Thursday, March 7, 2024

Listen up! New Podcast with Claudia Elliot!

My friend and collaborator (also vice-chair of the Comprehension-Based Communicative Language Teaching Special Interest Group (CCLT SIG) for ACTFL) Claudia Elliot, of the Growing With Proficiency podcast and training resources, kindly invited me to join her to talk about the things I didn't learn in methods classes (one of my favorite subjects!) and other topics of interest to world language teachers. 

You can listen to it on all your favorite podcast streamers:

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Caregiver -Teacher Conferences (Parent-Teacher Conferences)

 This is a post that I have had planned for YEARS but never actually wrote.  I was planning on writing it during the 4th week of March, 2020. And we all remember how that went down...

Here is the plan that I used for nearly every caregiver conference after I jumped into an acquisition-driven, comprehension-based framework (and started using Somos), and it made conferences more of a pleasure than a pain. *Usually.*

A quick word about my context: 

  • Expected to be available to meet for 10 minutes with every student's caregivers, 2x a year, October and March.
  • About 85% of families and caregivers chose to meet with me.
  • *Not* student-led. In fact, caregivers were told that students were not welcome. 
  • Middle school. 
  • Our conferences were  *not* about grades. We were explicitly told to focus on other things- if grades came up we could address them but teachers were not supposed to bring up Little Johnny's grades and talk about them to use up our 10 minutes. 
  • We had marathon sessions of conferences- like 4-5 hours straight, and they went until after my bedtime.  They were so exhausting that I had to figure out how to make them very formulaic so that I didn't make terrible mistakes. (Like that time I told a caregiver that the kiddo was doing great, no concerns, and she emailed me the next morning saying "then why does she have a D in your class?" That was just plain exhaustion.) 

Plan Ahead

Martina Bex and The Comprehensible Classroom created a couple of resources that became really important to me for conferences. I had to be very intentional and plan how to use them with students throughout the year to maximize their usefulness. Here's a brief plan, with links to the products and very detailed descriptions. 

Week 1, Beginning of the Year

  • Assign a the Syllabus homework to students and caregivers
    • Location: Available as a free download, Somos 1, Unit 1
    • Pro tip: use different colored paper for different sections- easier to file later! 
  • Collect and actually read them as they came back, and follow up as needed/make notes of information.
  • File those very valuable pieces of paper in files with student names (or have them file them for me!). 
You might be wondering why I do this on actual paper? For one, I like paper. I like having something physical, and in order to share it for conferences, we need something physical. For another thing, it was more likely to get seen if it was an actual thing rather than a link. 

September, Beginning of the Year

  • Follow up with any students/caregivers who didn't turn it in. I need this before Fall Conferences! 
  • Bulletin Board prep:
    • These are located in the hallway where caregivers wait, and are *very* valuable in sharing information passively with all school stakeholders!
    • Proficiency Descriptions Bulletin board, created with students. Read about that and see some photos here: Teaching about Proficiency Levels
    • Start to create the Reading Board to be ready by conferences.  (This is a post that is coming soon...once I find the pictures! You can get a sense of what they look like at the start of the "Classroom Video Tour" Fun Club Episode. starting at 9:56-11:30 or so.)   

October, Fall Conferences

For each scheduled conference, have:
Note: I just put these in tubs that I bought at the dollar store, in order of the conference time because we had no time between meetings. We were scheduled minute by minute- like one conference would end at 10:10 and the next one would begin at 10:10. 

In my meeting place, have:
  • 2-3 chairs of different sizes (so that different bodies and preferences felt welcomed!)
  • Table
  • My list of conferences/attendees
  • Tub of student materials
  • Copy of the syllabus with proficiency levels on them, for each level.
  • Digital clock to keep us on time!
Flow of meeting
Each conference would go pretty much the same way (with variations, of course):

"Thank you, I'm Elicia, and I'm, happy to meet/see you again.
Since we have only have 10 minutes, I want to go over any questions and information you provided on the syllabus homework, show you a short sample of Little Johnny's work, and answer any other questions you have. What is Little Johnny saying about Spanish at home?"

I would listen, respond, and then:
  • I would go over their version of the syllabus homework, 
  • show them a work sample (usually from the interactive-ish notebook),
  • share whether I had any concerns about them progressing or anything else, 
  • Finally answer their questions.
Usually, their questions were some variation of "how can I help at home if I do not speak Spanish?" or "How can I help at home if I do speak Spanish?"  My answers were: 
  • ask your student about Spanish class, 
  • ask your student to read something from our Canvas page or their notebook and tell you about
  • read something with them from one of those sources. 


As we do timed freewrites, have students file them in their portfolio whether they are graded or not. 
As we start our free voluntary reading program (FVR), have them keep track of their reading with sticky notes, and periodically, add to the sticky note graph on the Reading bulletin board. 

Mid February, prepping for Spring Conferences

Plan a day in my schedule for every class to do some reflections. This will take at least the full hour, so maybe do it on a day when they are all too tired (or I am!) to do anything else! 

Print out a reflection packet for every. single. kid. (Do this on the same colored paper as the syllabus homework! You will thank yourself later!) 

