Attacking the Vocab List: Slap Review

Following best practices in language acquisition while also satisfying a curriculum that demands memorization of huge vocabulary lists can be a STRUGGLE. One of the ways I tried to get around it and reach a good balance was through Spanish-only review games. Teaching middle school taught me that engagement would be way higher if there was some sort of game involved, ideally a Spanish-only game where kids had an opportunity to move around and let out some of their energy in those endless 90-minute blocks. Today I’m going to share one of my vehicles for achieving competition, movement, acquiring new vocab, and immersion all at the same time, and that method is called Slap Review.

You can use and adapt Slap Review in a variety of contexts and conditions, but it was my go-to when we were tackling one of those huge, long, division-mandated vocabulary lists. The kids use the vocab list as an anchor for any variation of the slap review framework. Today I’m going to talk about Slap Charades and Slap Pictionary.

You can play charades and Pictionary as a whole class by dividing everyone into teams and having each team guess for points, but I found that when you play review games this way, it gives students too much opportunity to disengage. You get your kids that are SUPER into it overshadowing the kids who would rather curl up into the fetal position than compete in front of the whole class. It’s good as a reward or a time-filler to play a whole class game like this, but when you really want to make sure every kid is participating and learning, it’s not the most ideal format. This is how Slap Review was born.

During Slap Review, kids compete individually against their classmates in groups of 4-6. I usually had students sitting in tables of four, so I just had them play against the people sitting at their tables. First, you get the group to elect one kid to both participate AND keep score for their table. Usually there’s one kid in every group who really wants do this, but a solid game of rock-paper-scissors is always what I went with when no one/too many people wanted to keep score. Sidenote – does anyone else use rock-paper-scissors to resolve virtually every disagreement in their classroom? Such a lifesaver.

Once you have your scorekeeper, you get the kids in Spanish-only mode. You can read more about that strategy here, but basically you tell kids that for the duration of the game, you will be very strictly monitoring their language use, and there can be NO English. You also ask the students what words and phrases they’ll need to play the game so that they’re driving the learning. Mine always asked for things like “I win,” “Your turn,” “Cheater,” etc. Usually at one point during the year my entire class devolved into yelling “tramposo” at each other, but somehow watching them yell at each other in Spanish was kind of okay.

Once the kids are in Spanish-only mode, Slap Review begins. It can take place in many forms, but to promote associating word meanings with actions and pictures, I usually went with Slap Charades or Slap Pictionary.

Slap Charades asks that each kid at the table take a turn acting out one of the words on the vocab list for their group.  It works best with lists that are pretty verb/activity heavy. Students can do anything but write or talk when they’re acting, so kids that need to get some energy out will run around and go nuts acting things out, and kids that aren’t so into it can get away with lazily pointing from their chairs. Their group of 4-6 will watch them, then slap the table if they think they know the word being acted out. The actor determines who slapped first, points to that person, and then the person has to say the correct Spanish word from our new vocab list. If they get it right, they get a point; if they get it wrong, another person has the chance to slap. The scorekeeper allocates points the whole time this is happening (while also taking a turn to participate themselves for maximum engagement).

Slap Pictionary is the same idea, except that you give each group a small whiteboard and a dry erase marker. Slap Pictionary works better with lists that are more noun/object-heavy. One kid in each small group takes turns drawing a vocab word (no writing allowed!). Students display the board while they draw, so that if someone in their group figures out where they’re going with the drawing, they can slap quickly. This keeps the game going instead of the lull that arises when your artists try to perfect their masterpieces while their group waits for them to finish. Same as charades, the artist will determine who slapped first and call on them. If the slapper gets it right, the slapper gets a point. If the slapper gets it wrong, someone else gets to guess. The scorekeeper will participate and also keep track of points while all of these artists are competing.

At the end of an allotted amount of time (I’d say 10-15 minutes), you call time and have all the winners from each table stand up. I’d give the winners a sticker for their efforts (teenagers love stickers too), and then get the class together for a debrief. I’d get their thoughts on the new list, words that are challenging, words that are easy, and any language that they needed during the game that they didn’t know how to say while they were playing (you might get things like “hurry up” or “my turn,” etc.)

Slap Review is one of those easy methods that the kids get quickly, so if you want to adapt it for something else you can. I had kids write out descriptions of characters from a video, and later they played Slap Review by reading their sentences to their group and having their classmates slap to guess who they were describing. You could have them write out Spanish definitions to words on the list, and then have their classmates slap to guess what word they were defining. You could even try out La Maestra Loca’s Backwards Charades. There are a lot of possibilities with this format.

I’d also give kids the element of choice sometimes too. After we’d played Slap Charades or Slap Pictionary a few times, I’d let each table pick whether they wanted to play Charades or Pictionary. Some of the quieter groups would play Pictionary while some of the energetic groups would play Charades at the same time with the same list. They’re all staying in Spanish and practicing their vocab, so I had no problem letting them choose their destiny when we were in Slap Review mode.

There you have it! I hope next time you’re tired of playing Quizlet Live or Matamoscas, you try out some small-group Slap Review. Happy Halloween everyone!

 

 

 

Keeping Novice-Low Students in the Target Language

I’m going to open up to you a little bit today. One of the hardest best practices for me to follow as a language teacher is the 90% Target Language rule. As a teacher of Spanish 1 and Spanish 2, this was far and away the most difficult battle I had to fight with myself every day. The temptation to slip into English to bond with/encourage/scaffold my students was often too great for me to overcome. The joys of teaching for me felt diminished when I spent all day as the English police, and as I taught in a district where many grammatical concepts were still emphasized and tested, sometimes English felt necessary. Those moments when inside-jokes and aha moments and student collaboration occurred in Spanish were, as I’m sure they are for all of you, always such joyous victories, but sticking to a 90% TL rule in order to make those moments happen is, well, hard for me.

