NBCT Standard 1: Know Your Students

Today I’m diving into the first National Board World Languages Standard: Knowledge of Students  (pages 18-21 here). (Read my last two posts to play catch up on why I’m talking about National Board Standards and what the heck NBCT even is).

First, the Standard statement:

Accomplished teachers of world languages actively acquire knowledge of their students and draw on their understanding of child and adolescent development to foster their students’ competencies and interests as individual language learners.

In three words: KNOW YOUR KIDS. There are some great reminders sprinkled throughout these pages that focus on why investing time in student relationships is so important. For me, there are three main take-aways.

1. Learn about the kids in every way you can.

Accomplished teachers use every method at their disposal to learn as much about their students as possible. The Standard references three ways to do this. Firstly, engage directly with the kids: informal conversation, personality surveys, informational surveys, attending extracurricular events, and baseline language assessmentsSecondly, gather information from the other important adults in kids lives: their families, other teachers, counselors, and administrators.

Thirdly, make sure to stay informed about adolescent development in general. Being aware of how teens communicate and develop socially, and staying informed about the challenges your particular community of students is facing, is critical to developing appropriate learning goals inside and outside the classroom.

2. Leverage what you know about them to engage them.

As you gather as much information as possible about your students, you’re able to leverage it to drive your instruction. The Standard references the enthusiasm and energy that adolescents naturally have about the things they’re passionate about, and their intrinsic desire to talk about themselves and their interests. Luckily, our whole goal as language teachers is to get students to express themselves, so it’s just a matter of tapping into their natural tendencies. I’ve written before about how I love differentiating my instruction by giving kids an opportunity to inject their passions into the thematic units typically required by school curriculum. Our challenge is to find ways to do that day in and day out.

Beyond letting student interests drive instruction, the Standard also reminds us that teaching students skills to help with their social and personal development is key to helping them succeed not only as language students, but also as individuals. Learning a language requires taking risks, setting goals, making mistakes, and developing the confidence and self-efficacy to continue trying and failing over and over again. As language teachers, we give them the tools and opportunity to practice doing so in a supported environment, which engages them on a level that goes far beyond our learning content.

3. Take advantage of your learning community’s network.

For me, the most challenging part of this Standard is the repeated reminder to utilize the learning community connected to your classroom as much as possible. The best way to do this is to increase family involvement. Engaging family members through frequent communication helps you to learn more about the students’ needs and goals, and having support at home can only help you work as a team to get each student where they need to be.

Additionally, family relationships provide you with a wealth of experience that helps you bring language learning to life. Using family members as guest speakers, or even just guest judges in a PBL project, reminds students that what they are learning has real world implications. Students who speak a different language at home can bring to life the importance of being bilingual and the richness that comes with being a part of different cultures. The Standard challenges us to be informed about what resources we have available in the family networks we become a part of each school year, and also to bring those resources into the classroom whenever we can.

Concluding thoughts on Standard One

This first Standard to me affirms the natural tendency we all have to build and leverage our relationships with our students in order to drive instruction. However, there are many things in this Standard listed that are difficult to accomplish on a regular basis. For example, I’d love to say that I had a beautiful monthly e-newsletter and an Instagram account for my parents to follow, but systemic parent communication isn’t something I thought I had the time to prioritize. This Standard reminds me that a little effort in that arena can go a long way.

With this in mind, as you read these Standards, give yourself a high five for the things you know you do on a regular basis, and pick one or two items that you aren’t doing already to help support your teaching. We all have items in each Standard that we are naturally drawn to, and ones that are more difficult for each of us. The goal is to affirm what makes you a good teacher, and help you to become even better, not to get overwhelmed by all of the things you aren’t doing yet. Good luck to those of you on your NBCT journey, and to those who are just getting to know your students to start the year! This Standard is a good reminder that the time you invest in building those relationships is well worth it.

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National Board Standards: a Primer

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently working my way through the World Languages National Board standards and sharing my journey with you. Before we dive in with the Standards content, let’s take one step back and do a quick intro to National Boards for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about (ain’t no shame!).

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards heads up the National Board Certified Teacher process. Directly pulled from their website, “National Board Certification was designed to develop, retain, and recognize accomplished teachers and to generate ongoing improvement in schools nationwide. It is the most respected professional certification available in K-12 education.” Basically, the National Board certifies the very best teachers in the country by putting them through a rigorous (read: difficult, time-consuming, and expensive) process, and then allows those teachers to operate with four precious NBCT letters after their name. 