Reflection packet:

I used the two reflection forms from The Comprehensible Classroom and added another page to ask about their reading. 
  • Student Self-reflections (2 pages)  Subscriber library /  Administrative Items: CC Subscriber Library / Student Self-reflection form
  • Reading form: (to be added!) 
Students were asked to get their portfolio files and their interactive-ish notebooks, and fill out their reflection sheets. One was about their behavior and engagement, another was about what they were learning, what helped them learn, and most importantly, a piece of work that they were most proud of. 
They marked this with a sticky note in their notebooks or put it on the top of of their portfolio (so I didn't have to search in their file). They also had to explain why they chose this and how it demonstrates their increasing proficiency. 

I did stipulate that the work they picked was a graded assessment, so that I knew that I had seen it and graded it. If they *really* wanted something that I hadn't graded, I asked them why and if it was a good reason, I would assess it using the same rubric that I use for that type of work. They usually didn't need this option. I did this because some would pick some really silly activity that didn't showcase their learning, where the assessments were very much designed to show what they knew and could do in the target language, and assessed accordingly. 

This type of reflection was really, really, really hard for a good number of students and also for me. It took SO. MUCH. TIME. Some would write no-no-no-I haven't learned- nothing on every page. I had to be constantly circulating, keeping an eye on the ones who would try to do the minimum, cajoling, modeling what to write, doing brain breaks with them, practicing patience, and pointing out what I thought was amazing from their work. This was always a very trying day for me, but the payoff was 100% worth it. It was even worth giving up an entire class period to not doing something input focused.

When they were finished, I had them bring their file back with their reflections on top and their work sample clearly marked.  Some had to finish the next day. 

Spring Conferences

I had the same things as before:
  • Tubs of portfolios and notebooks
  • Chairs
  • Table
  • Digital Clock
  • Syllabus for each level with proficiency descriptors. 

I started each conference in much of the same way, with this difference: 
"Thank you for coming and I'm happy to meet you/ see you again.
Since we have only have 10 minutes, I want to share with you some work that Little Johnny chose as the work they are most proud of in Spanish, share their reflection on their work so far, and answer any other questions you have."

From that, I let the students' words speak for themselves.

Celebrating Success

Here's the thing: most kids, when they are supported in being reflective, are incredibly aware of themselves. They know when they need improvement, and where, and they also know when they have done good work. 

It was so incredibly joyful to show caregivers what students CAN DO. Sometimes the kiddos picked two pieces of writing to compare and wrote about how much more they could write, or how they were really proud that they could correctly infer meaning from a reading quiz, etc. 

Instead of conferences being something to dread, they were (usually) little celebrations that left me feeling motivated and successful and caregivers feeling proud.  

Of course, I also had to have hard conversations and I had caregivers be mean and tell me that I was a terrible teacher, but that's part of of the job too. I had a LOT more positive interactions when I prepped for conferences this way, and I grew relationships with caregivers that was based on positives, which made any negative conversations easier overall. 

And the best one? When that one family apologized, years later, for being so unkind in prior conferences, saying that their older kiddo had learned more in my class than any other, and they were grateful to me. 

I hope that reading about how I set up conferences can give you some ideas for how to make these opportunities easier and positive. 

Friday, December 29, 2023

The New, Updated "Secret Input"

 I have totally been neglecting this little blog, but not because I haven't been working!

Take a look at the updated information and directions for Secret Input! This is a new blog post on The Comprehensible Classroom, by me.

More soon! 

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Input-Based Children's Books!

Input Based Book Projects: a guest post by Caitlin McKinney

Hello everyone! My name is Caitlin McKinney, and I am really excited to be writing as a guest blogger for The Deskless Classroom.

About Me:

I teach 5 different levels of French in a public high school. I am one of six French teachers in my district and currently the only French teacher in my building. I am just wrapping up my ninth year teaching and have been teaching with Acquisition Driven Instruction (ADI) for 5 years. ADI to me refers to a collection of teaching strategies that uses comprehensible target language in an interesting, repetitive manner so that students acquire the language (rather than relying on memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules).

The Challenge: Ending the Year and Testing and Block Schedules

It’s the end of the year. What that means in my district is that we are in the middle of standardized testing season.

Instead of our typical 50 minute class periods, 5 days a week schedule, we are on a block schedule.

For those of you that teach on blocks, wow! It’s a challenge for me and my students. My students are not at all accustomed to listening to French for 105 minutes, so this is always a struggle, especially with my lower levels.

Past Plans for Block/Exams and the End of The Year

In the past I have used this time (or at least part of it) for a class project in which my students write, illustrate, and publish their own children’s books in the target language.

Note from Elicia: this book project thing is *not* a project that is aligned with acquisition driven instruction- that's my personal opinion (and it is my blog!). 

Rethinking, Reflecting

I was recently perusing The Deskless Classroom when I saw Elicia’s post about classroom projects. The whole time I was reading her analysis and critique, I was nodding my head.

  • Was the task above my student’s proficiency level? Yes. 
  • Was the project focusing more on output? Yes. 
  • Did I spend a lot of time doing error corrections? Absolutely.

Even so, I was in desperate need of a class period where I could be hands off, and my students were in desperate need of a quiet creative outlet.

Then it struck me: Why not make an input-based project?

Input-based Children’s Books!

Instead of having my students write a children’s book, I would have them create a wordless picture book for their class and then USE THOSE BOOKS FOR INPUT.