I know many of you have the discipline and strength and backbone to keep everyone in the Target Language from Day One, and I worship you for it. If you are one of those heroes with a TL participation system that works for your students, this post probably will not be super helpful to you (also, tell me all your secrets please). If you’re teaching Spanish 1 or even Spanish 2, and you’re having one of those beginning-of-the-year moments where getting your students to stay out of English feels like pulling teeth, this strategy may be helpful. It’s (not-so-creatively-but-super-effectively) called “Estamos en español.”

I used this strategy in as many different classroom situations as I could muster, but I used it most of all 1) during interpersonal communication practice, and 2) when students played review games in their groups (I’ll share some of favorite Spanish-only review games in another post soon). The basic premise is pretty simple.

  1. You give kids an activity that requires TL communication. The country partners activity I wrote about last week sparked this post and would be a perfect example. You want to pick something where the entire purpose is to spark authentic communication. This could be anything from a pretend marketplace in class to a game of vocabulary review charades to a simple “here’s a list of questions, discuss in groups.” You get the idea.
  2. You tell kids they’ll be working on the activity for a set amount of time. My middle-school students usually could do this for about ten minutes before pandemonium or mental exhaustion or excessive pointing at the clock set in. I found it’s good to give them a set starting point and a strong finish line so they don’t get totally overwhelmed.
  3. You remind kids of the expectations. 100% Target Language means 100% Target Langauge. Kids CANNOT write notes, whisper, look things up, or type in English. Gestures? Definitely. Acting things out? Yes. Weird sound effects that aren’t words? Sure. Coming to the teacher for a quick “¿cómo se dice…?” NOPE. They’ve got to make do with the language they know, no matter what.
  4. Be prepared to enforce the expectation. For me, I would give kids a specific five-point formative assessment grade for staying in the TL during whatever activity it was. I would wander the room, write down the names of any kids I heard using English, and gave repeat offenders tally marks. If I hear you speak English once, you get a 4/5. If I hear you speak English twice, you get a 3/5. Kids will start to police each other on this (lots of pointing and yelling INGLES!!!), but I would only take off points if I heard it myself. It only takes posting this grade once for the kids to know the importance of staying in Spanish for these activities.
  5. Take some time for pre-game language brainstorming. I’d always make sure to ask the kids what Spanish language they thought they would need to know before the activity started. If I was getting them to review specific words and phrases (likes and dislikes, for example), I would provide a lot of language either on the board or on a dialogue sheet in front of them, but having the students generate expressions in addition to the ones I provide creates more buy-in. If we were playing a review game in Spanish, they’d request language like “my turn,” “I win,” you’re right,” “let’s go,” etc. I’d write up the words they thought they’d need on the board and then make sure to give them time to think about any other expressions/phrases that could be useful before rushing into the activity. I love this as a way to give them an opportunity to drive the learning.
  6. Use classroom cues to help students flip the Spanish switch on. In my classroom, I’d ALWAYS make them countdown and turn the lights off when we were in Spanish-only mode, and I also had a rotating disco ball that I’d turn on. (I shamelessly stole this tactic from one of my teacher heros Liz, who, shameless friend plug, runs a food blog you can check out over here). The lights-off-disco-ball-on would also help if a kid came in from the office/bathroom/late. They’d look around, look at me, and nod as if to say “okay, yes we are Spanish, I get it.” If that didn’t happen, a kid might look at them and scream “NO INGLES!!” which also always made me giggle.
  7. When time’s up, debrief. In early level classes, we usually take some time after this activity to talk about how it went and how it made them feel. At first, kids talk about how it felt like their heads were going to explode, but then we talk a lot about how it gets easier and easier to stay in Spanish the longer the lights are off. We’ve had a lot of really good metacognitive discussions about how being in Spanish-only mode forces them to take risks and produce language, and to stop worrying about it being perfect. These conversations help you to start making Spanish-only mode the norm as the kids realize how much they can actually do.
  8. NOW is the time for kids to ask the “¿cómo se dice…?” questions. As part of your debrief, go back to the board where you wrote down the expressions kids thought they would need, and ask them to add to it. What language did the kids need that they didn’t know how to say yet? Nothing forces a kid to learn a word or phrase like being in a situation where they are going CRAZY with a desire to say something they can’t yet. I love that moment where you can give the kid the phrase they wanted, and they’re like “THANK YOU THAT WAS DRIVING ME NUTS.”

Like I alluded to earlier, this strategy was a crutch I used when 90% TL was really just failing (because, hey, sometimes I need scaffolding too). Incorporating it more and more helped me to keep trying to build my classroom up to the Target Language haven of my dreams.

What are your favorite strategies for keeping novice-low students in the target language? Teach me your ways!

Adapting “clock partners” for Spanish class

For the last few years I really wanted to adapt the concept of “clock partners” to the foreign language classroom, and I think I finally figured it out to relative *relative!* success last year. I’ll share how I did it below, but first, let’s review what clock partners are.

The way a “clock partners” activity works in most classrooms is you give students a sheet like this one:

clock buddies

You have students walk around the room and find a partner for each space on the clock. Kids write down each other’s names in the proper place. They’ll pick their best friends first, then slowly the activity forces them to pick someone they wouldn’t normally work with (love this for classroom environment). When the activity is done, the kids keep their partner sheet in their notebook, and then throughout the year you get to avoid the whole “are we picking our partners or are you picking our partners” drama. The kids picked their partners at the beginning of the year; you get to assign which partner they use that day. You’ll say something like “we’re working with our 2 o’clock partners today,” and the kids will move to whichever partner they picked for that “timeslot.” Win win.