In many school districts around the country, becoming a National Board Certified Teacher is one of the only ways (in addition to getting a graduate degree) that you can increase your salary. It links you to other outstanding teachers in your area and around the country, and it truly forces you to hold yourself and your teaching to the highest possible standard for your students in a way that no other professional development does. If you’re interested in learning more about why to go through the process from a teacher’s perspective, read the venerable Cult of Pedagogy’s take here.

The National Board maintains and produces Standards documents for a couple of dozen different disciplines and age groups, outlining what makes for an exceptional teacher in each one. To get certified, you submit mountains of evidence to a panel of judges trying to prove that you exhibit these standards every time you step into the classroom. For that reason, merely going through the process of reading the standards is immensely helpful if you’re looking to up your teaching game. You can download and read the World Languages standards here, and two of my absolute favorite language teacher bloggers, Rebecca Blouwolff and Laura Sexton discuss their takes on the process here and here.

Every standards document starts out the same way, with the National Board Five Core Propositions and the Architecture of Accomplished Teaching. In a nutshell, the Five Core Propositions state that accomplished teachers:

  1. are committed to students and their learning.
  2. know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
  3. are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning.
  4. think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.
  5. are members of learning communities.

I recommend you check out the Architecture of Accomplished teaching here; it basically illustrates the keys to excellent teaching in one infographic. To summarize: accomplished teaching starts with the kids; establishes appropriate learning objectives based upon knowledge of the kids, the subject, and pedagogy; implements instruction to achieve those goals; evaluates learning in light of the objectives and the instruction; reflects on the learning; then sets new goals for the kids (and begins the cycle all over again).

My favorite sentiment from all of this is the National Board idea that everything you do should start with THESE students in THIS setting at THIS time. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching a group of professionals or a group of 11-year-olds, every day I’m teaching I remind myself of this line and force myself to think of my instruction in terms of THESE students in THIS setting at THIS time. It helps me to put my teaching in perspective (it’s all about the learner!) and gives me a starting point to make sure that the instruction is actually effective for the people sitting in front of me. You can design and implement world-class lessons, but if you don’t start with who your students are, what they know, and how they’re feeling in THIS setting at THIS time, you risk selling everyone in the room short.

The World Languages Standards take the five core propositions and adapt them into nine standards specifically for World Language instruction. I’ll be going through each standard one by one in future posts, but I do think it’s instructive to start with the overview. I hope this primer helps for those of you who are new to the NBCT process!

 

My First Blog Post Since Becoming a Mom

Happy August everyone! I hope that those of you who have started up the school year are enjoying these first weeks of getting to know your new kids. I don’t have any new First Day of School content this year (though you can scroll through my First Day Prep series starting here), but my teacher brain is definitely yawning and stretching itself back to life in the face of back-to-school sales and a slight (SLIGHT) hint of crisp in the morning air, one that quickly dissipates and makes way for some very heavy Virginia humidity. It is definitely still summer around here!

My last twelve months have been focused on becoming a mom! Our smiley son Augie (David Augustine!) is about to be six-months-old (born March 2!), which is completely insane. It seems simultaneously as if we’ve known him forever and we left the hospital with him last weekend. He still doesn’t have the sleep thing down, but he’s good for a laugh and a snuggle and generally making your heart melt. We are definitely in that place where you feel so happy and lucky that all you can do is be grateful and try not to take it for granted.

Becoming a working mother has been its own transition, one that I could probably write about for weeks, but I will spare you and suffice it to say that I love my job, I love my kid, I love my ridiculously supportive husband, and I finally almost feel like a functional human again. Enough that I was recently exploring a new volunteer opportunity where I could have the potential to work with teenagers for the first time in a while. And honestly, it’s like the Spanish teacher side of my brain woke up and has been annoying me ever since. It’s crazy how being a teacher is something that just becomes a part of you, no matter where you are in life. I still genuinely love my professional development work and am hopeful that I am getting better at it every day, but I didn’t realize how much I missed being in the classroom with kids until the possibility presented itself, albeit in a volunteer capacity.