Even my level ones could benefit from all of the great things that come with projects (e.g. an outlet for creativity, an opportunity for student input, and just plain novelty) in the classroom routine - without having to worry about their proficiency levels.  

Plus, I can break up our long class periods by using their wordless picture books for picture talk! 

To create the actual book, I plan to add words to the text as we created the story together using a Write and Discuss format (read more about that here: Write and Discuss). Since this is something we do regularly, it’s easy to incorporate.
Note: If you ever get a chance to see Caitlin present about Write and Discuss at a local or regional conference, you should! -Elicia

Translation: One day, Jimmy is sitting next to his dog and he thinks "I want to go to the park one day."
Here is an example of one page from a level 1 student after I went through the write and discuss / picture talk process. I loved that I could add dialogue for another repetition of first person perspective! 

By the end of class, the book *should* be ready for printing.

And the best part? I don’t have to sit down and edit it, because as we are co-creating the text and I am writing it up, I’m editing in the moment! 

There is no extra step of editing student work!

Oh, the other best part, and the thing that’s most relevant to this blog, is that students are getting input, that they understand, about something that is super interesting and engaging to them: their wordless books and their friend's wordless books. 

Afterwards, I can simply send the fully illustrated, co-created story to the printer and add it to my library the next day.

What do you need?

  • Educator’s Account in Canva- FREE
  • Time  (60 minutes or more) for students to create wordless books
  • Time to conference with students as they are working to create their wordless book
  • Time to picture talk and add text (after they are created)

I decided to upgrade my Canva account to an educator’s account for free. (Click for more information on getting a free Canva educator's account.) This allows both myself and all my students access to all the educator features in Canva, which means that students have a lot of images and graphics to use!

Canva allows teachers to create an assignment and assign it to a class, so I used that function and created a blank assignment using a storybook template.

We use a Learning Management System (LMS) like GoogleClassroom so I posted the link there for students to join the Canva environment.

Guidance for Students

On our first day, students joined my class in Canva. 

After that, I really didn’t give them a whole lot of guidance. I simply said, you need to create a title page with a French title (this was the only language requirement) along with 10-20 illustrated pages that tell a complete story. The story is required to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Students had about an hour to make their books and submit them. As they turned them in, I was able to conference with them and make suggestions about how to make their stories more clear. I also took this opportunity to preview the stories and make sure they were appropriate and didn’t rely on stereotypes or offensive plots.  Keep reading to learn about how I figured out that I needed *more* and *more specific* guidance for my students. 

Requirements for the Wordless Books

  • Title Page with a title in the Target Language.
  • 10-20 illustrated pages.
  • No words (other than the title) 
  • The story has to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and tell a complete story.
  • It must be submitted by the end of one block period. 

Creating the Text

The next day in class proceeded as normal. After doing some of what I had already planned, curriculum-wise, I displayed one student’s story on the board. 

We talked about what we saw and how the characters were feeling, and eventually a story emerged.

I wrote the text of the story that we came up with in the target language, making sure that all students were understanding. 

Note: For a great primer on the skills that Caitlin used, take a look at this blog post: How to teach such that they understand, by Martina Bex -Elicia

What was really cool is that several books already had blank speech bubbles in the illustrations. This provided the perfect opportunity for scaffolded partner speaking opportunities and collaboration

Translation: There is a dog who is named Todd. He wants to shoot the ball. Even the simplest designs can be a source of rich input for storytelling. This is an example of one of my students who doesn't love artistic pursuits. He made a minimalist illustrated book, and after a little bit of coaching on how to tell a complete story through illustrations, we were able to write a great story in class. 

I simply had students turn to a shoulder partner and give suggestions for what the characters could be saying in French, and then we chose the best/most interesting/funniest options and I added them to the text.

The results

The process has been going very well. The student buy-in is great and my classes are excited to share their creativity and humor!

The Reflection and Lessons Learned

I am learning some lessons along the way.  First, I need to be more clear in my instructions about avoiding stereotypes. I had a few students who were required to start over but thankfully I had that class time to review them before sharing them on the screen.

This next section is more-or-less a transcript of Caitlin and me (Elicia) talking through these messy topics because a) it made more sense to make it a dialogue, b) it was a really interesting discussion and one that is SUPER relevant to teaching and moving towards equity in our classrooms, and I am so thankful to Caitlin for engaging in this type of deep reflection and making her thinking public. T/W: Discussion of violence, guns, fatphobia, and gun violence. 


Caitlin, can you tell me more about these stereotypes? What did students do that you had to redirect? 


Violence. I realized that I needed to do some self-reflection about how much violence I was comfortable with seeing in my class stories.

Storytelling with high school students can often lead to endings that are violent. For example, all the characters die or solve conflicts with violence.


In middle school too!


I allow a certain degree of this in my class, but what I realized-when I was seeing these fully illustrated texts- is that my comfort level with violence changed slightly when presented with images.

While I might say “he attacked the monster” during storytelling, seeing one character shoot another with a gun in an illustrated text elicited some different emotions for myself.


Oh wow. Yeah. I have to say that for me, as a survivor of a school shooting, that would freak me out. My students all knew that guns were only to be discussed in context in my classroom (and pretty much that never came up) and never included in stories, but I imagine other teachers may not be so…specific! 

