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

If you’re interested in an editable version of my syllabus, it’s available for purchase on Teachers Pay Teachers here (in French too!).  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.

 

Why Study Spanish: A Lesson Plan

Every year for the last three years, I’ve completely devoted my second day of school to the topic “but why are we even learning Spanish.” Since I teach middle-schoolers in an area where there aren’t a ton of native speakers around, sometimes it’s hard for the kids to think outside of their bubble and understand that Spanish has real world importance, relevance, and benefits to them. My second day of school is all about getting them to buy into the fact that learning Spanish is a skill that will help them in their real lives outside the classroom.

I love this lesson the first week of school not only because it’s important to talk about why we’re doing what we’re doing, but also because it’s super easy to update every year (an easy prep for me)! Since it’s a very learner-driven lesson, it lets me stay in the 90% Target Language zone to give instructions, even though the meat of the lesson and the students will be mostly in English. If we’re going to have a lesson in English, at least I can stay in Spanish myself the whole time.

After our warm-up, I start class off by explaining to students that it is very important to me that they are able to answer the question “why are you taking Spanish,” beyond a default “because my mom is making me.” I emphasize that I teach Spanish because I think it’s fun, but I also teach Spanish because I think it will greatly improve and enrich their lives. I usually have to use a little bit of English here in my Level 1 classes, but not my Level 2s. I point to the blank bulletin board at the back of the room that says “¿Por qué estudias español?” on it, and tell them we’re going to be filling it up today. While I’m talking, I hand out a blank chart with a list of resources on the x-axis and two columns on the y-axis that say “Three reasons to study Spanish presented” and “Best reason to study Spanish presented.” This paper is the anchor of our lesson for the day (preview an example here).

The first resource listed is always a video. The past few years I’ve used Lindsay Does Language’s “9 Reasons to Learn Spanish.” It’s modern, quirky, and pretty funny, and I can always give them some solid input in Spanish beforehand to set it up (she is a girl from England and she’s funny but she talks really fast, etc). This is a good opportunity to introduce “escribir” and “mirar” as well when giving kids instructions.

After we watch the video twice, students write down their favorite three reasons to study Spanish from the video in the middle column, and then pick their favorite out of the three for the last column. I emphasize to them that the last column (the personal favorite column) will be different for each person and will depend on each person’s life experiences and goals. Starting with the video is great since we review the first resource as a class and can work the kinks out together. After the video, the real fun begins.

The meat of the lesson centers around a jigsaw activity. If you’re not familiar with a jigsaw activity, it generally goes like this:

  1. Students are divided into groups. Each group receives a different resource, and that group becomes “experts” in their resource. In this case, each “expert” group receives a different article or infographic about why learning a language is important. Since my students are seated at tables in groups of four, I generally will take one person from each table and divide the class into four bigger groups (so they’re all in groups with no one who sits at their normal table). Then, I give each group one of four resources (this year I used Why Learn Another Language When You Already Speak English?, The Benefits of Learning Languages Infographic6 Reasons Why Everyone Should Really Learn Spanish, and Why Learn Spanish? 10 Great reasons)
  2. Students become “experts” in their resource. In this case, I give students 2 minutes to silently read through their article or infographic and decide individually (silently!!) which three reasons to study Spanish presented in their article are the best ones. After two silent minutes, they must come to a consensus in their expert group about which reasons are the best. I like making them come to a consensus because it forces them to argue with each other about which reasons to study Spanish are more important (love it).
  3. Once each expert group has reached a consensus about the most important points of their resource, they have to go back to their original tables and report on what they read about. Again, none of the kids at their original tables have the same resource, so the students depend on each other to be able to complete their chart for each article. If you have a slacker in an expert group, his or her table group suffers, which forces everybody to participate (peer pressure!!).
  4. Before they start presenting to their original groups, I instruct them to stand up and present their ideas formally to their tablemates, NOT to just switch papers and copy down each other’s answers. I do this to start getting students used to talking with their peers, and also to get them used to standing up and presenting. Spanish is not a class where you can sit quietly the entire year, so I think it’s important that they get a chance to stand up and talk during the first week (even though it is in English). I love that they’re only presenting to their tables, not the whole class. This reduces anxiety, since there’s so much noise while everyone is presenting at the same time, and eases them into the scary idea of talking in front of the class.
  5. Each kid fills out their paper based on what their classmates present, but they also have to grapple with the material a bit individually when they think about which reason presented in that article is most important TO THEM in that third column. To complete their table, they have to pick out the reasons from each presentation that are most relevant to their lives, so the activity stays very personal.