I loved this idea and tried it when we were learning about telling time. I planned to have kids walk around, ask each other some personal questions I wanted them to review, play with some time language, etc. I was pretty pumped to try it out, but (spoiler alert) it was a pretty epic lesson fail. There were too many time slots; kids freaked out that there were an odd number of students and they didn’t have the right numbers; people kept confusing how to tell time in Spanish…Picture a bunch of kids wandering the room aimlessly, screaming out Spanish numbers in anguish, crumpling papers in frustration, and that’s about how that lesson went. Back to the ole drawing board.

I was scarred from trying out clock partners, so the next year when the idea was mentioned during a Professional Development session, my grumpy face turned on and in my mind I was groaning “nooooo that activity is the worsttttt.” It was like the instructor read my mind. She acknowledged the logistical difficulties of the clock partner concept and then delivered the revolutionary idea (to me anyway) that you don’t actually have to use. a. clock. You can use something that has to do with your content. As a US history teacher, she used famous landmarks. Think “go to your White House partner today; go to your Supreme Court partner today.” So it wasn’t much of a leap when I wrote COUNTRY PARTNERS!!! with fifteen underlines and exclamation points in my notebook.

To get started, I created a partner sheet for each class that had six pictures of countries on it with different questions written below each country (you can check out a similar example here). These questions were designed to gather information about their partner – something along the lines of  “¿Cómo se llama tu compañero colombiano? ¿Cuántos años tiene él/ella?¿ Qué le gusta hacer?” etc. Obviously you could vary the questions based on where they are proficiency wise, or you could make this an information gathering activity for each country “Con tu compañero, contesta las preguntas: ¿Cómo se llama la capital de Colombia? ¿Cómo es la bandera?” etc. Once you have the partner sheet prepped, the basic flow of the lesson is as follows:

Introduce the activity by asking if anyone has ever done clock partners before. Usually a few kids have, and you can get them to explain it to each other in teenager language. You might get a “you know, we did it in Mrs. Turner’s class in 6th grade” and then a chorus of “ohh yeahhhh.” From here, tell them we will be doing the Spanish version of clock partners, and we will be picking country partners. This is when you hand out the sheet.

Reiterate the expectations for using the target language during this activity. I did this as a very strict “Spanish-only” activity, which meant that they’d get a specific formative assessment grade for staying in the TL the whole time (you can read more about that strategy here). Review the key language they need to ask and answer each question. Again, you can get the kids to volunteer to help you with that part; maybe have a few volunteers act out some examples.

Set up the logistics. This is the tricky part. You will recall the terrible, horrible lack of logistics planning I did when I tried clock partners for the first time. I’m sure there are classrooms out there where you can just wind them up and let them roam, and kids will magically answer all the questions and find every single partner they need. I had one 15-person class where that plan worked, and it was the most glorious amazing thing ever. For most classrooms, though, you need to do one of the following versions of crowd control:

  • Logistics Plan A: Give kids a designated amount of time to pick and work with each country partner, one at a time. For example, after a “Ahora busca tu compañero argentino,” have them find someone, sit down next to that person, and take some time to write down the answers to the questions for that country partner. Inevitably, there will be a kid (or several) still standing up with that “I don’t have a partner I don’t have friends I hate school everything is the worst” look in their eye. That is okay! You’re there to save them! Pair these kids up with each other, or send them to create a group of three with one of the kids you know they get along with. After 5-10 minutes, get them to say adiós, then move on to a different country partner and repeat the process. I usually play Latin music as a cue that it’s time to switch. You might get some early finishers each round, but as long as they are staying in the TL, who cares.
  • Logisitcs Plan B: Give them some free reign to roam and find as many partners as possible for a designated amount of time. After this wandering conversational free-for-all, sit the whole class down and check for each partner. Give them a cue to stand up and find their “compañero colombiano,” make sure everyone has one, pair them up if they don’t, then have them switch and move to their “compañera mexicana” (or whatever partner you want to try next). I used Plan A with the kids I knew needed more structure, and Plan B with the kids who I knew were more eager to execute quickly.

Don’t forget the absent kid! There’s one in every crowd. In some classes, I was a stand-in for whomever was absent, and found a partner for them every round while I was monitoring TL use. In some classes the absent kids’ friends demanded to commandeer the paper and get “good” partners for them. In some classes I asked for volunteers to handle the absent kids’ partners. I would double check the absent kids’ papers at the end of the activity to make sure they’re covered.

Conclude the lesson by having the kids glue the piece of paper in their notebook or binder and remind them that they’ll be using it throughout the year. It also helps to have the kids apply what they’ve done by directing them to get up and find one of the partners for whatever activity is next (pick one of the early partners so they’ll be pumped to go move with their friends, or a later partner to get them to calm down, depending on the energy in the room). Then, you can get them rolling on whatever you have next, or on some sort of time-filler review game to end class (partner Kahoot! partner Quizlet live! partner exit ticket! partner work on your homework!).

Throughout the year kids will lose their sheets, but usually (hopefully) one of the partners held onto theirs and can remind their partner who they’re with. To help with this issue, it’s not a bad idea to do this activity again halfway through the year. By then, people may have new best friends, couples may have broken up, and half the class may have lost their partner sheets. It also gives you an opportunity to adapt the sheet and ask more advanced questions, use different countries, do a country focus (compañero de las Ramblas, compañero del Prado) or try a different cultural focus (compañero Frida Kahlo, compañero Salvador Dali). It’s a great activity for classroom environment, with some sneaky target language practice and cultural exposure mixed in.

Have you ever tried clock partners before? What’s your secret to making it work? If you come up with cool ways to apply this in your classroom, please share!

