Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"So, what do you do in Spanish class?" (1 of 2)

Categories of classroom activities

At the last MiBLSi conference I went to--actually a coaches' meeting, which I wouldn't normally attend--some of the local experts shared a lot of techniques on how to work with our peers on classroom management techniques.  The title of the meeting was probably something like "Coaching teachers," in fact.  At the meeting, one of the tools they shared was a "classroom behavior" matrix.  It looks just like the school-wide behavior matrix, but instead of different locations, the up-and-down categories are different kinds of classroom activities.  (If I can find the example they showed online, and I figure out how to cite it properly, I'll try to post it here.)

Doing this had only begun to start to commence to consider crossing my mind at the end of August.  At that time, I resisted the idea--"we do SO MANY different types of activities in Spanish class," I told myself, "that putting them into few enough categories to be meaningful would be impossible."  Then, I ran out of prep time (read: summer vacation) and started teaching again.  The idea was quickly forgotten--"besides," I thought, "I have a whole summer planning and practicing an improved version of my classroom management system; surely this year will be better than last year."

Well, fair enough, but when the idea of a classroom activity behavior matrix came up again, I was supremely intrigued.  But what sort of categories would classroom activities fit into?  How do you take all of the multiple intelligences, and varied interests, and differentiated levels of activities, and put them into categories?  And not just any categories--the categories, I'm thinking, should have the following characteristics:

1.)  They should be specific enough to be meaningful.  I don't think "Vocabulary practice" will be specific enough, although I reserve the right to change my mind.

2.)  They should be general enough that 5 or 6 of them should describe the vast majority of on-task classroom time.  "Flyswatter game" carries its own special rule set, but doesn't necessarily belong here.

3.)  They should (obviously) increase transparency of the workings of the classroom--that's the whole point in defining things, to take the mystery and guesswork out of it.  This will help the students know what is expected of them, and help the teacher know which set of rules everybody's playing by at any given time.

The sample they gave us (man, I wish I could find it online!  Well, maybe I'll end up reproducing the hard copy they gave us) had such things as "Beginning class," "Individual practice," "Small-group practice," "Whole class practice," "Instruction," and "Leaving class."  Maybe these are good enough, but I have my doubts--there are different kinds of practice, the variety of activities really IS tremendous, etc.  But following the "Ready!  Fire!  Aim!" philosophy I'm trying with good practice, I'm going to make a sample matrix, using these as activities.

Before doing all of this, a teacher has his or her classroom rules.  (Or you could tie them into school-wide expectations.)  And the matrix shows how students behave during each kind of activity for each rule or behavior expectation.  So, using the categories above, mine might look something like this:

Expectations (top row): Use your languages respectfully / Use classroom materials appropriately / Stay on task.

Categories (first column):  Beginning of class / Whole class instruction / Paired- and small-group / Individual Practice / Ending of Class

And then the intersections of the rows and the columns would contain more specific descriptions of behaviors for each of these categories.

In part 2 of this post, I'll take some of the commoner activities we do in Spanish class, and figure out (1) how they fit into this schema, and (2) where on the chunk-chew-check / I do-we do-you do forms that Kathleen Kryza has been talking to us about.

NB.  As I type this, I'm left with the vague impression that this specific technique is out of Randy Sprick's Safe and Civil Schools series.  I'll look through such materials as I have access to, and if I can find it, I'll give credit where credit is due, and let the expert show you what I'm trying to tell you.  Also, in my mind there were specific categories that went along with it.

Update, 2 Jan: I found the classroom behavior expectation matrix in the handouts.  It comes without citation, and 2 minutes' Googling didn't come up with it.  (I did find another example, from Best Behavior from Sprague and Golly.)  The categories I was trying to remember earlier: Outcomes, what you have to have done at the end of the activity; Voice, how loud you can talk and what about; Help, how to get help from the teacher and your classmates; Movement, how, when and why to move around and out of the room; Engagement, how and how much to interact with the materials; and Materials, which materials to use, and how to get and use your pencils and whatnot.

Also updated to fix some formatting.

Update 2:  I found the source of the matrix, and it was Sprick.  CHAMPS is an acronym for Conversation (can the students talk or not?  when?  how?  with whom?  what about?), Help (how do students get their questions answered?), Activity (what is the task, and what is the end product?)  Movement (Can students move?  When?  How?  Where?), and Participation (what are students doing during this time?).  This is paraphrased from p. 92 of Discipline in the secondary classroom by Sprick, 2006.  The ones in the matrix I gave earlier are probably originals from one of the presenters I saw, based on Sprick's ideas. 

