or asked open ended questions, e.g. "When you wake up in the middle of the night, what do you hear?" (Differentiated questions, Accepting all responses). To facilitate the discussion, I had first, 2nd, and third person forms of the core vocabulary as well as high frequency verbs, and question words. I established meaning as new words came up. (Being comprehensible, Establishing meaning). I did all the typical things that I do when doing this activity, including reporting to the class, talking about myself, clarifying (did you do that or are you going to do that), asking processing questions, and more. 

Differentiation: I prepared a Google Jamboard with all the first person forms of the verbs (and their meaning) and any other vocabulary in the question that they might need to understand and answer the question. (Establishing meaning, Being comprehensible). I stated explicitly that answering in English, in 1 or two words, or in complete sentences was ok (Accepting all responses).  I also mentioned that they respond to the questions that they chose and that there was no expectation that they respond to every question (Student choice).  Then I gave private think time. (Processing time). 

Modification for Adult Class: I modified the questions from those suggested in the lesson plans- again, focusing less on caregivers from a child's perspective and more on adult perspectives.

You can read more about Personalized Questions and Answers in this article: Personalized Questions and Answers by Elicia Cárdenas (The Comprehensible Classroom Solutions) 

Some reasons why I decided to do kind of activity on the first day:

1) While there is a perception that comprehension based classes are all about input, that doesn't mean that students don't have opportunities to speak and create with language. It just means that they invited to do so, at their level, when they are ready, with appropriate scaffolding. 
2) I really needed a way to do some formative assessment and discover if my unit plan was on track or if I needed to re-do the whole thing. 
3) Personalized Questions and Answers is a great way to get to know each other and start to build community. 
4) My class was not a beginner class. Yes, I am going to focus on input, but also make space for creating with language (like I do in a beginner class!). 

Write and Discuss

Oh, how I love Write and Discuss in virtual classes. I have become a lot more comfortable with it over the past couple of years and while I use it sparingly, it is truly one of my favorite ways to end class. In this case, I asked "What did we learn about each other or the world?" in L2 and L1. As students replied (with me asking leading questions, especially at first when they didn't really get what we were doing), I wrote out their answers.

 Read more about Write and Discuss by Elicia Cárdenas (Deskless Classroom)

Image description: Text on white background.
Text asks "¿Qué aprendimos sobre la clase o el mundo? and then describes
various members of class in Spanish and other information with names greyed out.

Day 2

Ask a Story

Oh how I love to ask a story. I mean, story asking is what really inspires me and has brought me un unimaginable amount of joy in my classroom. It is the one thing my students beg for. I have to admit that I was pretty nervous to do it with adults but wow- once they got into it, it was an absolute blast. We created a fantastic story about a woman, some owls with a penchant for vegetarian pizza, a troupe of dancing rodents, competition between the rodents and puffins, and synchronized swimming.

Image description: Black text in Spanish on white background. Text reads: Alicia agarró su carpa y su saco de dormir,
 y corró del bosque a su carro. Pero tenía un problema: los búhos tenían las llaves.
Ellos tomaron al carro para comprar pizza vegetariana y todavía las tenían.
 llaves-keys todavía still 

Differentiation: Differentiation with story asking is something that I have been working on for a long time. I provided think time when asking processing questions (Provide think time, Ask processing questions, Comprehension checks), and went back to the beginning to recap several times. (Spiral information? Restate? Going slow). I invited students to submit ideas for story details (Student voice, Student choice, Accepting all responses) and I made all the vocabulary comprehensible by making sure they could see all the words I was using (Being comprehensible). I asked some different kinds of questions  to faster processors and yes/no questions to those who needed more support (Differentiated questions). 