Translation: Now the mean bully can no longer bully others.
This was a book illustrated by a level 2 student about a school bully. This is about the level of violence I allow them to include. It is not uncommon for characters to die in their stories, but I carefully consider how much violence is acceptable, and then I communicate those expectations. 


So in the middle of the project, I asked students to avoid using firearms and come up with a weapon that was more school friendly, such as enraged unicorns, poisonous marshmallows, or an army of piranhas. I would probably have even more stringent guidelines about violence if I taught younger children.


I love these examples! In my classroom, I started every year with “the world is a pretty dreadful place sometimes, so in this room, we are going to celebrate puppies, rainbows, unicorns, and glitter. While bad things do happen and are real, when we are telling stories and creating in this classroom, it’s going to be all puppies and rainbows.” 

It seemed to work for my context and students tended to respect that- and would even remind each other by saying “puppies and rainbows” if they felt like a suggestion was too violent.

And..sometimes I would let them end a story with someone eating someone else…as a surprise.

So other than violence, what else did you see that made you step back?

Well, one student made a story with an overweight character who was sad and had to lose weight in order to find a girlfriend who loved him because he was beautiful.

To be honest, the story just didn’t sit right with me, and I had a hard time communicating this to my student. What I ended up saying was that sometimes it is hard to balance humor and honoring the dignity of other people. I felt like his story leveraged a negative image of his character in order to get his readers to laugh, but there were more positive ways to be funny.


Yikes! That’s a tough one. This is a great example of a stereotype that flies under the radar and is still socially acceptable, and it’s rooted in white supremacy and fear of the fat body.


Yes, in the moment it was hard for me to find the right words. In the end he chose not to change his story, and I felt a degree of helplessness, like I didn’t have leverage. So I simply didn’t use his story for my classroom library or as the text for our write and discuss as a class. I certainly didn’t want to give that kind of thinking a stage in my classroom, but I wish I would have handled it more directly.


I really appreciate that you found a way to communicate this without shaming your student for his fatphobia. Talking about this stuff is really hard- especially if it is something that is personal- which it really is for me!

I think I would likely have made a different choice because I feel so strongly about this. And because I feel so strongly about it, I might have damaged my relationship with that kid because of my own emotional reaction, which is really interesting for me to think about. Would my own feelings have gotten in the way of helping that kid see their bias? Should they have? Hmmm…I need to think about that.

Was there anything else?


Yes. I had to give very clear expectations for the co-created story telling in class. Students had MANY opinions and reactions when they saw each other’s stories for the first time. Occasionally the laughter and side conversations took away from the input. For example, when the images were really outrageous or unexpected, there was an explosion of commentary. So much so, that I felt like students were no longer engaged with the language. I was getting frustrated (as many of us are at this time of year!). 

What ended up working was this: I had to give a 5 second countdown for giggling before we could refocus. This solved the issues in most of my classes.


OMG I love this so much. The structured giggles and commentary break! When I taught 5th grade and had to teach health/intro to being a teenager, I had to do the same thing!

Translation: Now they are no longer afraid of Bart. Everyone hugs. Bart finally has a lot of friends. 
Sometimes students DO write a story with a happy ending! 

Back to Caitlin:

My favorite thing about this process was that after each story, we applauded the author and thanked them for their work. Every single one of my students was able to share something no matter their proficiency level, and I had so many great comprehensible texts to add to my classroom library.

During each class period, I had students begging for their story to be the next one. The only downside is that the school year might run out before we can experience everyone's masterpieces! Fortunately, I will have many of these students in class next year, so I can continue this process at the beginning of the next level for a review. For next year, however, I might want to move faster or start earlier if time allows.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Supporting the New-to-Language Kids: Differentiation in Action

Something that comes up a lot for teachers who have been using an acquisition driven, comprehension based approach is this: what do I do when I have a student who has little to no language in a class of students who have had a year or more of comprehension-based instruction, and have a lot of language under their belts?

We have to accommodate them.

Now, I want to be clear: accommodating them is my job. It’s hard. And to some degree, a little unfair for them- I mean, who wants to be the person with a kindergarten reading level in a 6th grade class? (Which is a close equivalent.)

As a teacher, it’s reasonable to differentiate about 3 sub-levels; like Novice Mid, Novice High, Intermediate Low.

It is a big ask to do 4 or more levels in one class. And in 2022-23, it's totally normal.
So in this sub job that I went to in Fall of 2022, students were put in language class without regard to their level. They were just lumped in.

Which meant that students with 0 language were put in a class with students who had at least a year (or more if they were in 8th grade!) of solid comprehension based instruction. And just to add some more challenge, I wasn't told which of the students were completely new.

It was REALLY hard! For them and for me. 

However, there are some things that I did that are a) good practice, and b) allowed them to successfully read an ENTIRE page of text at the end of our time together. And frankly, I’m really proud of these interventions. 

So what did I do? What were my teacher moves and strategies? How did I think ahead to start to address this situation? 

WHOLE CLASS: Establishing Meaning

What this means is that I told kids what words meant. This looked mostly like me putting the most important words on the board in the target language and in our shared language.
Was it possible to put every word I was going to use on the board? No.
It was possible for me to put the most important words up, and with the support of the question words, cognates, and adding words as needed, I was able to keep our conversations pretty “sheltered”.

