Saturday, August 17, 2019

What matters most

Alyssa Campbell, of Seed & Sew, spoke recently in the Summer SOMOS Fun Club episode on Classroom Management about self care.  She talked about it in context of collaborative emotional processing.  Because (this is my take away), you can't take care of your emotions or support other people in their emotions if you don't take care of yourself, and the root of our interactions in classrooms is emotional.  This got me thinking a lot about self care and why I am such a nut about going to bed early on school nights.  It also made me thing about my Lunchtime talk at iFLT 19, which touched on a similar theme.

Self Care

What does self care have to do with language acquisition? Well, let me go back to some fundamentals that I believe.

There is only one thing that really matters when it comes to language acquisition.  (And it is *not* assessment, despite what you may think after spending time on this blog!)

There is one thing that creates language in people's heads.

There are, of course, factors affecting how that language is created and how our classes function.

Let's go back to what the Coaching from the Heart model uses to frame teacher's work.  There are two goals in an acquisition driven class:

1. The communication takes place using language that is understood by the students (comprehensible and comprehendED).
2. The class is an environment where students feel safe and want to take risks.

Comprehensible and ComprehendED Language

Trainers talk a lot about how to be comprehensible.  Sarah Breckley just made this incredible video with a lot of specific ideas on how to do it. If you go to a workshop or conference focused on input, you will find a lot of beginner sessions focused on how to speak so your students understand.  (Maybe we need more).
Some strategies for observation,
reflection, and reference by
Martina Bex
Martina and I collaborated earlier this year to make this resource for reflection, reference, and observation. It has all kinds of strategies to link meaning.

Being comprehensible and comprehendED is not easy and it takes a lot of intentional focus, but there are skills that can be taught and practiced.   Here is a great blog post from Martina about being comprehensible.

And of course, we can speak all day long and think that we are being comprehensible, but we also have to make sure that students understand what we say. We do this with constant formative assessment.  For many, this is asking a ton of questions, looking in their eyes, doing comprehension checks, and more.  

Then there is the work of making every student feel safe and willing to take language risks.  For me, this is hard work.  I have to create a community where students feel secure, one that is predictable as well as emotionally and physically safe.  

And I teach middle school, which means I have to work really, really hard to keep them interested in what I have to say. (That is why TPRS is my go-to!) While there is not really any evidence that the input needs to be compelling for language acquisition to occur, there is a lot of evidence that middle school students better be interested in what is going on or the whole class will fall apart.

Me, after a day of teaching
But it does get easier!  
All that is exhausting. Like, really, really exhausting.

One thing that I observed when I first started teaching with TPRS and focusing on input was my own level of exhaustion shot up.  A lot.  I was drained- so fully that I felt empty at the end of the day.  This exhaustion came from watching the kids, interacting with them, and monitoring every single pair of eyes (and body language) for a full hour (per class) all day, and making minute adjustments constantly to make sure each and every kiddo was comprehending and felt safe. It was exhausting. It still is. Every. Single. Day. (It does get easier, friends.  It really does.)

 This is what it sounds like in my head while I am teaching:

Amber looked sad when she came in today I wonder if she slept at her mom's or not. Better give her a smile and oh wait Jamil is starting to turn to Hamish so I am going to walk over to them right now before he even opens his mouth, but now Brian looks like he is going to fall asleep so I better check that he is following along and I wonder if Hailey is taking notes like we agreed or if she is writing a note about what happened at lunch and I don't think that everyone understands hacer SUP so I better comp check that and maybe I should put up that cute picture of Juniper on the paddleboard but I don't know where my phone is and I bet Joe wants to tell the whole class what he told me earlier so how can I give him a yes/no question that he can answer and understand?  

AND AT THE SAME TIME (while pointing or gesturing to words that I am not sure they know) saying:
"Clase, ¿Qué hiciste durante el fin de semana?  Yo pasé tiempo con mi perrita y mi esposo. Fuimos ..what does the mos mean?...we... Fuimos al lago Jordanelle para hacer SUP.  What did we do? We SUPped.  Hicimos SUP.  A Juniper no le gusta hacer SUP pero le gusta pasar tiempo con nosotros. Does Juniper like to SUP?  No.  ¿Qué hicicte tú? ¿Quién fue a las montañas?  Joe, ¿Fuiste a las montañas con tu familia?" 
(Class, what did you do during the weekend?  I spent time with my little dog and my husband. We went...what does the mos at the end of the word mean...we...We went to Jordanelle Lake to SUP. What did we do? We SUPped.  Juniper does not like to SUP but she likes to spend time with us.  Does Juniper like to SUP?  What did you do? Who went to the mountains?  Joe, did you go to the mountains with your family?)  

Yeah. That's HARD.  All that empathy and being open to receiving what the students are broadcasting (emotionally) while at the same time trying to herd the middle school cats AND speak in another language and make sure they understand... It is hard.

That is why self-care is so important to me.  

I can't control what happens to those kids outside my classroom, outside of the few hours a week that they are in my class. I can't keep them safe, I can't feed them, and I can't make puberty any easier.