Here is a collection of ALL the story asking resources that Martina Bex and I have compiled: What is Story asking and How do I do it? by Elicia Cárdenas / Martina Bex (The Comprehensible Classroom Solutions)  

Read more about differentiation techniques: Differentiation in the TPRS/CI Classroom by Elicia Cárdenas (Deskless Classroom) 

Cooperative Mural

I love this activity for when the story is over but you want to keep working with it. Although I have tried a few different ways to do it online, my gut told me that trying to do it with any kind of tool might not go so well, so I decided to use Zoom annotations. I don't love it, but *most* of the class could do it. (Some struggled a bit with just opening a google doc, so I didn't want to push it.) Basically, in this activity, students have a short amount of time to draw a moment from a story and then I narrate it or ask questions about it. It is SO fun!

You can read more about cooperative murals here: Cooperative Mural by Martina Bex (Comprehensible Classroom) 

 You can see me doing this in person in the video here: Cooperative Mural Short Demo by Elicia Cárdenas (Deskless Classroom)

Here are some of the pictures we drew!


Image description: white background with sketched images of a car with owls,
a figure in a tent seeing rodents, and another car. 

Differentiation: In this case, I don't think I did much to differentiate except for making sure that I was continuing to point to language on the board (Being comprehensible) and probably asked some processing questions. I invited rather than required participants as well.

Read parallel text

After the collaborative mural, I shared a short reading with similar language to the story we had just asked and we read it together, clarifying for meaning. I got the text from the original story script, included in the curriculum. 

Differentiation: I asked processing questions as necessary (Ask processing questions), did comprehension checks, and made sure the meaning of words was available for students to look at during the reading (Being comprehensible).

Horizontal Conjugation

This is one of my favorite activities to do, but this one kind of bombed due to the lack of tech skills and me not taking time to explain one really important thing well.

Here's a breakdown of how it went:
After reading the parallel story, I switched to English and explained that we were going to change the perspective of the story from 3rd person to 1st person. We did the first paragraph as an example together, then I gave students a choice: work on a story in a breakout room changing from 3rd to 1st person or changing from past to present. The part I missed saying was that there was a word bank on the last page activity for support. So my differentiation plan was this: student choice, homogenous groups, and the word bank for support (establishing meaning, being comprehensible). 

What actually happened was that two of the students couldn't even get into the breakout rooms nor could they view the document, so they stayed with me in the main room and we worked together. That wasn't terrible, but the other students struggled because I didn't tell them about the word bank, because they chose the task that was too challenging for them, and because I couldn't join them to offer support as I had planned. 

Upon reflection, I could have done this differently, or saved it for later in the week once I had a better sense of what would and wouldn't work, and which students were likely to bite off more than they could chew.

This is one challenge with giving students choice if you don't know them very well, but hey, live and learn, right? They still got some Spanish input, and I learned a lot about them as learners.

Read about horizontal conjugation here:  Horizontal Conjugation by Martina Bex (Comprehensible Classroom)  or how I use it to differentiate here: The Great Grammar Compromise by Elicia Cárdenas (Deskless Classroom)

Wrap Up

I listed the "grammar" things we had done that day in English. It was a pretty long list and they were surprised. It included: preterite/imperfect, present progressive, reflexive verbs, stem changing verbs, verbs with irregular yo forms, and ser/estar.  

Prepping for the next day

That night, I typed the story in present and past tense versions so that I could use it for some games (below) and so that students could read it if they chose, and I finally got answers to the first day's 2 truths and a lie (because some folks had tech problems, so they had to email me), typed those out, and made slides of each person's information.

Wow!  This amazingly long blog post has gotten *really* long, so to finish up, I am going to just bullet point the rest of the week. I think you all probably get the idea of how I differentiate and plan. Ask questions in the comments for more information!

Day 3

Played 2 Truths and a Lie

I prepped slides with each person's statements, and encouraged them to ask each other questions to find out more information. I saw this twist- the asking questions part- done in a Mandarin Chinese lesson recently and was BLOWN AWAY by how awesome it was. We spent an hour in my class on this activity. To vote for the lie, we used the "polls" function in zoom in a way that I learned from Diane Neubauer (read about that here). We applauded the good liars and learned a ton about each other. It was amazing. Note that because I prepped the statements before class, they were in comprehensible language.   