But wait! What about the recommendation from ACTFL that says that 90% of the language in class should be in the target language? By telling kids what things mean, aren't I depriving them of "productive struggle"? 

First, ACTFL's recommendation is just that: a recommendation. It's not the law. There are no ACTFL police that are going to come around and fine me. 

While it is absolutely true that I want my students to be hearing (and reading, and interacting in) the target language a whole lot, if I am just speaking in the target language and they are not understanding, they aren't going to acquire anything. And frankly, using a shared language to link meaning is the simplest, most efficient way to make sure that students are able to comprehend the target language. Efficiency is important when we have limited hours of contact. You can read more of my opinion about this here: 90% Target Language.

"Productive struggle" is one thinly veiled way to make sure that some kids succeed and some don't. It's also a concept from traditional education contexts that just doesn't apply in a language classroom. If the goal is for students to acquire language, intentionally making things difficult for them to understand (or making it such that only a select few, or a certain kind of learner can understand) is both elitist and a waste of time. It also leads to the belief that only certain people are good at learning languages, minimal enrollment in upper level classes, and eventually, program closure.   

WHOLE CLASS: Sheltering Vocabulary

When I say “sheltering”, I am referring to the skill of “shelter vocabulary, not grammar.” I was focused on sheltering vocabulary- or as Martina Bex puts it: “protecting students from the words they don’t know and the negative emotions that come from not knowing them.” (And for what it’s worth, this is one of the most challenging skills for a teacher to develop.)
I planned ahead as much as possible and pre-wrote words and their meaning on the board as well - which in turn helped me remember what words to use- it helped me shelter better. It meant that I had a reminder in front of me about which words to use (and if it wasn't on the board, I should really try to not use it!)

WHOLE CLASS: Pause, Point, Slow

I worked really, really hard to speak slowly and point to the meaning of words as I said them. Of course, they had to be looking at where I was pointing, and paying attention to the English meaning. That was tough- but I'll deal with that in a minute.

WHOLE CLASS: Glossing everything

Glossing means adding the meaning of words- like a glossary. If I gave the students a reading, I put the core vocabulary on the top with meaning, and other words that I would not expect them to know as footnotes.

Reminders to myself

I had to constantly remind myself: I can not assume that they know anything. I certainly can not assume that they remember anything because I have no idea who was in class before. So thinking that they "should" know a word or meaning is just not fair. As John Bracey, a colleague and amazing Latin teacher reminds us: there are no "shoulds" in class.

This is such an important thing to remember- and one that I feel so deeply as I sit in my Chinese class and ask about the meaning of the same word...every. single. week. (OK, I ask for one word like 3 weeks in a row, then I ask about a new one.) If my teacher made me feel ashamed for asking, I'd never show up again. 

What it looked like:

Here's an example: I knew that we were going to be doing a ClipChat about a man, on a sofa, who opens and closes the door. On the board, I put up every word that I thought would be unknown- mostly it was verbs (opens, closes, walks, runs, there is, etc.). I tried to do this ahead of each class- this is why I love having a lot of whiteboard space.

Here's a picture of my white board:

Image of a whiteboard with Spanish words, underlined, and English meaning written in blue

For another story, using the EXACT same vocabulary, I made sure that all the words were on the board and on the copy of the text that they were going to read.

We did a gallery walk style reading, where they had to decide who said what based on the reading. Again, all the words were on the board. 

This is differentiation

I want to be clear: making sure that everyone is able to understand is differentiation. It is so easy to teach to the top tier of student- the motivated, the ones with tons of language, the ones that are engaged because they love it. But our job is to teach all the students, and this is the first step: making sure all students understand the target language input.

The Results

Was it perfect? Nope. Not at all. I was imperfect because I am not a mind reader, and I had no idea what they did and didn’t know, and who knew what, and so on. I was imperfect because it’s been since last May that I was in a classroom. I was imperfect because I am human!

It was messy too- because the students who had no prior language experience really struggled with believing that they could understand. They didn’t believe that I was pointing to the meaning of the words as I used them, and they didn’t believe that they were going to succeed. They arrived tuned out, turned off, and disconnected. 

And slowly, they started to come around. The magic really began to happen in 7th grade, when I started using an early unit from Somos. The thing about Somos is that it is structured in such a way that students get a lot of repeated exposure to the same vocabulary and it is written so that it is very easy to shelter vocabulary for the teacher. (Read about my relationship with Somos here.) 

The students really responded to the structure of the unit plan, but more importantly, we were keeping the language really focused on just a few key terms. 

INDEPENDENT WORK: Individual interventions and Small Groups

Any time I had students doing independent or partner work (reading a story, responding to questions about that story, etc.), I tried to either modify the task for the newer students or pulled them in a small group to work with them separately, or both. (Of course, it took a few days for me to figure out who was brand new.)

Sometimes this looked like having them just read the first paragraph with me and translating it. Or just reading highlighted sentences (that I highlighted as they sat down to work- no prep.) Another option was to not answer all the comprehension questions, or not complete the entire task. Remember: all students need not be doing the exact same thing. This is differentiation!

I also had them working together in a homogenous (same level) group so I could work with them and the other students could work independently. 

In 8th grade, I had one student new to language, and she sat with me and read some stories from the very first units of Somos (that I happened to have from previous classes). She translated them or drew them while everyone else was working on a more appropriately leveled activity. 