Once the jigsaw activity is over, I bring the whole class back together and show one last video. I love this one because it’s short; it makes them think, and it makes a bunch of really great points about language learning in general that can be applied to Spanish. After they’ve filled out their tables based on the last video, the students have about 18 different reasons to study Spanish that they’ve gotten from videos, articles, and each other (NOT from me, which I love). The last row that students have to fill out asks them to list their top three reasons for studying Spanish, and at this point they can add their own if their reason to take Spanish hasn’t been presented that day.

Their exit ticket is that they have to write down their number one reason for learning Spanish. On small cut-out pieces of paper, and I also ask them to write down their goal for learning the language. I tell them that this isn’t a class goal (I don’t want a million papers that say “my goal is to get an A”), but this is a language-learning goal for life (like “I want to be able to have a conversation with my aunt from Puerto Rico,” or “I want to be able to talk to my friend in Spanish and not have people understand us in the hallway”). I’m always surprised by the quality answers some of the students come up with.


My favorite part of the lesson is that I staple the exit tickets to the bulletin board at the back of class, and that is where they stay all year. I love that we have that constant reminder of why Spanish is important, and a constant reminder of a real world goal for learning language. The best thing of all about that reminder is that it comes from the students themselves, not from me.

I’m really excited to be finishing up the first week of school and to dive into the Spanish learning next week, but I do also always love starting the year off with big picture reflection on why we’re spending time together in Spanish class. If you’d like to use this lesson in your classroom, but don’t want to go through the work of putting it all together, you can purchase it on Teachers Pay Teachers here.

Do you spend time on “why Spanish is important” at the beginning of the year? How do you get your classes to buy into 36 weeks of language learning? Let me know 🙂

Student perspective: is it okay to lie on language tests?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever said something like this to your world language students: “Remember – I’m not grading you on what you say. I’m grading you on how you say it. It’s okay to lie on your test if you can’t remember the Spanish word you want to use!”

This, of course, is an excellent testing strategy for students. The most recent conversation I had like this in my classroom was during our “giving directions” unit. One of our test questions asked students to write out driving directions from their house to school. “Your directions don’t have to be accurate,” I advised them, “just make sure you include a few different turns so I know you can use the structures we’ve learned.” This gives students the freedom to show off the language they know, avoid the language that gives them trouble, and stress more about finishing their test than writing long paragraphs of accurate directions from their house thirty minutes away from school (not to mention it makes grading easier for me).

Let’s think about this from a student’s perspective…

Fast forward a few months and the roles are reversed. I am sitting in the student’s chair at a language school in Costa Rica, discussing current events in Spanish with my (phenomenal) Spanish teacher for the month, Sandra. I am taking the ACTFL Proficiency exam in a few weeks, and I have to prove that I can speak and write Spanish at an advanced level in order to qualify as a World Language National Board Candidate. Often ACTFL asks opinion questions on controversial topics in order to see how a learner manages the target language when discussing complex issues. As I try to explain how insane the 2016 presidential elections have been in the United States, I get flustered because I’m passionate about what’s going on in my country, and I want to tell my Costa Rican friend about the nuances, but I’m tripping over my Spanish words. Sandra looks at me and says, “Emily. ACTFL is not grading you on your opinion. ACTFL is grading you on how you use the language. It doesn’t matter if you lie on the test as long as you use language at an advanced level. Don’t stress so much about expressing your opinion accurately.”