This was SUCH a blast and lasted the best part of the hour, with much laughter and strategy to ask the best questions.  

Differentiation: I provided word meanings for high frequency words and established meaning for any new words that came up (Being comprehensible). I also pointed to words on the board as support, and asked faster processors for more information. I invited students to create with the language by asking questions, but I did not require anyone to do so (Inviting responses).

Image description: Text boxes Gray background with hanging plants. Text reads: Elicia escribió:
Me gusta ir a los casinos. En el pasado, he trabajado con un elefante, un serpiente,
El String Cheese Incident, y Dra. Maya Angelou. Trabajo por MIT.
Worked with Story: Read Together and Before and After

We read the story in past tense from the previous day together. I shared the text and we literally went through it sentence by sentence. Then I gave them each a digital copy and asked them to tell me: what happened *immediately* before [event from story]? What happened immediately after [event from story]? I love this activity because it requires strong understanding of the text, re-reading, and inference. At one point, we had to go back and reconstruct a chronology of the story because the narrative jumped time frames (like stories do sometimes) and we had to discuss what happened first, second.

Differentiation: established meaning of new words, being comprehensible, asking processing questions, comprehension checks, differentiated questions, and...using a familiar story (from the day before) and providing it for students to read in present or past tense. 

Read about Before and After here: Before and After by Martina Bex (Comprehensible Classroom)  

Circumlocution game

I had prepped an emotions analysis activity as well (well, it is super low prep!) but enthusiasm was waning, so we played a game from Kristy Placido called the Circumlocution Game. I LOVE this game.

To play it on Zoom, I prepped a slide with sentence starters (similar to ones suggested by Annabelle Williamson here) and modified it to be a whole class activity. I private messaged a volunteer one of the words to be guessed, and they had to describe that word in Spanish without using the word (even if they knew it, which pretty much they did not). Other students in the class had to guess in English what the word was. Words like "safety pin", "snowman", and "garden hose" are the kinds of words that we used. I finished the class by sharing with them that this skill of circumlocution is incredibly valuable because it's hard to know all the words, but being able to explain an idea even when you don't have the language is great to know how to do!

Day 4

This was the last 2 hours of class and it got here much too soon! I had probably another 8 hours of lesson plans prepped, but I sat down and looked at where we had been and what I still wanted to do, and decided on the following:

Picture Talk:Hedgehog Goes Camping

I showed adorable pictures that I found somewhere on the internets of a hedgehog going camping. We started developing a little narrative about Herman the Hedgehog) and how he was camping to get some space from his ex, he was afraid of water, and more. Mind you, at this point, the students were driving the narrative. I was asking questions like "what happened immediately before this moment?" and "what is he doing right now?" to continue to encourage instances of past/ present/ progressive/ narration in a natural way. I also wanted to expose them to some vocabulary that was important for the final reading, and the pictures gave me a very natural way to use those words. 

Differentiation: established meaning of new words, being comprehensible, asking processing questions, comprehension checks, differentiated questions...the usual!

Picture Talk 2: Comparison of camping in the Western US and Patagonia

I knew that I wanted to finish our discussion of camping with a comparison of camping culture based on pictures and experiences from my own time spent camping for several months in Patagonia, as I had some materials that I had already created and because it was pretty interesting. I used pictures of camping in Patagonia and camping in the Western US (where I live) and discussed them. 

This was less of an open ended picture talk in that I wasn't trying to develop a narrative; I already had the narrative and text; it was more like me telling a story using pictures to clarify and compare/contrast. 

Differentiation: established meaning of new words, being comprehensible, asking processing questions, comprehension checks, differentiated questions.

VolleyBall Reading

I wanted students to do some more reading, preferably in a small group or independently, so I had a text ready that was a write up of the 2nd picture talk. I also wanted them to do something social, so a volleyball reading, something I don't often do, seemed like an easy, low tech way to check off all the boxes. Plus, I could do some homogenous group differentiation, which was something I really wanted to do since I had a strong sense of their levels of language at that point. 