When I got home after my volunteer meeting, my feet found themselves walking up the steps to our attic to dig through a bag of old school files until I found my trusty National Board certification binder. For some reason starting with the flagship standards of teaching just seemed like the thing to do.

To put this into context, my last year teaching, I embarked on the NBCT journey and was obsessed with the quality of the professional development and the way it forced me to examine my craft. There are many insights I gained during that time that I still actively use on a daily basis when designing my instruction for a professional audience. Although I switched jobs before I was able to complete my first NBCT component, I still have all the materials representing a LOT of work I did getting ready for the process.

Because I have the teaching itch (or at least the teacher blog itch), I’m going to work my way through the National Board standards. My hope is that they inspire some blog post content, refresh my own instructional design process after maternity leave, and give this teacher part of my brain an additional outlet. Stay tuned for a few National Board related posts as I get the creative juices flowing. Hopefully they’ll help out those of you considering the NBCT plunge, and help the rest of you keep some rock solid standards at the forefront while your school year starts. Happy August folks!

La Tomatina Name Game

Back-to-school time means back-to-blog time around here! I was going through my back-to-school materials this week, and one of my favorite activities from my dear Spanish 1B 7th graders jumped out. I’m sharing it here today in the hopes that someone else can enjoy it too.

This lesson started out as a very structured plan on La Tomatina, and then when we had 15 minutes of unstructured time at the end of the lesson, it evolved into a name game/paper throwing extravaganza inspired by this post from Amy Lenord. I’ll share with you how to turn this delightful improvisation into an actually great lesson for the first weeks of school.

First off, La Tomatina is such a wonderful cultural hook at the beginning of the school year. The actual festival happens in August, authentic resources are relatively easy to find, and food fights seem to be a universally engaging activity. I usually start the lesson off with this great wordless ad from Ray-Ban. It’s a beautifully shot video, and it lends itself well to your standard #authres activities. You can use it to anchor a movie talk, pause it periodically to get students to guess what’s going to happen next, or, my personal favorite with Novices, get students to write down as many words and phrases describing the video as possible. You can read more about this no-prep authentic resource activity here.

Once we get through the beautiful Ray-Ban video of La Tomatina, I’ll show a video that goes into detail about the what/when/where of the festival. This one from Tío Spanish and this one from SpanishPod101 are both pretty good. I usually have a worksheet that asks students to fill in certain details about the festival (when it is, where it is, what you wear, etc.), and we’ll watch this video a couple of times to give them the time they need to get the correct details down.

This is where it gets interesting. Once you go through the answers to the what/when/where of the festival and discuss the traditions as you please, hand out blank sheets of red (or pink) copy paper. Have each kid write down their name, two sentences that describe them, and what they’re wearing today. If this is the first day of Spanish 1, they can all write down “Me llamo _____,” and the activity will still work. Adapt what you’d like them to write based on where they are with their language level.

Once each kid has their info written down on their red/pink piece of paper, have them crumple it up (yup). Then, set some strong expectations about what happens next. Your kids are going to throw their “tomatoes.” They aren’t going to hit anyone in the head. They aren’t going to stand up to throw. They are only going to throw underhanded…Whatever you need to do to ensure that everyone in your classroom feels safe. This is when I give a very strong “don’t ruin this for everyone” look to my baseball and softball players who look ready to pounce. Once everybody agrees to the expectations, on your count, they throw their tomato anywhere in the classroom.

Once the tomatoes are on the ground (or wherever they ended up), the kids stand up to grab another student’s tomato. At this point, they have to find the person who corresponds to the tomato they picked up. This can be done in strictly Spanish-only mode by having people asking their new classmates “¿Cómo te llamas?” until they find the correct person.

You can have everybody sit down when they’ve found the right person and stay in Spanish-only mode to converse, have them ask their tomato person a series of questions that you dictate on the board, have them sign their partner’s tomato with a fact about themselves to practice their writing, you make the rules. There are many ways to adapt this for multiple language levels, have your kids practice each others’ names, and stay in the target language throughout. Repeat this process as many times as you’d like to get them interacting with more and more kids in the class.

Timely cultural authentic resources + get up and move around time + practicing get to know you language at the beginning of the school year + engaging in a crazy cultural activity = winning lesson for the beginning of school!

Have you ever tried a crumple-and-throw activity in your class? How did your kids respond to the chaos? Let me know! Good luck with your first days if you’re not back already!