But what I can control is what happens in my classroom: how much input they get and how fun things are.  (Which includes how safe, how interesting, and how comprehensible.)

And the only way I can possibly have the energy to create the classroom environment that I want to have is to care for myself.

So, I choose (my) life.

I choose input over pointless assessments, over grading everything, over activities that do not help students acquire. (I do what I have to do to keep my job, don't get me wrong. I *do* assess and grade, I just do it in the easiest way possible.)

I choose to spend my time working on getting better at providing compelling input. (Because middle school.)

I choose students over curriculum. (Read more here about some big mindset shifts that I believe in, including this one.)

I choose my passions.  I choose to engage in hard work that is important to dismantle systemic inequalities.

I choose to go outside and do something I am not very good at. (Painting plein aire.)
It feels great.  

I choose my well-being.

I choose my family.  As I said in my iFLT lunchtime talk: I only have a few years on this earth with my father.  I am not going to prioritize grading papers over a trip to visit my folks.

I actively try to simplify my teaching life to what matters most for language acquisition: input and emotional safety (sometimes known as low affective filter). And love.

For me, this means choosing one curriculum and not letting my squirrel brain follow the next great idea down the blogosphere.

It means treating my time as if it was as precious as my money. (It is.)

It means prioritizing things that give me joy (writing, painting, mentoring other teachers, learning more about second language acquisition, teaching a graduate methods class, walking the dog) and help replenish my heart so that I can go in and give my full attention to my kids.  It means advocating for myself and saying no and letting people (admins and friends and my husband) know when I need support.

Don't get me wrong-my husband wonders why I have a second job, and I don't always get to bed on time, and some days I don't get the workout or yoga session that I wanted, and other days I go in and snap at the kids or have no patience.  I am human, and far from perfect.  But I can honestly say that I am in control of my professional life, and I have a personal life too.


Here are some of my favorite resources about self-care.  In particular, Angela Watson's work, especially her book Fewer things, Better, has inspired me.  (The following links below take you to articles and podcasts by Angela.)

Erica Peplinsky and others (Megan Hayes, Justin Slocum Bailey) have all done some great work (blog posts, presentations) about self care as well.

So, as the year begins, how will you take care of yourself?  What will you choose?

Monday, August 12, 2019

Teacher Goals

One of the things I love the most about being a teacher is the expectation that I am always a learner as well.
I love getting better at things.  I love learning new things.  I love the challenge of figuring out how to do something well, or how to get better at something.  And of course, because I am human, I love that feeling of success. 
I was very lucky to attend a graduate program that required an immense, intense amount of self-reflection.  We were taught how to make self-reflection a habit, part of our lesson planning routines and our lives.  I am sure that I am a better teacher for that habit.
But it is easy to turn self-reflection into criticism, or even self-loathing.  Believe me- watching hundreds of hours of video of myself - to make videos for Comprehensible Online and to post here for others to watch- is really, really hard. But I am a better teacher because of it.  When I watch a video, or even reflect on the day or the lesson, it is very easy to go down the path of seeing only the things I did wrong, the things I could have done better.  It is hard to train myself to find the good.

I think this is a roadblock for teachers- when we take the time to be reflective, it is hard to get out of the habit of criticism, because that is how we are evaluated.  But it is imperative to shift our mindset to look for the positives, if we want to be better teachers through self-reflection.
The Coaching from the Heart model, as used by coaches at Agen, NTPRS,  IFLT, and now all over the country, is a great way to start.  
As coaches, we only look for the positive things that teachers do to make language comprehensible and make the students feel encouraged and safe to take risks.  It is such an amazing feeling to find out what we do well.  In fact, I think it was Angela Watson who suggested taking what you already do well...and getting better at it.  Isn't that a radical idea? 

So here are some of the goals I have set over the past years as a teacher focused on communicative embedded input, aka comprehensible input, and how I measured my success. 
I believe in setting goals that are focused, achievable, and that will have big impacts. 
My big piece of advice: Pick just one resource to teach and one skill or goal to work on.  
Before I share these, I want to say one really important thing.  I see a lot of teachers trying to figure out how to use all the great resources that are available these days -all at the same time.  I get it- there are so many great things out there, but I think that is really hard.
I think it is better to focus on just one resource/curriculum.  That way, there is less worry about what to teach, so you can concentrate on how. 

I use the SOMOS curriculum for the most part.  For the first three years that I taught, I only used SOMOS (and only after the first year, a novel).  Then I started adding in bits and pieces from other curriculum creators- Señor Wooly, resources from SomewhereToShare and Placido Language Resources, and other resources from Martina Bex.  
These goals are written as SMART goals.
Year 1* goals: survival.  
I was just trying to figure out which way was up- new school, new level, new job, new career, etc.
Year 2: SLOW
Why: After being a student at NTPRS in a few demo classes and during coaching, I realized that the easiest, most impactful change I could make was to go slow.   I even made a huge poster of my cats being super lazy with the word "slowly" on the bottom and hung it where I could see it while I was teaching.  
Specific: My goal was to go slow- specifically, to speak slowly, with pausing and pointing to slow me down. 
Measurable: I filmed myself in 15 minute segments and watched how many times I pointed to the L1 meaning, and did my best to measure my rate of speech. I also did a lot of self-reflection, and my supervisor agreed to observe me for just this one thing. 
Attainable: Getting better at just one thing is realistic.
Realistic: It was very, very easy to focus on one thing.  It felt manageable.  Since I already knew, more or less, what I was teaching, focusing on just this felt like I could really do it.  
Time based: I actually gave myself the whole year to work on this skill but self-assessed regularly.
Focusing on just this has made the greatest impact on my teaching.  