I shared the document and modeled the activity with a student who is also a colleague.  I started assigning groups, making sure that one person in each group could share the screen and had the document open, and sent them off. 

Differentiation: homogenous groups: higher level students together, mid together, lower together, and the lower level students got more attention from me.  The reading included a glossary of all the words.  

Read more about VolleyBall Translation here: Volleyball Translation by Martina Bex (Comprehensible Classroom) 

Scaffolding Vocabulary

Notice how I scaffolded camping vocabulary to be able to read this article that focused on cultural comparisons. This was very intentional.

First, I found a resource that allowed us to talk about the most important vocabulary in a natural way (Hedgehog camping picture talk). Then I used that language again, very contextualized, to give oral input and discuss the cultural comparisons in a large group, then I sent students to do a reading, again using the same language. In this case, it was camping vocabulary, but it could have been any list of vocabulary.

Consider how different this is from giving them a list, or a quizlet/kahoot/etc. of camping vocabulary to memorize. Consider how my students heard the language in context, connected first to a narrative then in a non-fiction text.  This is how I take advantage of how our brains acquire language and honor all my students' brains, rather than privileging those who can or choose to study and memorize.

When was the last time you...?

After reading, I decided to do a little interview style game called "When was the last time you...?"  I shared a slide with a question in the target language such as "When was the last time you went to a shopping mall?" and "When was the last time you went to a restaurant?". The discussions that ensued were rich! Useful language was used in a meaningful way! We learned who does the grocery shopping, who went shopping for a dress to wear to their child's wedding, and who at outside at a restaurant vs asking for carry out.  This was basically another Personalized Questions and Answers activity.  

Differentiation: you guessed it! I established meaning of new words, was comprehensible, asked processing questions, did comprehension checks, and asked differentiated questions. Also, I asked for volunteers to share rather than putting people on the spot without warning (invited participation).

Timed Free Write

It was nearly the end of class and I wanted students to do the identical activity that we started with. They had 5 minutes to write about anything. Again, I didn't collect it or even look at it, although I invited students to share it with me.   

Where next: a discussion to continue the journey of acquiring Spanish

This was such a hot topic for the students that it made sense to spend the last 15 minutes of class talking about it.  It is tricky to help students, especially adults, reframe the idea that speaking with other students to practice will grow their language. But of course, this is unlikely to be successful unless they are getting input that they understand. Add to that the fact that two learners are likely to be exhibiting a bunch of developmental forms (aka errors) and giving each other junky input (junkput, throughput, as described by Terry Waltz), and there are better ways for students to use their time. But saying that isn't necessarily going to be helpful. 

Instead, I suggested that reading a book together and meeting to talk about it might be very fun.  I did quick book previews of some of my favorite books for language learners (ok, by favorite, I mean the ones at the top of the pile!) and shared some resources for purchasing those books.  I reiterated again and again that practice does not lead to language acquisition and reading and listening to things that are comprehensible does.  I did this all in English, by the way, because doing it in the target language would have been incomprehensible. 

Image description: Green text on a gray background with hanging houseplants. 
Text reads: We acquire spoken fluency not by talking but by understanding input, by listening and reading. 
Dr. Stephen Krashen, Principles and Practices of Second Language Acquisition

And it was time to go!

I hope this extremely long post was helpful to you! Thanks for getting to the end! Great work! 


Sunday, June 27, 2021

Title: Grammar Teacher. Goal: Language Acquisition.

Image description: beige background with hanging plants.
Text reads: Title: Grammar Teacher Goal: Language Acquisition

Teaching Spanish Again (online)

I got to teach Spanish last week! This past year, I have not really been teaching consecutive language lessons aside from short (5-20 minute) demonstration lessons. And you know what? I REALLY LIKE TEACHING SPANISH. I had so much fun.  

But the intention of this post is to talk about the part of the job that initially terrified me: I was hired with the title of "Grammar teacher." 