When we did Quick Draw, a partner activity that I did want her to participate in, I had already created two versions of a text (one in present tense, one in past tense). I put her in a homogenous group and modified the task: I invited that group to play with just 5 of the 10 sentences from the present tense, familiar version. (Read more about quick draw, from AnneMarie Chase, here.)

In another class, I had my 7th graders do a fun variation on a volleyball reading: one I first saw demonstrated by Craig Sheehy of TPRS Books. Note: this was a text that they had listened and read along with me already- it was familiar. 

In this activity, I arranged chairs to be in the formation of a small airplane, 2 by 2. Students were seated with a partner and had to do a volleyball reading: one person read the target language sentence, then the other translated it, and then read the next target language sentence. Then the first partner translated that one. Read more about volleyball translation here from The Comprehensible Classroom (Martina Bex). 

The twist is this: I put up a map of different countries, put on my best flight attendant voice, and every few minutes, announced that we would be landing in a different destination, and the first 2 or 3 people in first class (either on the left or right) had to move to economy. Everyone else moved up. I alternated what side of the "plane" had to move so students would get different partners. They had to go back to the earliest part of the text of either partner, even if one of them had already read that section. 

Image: students sit with their backs to the camera in rows of 2, reading out loud

SUCCESS: Two out of the 3 new-to-Spanish students were able to read and translate the ENTIRE page with their partners.

Note: Only 2 of the 3 did it. I had not managed to convince the 3rd kiddo that I was there to help them succeed. But that’s not too bad for 3 (shortened) weeks of instruction! 

What would I do next?

In practical terms, moving forward, I would plan on giving the new students nearly the same assessments, but I would discuss a few different options for reporting their assessments with them and their caregivers.

One option would be that they would take the assessment but I would not report their scores for the first trimester or 2. Since my grades are standards-based, this is something that has worked for me before, with admin and caregiver approval. 

I hope this helps you get some ideas about what to do with different levels, new students, etc.! 

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Hard Reset: A whole class intervention

I want to talk a little bit about a whole class intervention that I have used when things in class are going off the rails. But first: 

Who's responsibility is classroom engagement and cooperation*? 

Now, I am not a fan of anyone telling teachers that classroom management challenges are their fault- by any means- and I also know that my own actions and beliefs can lead to power struggles and problems. They are also in my control. 

This article by Angela Watson (Truth for Teachers) is a very good read about this topic: Is your "invisible throne" creating power struggles and unnecessary work?  I also went back and re-read this article (also by Angela Watson): How to respond to rude, disrespectful student attitudes.  

Ideas about controlling students (coercing them, manipulating them) is one way that White Supremacy manifests in classroom management, and in my work to dismantle systems of oppression and find places where White Supremacy is guiding my actions, I choose to reframe how I think about kids and behavior. 

*I prefer the term classroom engagement and cooperation over classroom management. It makes more sense to me. I don't want to manage students. I want to cooperate with them and engage with them.

Individual interventions

I get a lot of questions in workshops about individual kids and their behavior, and my response is always the same: approach with curiosity. Why is that kid doing that thing (usually blurting)? Do they know they are doing it? Is there a need not being met? Is there a relationship to develop? Depending on the answers, the interventions are going to be different. Kids are kids- and one strategy is not going to support every student. Also- consider: if it is just one or two kids that you are struggling with- how awesome is that?!? Celebrate that! Then approach those kids with curiosity.  In my Plan B post, I have a long list of possible individual and whole class interventions- take a look. 

Whole Class Intervention

This intervention is one I learned from Jon Cowart (I think) and mad props to him for his amazing work on classroom management. This is my version of a hard reset. 

However, please know- this is one intervention in a whole menu of interventions. And like many items on a menu, they are best when served with other items. I suggest adding a heaping serving of Plan A Minus or Plan B, if you're asking! 

This whole class intervention came about because I could not successfully teach a lesson. Students were interrupting me and disengaged (how is that even possible? They managed it!) and talkative and off task. This was a situation where the majority of students were not cooperating nor were they engaged- not just one or two- so I needed to approach the class as a whole.  Mind you: I was a "long term" sub with a very firm end date. I was not their "real" teacher and that was made perfectly clear, and not just by the students. So there were some factors that were out of my control. 

I had to focus on what I could control: my own practice. 

I started with curiosity.


So my reflective, curious questions to myself were:

  • Had I done a good job explaining the expectations? Did I go over the expectations ALL the time? 
  • Did I give students the chance to practice meeting expectations? 
  • Did I celebrate when expectations were met?
  • Were my expectations culturally responsive and appropriate? 
  • Was I consistent or inconsistent? 
  • Was I using the target language so that students were understanding the input? 
  • Was I talking to the students or with the students? 
  • Was I teaching content that was at all interesting to the students, or including them and their interests?  
  • Were there relationships that I could develop? 
  • Were there opportunities to develop relationships (with students and caregivers) that I could take advantage of? Examples would be sending a positive email home, or talking to the student's coach to find out more about them and their interests. 
  • What did the students -as a group- need that they weren't getting? 
  • Could I provide that with my time and energy and means? 