“But Sandra,” I say back to her, “this is really important to me! There are crazy things going on in the US right now, and I want to talk about them with you!”

You see where this is going, right? This is when I thought of my students, and a lightbulb went off over my head. I almost covered my mouth in horror. “Oh my gosh, Sandra, I have this exact conversation with my students all the time.”

It’s okay to let them lie on assessments because I’m teaching them good testing strategies, isn’t it? 

Yes…but…having to lie about something important to you just to get a good grade is kind of annoying, right?? Have you ever watched a red-headed kid in Spanish 1 and write down “yo soy rubia” on an assessment because spelling “pelirroja” is hard? I have! And yeah, the student could get a perfect score on the test with “rubia,” but when I think of my identity as a teacher, my number one goal is not “all of my students have a perfect grade,” my number one goal is “my students can communicate in a foreign language about things that matter to them.” I love teaching a foreign language because you can give students a chance to get so creative and crazy with it! It gives them another outlet to express themselves, something all adolescents tend to crave. Every time I tell students it’s okay to lie on a test, it carries an undertone of “Expressing yourself accurately isn’t the most important thing. Getting a perfect grade is the most important thing.” And I’m sure as educators, that’s not the type of thing most of us enjoy promoting.

But let’s get real; grades matter to everyone. How do we teach good testing strategies AND emphasize that we care about the things our students really want to say? 

The emphasis on what we want kids to know, understand and do should line up exactly with our assessments. In every unit and every day, I want my students to understand that I care about them and their ability to express themselves in the target language according to their personal interests and passions. However, this doesn’t always line up correctly with what our school district wants them to know and do.

Take, for example, a really common thematic unit for Level 1 – sports. To pass my county’s final exam, my students need to be able to say something like, “I need a helmet, a glove, and a bat to play baseball.” BUT out of my 60 Spanish 1 students, maybe 3 of them actually play baseball. If I have a kid who is on an insanely good bowling team, how am I going to keep him engaged through the baseball vocabulary, which he need for his exam, and also give him time to talk about bowling, his passion? What about the dozen kids who hate sports and don’t play? What about the girls every year who end up in an argument with the football players in class about whether or not dance team is a sport?

Like all meaningful and engaging units, this requires a little more work on my end and a little more work on the students’ end. By the time our sports unit hits, I already know which students are varsity athletes, which ones are involved in non-conventional sports, and which ones would rather sing on a stage in front of 500 people than run a mile in gym class. So, I always include the curriculum-mandated vocabulary and offer up student-driven vocabulary based on their interests and passions (even better if they find this vocab themselves!). The students have access to both mandatory and student-specific vocab, AND they have an opportunity to use both on their summative assessment for that unit. On my test this opportunity looks like an open-ended presentational writing prompt: “Write to a Spanish-speaking friend about your favorite sport or after-school activity. How often do you do it, where do you do it, and what do you need to do it?”

Does this mean that every student is going to jump at the opportunity to learn extra vocab so they can talk about their passions? Absolutely not. Will I still give students credit for lying about their passion for baseball on their test when they really only care about playing piano? Yup. But in giving them the tools they need to express themselves accurately from the start, I indicate to my students that I care about their true thoughts and interests. I show love to the kids whose passions lie outside our official curriculum. I still give them testing strategies and hold them accountable for the knowledge required by the county, but I also give them the tools they need for accurate expression if they want it, which is really what being a language teacher is all about.

My takeaway from listening to my friend/tutor/colleague Sandra tell me to lie on the ACTFL exam is that a) lying actually IS a good testing strategy, but b) I need to make sure I’m emphasizing to my students that I care about their passions from the beginning of each and every unit. Have you ever sat in a student’s chair and had a striking realization about the way you teach? How do you give students opportunities for expression on assessments that go outside the curriculum? Send me a comment and let me know!

photo credit: Common Ground International