I was handed a workbook/textbook with a syllabus that included an extremely long list of discrete grammar points, explanations in English for each, cultural information in English (!!!), and activities such as "verb conjugation Battleship" wherein students utter verb conjugations to try to win. No communication involved.  (Also, #nojudgement if you played this game in your class. I did when I first started teaching, or some variation of it.)

I was invited to teach in an adult Spanish immersion program, taught this year virtually. So yeah, I was seriously walking the walk that I talked about all year long- re: teaching online.  Fun fact: I don't feel like a hypocrite!  I think my workshops for teachers teaching virtually were spot on, because I was using everything that I talked about. 

Plus, due to low enrollment, I was also supposed to teach a split two levels: "intermediate low" and "intermediate mid". I am using quotes because these levels are not in any way aligned with ACTFL proficiency descriptors.  So, two workbooks/syllabi/sets of grammar topics to teach. In 8 hours total. 

Program Disconnect

As an experienced acquisition based teacher who spends most of her time talking about how language acquisition works and what we can do in classrooms to make it happen (that is, Director of Training for The Comprehensible Classroom), I know that following the workbook will not help students reach any kind of language goals, and furthermore, will likely cause anxiety and/or frustration in many- even if it is what they are expecting. 

Read that again- even if the "paying customers" are expecting explicit grammar instruction, even if the school expects it, I know that teaching and practicing explicit grammar is not going to actually meet the goals of the program or the students. The fact that there is such a huge disconnect between the goals and the expectations and reality is a problem that I think many teachers can identify with.  Right? 

This teaching job was a new role for me- my first time teaching in this program. I was invited in thanks to some wonderful mentors Laurie Clarcq, Skip Crosby, Michele Whaley) but I was totally the new girl on the (virtual) block. 

So what do I do? How can I do the best for the students and their wonderful brilliant brains? How can I convince them that acquiring a language is joyful and not about hard work and studying, while still meeting the expectations of the program? How can I help them acquire language and hopefully get invited back? Again, these are questions that I think many teachers struggle with. I know I am not the first to be in this position!  

Image description: green background with houseplants.
Text reads: I know that teaching and practicing explicit grammar will not meet the program goals.

And also...I do have strong opinions, based on research, experience, and evidence, about what will help students acquire language. I feel confident that I can make a real difference in their Spanish acquisition if I am given the chance to do so. 

Now that you know the context of my teaching and the constraints, read on for the thought processes I went through to decide what and how to teach, and a little bit about what ended up happening and what a unit looked like (in part 2). 

Considering Expectations 

In order to even begin planning out instruction for the class, I had to stop and ask some important questions about the program: 

#1: What are the true expectations (spoken or unspoken) of the administrators and/or other teachers? 

#1a: What are the consequences of not meeting the expectations? 

Well, it turns out that although the textbook lays out a daily plan and scope and sequence, there is not a lot of clear expectation from the administration about how to follow it.   In this case, there is also not a lot of expectation from the teacher "above" me (next level) because there is a general understanding that we teach the students that we get, not the students that we want.  Since students self-select into these classes, there doesn't seem to be much blaming other teachers. 

(Which is a whole other issue- I mean- does blaming the level 1 teacher for students not being able to do something that is developmentally inappropriate really help anybody? That is probably another blog post,  and we will be doing a whole Fun Club episode about it later this summer. Stay tuned.) 

What are the consequences of not meeting the expectations? As far as I could tell, in this context, the worst consequence would be to not be invited back. After speaking with other acquisition focused colleagues who dispensed with the textbook as well, I decided that was unlikely. 

You know why? Because success builds motivation, and when students are happy and feel confident, like they learned something, they are very likely to tell administrators (or in school situations, their caregivers, who in turn tell administrators).  Administrators like happy students & caregivers. 

One thing that I have learned from teacher-leader Angela Watson is to really ask questions like this rather than assuming that we know the answers. Teachers are often mistaken about expectations and consequences- sometimes because no one really cares, or sometimes because administrators really do have our back and trust us to be professionals.  I encourage everyone to make instructional decisions based on actual facts about your teaching context. 