It became clear to me, upon reflection, that I had not taken enough time to set and practice expectations, and in fact, had not considered their input at all. Since I was a substitute  and had limited time with them, I made the decision at the beginning to use the classroom teacher's expectations.  With some classes that seemed to work fine. But with the 8th graders, it was not working.  Lots of things weren't working.

I also realized that in addition to expectations, students needed more structure- they were used to one thing, and they needed scaffolding to be able to do something different. Thus: the More Structured Input plan, aka Plan A minus.  I implemented both interventions more or less simultaneously, and although I didn't have a lot of time with students, it made the last few days with them more successful and more fun for everyone. 

Hard Reset

When students walked in, I had some kind of starter on the board, but instead of reviewing it, I sat on a stool in front of them and I said something like "I don't feel like class has been going well, and I think we need to come up with some norms and agreements so that I can do my job of teaching and you can do your job of learning. I have been very frustrated because I don't feel like I am doing a lot of teaching, and I get the sense that you all are frustrated too. So we are going to start over." I did this in our shared language (English). 

I made a classic T-chart on the board with the titles Student and Teacher. I asked them what their job was. Some shouted out, but most were happy to raise their hand and offer their ideas. For each student job they came up with, I said "so what does that mean for me?" and added my job. 

There was some negotiation, and some explaining on my part. Like when I had to say "the thing that I am most frustrated about is when you talk over me. I can't do my job when that happens. So how can we address that?" 

I learned that one student thought I was really mean and unreasonable- I had no idea- because of a comment I'd made that they misunderstood. I also learned that, for the most part, they wanted to be there and learn Spanish, and were incredibly frustrated with their peers that were being mean. 

This is important: Jon Cowart reminds us that expectations need to be OBSERVABLE. "Respect" is not an observable behavior.   "One person speaks at a time" is observable. 

I had to work with them (not entirely successfully as you will see) to keep behaviors observable. 

This is what we came up with in one class:

Image ID: T-chart with student jobs (listen the first time, focus, move quickly, Don't be attention seeking, use Spanish*, Hands to self, ask a friend) and teacher job (Give clear instructions, 2nd chances, give support, brain breaks, use Spanish*, be nice/flexible, use a kind tone)

This took most of the class time. We even did a brain break game in the middle.  Or maybe more than one!

I let the students know that we would be signing a document with these new norms in the next couple of days. (I wanted to live with them and see if there was anything missing or problematic before committing to them, honestly!)

Then what?

The following day as a starter (bell-ringer),  students were shown the list and asked to pick 2 agreements to focus on. They had to use a sentence frame to write about why it was important. They did this in English, our shared language. 

Image ID: A slide with directions for the starter, sentence frames "I will (choose one from the list). This is important because..." and a picture of class agreements. 

Before starting any language instruction, I went through the Norms in English and let them know that at the end of class, they would be reflecting on what they chose. 

At the end of class, I had them use the same scrap of paper that they wrote on to reflect-I asked them to put one to five stars on each sentence, one star being "nope, I didn't really succeed at this" and five being "I succeeded at focusing on this agreement". I collected these reflections but I did not ask them for names. I was curious to see if their self-reflections matched my perception of how class went- and it turns out, it did...mostly.

The following day, we signed the agreements, one at a time, and put them on the board, and again, I started class by reading them. 

Moderate Success!

And you know what? Between this hard reset and giving them more structure in class, I began to see improvement in both engagement and cooperation. It wasn't what I had hoped for- it wasn't the 8th grade class of March 2020, those dreamy kids who did everything I asked and then wanted more- it was the actual kids in front of me, being somewhat successful. More successful, at least.

I could see that there was an upward trajectory- progress was being made, and with patience and work, we could have a lot of fun and use a lot of language.

 Unfortunately, all that happened the last week I was subbing, so I didn't get a chance to let it play out in the long run. That's ok. I think small successes add up to big ones, and being able to have some discussions and do some things in class, in the target language, is actually a pretty big success!

I hope that this look at a Hard Reset, paired with some other structured input plans, help you! 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

More Structure: Creating a Plan A Minus*

Plan A-Minus*

*Not quite Plan B, not quite low-fun input plan, but something else: when it's becoming clear that having conversations with students about something is something they are not yet ready for. Adding more structure. 

The Background

Two of my classes in my recent role as a long term sub needed something...a lot more of something. Or less of something.  Or just...SOMETHING.  

They were CHATTY. Like I couldn't say a sentence without being interrupted by something totally unrelated or by students having side conversations about whatever they felt like.  It was not fun.  There were some other behaviors as well, but it was the CHATTY that was making me insane. 

They also were very used to an output-heavy class and were very reluctant to engage with input.  

My Thinking

I had to make 2 interventions/shifts in my teaching in order to meet the kids where they were.  

Mindset Shift 1: Teach the kids you have, not the kids you want

I was a little caught up in my pre-pandemic teaching brain- pretty much constantly wondering why they weren't like the other classes, or why were they so completely unlike the class that I last had...the middle school kids that I adored and had so much fun with! It is so easy to dwell on wanting to teach the kids I wanted...not the kids that were actually in front of me.   

But I had to teach the kids in front of me, not some idealized version of the kids I wanted. Which meant I had to make some changes to the class structure because what I was doing was not effective. And that, my friends, was on me. 

This was a mindset shift that I had to work through- teaching the kids that were there.  (Thanks to Laurie Clarcq for naming this shift.) Once I made that shift though- it became a lot easier to manage.