 

6-word memoirs to end the year

For those of you who have finished the year already, congrats. In Virginia, we’re still basically staring down four more weeks of school. We’re approaching what my fave principal used to call “keep the lid on it” time. It’s that delightful time of year where we’re all just trying to make some good class memories, make sure we all survive, and not be that teacher who shows movies for two weeks.

In my last post, I shared my go-to end-of-the-year PBL, la fiesta perfecta. Once the last grades are in, however, it gets a lot more challenging to get the kids motivated to do pretty much anything, and of course, we’re totally exhausted too. I loved having a couple “wind them up and watch them go” activities at the ready to end the year, and one of the most fun ones for me was the six-word memoir.

I stole this idea from a creative writing teacher, who informed me that the six-word memoir is a “thing” in the adolescent writing world. You can see some creative examples in English and read more about it here. The premise is pretty much what it sounds like: students have to write the story of their lives in exactly six words – no more, no less. You make them do this in Google Slides, Google Drawing or Adobe Spark and have them add in gorgeous images, fonts, or graphic design elements. Or, during those last weeks when the students laptops have been turned in and you need to kill time, you have them hand draw these beauties. They’ll be left with a really cool, personal keepsake from Spanish class that is 100% them. Here’s an example:

Picture1

My Spanish 1 students would have something as simple as “A mí me gustan papas fritas” with a corresponding French fry selfie. Some would have sentences about sports (“Jugar al fútbol es mi vida”) or their friends (“Nosotras hablamos, comemos, y estamos felices”). One of my Spanish 2 students one year had a picture of an ugly wall in front of a beautiful field. In the field, he wrote “La vida está aqui.” On the wall he wrote, “La tarea.” (ARE THESE KIDS BRILLIANT OR WHAT?)

This project also gives you some great memories of each kid, and some first-day-of-school decor for the following school year. I’m a big fan of decorating the room at the beginning of the year with work from previous years as a way to build connections with students who know some of the kids I’ve already taught. For Spanish 2 or Spanish 3, you could have students do this during the first week of school as a get-to-know-you activity as well! I find it’s a great way to spark conversation with kids about the things that are important to them.

You can also make this activity as formal or informal as you want to, which makes it ideal for “keep the lid on it” time. I’ve got a more formal student instruction sheet with a single-point rubric available on TPT here (French version here), and I’ve done pared down versions of it as part of a stations day or as an early finisher as well. I love getting students to express themselves in the target language in fun authentic ways (don’t we all?), and this is a great way to do it. When your kids come up with brilliant 6-word works of genius, let me know!

The Ultimate Fiesta PBL

It’s getting to be the end of the year for many folks around the country, so I thought now would be as good a time as any to share my go-to end-of-the-year PBL: La fiesta perfecta.

The driving question for the PBL is “How would we celebrate a holiday from a Spanish-speaking country?” or “¿Cómo celebraríamos una fiesta hispanohablante?” With that question in mind, you divide them into groups, and give them their challenge: they are to create an authentic, safe, affordable, feasible, and fun end-of-the-year celebration based on the Hispanic holiday of their choice. They’ll need to be able to set-up, clean-up, and celebrate within one class period, and they’ll have to use materials they can either get at school or easily get at home. Once they have the idea for their celebration, they’ll present it to their classmates to have them vote on a favorite. The winners will present their proposal to a member of the school admin team (hey authentic audience!) for approval. They’ll either get approval, or modify their celebration as needed, and then they’ll get to throw a huge party with their classmates!

I love this project at the end of the year because it brings some meaning to those days after testing that seem to be hard to fill up. I’d do different versions of many of the parties that got presented, not just the winners, when I was desperate for another class period to fill. Those weirdly scheduled days during standardized testing can be a struggle, and this helps to keep it engaging and light. It can be easily scaled up or scaled down too, depending on how much time you need (i.e., some of my classes ended up with 5 extra 3-hour blocks due to testing, some with a couple of 90-minute periods; this project can be stretched or shrunk to fit the time needs!)