Hispanic Heritage Month PBL

One of my favorite times of year in Spanish class is Hispanic Heritage Month. For those of us who start class after Labor Day, September 15 marks that magical time when kids are jussssst starting to come out of their shells, when we’re starting to get into the rhythm of working and learning, and when it’s time to really start getting down to business. I love that Hispanic Heritage Month falls into this magical start-of-learning time, and maybe it’s no coincidence that I use Hispanic Heritage Month as a springboard for one of my favorite Project-Based Learning units.

A quick note on my PBL philosophy. PBL can feel like one of those flavor-of-the-week education initiatives, but this is a flavor that I always was intrinsically drawn to. One of my first blog posts was about service learning in a Nicaraguan slum and what it taught me about bringing a real audience into the classroom (or bringing your classroom to a real audience). When it’s done right, an in-depth PBL can be a magical time for a kid. It can push them to do things that stretch them outside their comfort zones, build presentational skills, solve a solution to a real problem, and create something they can be proud of.

My Hispanic Heritage Month PBL was something I jumped into at the beginning of Spanish 1B as a review unit. In my middle school, we taught Spanish 1 over the course of two years, the first half in 6th or 7th grade in Spanish 1A, and the second half in 7th or 8th grade in Spanish 1B. Spanish 1B was always my favorite class as a creative instructor (as a creative instructor, all my classes were my favorites, I promise kids!). There was so much more time in the curriculum for proficiency-based instruction, and it gave me a launching pad for some of my most creative lesson planning (I’m a nerd for creative lesson-planning, if you couldn’t tell).

This PBL could also be used as a review unit in Spanish 2, or in any high Novice-low, low Novice-mid classroom. It assumes that you can meet a few Novice Low indicators about describing people’s appearances and personalities, so theoretically you could also use it in a Spanish 1 class towards the end of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is over October 15.

The basic premise of this PBL is that students are in charge of raising awareness for Hispanic Heritage Month in their school. A friendly administrator is key for this, which was NEVER a problem for me (I had the number one principal in the universe, no big deal), but mention “cultural awareness,” “project-based learning,” and “21st century skills” enough times, and I’m sure your principal will nod approvingly.

The basic flow of the unit is as follows: you start off with some authentic resources about Hispanic Heritage month (here’s a link to a Pinterest board of my faves). Introduce some comprehension and discussion questions to get kids to figure out what Hispanic Heritage Month actually is. This is also a great time to talk about the difference and importance of the words “Hispanic” versus “Latino” versus “Spanish.”

After kids start to get a feel for what Hispanic Heritage Month is all about, start to brainstorm famous people they know with Hispanic Heritage. A good start is by asking if anyone in the room celebrates some form of Hispanic Heritage (hello, building real connections). I love brainstorming lists like this in groups or partners on paper or with whiteboards. You give kids a fixed amount of time to work with their group or partner to think of as many famous Hispanic people as possible, and write the list down. Then you have each group meet with another group to circle the names they have in common and add the names that the other group has that are different from theirs. You can do this exchange a few times to get the most complete list.

After this you introduce the project. Tell kids that they will be working with a partner (or alone, up to you, I just love love love student collaboration) on one particular Hispanic celebrity and will be using that person as a springboard to bring awareness of Hispanic Heritage Month to their school. This turns into your pretty standard “create a presentation describing a famous person” project, but you’re way too cool for that, so you’re going to add a few elements of technology and authentic audience to the deal.

  1. Students will be making a shareable presentation on Google Slides (or any other shareable digital platform like Prezi) about their person. Pretty standard.
  2. Students will be making a poster of their person to post around the school, and link their poster to their digital presentation with a QR code (oooooo).
  3. Students will come up with a few sentences about their person to share on the morning announcements during Hispanic Heritage Month. I did this English, but if you have a ton of native speakers at your school (or your kids want to show off) you could do both English and Spanish. If you have too many students or too many pairs to cover the school days in Hispanic Heritage Month, you could ask for volunteers and draw names out of a sombrero to get the right number of announcements for September 15 – October 15.
  4. Students will write a Tweet to their famous person (in Spanish of course) with a link to their presentation, that you will then use your teacher Twitter account to ACTUALLY TWEET TO THE FAMOUS PERSON (omggggg). I was disappointed that no famous people responded to my kids last year (come on, famous people!!!), but this is still a really fun thing to do. Obviously, some famous people don’t have Twitter, or your kids could even have chosen a dead famous Hispanic celebrity. I had a couple girls last year that Tweeted their project on Roberto Clemente to the Pittsburgh Pirates account – you can get creative.
  5. For super fun bonus points, have your students find a picture of their celebrity to add themselves to. This was one of the coolest cross curricular  things we’ve ever done with our librarians (they are rockstars). The kids used the library green screen to photoshop pictures of themselves into pictures of the celebrities they studied. It was SO. COOL. I had a group of kids in Messi jerseys and Barca scarves posing as part of the audience next to Messi in Camp Nou. SO great. We added these pictures into their tweets to celebrities too. I understand not everyone has a green screen and amazing librarians at their school, so you can also try your hand at creating your own using one of the cheaper green screen apps out there.

There you have it! This is one of my favorite projects ever, and I hope you can steal some of it and make it yours. If you want to save a few hours of your life, I spent some time putting together a packet that includes rubrics, worksheets, celeb lists, and instruction sheets, available for purchase here (or if you like this project, but aren’t celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month yet, there’s a more generic celebrity PBL here). This is one of my fave lessons, so please tweet me your kids’ work if you end up stealing any of these ideas on Twitter @SraErwin. I am obsessed with this project and would love to see how you use it in your classroom. Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

#oneword

I’m behind the times on the #oneword trend (if you’re in the same boat, you can read some great posts here, here, and here). I love the idea, and know there are a TON of things you could do with it in a language class. I am a huge fan of the six-word memoir to end the year (a post on that another time), but starting with #oneword seems like such a fabulous idea for the start of school, or even as a solid January resolution goal after Christmas break. I can see it as a way for kids to really dig deep to find that one Spanish word that describes them, or that one Spanish word that they want to describe their year. You could have them make a poster or a Slide or a Google Drawing or a photo project or a even turn it into a coding animation project on Scratch (hello, cross curriculum). Sure, #oneword doesn’t present a good opening in itself for interpersonal/interpretive/presentational practice. I mean, it’s ONE word. But what if kids have to write and react to blog posts about their word and their classmates’. Or have a Spanish-only convo about their word in their tables. Or present their word to me or the class. There seriously are a ton of possibilities; I’m getting excited.