#2: What is really possible to achieve in the time frame?

Image description: off white background with houseplants.
Text reads: How much is realistic to do in the given time frame? 

Pretty much every scope and sequence from a textbook about what to do in a certain time frame is completely bananas. My two syllabi were no exception.  Plus, contact hours were cut due to being online, and I had a total of 8 hours with students. 

More importantly: we know that explicit instruction does not turn into implicit learning. There is a great deal of evidence for this. You can take a look at this very recently published paper: Was Krashen Right?  published by Dr. Karen Lichtman and Dr. Bill VanPatten for a fascinating discussion of this research and other extremely relevant ideas if you are into that sort of thing. 

Other sources for information about second language acquisition that are quick to read include my very favorite books for language teachers: The Nature of Language: A short guide to what's in our heads (VanPatten 2019), and While We're on the Topic (VanPatten 2017), both published by ACTFL.  

So if I spend time teaching these discrete grammar points, even if I could teach all of them in the few hours I have (which is totally impossible), it's not going to help students acquire.  

It will likely be boring (for them and me), frustrating because the "rules" don't really make a ton of sense (because they are simply descriptors of incredibly complex systems and don't adequately describe what is really going on in our language systems), and the end result will continue to be "wow, I just spent all that time studying Spanish but I can't communicate."  

"But I learned that way"

Some of you reading this might be thinking "Wait. I acquired my language with grammar explanations. I know the rules for ser & estar /imparfait & passé compose/ subjunctive / stem-changing verbs, so what are you talking about?"  

I ask you this: are you teaching you? Or the students in front of you? 

There is a very small percentage of students who can glean enough information from grammar instruction and practice to start acquiring a language. Language teachers tend to have been those students. In addition, I have observed that many teachers, when they reflect on their acquisition journey, discover that they really began to acquire when they studied abroad or were otherwise immersed in the target language.

Image description: green background with houseplants.
Text reads: Are you teaching the student you were? Or are you teaching the humans in front of you? 


To me, this is an equity issue. Some kids might be the ones who get motivated by grammar exercises, who can memorize and have strong study skills (and all the privilege that goes along with those things) and can pass tests and get into upper level programs (where there often is more reading & communication, which lead to acquisition) and eventually study abroad.  

But what about all the others? How many kids make it from level 1 to AP? And are they representative of the school's population? Why don't all the kids go on and feel like they can acquire another language? I mean, they already acquired communicative competency in at least one, effortlessly.  Why are those upper level classes reserved for a certain kind of student? 

And...I think it's important to ask ourselves: Are we teaching just some of the students or are we teaching *all* of them?  There is some fascinating evidence for rethinking how language classes are taught from an equity perspective. Take a look at Grant Boulanger's work with AP classes.   My work as a Teaching Assistant with MITx's (free) Becoming a More Equitable Educator class has shown me that teaching the students in front of us (and many other common practices in an acquisition based classroom) are in line with principles of equity focused teaching. I hope to write more about that soon! 

So what did I actually do?

I looked at the two syllabi: (click on the images to see bigger versions)  

Image description: Grammar syllabus.
 Click on the image for pdf

Image description: Grammar syllabus for level 4.
 Click on the image for pdf


I started a list of the big ideas in the grammar sequence: reflexive verbs, stem changing verbs, preterite/imperfect, ser/estar (to be in Spanish), irregular present tense verbs, present progressive.   I glanced at the themes (weather, professions) but decided that those were less important than the verbs. Although it is common knowledge that vocabulary lists are an important part of language study, I know that the most frequently used words are much more important, so, as the expert (the teacher) I am going to choose to focus my energy on the most important things from the list. 

How did I decide these things were more/less important?  And why did I even start looking at the syllabus with this in mind? 