Okay, let’s break this PBL unit down:

Guide them through a review of holidays and celebrations from Spanish-speaking countries. Before we design a party based on a Hispanic holiday, we need to research the Hispanic holidays. I’ll usually have some sort of table they need to fill in that has a list of holidays on the y-axis and different questions about each holiday on the x-axis (when, where, why, food, clothing, music, traditions, etc.) I’ll have them review stand-bys like Día de los Muertos and Navidad, but I’ll also throw in others that don’t get as much love (Carnaval, San Fermín in Pamplona, La tomatina, El cipotegato, Las Fallas, La mercè in Barcelona, Días de independencia en varias paises, etc). I’ve done this a few different ways, from doing one holiday a class-period as a warm-up with authentic video for a few weeks, to doing a huge jigsaw activity in one 90-minute block, to having them work through all the holidays in groups with a sub. The idea is to get them thinking about different celebrations, but I don’t limit them to the ones we go through together. I’ll leave it open to them to research other holidays if they want to (why not!)

Set up the make-your-own-fiesta idea with strong boundaries. I go through a long speech when I introduce this project about how this is an opportunity for them not only to dive deep on one Hispanic holiday, but also to apply their problem-solving skills to design an entire event, on a $0 budget, with approval from the administration, that they can complete in one 90-minute block, that they’d actually ENJOY. For some of them, this is the first time they’ve taken a stab at event planning, and it’s fun to see them start to realize how much goes into planning a simple class party. I’m there as a reality check when their imaginations start running wild, and I try to help them get creative about designing something for admin approval, so that I don’t become the bad guy who shoots down dreams (i.e. “do you really think they’ll approve lighting a bonfire in the middle of the football field guys? yeah, me neither, what’s a good substitute for open flames…”) When you get enough teenagers determined to have a good time, their imaginations start doing impressive things, and those boundaries force their creative juices to start running wild.

Give them very specific guidelines and a very specific rubric. I gave them pretty strict specifications on what they needed to include in their party proposals. For me, they needed a slide on:

  • The holiday: the authentic holiday they’ll be imitating (using the same info from our pre-unit holiday dive – when, where, traditions, etc).
  • Our party activities: How will we turn traditions from the authentic holidays into a school-appropriate party? What we will actually DO at this party?
  • Set-up: What we need to do to help set-up this party beforehand the fun starts
  • Materials: What materials and supplies we need to pull this off, and how they will get them? I tell them to be VERY specific about this – Will they bring things from home? Whose home? Will they need to borrow materials from the PE department? Who will ask the PE teachers? I put as much responsibility on them as I possibly can.
  • Clothing: Do we need to wear anything that will help us celebrate the holiday more authentically?
  • Food: Will there be food? What will we eat? Who will make it and bring it in?
  • Safety: How will we ensure that this fiesta will be safe for everyone involved?
  • Clean-up: How will we clean-up after the fiesta? What will we need to clean up? Who will clean up? I remind them they’ll only have one class period to get this all done!

I also tell them they will be graded on whether their party is safe, affordable, authentic, feasible (i.e. materials are easily accessible, it’s likely to be approved by admin), time-appropriate (can you really set-up, clean-up, and have this party in one 90-minute block?), and fun (with a rubric for each category).

Give them all a chance to present and be the reality check for one another. Every single group will have a chance to present in class, and every single group will have to ask and answer questions about each party (this was an awesome interpersonal task at the end of Spanish 2). Then, classmates will vote and tally each group on the same criteria they’re getting graded on (safety, affordability, authenticity, feasibility, time, and fun). I used Google forms for this to help me easily figure out which celebration was the winning party.

Get them all to help out the chosen group for the admin presentation. While I coordinate getting a school administrator into class for the big “approval day,” they help each other brainstorm any admin concerns. Which parts of the party do they think the principal will have questions about? How are they going to address safety and clean-up thoroughly? I also have them pick who is going to translate if needed (they still have to show off present in Spanish for the admin team, but they’ll need to translate for the folks who don’t speak Spanish).

Once the party is approved, execute the plan! Once the admin team approves our celebration, now it’s time to put the plan into action. Since the kids were forced to be really specific in their presentations, hopefully this is easy. They’ve already brainstormed who is asking whom for what, and which students are bringing in which materials for set-up and clean-up. I also grade them on participation – if you said you’re on clean-up duty, you’re on clean-up duty!

Enjoy making these memories. My classes came up with some AWESOME ideas for these parties. We did a capture the flag version of running of the bulls, a huge Carnaval celebration, and a version of Las Fallas where we drew “fallas” on eggs and smashed them on a huge tarp outside to signify the Fallas bursting into flames. It was the last big hurrah for some of my 8th graders, and I loved helping them bring their nutjob ideas to life. It’s a fun one!