ANYWAYS, beyond the applications of #oneword for the language classroom, it obviously has been such a useful tool for so many reflective teachers. Take a moment to hop on Twitter and search #onewordedu, or #oneword and #langchat together (so many hastags). People in our community are coming up with some good stuff to hone in on for the year, and it’s inspirational to get that extra energy from other people’s goals.

I didn’t have to put much thought into my One Word for this school year. It’s “Focus.” As I’ve shared previously, my 2016-2017 was marked by a lot of exciting personal change. Wedding, new house, new job – all of the happiest stressful things at once. As I enter Month Two of newlywed life, and a new passion project for turning my teacher resources into shareable materials, my focus for this school year needs to be, well, to focus.

Cult of Pedagogy had a great post recently on “Decision Fatigue,” the basic premise of which is that all the hundreds and thousands of little decisions you have to make every hour as a teacher really wear you out. The post is about finding your routine, and planning so that you don’t have to stress about every little warm-up every single class or how you’re going to spend your precious planning periods every day or even what you’re going to wear. I know I’ve had so many days when that planning period hit and I was so worn out that I would dive into mindless scrolling on my phone and look up and half my only allotted productive time of the day would be gone.

My goal for this year is to plan that time better. So that I can eventually focus on the task at hand, and ONLY at the task at hand. To put my phone in my bag and focus only on developing a lesson. To check my e-mail only at certain times a day instead of losing a line of productive thinking when that notification turns on. To have quality conversations with my co-workers and friends instead of half-hearted catch-ups while I’m working and trying to do a million other things. In the classroom, this would manifest itself as focusing on the kids in the room, instead of losing my mind behind my laptop prepping that PERFECT document to print in the five minutes I have between classes to sprint to the copier and have the right amount of copies for next block (we’ve all been there…right?). Because by focusing more in the time we have to work, we can focus more on the things we love to get home to after work, and focus more on the people and students and work we love in front of us, and do so guilt free.

There’s no answer to the eternal teacher problem of never having enough time. But this year, my approach is to, in the words of the great Laura Sexton, take a chill pill, and focus on the tasks and projects and people in front of me that really matter. Have you found any good #oneword posts? What’s yours? Would love to hear what’s going to inspire you this year.

First Day Prep Series: Stations

I know most people are back-to-school or at least back-to-teacher-work-week (GOOD LUCK). If you’re not quite back yet, or you’re in the middle of first-day-over-prep syndrome, here’s some fuel for your lesson-idea fire. I’m going to talk you through my favorite First Day stations. I am a HUGE fan of using stations in class throughout the year. There are so many opportunities to work in reading, listening, speaking, writing, culture, and it gives those antsy teenagers a chance to get up and move as soon as their attention span on a given task starts to wane. The stations below are all about ten-to-fifteen-minute activities that you could use as stations or as a brainbreak/closing activity throughout the first couple of weeks of class to build classroom environment.

Last year was my first year I jumped immediately into stations on the first day of class. I had taught an overwhelming majority of my students the year before, so I felt brave, and wanted to do something a liiiiittle different with my kids besides your standard get-to-know-each-other/read-the-syllabus kind of day. The stations worked well in classes where I already knew all the kids and our environment was pretty well-established AND in classes where everyone was new to me and new to Spanish. I would definitely recommend giving them a try.

First, a word about how I do stations. In my classroom, I have assigned seats at tables, so it’s relatively easy to put kids into station groups based on where they sit. On the first day of school, people are mostly still figuring each other out, so you don’t have to stress too much about grouping people perfectly. I had 90 minute blocks, which meant with 5-10 minutes of warm-up and 5-10 minutes of clean-up and conclusion, so about five or six stations of ten to twelve minutes each was ideal. At the end of each ten to twelve minute time block, I’d play some popular Latin music (last year it was Soy Yo) to cue that it was time to rotate to the next activity.

The key with stations is to make sure each activity is SUUUUPER easy to figure out without much teacher guidance. Nothing is worse than spending five minutes explaining an activity to one group while another group is waiting for you to get over to them and keep them on task. Usually it works best when you can just wind them up and set them loose. That’s why having written directions at each station is key.

For the first day of school, my goals were always that students would understand their ownership in the classroom and its environment, that they would be held accountable for their behavior and work in class, and that they would be supported on the intimidating mistake-filled journey of language learning. Proficiency, setting language goals, and the importance of studying Spanish were saved for the second day of class. So my first day of school stations dealt a lot with the social-emotional sides of language learning and with the decorations I had in the room, so that students started the year off associating meaning with what was in front of them on the walls and buying in to the classroom environment.