Well, I was thinking about power standards and the idea of Marie Kondo-ing the curriculum. What is truly the most important to teach, and what can I let go of? This article from Carrie Toth: The Chuck-it Bucket  (Somewhere to Share) is a great resource, as was this article about using a textbook and still providing input that students understand: Comprehensible Input from your Textbook from Martina Bex (The Comprehensible Classroom).    I was also thinking about the most frequently used verbs and the words that I use in conversations and see in books vs. the words in the  textbook. 

Choosing a Resource

I thought about the SOMOS* units that I love that were appropriate for intermediate low students- and then thought about how the students were probably a mix of novice mid, novice high, intermediate low, and intermediate mid, based on the "placement test" which did not in any way assess communication or acquisition.   

Hmmm...SOMOS 1 Unit 21 has reflexives, irregulars, and stem changing verbs. Oh- and present progressive, irregular verbs, ser and estar (because they are used all the time!) and has a theme that is pretty fun to talk about for adults, especially adults in an outdoorsy place (Bend, OR).  And I have some authentic resources that I can use to do some higher order thinking activities ( and contrast) and some other resources that are just fun. Also, I have taught the unit a few times and found it to be a really fun one. That's important for me! As far as adding in preterite/imperfect, well, that's easy- we can do some activities in the past tense- discussing yesterday, reading a story in past tense, doing a picture talk and asking "What happened immediately before x happened?" and that sort of thing. 

Now, if you don't know the SOMOS curriculum like I do, this might be more of a challenge. You could ask colleagues for recommendations, ask on a collaborative facebook group, or check out a curriculum map. (You could do this with any curriculum!). 

You could also backwards plan from a favorite resource or theme by thinking of the most important words that make sense in that theme that *also* include reflexives, irregulars, etc.  

The thing is, you can can use almost any resource with almost any kind of language. If you focus on high frequency words, you get irregulars and stem changing verbs. If you are a little creative, I bet you can add direct object pronouns, indirect object pronouns, and of course, our old friend the subjunctive tense. Or anything at all. 

To recap:

I decided to use the textbook syllabi as guidance, but use SOMOS 1 Unit 21 as a framework, because there was no way I was going to be able to teach everything that was listed anyway, but I could use a lot of the kinds of grammar points included in the syllabi quite easily. 

Here is the syllabus with the grammar points that were going to be included in my lesson plan. The highlights are instances of words that we used again and again, in context. The notes to the side indicate either the activities that included that language feature or function or specifics about what I was going to focus on.  

Image description:syllabus with highlights and notes; click on image for pdf

Image description: syllabus with highlights and notes; click on image for pdf

Notice that not everything is included. In 8 hours, it would be completely impossible to do everything, and some things are more important. This is where experience and judgement come in: deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. 

Did I get it perfectly right? I have no idea! But again, the important thing is that students hear and read a ton of target language that they understand, and that is the plan. 

Setting student expectations

Once I had my plan, I also had to consider how to set expectations for the students in my class who were literally sent the textbook/workbook ahead of time with an email saying "Elicia will be using it". 

A colleague recommended that I create a workbook with an answer key, and offer students the opportunity to do the exercises on their own time, which I did. For both levels. 

I also decided to be very up front with students and explain that time together with me was going to be spent using the language, rather than talking about the language. I took about 5 minutes to talk about how language is acquired when we understand messages and when we communicate, and that is something that we can only do together, and that the workbook was there for them to use on their own. 

Image description: light brown background with houseplants.
Text reads: We spend time in class using the language instead of talking about the language. 

Each day, I shared another quote about language acquisition (e.g. "Students studying language have the best chance of success through reading-Dr. Stephen Krashen") at the beginning of class. It took about a minute.  When one student (who was not there for initial introduction) asked if I could provide them with lists and rules, I paraphrased the introduction and shared the workbook again. I directly addressed the difference between using the language (listening, understanding, reading, writing, speaking) and learning about the language, and reiterated that we were going to use the language since that was what we were there to do. (And yes, I did all this in English because I wanted to make sure they understood!

Read part 2  for a detailed discussion of my "Unit Plan" and some reflections.