And there you have it. If you like this project, you can purchase a version with instructions, rubrics, and all on Teachers Pay Teachers here. Please share with me any crazy party ideas your kids come up with. I’d love to hear how this project is going in other classrooms. Good luck getting to the last day of school!

My favorite no-prep authentic resource activity

I was obsessed with the March Madness Music craze last year (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, stop reading and go here and also here). By the end of it, a handful of my students started taking over the beginning of class, unprompted, with some fake microphones and a full-on Sports-Center-ish pregame show before each match-up. It was awesome to see them hamming it up for something as simple as showing two music videos, and they loved it. I will admit that after a couple of weeks, I was craving some different activities to give them while we watched the music videos, so I thought I’d share my favorite one today in case you’re in a mid-March-Madness rut (or just need a new way to engage with authentic resources in general).

I love this activity for many reasons, not the least of which is that it requires ZERO prep. It’s designed to allow kids to produce and take risks with the language in a way that isn’t threatening or intimidating. It gives them an opportunity to express themselves authentically and power through inevitable mistakes, and it’s also great for classes that have students at varying language levels.

Basically, before I share the authentic resource (in this case, two music videos), I give them a minimum word goal. This varies by level, but for my novices, it would be around 25 words. They need to write while they watch, and come up with 25 words to describe what they hear and see. I remind them that this is an authentic resource (made by Spanish speakers, for Spanish speakers), so they aren’t going to understand many of the words. I want them to focus more on what they observe. For my Spanish 1s, I wouldn’t even demand they write sentences. A list of words or a handful of phrases will do. For example, the phrase “blanco y negro” for a black and white music video would be perfect. If they do recognize some words in the lyrics and write those down, awesome. For Spanish 2s, I’d usually encourage them to write sentences, but they didn’t need to string them together as a coherent paragraph, just list things they observe (“La chica lleva una camisa rosada;” “La cantante es divertida;” “Me encanta la canción;” etc) . Like I said, this activity is designed to be really open so that all language levels can challenge themselves.

During March Madness, we’d watch both the music videos of the day, and in addition to their observations, I’d direct them to write down which song was their favorite and why (in their best Spanish – this counted as part of their 25-word goal!). I’d also ask them if there was one song they’d like to watch again to get up to that 25-word goal, and we’d often watch at least one of them twice.

To bring us all together for a discussion, I’d direct the kids to pick the favorite sentence or phrase they wrote, and share it with the people sitting close to them. In my class, they sat in tables of four kids, so they’d all share their best sentence/phrase with their table. After that, I’d direct the group of four to pick the best sentence from their group to share with the class, and they’d send one person to write that sentence on the board at the front of the room. This sharing not only ups the quality of their work (some of them love the opportunity to show-off), but it also sparks discussion, gives them some accountability, and helps them learn from the other sentences in the room.

Once we have every group’s best work on the board, a representative from each table has to stand up and read their group’s sentence out loud. This representative can’t be the same person who wrote on the board (which forces more of them to participate). I take the time to repeat each sentence/phrase and VERY informally correct any errors. Usually I’ll just vocally rephrase the sentence emphasizing the correction. This does the trick without discouraging them from taking language risks. We also always give a little applause to each group when they present.

And that’s it! From there, you can dive into more discussion about the resource, or get ready to roll into the lesson for the day. It’s a simple idea, but it was my go-to to get some discussions going around authentic resources, and a great warm-up activity.

If you’re looking for more March Madness ideas, I loved this post from Martina Bex. It’s chock-full of ways to mix it up week to week. Otherwise enjoy la Locura de Marzo!

Updating the Label-A-House Project

I spend some time volunteering as a mentor with a great group of kids downtown, and oftentimes we end up chatting about whatever is going on in school. One of our kiddos was lamenting this week about a project she had to do for French class – it sounded like a combo of a million standard Level Two projects in one go. She had to plan a vacation (travel unit) with her family (family unit) and describe the house they’d stay in (house unit).