My stations were as follows:

  • At station one, I gave them a worksheet that listed a lot of the words and phrases posted around the room, and asked them to work with the people in their group to write down as many meanings in English as they could guess or remember. Each of these words and phrases (question words, which you can find here, and classroom expressions, which you can steal here) is written in Spanish with a picture next to it, so even students with zero Spanish experience could potentially try to make a guess at meaning. I like that they have the support of their new classmates for this activity as well. I also gave them the freedom to get up and look closer at each picture if they wanted to (movement in middle school is a good thing).
  • At station two, I gave them the answers to station one (except for the kids who started at this station, obviously), and gave them their syllabus. Their task at this station was to read through the syllabus and write down three or more questions about the class, me, or learning Spanish. This task usually doesn’t take a full ten minutes, so I’d also give out their student surveys at this station, which I usually give as homework on the first day of class (yes, I’m evil, but whatever kids like talking about themselves).
  • At station three, students would sit down and chat with me. This was my FAVORITE. They’d arrive at the conversation station with questions they’d prepared in the syllabus station, and after that conversation ran dry, I got a chance to get to know kids and chat with them about their summers. Student relationships are the best, so this was a fun one for me last year. If something comes up at a different station that you have to tend to, the kids also can work on their survey homework while they wait for you to bounce back to them, which is also a good deal.
  • Station four was supposed to be a “silent” station, but I had a hard time enforcing this from where I was sitting at station three. At station four, I had written down the six activities from our syllabus that are essential to learning Spanish. I stole some of these from La Maestra Loca last year and tried out a version of her “chalk talk” idea for this station. I cut out titles of the activities and glued them to butcher paper on the wall. I asked students to write or draw pictures about what each activity meant to them close to each title. I left these up for the first couple of weeks as a reminder too.
  • I directed students to my handy dandy Meme wall for station number five. Basically I had them read through the Memes and write down the meanings for as many as they could. This was a great activity in Spanish 1B and Spanish 2, but resulted in some blank stares in Spanish 1. I didn’t quite have enough scaffolding about cognates before this activity for my Spanish 1s, which made this my weakest station for them. You could do a similar activity with whatever posters or cultural materials you have in your room for upper levels.
  • Station six directed the kids to a series of maps. The goal of this activity was to get them immersed in culture and get them thinking about the concept that language is different everywhere. I listed a few countries, then had them fill in what continent each country is on, what the capital is, and how you say “cool” in that country. I thought about using this bro map as well, but the language on there is pretty strong for middle school. Overall, I loved this station as a review/introduction to the variety in the Spanish-speaking world.
  • I know a moment ago I said five or six stations were ideal, but I also used a seventh station in a couple of my classes, or as a conclusion activity depending on time and the number of kids in the class. The last station was to come up with a class “silent signal” to use in our class when we transition from group activity to silent activities. Each group would propose a signal and then the class would vote on their favorite. They’ve used the silent awkward turtle, the silent llama, and a “live long and prosper” butterfly in previous classes (middle school is the best), but some classes like making up clap rhythms too. It’s a fun team-building exercise that you can use or change as the year continues. I just love giving them that extra additional ownership in the classroom routines.

Whew! These are a lot of different activities for the first day of class, but I hope you can steal something fun. I love group work like this to start the year and build some strong community from Day One, since it’s so necessary to that risky, brave process of language-learning. Let me know if you use anything! Good luck with your first week!


For more in the First Day Prep Series, check out my intro post, free decoration ideas, and infographic syllabus.

First Day Prep Series: The Infographic Syllabus

While I know many of you are already back to school this week (omggggg), we’re still holding it down until after Labor Day in Virginia, so this is the time of year I usually reexamine my class syllabus. I totally bought into the Infographic Syllabus craze a couple of years ago, and I wanted to share a bit about what I’ve found the past three years I used mine. 


  1. The kids tend to view it positively. I think they get a little excited about seeing a syllabus that is catchy and exciting, and while it is full of the same information they’re getting from every other teacher on the first day of school, it’s a different way to get the information, which signals to them immediately that your class is different.

  2. The parents tend to not be AS excited about it. I only ever received compliments about the infographic syllabus, but I definitely had people look at the piece of paper full of weird symbols and colors on back to school night, eyes glazed over, and then say “This is so neat! Can I have your supply list?” I ended up making a “parent-friendly” copy of my syllabus that was just straight text with supplies and grading information on it, as that is what they were used to, and what they tended to care about the most on back to school night. My syllabus for the kids usually focused more on the welcoming environment of the classroom, so I’d give the more “fun” copy to the students.

  3. It backs up the interpretive skills we emphasize in language learning. This is a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. I think that having pictures associated with our words on the very document that explains the class starts to expose kids to the different tools we use to interpret meaning – think of how many times you tell your kids to use “context clues.” If you’ve got visuals on your syllabus, it gets them started on the first day getting used to associating meaning with something besides the written word.

  4. It’s helpful to back up the syllabus with a signature sheet, either on paper or on a Google form. I love using Google forms for parent and student information surveys at the beginning of the year, and use that form to also make sure that parents and students check a box on important policies like grading, homework, absences, testing retakes, etc, so that if there is ever an argument, you can gently remind people about the policies they signed that they understood in September. (This is what we refer to in the biz as a CYA move: Cover Your Bum!)

  5. It’s (selfishly) a fun August ritual for me. I love revisiting the syllabus every year to tweak it and make it relevant for the kids and courses I’ll be teaching. The first time I made it, it took HOURS, but now I have a version ready to go that I can easily switch up. Every year I make mine more and more simple, as most of the kids don’t remember the intricacies of every policy until they apply to them anyway (see: the first time a kid bombs a test and loses her mind with joy when her classmate reminds her about the retake policy).

I’ve loved the infographic syllabus, and while I’m not entering the classroom this year, it still makes me smile to look at it. Like most people, I created mine using Piktochart (don’t fret, it’s free). You can check it out below:

syllabus

What have you experienced after a few years with the infographic syllabus? Similar experiences? Different ones? Let me know!


For more in the First Day Prep Series, check out my intro post, free decoration ideas, and fave First Day stations.