Mindset Shift 2: MORE STRUCTURE

I realized within the first week that I needed to give them a LOT more structure. Some of this was the group of kids, some of it was because as a long term sub they were not interested in investing in me or my class, and some was just...well, I guess because. 

The (Original) Plan

My lesson plans were to teach the song La Gozadera, using plans from The Comprehensible Classroom (please read the disclosure about my relationship with The Comprehensible Classroom here.) I thought a song unit with lots of reading and culture would be just the right amount of content to finish during my time as a sub.  Plus,  I've never taught the song before and wanted to try it. 

The lesson plan (simplified) looks something like this:

  • Card talk
  • Clip Chat (movietalk) for beginning of music video
  • Watch video
  • Discuss video
  • Read about meaning of the title
  • Students do some reading activities related to the reading
  • Read more about video and song 
  • More reading activities

The Reality

When I looked at the plan, I saw a big looming disaster.

Nope. That was NOT going to work!

These students did not seem to be able to handle any kind of class discussion, and the free-form nature of Card Talk or Clip Chat seemed like a recipe for frustration and disaster. I believe that there would be very little input happening and a lot of frustration. 

I did some reflecting about what the challenges were in class, and what actually was going well (when it was!), and I decided that I needed to give students more structure. I also decided that it would be a good thing to trick them into thinking that they were creating with language (output) while getting them to attend to the input. I framed this in my own head as "the illusion of output". 


All of these ideas came from a mix mash of Jon Cowart's Weekly Packet, the Plan B plan from Martina Bex, Implementing Plan B (from me!) and Low Fun Input Plans from AnneMarie Chase, and my own experience as a teacher. 

Modification For Card Talk

I created a little response sheet- it was 6 or 8 open ended sentences: En la opinión de ____, _____ es/no es divertido/a. (In ___'s opinion, ____ is/is not fun.) 

When I say little response sheet, that is exactly what I mean. Since I print everything "2-up" (or 50% sized) and then copy it on recycled paper from the copy room- copy paper that has already been copied on one side- it was quite small!

Telling them that we would discuss each picture then fill out the form was like magic. Suddenly they were listening, and mostly responding to my questions! Engagement! 
After discussing someone's card, I filled in the blanks on the board and they copied them. (illusion of output, actually input!)

The Response Sheet for Card Talk 

At the end of the form, I had two open ended sentences for them to finish themselves, and then we discussed how they finished the sentences (also more illusion of output, but with the focus on me leading the discussion- that is, input). 

The bottom of the response sheet for Card Talk

Modification for Clip Chat (MovieTalk)

For the movietalk portion of the lesson plan, I created a slideshow with screenshots. Since the lesson plans ask the teacher to just use the intro to the video, I only used 3 stills for this part. 

A screengrab from the La Gozadera video plus vocab to use instead of a video 

I also created a little response sheet.  

Question 1 was ¿Qué ves? (What do you see?) 
I gave them some input first, then let them tell a partner what they saw, then I talked about their responses, and THEN I let them write. See how the input came first? 

Question 2 was ¿Dónde están las personas? (Where are the people?). Again, I showed the slide, talked about it, let them make predictions, talked about their predictions and why they thought that, and then let them write. Since I noticed that they weren't very good explaining how they reached their conclusions (which is an important skill in any language!) I lead the discussion down that road: What's your evidence? Why do you say that? Why do you think that? 

The third question was something like ¿Cómo están las personas" (How are the people feeling?) and again I got their ideas, led a conversation, asked them for some evidence for their thinking, then let them write. 

I also added a space for them to copy the Write and Discuss, just in case I decided that they needed that. (They did not, and I am not a fan of having students copy them in general, but I thought I might need that space!) 

Part of the ClipChat response sheet 

Watching the Video

For the actual watching of the video, I gave them a 5 Senses Video Viewing Form from Martina Bex and they had to fill it out while they were watching. After, I led a discussion. I really like this particular sheet because it allows them to write at the level that they wish- single words, phrases, and sentences. 

Prep Time

Now, it took me less than 10 minutes to make those response sheets- which may sound fast (and it was! Remember- I'm pretty experienced!). I hoped they would work - I thought they might be exactly the ticket- but I didn't want to spend a ton of time on creating. I was using the MVP principle in creating these: the Minimum Viable Product.  Basically, the idea is to create the thing that you think will work, and after you use it, then reflect, touch it up, change it, make it pretty if that's your thing. (I learned this from Angela Watson and it has been a HUGE timesaver mindset for me!)

What Happened in Class

To my everlasting joy, it went pretty well. I was able to give them the input because they felt like they were getting output. (Illusion of output, very structured output, lots of input!)

Once they bought in to the illusion of output, I was able to do the more free-form activities (Card Talk, Clip Chat) with much less difficulty. The response sheets gave exactly the right amount of structure to let the input still be about the students (their cards, their interests, their ideas).  

The reading activities were pretty straightforward and although I was surprised that they had never done activities like the ones I was asking them to do, once they figured out what I was asking for (reading, re-reading, reading closely, interacting with the text in a way (that forced them to make meaning), they were pretty cooperative.  

Note: I did a major behavior intervention as well- which I will post about at a later date, but I think the structure is what allowed them to settle in and let input happen.