As she described the project, my little teacher heart flew back to a flurry of INSANE houses that I got to experience the last time I did a dream house project with my middle-school kids. There was a trampoline house and a spaceship house and a Hogwarts house and a candy house and a sports-mania house. I had a kid spend HOURS designing a haunted house using Scratch and then uploading a video of it to Youtube. I had kids stringing together Snapchat videos touring friends’ houses and describing the rooms in delightfully filtered Spanish. It was a-mazing.

My poor mentor kid, however, was not encouraged to go as crazy with her dream vacation house, and at the end, the project just made her feel, well, bored. I had one of those teacher moments where I was like “omg, bored language student?? NOT ON MY WATCH” and then dove in with her to brainstorm how to combine her love of art and weirdness to produce a fun project that was more HER and less lets-go-to-pretend-France-with-your-boring-fake-family.

My language teacher heart was so broken by this bored child, that I felt inspired to write a blog post about the ways I like to make standard Novice-level Spanish projects more engaging. In this post, I’m using the word “project” pretty loosely (on the spectrum of let’s-make-a-poster to public-audience-infused-multi-week-bonanza, we’re closer to the poster end). If you’re a PBL/differentiation/student-choice-and-voice nerd like me, you probably already do a ton of these things, but maybe you can cull a few new ideas to throw out to your kids. Since my interaction mostly centered about the standard draw-and-label-a-house project, I’ll walk you through my process on jazzing up this pretty standard summative assessment.

Start with very specific language goals. When you get into the land of differentiated projects, students are likely to create products and outcomes that all look very different from one another. This is good; this is where creativity and imagination and engagement happen. BUT you want to make sure that within all of those bells and whistles, your kids are all meeting appropriate language goals. The easiest way for me to keep this straight (and keep it straight with my students) is to tie the language goal to an I Can statement. For our label-a-house project, our I Can is “I can describe my home and other people’s homes.” Love that I Can statement. Embrace it. Because at the end of the day, within all the excitement and creativity, the I Can statement is all that really matters.

Dig deeper into those language outcomes. Okay, so I have my target I Can statement in my head. The next question is, how are kids going to demonstrate mastery of that goal? For our house unit, we had a school-division-mandated vocabulary list (we can debate the merits of using vocab lists another day, okay? okay). I knew that I wanted to tap into my kids’ ability to use this vocabulary, both discretely AND organically for their own communicative purposes.

To meet the discrete goal, I required that they label a certain number of rooms and pieces of furniture in the house. I don’t require them to use every single word because I want them to pick and choose the words they’d actually need (communicative purpose), but I do give them a vocab word requirement since they’ve got to be responsible for the vocab list for exam purposes. For the house project I’ll require them to give me 8 labelled rooms and 12 pieces of furniture in Spanish. They can (and are encouraged to) use words from outside of our vocab list if they want to (we like to drive organic language learning here), BUT it won’t count as their required 8 rooms/12 pieces of furniture (to ensure we hit that required vocab).

To meet the communicative goal, I also require the kids to write a ten sentence description of their house. This makes sure that they’re stringing the words together to express themselves appropriately. This is also tapping into that presentational mode and getting them to stretch their output muscles. Additionally, it gets us towards that ultimate I Can statement: “I can describe my home and other people’s homes.”

Ignite students’ passions about The Thing They Are Creating. Laura wrote a while back about waiting for “The Gleam,” that moment when something changes in a kid’s eyes and you can tell you’ve tapped into something they’re passionate about. I love this idea because it puts into words something I also wait to see with my students, and I relentlessly pursue that sparkle in their eyes when introducing these types of assessments. I do this in two ways, and the first is getting students excited about The Thing They Are Creating. More specifically, in this case I wanted them excited about The House. I would encourage them to unleash any passion or interest or world that excites them when coming up with this house they are going to label. It could be based on something fictional; it could be based on something real; it could be based on some weird dream they had last night. My favorite line when I was trying to get kids excited about The Thing was a “anything goes as long as it’s school appropriate!” That line was usually met by lots of eye rolls and throwing of hands into the air, but was also usually followed by a barrage of questions about what they could try to invent. Any suggestion they threw out was met with an enthusiastic “YES, I LOVE IT” or a “YES I LOVE THE ENTHUSIASM but is that school appropriate?” This is where kids start thinking about fun things like designing a house built for mutant superhero fish or drawing up the house from The Simpsons. When you can tap into their interests, they start to light up.