First Day Prep Series: Free Language Class Decor

One of the most exciting (and stressful) things about the first day of school for me is prepping classroom decorations. There’s no shortage of inspiration online, but I thought I’d share a post on what I’ve used in my classroom in the past, with a special focus on the decorations that are free (yay!).

One of the favorite things in my classroom that I love adding to and changing slightly every year is the Meme Wall. Here it is in all its glory:

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There was this very ugly piece of white plywood nailed over top of a door that used to be an exit in my trailer, and Memes were such a great way to cover it up with authentic resources (maximize what you’ve got!). I ended up bribing the teacher that runs the lamination machine in our building with candy because I felt so bad asking her to laminate all of these cute images, but it was perfect for my little classroom (#trailerlyfe).

The best part about the Meme Wall is that with the glorious world wide web at your fingertips, you have free resources for years. For a short cut, here is a link to my Spanish Meme Pinterest Board.  Since I taught Spanish 1 and Spanish 2, I tried to pick Novice level language and loved hearing kids throughout the year understand more and more of them as their proficiency level increased. I’ve found that jokes seem funnier and more satisfying when you “get” them in another language, so my middle-schoolers tended to get a kick out of it. It’s also a great idea to have kids bring the memes in themselves as part of a choice homework or participation deal. Anything to get a little bit of buy-in in your classroom is a plus, and when they feel like they’re building the environment themselves, even in the classroom decorations, they start to feel like a stronger part of your community.

Another one of my favorite ways to use Pinterest is for the theme board next to my handy dandy Scholastic Calendar. Sidenote – does anyone else use one of these pocket wall calendars? After four years, mine has a ton of numbers missing and is wearing and tearing. This is what mine looked like after I told some of my lunch kids to decorate it for the end of the year:

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Gotta love it. I think the only one available on the Internet right now is on Amazon, but I hate to say bye to the Scholastic one. Such a mainstay. ANYWAYS, I bring up the calendar because of the free stuff to put NEXT TO the calendar: authentic cultural resources. My goal in the past (which I, admittedly, have never achieved) has always been to rotate and change the bulletin board next to my calendar each month based on cultural occurrences of the season. I’ve always envisioned beautiful info-graphics and photos dealing with a holiday or an important historic event that occurred that month. Zachary Jones’ Zambombazo is a (free) goldmine for this type of thing.

In past years, I haven’t had time to pore over Pinterest each month, but this year I do! Here is a Pinterest board that has lots of fun printables and authentic resources for a beginning of the year culture board in your classroom. The themes I picked out this year were Regreso a Clases, Viva Mexico (16 de septiembre), Fiestas Patrias de Chile (18 de septiembre), and Hispanic Heritage Month (15 de septiembre). I’m sure you could find plenty more on other Central American Independence Days, but this felt like enough of a start for August/September. If there’s something else for August or September you want me to dig up for you, let me know in comments below!

Creative Language Class has a few resources that I’ve used in the past that are free and beautiful and useful in the classroom. If you haven’t seen their question word posters, print them out today. When I walk into a Spanish classroom that uses them I automatically smile because I know I’m in a teacher’s room that loves the same blogs I do. This year they’ve also released some awesome greetings posters and “how are you” emoji posters that are free and functional as well. Sidenote: I love using emojis in instruction because they’re fun and kids get them, but the language nerd in me sees them as a universal form of expression which I think is SO cool and fits nicely into the conversations we have with our students on guessing meaning by facial expressions, using context clues etc. Someone write a dissertation on the emoji in language learning; get on that please!

I’ve also stolen a page from Creative Language Class and created a proficiency scale in previous years that I hung at the top of one classroom wall as a reference for everyone throughout the year. Mine was an adaptation of ACTFL language that I brought to life using different colored masking tapes, much like the one featured in this post. I honestly didn’t use it as a reference too much once the year got rolling, but every year my goal was to use it more and more. I start out every year with a big talk on proficiency as a concept (a post on that soon), and in previous years that theme has been buried beneath a pile of mandated curriculum materials, but I hope to share more proficiency-based activities this year so that you can be a better teacher than I have been in the past.

Beyond that, I also created my own “key classroom phrases” using Piktochart; you can steal them here. Those phrases are the ones my students used the most, but this packet is also a free and useful set of posters that you could get kids to color as a brainbreak, early finisher, or stations activity to give them ownership of the decorations on the wall.

The rest of the decor in my classroom changed based on whatever we had recently studied, but I LOVED using twine and clothespins to show off their most recent work. At the beginning of the year, I use this section to post advice from previous students, which is an excellent filler activity on those days at the end of the year when everyone is just totally over it. My new students often get excited when they see their friends’/siblings’ advice, so it’s a fun thing to put on the wall at the start of the year to build relationships in a small way.  Here’s a picture of what it looks like with some novice low comic strips:

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The only other resource I’ll mention is this beauty on Teachers Pay Teachers from Brooke Hahn. It’s only $3 if you want to buy hers, but you can easily make your own version of this with words that you think kids will need. I posted mine on the ceiling as a very generous way to give kids those key conjunctions and linking words they need to climb up the proficiency scale. Yes, this meant that they spent testing blocks staring at the ceiling hoping the word they wanted was up there, BUT I saw no problem with that. In my view, it gives them an opportunity to learn while they test, and eventually they’ll remember the word and won’t need to agonize at the list above their heads.

Whew! Good luck to those of you who are already getting your classrooms ready. If there’s a particular resource or theme you want me to gather for an October culture board, please let me know!


For more in the First Day Prep Series, check out my intro postinfographic syllabus, and fave First Day stations.

