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!

Advertisements

#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: 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.