Ignite students’ passions about The Way They Are Creating It. Now that you have the kids’ creative juices flowing, tap into another side of their brains. Not only can they invent any house they want, but they can create it and show it off ANY WAY THEY WANT TO. I usually give out two or three standard examples of what types of products they could produce. In this case, I would tell them they can draw a house on a poster board and label it, or they can make a Slideshow online with a slide for each house. These are ideas they’ve done and seen a million times. Where you get excitement is when you encourage them to think outside the box. You can use Prezi or Google Draw or Slides, but you can also make a video describing your house a la MTV cribs; you can build a house out of shoe boxes; you can use a floorplanner or Snapchat or whatever other medium you can think of that meets the demands of the project. Your artists will love you for this. Your tech nerds will love you for this. Your social butterfly vloggers will love you for this. Every year, there’s some new tech tool that kids throw out that they’d love to use; I always tell them to run it by me before they get started, and then usually I let them spread their wings and fly.

Connect it to some real world culture. I love these types of projects because it gets kids going crazy about something they love and drives some real communicative purpose, but of course it helps to put a project like this into context with cultural activities in class, usually outside of the scope of the project. For something like the house unit, I’d encourage them to take a stroll in a Spanish-speaking city on Google Maps Street View and take screen shots of houses they’d like to live in. They could use one of those houses as an inspiration for their dream house. I also love using House Hunters International once during this unit (yes, that show on HGTV), and tell them they can use one of those homes as their inspiration as well. I know, I know, House Hunters is in English and there’s no input, but there is SO MUCH CULTURE. I also usually have an episode guide/questionnaire that they have to read and fill out in Spanish to keep them honest (sometimes you can find free episodes of HHI here, you can buy them here, and you can check out a sample episode guide here). I don’t like to use culture as a limitation on projects like this, but I do like to use it as a springboard for comparison’s sake, and I like to find ways that they can fit it into our project if they want to.

Design your rubric to be flexible on those passions, but not on those language outcomes. Grading these projects can be intimidating, of course, because so many of the finished products are going to look very differently from one another. For me, this was never really an issue, because at the end of the day, you’re really only grading for the stated language outcomes. Everything else is just, well, 5 creativity points worth of fun. For the house project, you check that they have the right amount of labelled rooms and furniture, and then you grade their presented written descriptions like you would any other proficiency-based piece of writing. After that, you’re just giving feedback encouraging that creativity and communicating your excitement about their finished products. To help my sanity during the grading piece of these projects, I also was sure to be very clear about how the projects were to be turned in. If it’s a physical product, it’s placed in a designated spot in the classroom. If it’s a digital file, it must be turned in properly on Google Classroom. If you’re making a video, you have to include a written description. But after that, the grading’s gravy.

If you’re feeling crazy, take it a step further and invite in an audience. The PBL gods wouldn’t quite be satisfied with a project like this, because it’s lacking in a few areas, one of them being “authentic audience” (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read a little bit more here). There are a million ways you can try to infuse authentic audience into projects, but for one like this, I’d probably turn it into a competition. Have the kids present their projects to each other, compete for the best dream house, and vote on the top three in each class. After you’ve narrowed it down to the top few, invite in someone’s parent who is a real estate agent (or an administrator, or another teacher) and have them pick a winner from the final candidates. Ideally, this person would have some familiarity with Spanish, or you could have the kids present in Spanish and translate for each other. For an off-the-walls creative project like this one, it helps to pick an audience who would be open to picking from off-the-walls options (preferably someone who could believably say something like “yes, the aesthetic in your donut palace would be ideal for the market right now”). I find getting an outsider into class keeps things SO much more interesting, and that level of competition gets the kids elevating their projects to another level if you have the space in the curriculum to add it in!

Enjoy the ride. Every year and every class will bring new fun ideas that you can share with the classes who are not quite excited about a label-a-house project. Every year and every project, you’ll get that initial “okay, what’s the minimum I have to do to get an A,” but the challenge is pushing past that apathy to get to The Gleam (trademark Laura Sexton). Communicate the expectations, but use the strengths and interests you know about your kids to suggest something they can get excited about. It makes the whole process so much more engaging for everyone involved.

If you want to see how I normally present a project like this to my students, I’ve posted the simple version on Teachers Pay Teachers here (for French class here). You can purchase it or click on the Preview file to see how you’d adapt it to fit your needs. Enjoy!!

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. 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!