First Day Prep Series: Intro

So I’ve been living under a pre-wedding/wedding/honeymoon rock for several weeks now (yes, it was a beautiful and amazing day and my name is Mrs. Erwin now yippee!). Because of this about two days ago I had the shocking realization it is August. This year the knots in my stomach that form when I see back-to-school displays in July have been a little bit muted since now I am a year-round teacher in the business world, but I definitely did a double take when my rockstar third-grade-teacher cousin posted a “first day of school” Instagram picture of her classroom WITH KIDS IN IT. Where did summer go y’all???

In Virginia, we’re on the start-after-Labor-Day school schedule, which means when August hits the reality and excitement of a new batch of kids is really starting to heat up. For me, this usually means three straight weeks of prepping and planning for the first day of school. And ONLY the first day of school. I don’t know why, but Over-prepping-for-the-First-Day-Syndrome plagues me every year. I always get sucked down a wormhole of post after pin after article after tweet about building community and setting expectations and establishing relationships and creating the environment and the First-Day-of-School is just really important!!

If you’re also in this mode of overplanning, my message to you is this: take a deep breath. The First Day of School yes, is important, and yes, presents a ton of opportunities to start the year right, and yes, only happens once a year, but at the end of the day, you only have one class period with each group of kids. For me, this was 90 minutes. There’s only SO much you can do in 90 minutes to set the tone and get to know every child and establish behavioral systems and introduce proficiency and get kids excited and ready to start the work of learning. You have to pick and choose what you do in those 90 minutes. And for the kids, the first day of school is such a blur anyway, that the real good stuff doesn’t start until a couple weeks in. Give me September 15 and the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, when a kid gets really pumped to talk about his obsession with a Colombian soccer player and realizes that 1) no one is judging him and 2) we all WANT him to be excited and 3) he can use that passion as part of LEARNING AN ENTIRE LANGUAGE. I wish I had the time (don’t we all) to put just as much love and nervous planning energy into every day of learning, not just Day One, which is such a weird day anyway.

That all being said, my goal for the coming posts is to go through my standard August First-Day-of-School crunch with you. I’m going to present to you a lot of ideas (most of which I’ve tried, some of which I just have never had enough time to put into action), with the hope that you can pick and choose at least one to put into action during the first day, week, or month. Part one of my First Day Prep Series: the best free classroom decorations for the proficiency-based classroom and where to find them. Get excited!


For more in the First Day Prep Series, check out my free decoration ideas, infographic syllabus, and fave First Day stations.

End of the Year Reflection

We’ve almost finished week two of summer around here, and after taking a breather following the last day of school, this always feels like a good time to reflect back on the year and begin prepping for the next one. Like most teachers, I’ve been thinking about what went well, what didn’t, what new things I tried that I’ll keep and what new things I tried that I’ll never try again. This is how most of my Junes are spent (reflecting, exercising regularly, reading novels, actually cleaning my house, etc). BUT. My reflections on this most recent school year are quite different than normal because my life is in a state of happy disarray. This is due to three major things, each vaguely related to the other.

Number one: I got engaged in December (omggg!!!). Look, aren’t we cute?

Capture

My wedding is July 29 (one month from today!!). Because of this, most of the extra hours I usually devote to schoolwork at home got hijacked this year by venue shopping, dress fittings, and meetings with florists. Obviously, the blog took a bit of a back seat since life and the school year stepped in. My last blog post was dated September 9…and then the teach-plan-grade-eat-something-edit-the-guest-list-try-not-to-fall-asleep-before-8:30 grind took over.

Number two: we decided to buy a house together so we could move in right after the wedding. We spent a solid three months hunting and then a solid three months getting my fiance’s house ready to sell. Because not all of this lined up perfectly, we’ve spent the last couple months living in between stacks of clothes and driving around cars that feel more like mobile storage units. But we (finally) have possession of the new place, and his house (finally) is under contract, and we (finally) get to start moving into our new home as soon as the painters are done in a week or so.

Number three: after months of soul-searching, a lot of pros and cons lists, and more than a few good cries, I decided to accept a job as a corporate trainer in the private sector. I’ll be working in Spanish and English, restructuring the company’s professional development, and updating a bulk of their curriculum, which is slightly terrifying but extremely exciting. It was also a good move for us personally, as the job has more benefits and will have a lot more flexibility than teaching when we start our family.

Even though my head knows this new job is an obviously outstanding opportunity that I’d be a fool not to take, my heart is a little broken over the thought of leaving the classroom. I may write a fair share of posts over things I miss about teaching (the kids, the kids, the weird crazy energetic moody insanely awesome middle-school psycho kids), and maybe a few about what I don’t miss (hello sprinting to the teacher bathroom line between classes). But so far I haven’t been able to turn off my teacher brain. I still want to peruse Twitter for the latest tech tool. I still want to figure out ways to turn popular Latin songs into relevant language lessons. I still get pumped when I happen across a PERFECT authres infographic. I still want to read about and promote the social-emotional development of teenagers, and I still see weird things in Walmart that I want to turn into something amazing for my classroom (Basketball-hoop-shaped trashcan? Possibilities are endless).

For that reason, I’ve decided to revive this blog and keep it living. Now that I won’t come home from work physically and emotionally exhausted every night, I’ll actually have time to think and process and design truly outstanding lessons. I’ll have time to share my favorite projects and favorite techniques. I’ll even still be able to steal borrow a ton from the teacher PLN I’ve loved being a part of the last couple of years, and bring that joy into the conference room working with adults.

In short, though my new job is exciting and I will be throwing everything I have at it, my heart is still that of a teacher’s. And until it’s not, I want to keep developing materials for the classroom. If I won’t be using them anymore, maybe someone else can. I look forward to continuing with you on this journey, and if I can ever be of any help please don’t hesitate to contact me. In the meantime, enjoy reflecting, recharging, reading up on what’s going to be great for next year, or just reading trashy novels. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Happy summer.