Year 3: Survival.  
Because some years, that is what you have to do.  This was the year that we doubled the size of our middle school but did not hire any new staff.  I have very few memories of this year, other than crying a lot.  
Year 4: Brain Breaks 
Why: I spent the summer reading about boys, and how boys learn.  (Hmmm...that was the year that instead of having a whole school read, we were given a list and got to choose.  That was some good PD. Hint hint, admins!)  I read Boys Adrift by Dr. Leonard Sax,  and two other books about gender differences and education, and then I also spent some quality time with Annabelle Williamson, who is, of course, the Queen of brain breaks.  I decided that one very tangible thing I could do to make my classroom more boy-brain friendly was to do more brain breaks.
Specific: just brain breaks (not rethinking everything!) and managing them. My goal was to incorporate 4-6 brain breaks an hour, or more. 
Measurable: I measured by self-reflection, counting the number of breaks that I took in certain class periods, watching video of my teaching, and having my administrator observe me.  
Attainable: I felt like I had enough of a handle on my classroom, being comprehensible, school culture, etc. to be able to focus my energy on this.  
Realistic: I felt like it was reasonable to try this.  I thought it through and made a plan. (My plan was basically to teach the "get quiet and go back to your seats" procedure first, and to keep a running list in front of me with favorite brain breaks and USE them.) 
Time based: I gave myself the entire school year to figure this out.  Having that much time helped me feel like I could try, fail, reflect, and try again.  
Result: Brain breaks are such a huge part of my practice now that I can't even do a presentation with adults without doing brain breaks.  
Download my expectations here.
Year 5: Consistency in responses to disruptions 
 This last year, my goal was to consistently use the classroom management system in A Natural Approach to the Year, also referred to as ANNATY, to maintain consistency and better manage my responses to behaviors.  A key to this plan is to stay positive, so I added a sub-goal of being relentlessly positive the whole time.   
Why: the previous year was a real bear in terms of classroom management- just a handful of kids, but they really worked me.  It is the only time I have told my admin that I never wanted a kid back in my class.  I felt like the plan outlined in ANNATY fit well with my philosophy about management as well as my teaching style,  and provided really clear, easy to follow steps that could be practiced and implemented with consistency. 
Specific: I was going to use the A,B,C, D levels of responses to disruptions with positivity. I wrote them out for myself and posted a mini-version next to my computer, so I could see it at any point. 
Measurable: This was a little harder to measure, but I filmed myself and did a lot of self-reflection. And as far as measuring the positivity, it really came down to how I felt at the end of the class.   
Realistic: Because I believed that this was going to be a good plan for me and my teaching style, it felt very realistic. And again, it was ONE thing.  
Time-based: I had a check-in with myself at each mid-term and term end (6x). But again, I did it for a whole year.
Gaining consistency and maintaining the attitude of Relentless Positivity, (credited to master teacher Paul Kirshling but I first heard it from Annabelle) made another huge difference. I had the best year of my career.  It wasn't because I had great kids (I didn't, ask all the other teachers!) nor was it because it was easy year (Oh, it really, really wasn't).  I think it is because I was both consistent and positive.
Year 6: Responding to Anxious students 
Big goal: I would like to better support high-anxiety, anxious students in my classroom.   
Why: Let me be perfectly honest: I have little patience for these students.  They are the ones that get under my skin and that I have to work very hard to not just dismiss them. And I know that I can do a lot better at meeting them where they are at and helping them develop a sense of efficacy and agency.  It is a real area of growth for me because I just don't understand why they can't ....anyway, I know I need to work on this. I teach an honors class and I have a LOT of these students. They drive me crazy and I KNOW that I am not always meeting their needs.  
Specific: I want to recognize my own lack of patience and respond in a way that will support these students- with kindness and understanding, not impatience and frustration.  My plan is to identify when I start feeling frustrated and impatient, and take a deep breath, then think before responding.  And when I respond, I want to respond with love.  
Measurable: I plan on asking my admin for some ideas on how to measure this.  I know that I can train myself to respond better, but I would like some feedback.
Time Sensitive: I want to give myself a full year for this.  
What are your goals for the upcoming year?  
Do you need some ideas?  Here is a blog post I wrote about CI overwhelm, and also about goals- but at the bottom, there is a graphic organizer that might help categorize what you want to work on, and a little bit more about why I believe picking ONE THING is more powerful than many things. Please feel free to take a look.
*This was actually my fourth year teaching, but it was my first year really committing to input based teaching.  

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 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Friday, May 24, 2019

Play-doh Day!

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

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

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

Next, pass out the play doh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total engagement!

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