Monday, December 7, 2009

On the efficacy and limitations of praise

After the huge confessional of yesterday, something a little more lighthearted.  Or maybe not, for you psychologists out there.

I don't like ties.  I have my reasons.  So I don't wear them if I can help it.  The only exception to this is if I feel like I'm out of control of my teaching, like my best efforts have come to naught, like nothing I do really matters to learning outcomes.  On those days I'll put on a tie--at least I can control what I'm wearing.

This morning, I did just that.  I put on a tie with a holiday lights pattern woven into it.  (I told you ties are tacky. UPDATE:  Just re-read the post.  I didn't actually say that--it was in the rant about why I don't like ties, which I deleted.)  Throughout the day, I received compliments from students and staff alike about how dressed-up I looked, how nice I looked, and how surprising it was to see me in a tie.  And it's true, the positive comments really did have an effect on me.  I smiled a little inside.  That was the efficacy of the praise.

Behaviorist theory predicts that because I received positive reinforcement for wearing the tie, I should be more inclined to wear ties in the future.  But no--I still hate ties.  That's the limitation

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hard realities, harsh truths

I strongly considered keeping this journal entry away from public consumption.  It's not going to be nice, it's not going to be pretty.  It's going to be more questions than answers, and it's going to end in an admission that not only do I not know what the answers are, I'm not sure where to find them.  It will probably meander through a forest of clichés, get lost in a swamp of self-pity, and just maybe begin to climb the mountain of self-awareness.  If anyone ever read this, it might actually hurt my career.  I've changed my mind, though, for three reasons.  It's possible that somebody might read this and have an answer.  It might be used as a model of reflection, self-awareness, and problem-solving.  Besides, nobody's reading, anyway.

But we're going to start here: My students don't like my class.  They're also not learning any Spanish.

I've taken a lot of courses this year, and they basically have two primary goals related to school: build a positive community of learners (school-wide positive behavior support and MiBLSi), and increase my capacity to improve my students' learning (everything else).  It's become painfully clear to me that teaching is more about what you do than what you know, something I think that every good professional sort of knows already.  To that end, every week or two, I try to add another element I've learned into my practice, work in a new or improved learning activity, or in some other way do something new to improve my students' learning.  One every week or two is a small percentage of what I've learned, but it's a lot more sustainable than trying to pull something new in every day.  But, sustainable or no, good practice or no, my students aren't learning Spanish.

They may be learning lots of things.  I've started working in higher-order thinking skills.  There's an element of social justice and a focus on cultures and comparisons I've never had before.  All of these things are important components of a world languages class.  I try to model civility, flexibility, stay-on-taskness, all important life skills.  I try to have a sense of humor about the world in my place in it.  But they're not learning to speak or understand Spanish.

I've over-focused both on the differences between a language class and other classes, and on the similarities.  It's a neat trick, I know.  Bear with me.  The big differences between Spanish and, say, social studies go like this:  When you leave social studies, you're supposed to know certain things about history and anthropology and such.  Ideally, you've been taught how to think about social studies, and not simply that the Magna Carta was signed in 1776 by Grant and Lee at Woodstock.  (Or whatever.)  But you probably have to pick up those facts along the way in order to compare civil wars.  (Studies show that in the breadth-of-content vs. depth-of-content debate, depth of content actually increases the breadth of content covered.)  In Spanish class, you have to learn how to compare and make connections to languages and cultures, and use these in your communities.  But if you can't perform some basic functions in the language, then you've missed half the content, and the part that most people think of as Spanish class.  So, I've over-focused on the differences by ignoring useful planning techninques--big-picture questions, learning goals, and things like that, in order to build in language-practice time.  I've also ignored the similarities in the need for vocabulary development techniques, but I have a reason for that--middle- and high-school students should deeply learn about 90 content-related words per class per year.  If I wait that long for students to learn vocabulary, they'll never get anywhere.

In the past couple of years, my PD has focused on classroom management issues, and higher-order-thinking-skills issues.  I've not had a whole lot of world language-specific training since becoming a full-time teacher.  I'm not sure how important it would be to have such training--shouldn't I have a pretty good idea of what a Spanish class ought to look like?  Well, in a few words, probably, but I don't.  I loved learning Spanish, would happily sit and do work sheets based on pedagogical theory from the 17th century, thought that watching movies and slide shows and playing learning games were all pleasant distractions from the serious business of learning.  To find that in fact they're an integral part of the learning process, and that failing to include them is one of the more-commonly cited reasons for dropping out of school, means I have little no personal paradigm for a good world language classroom.  Below,  a list of some of the assumptions I'm working off of, and where I feel I rank on those assumptions.

1.)  I am a teacher.  This means I teach students.  My subject is Spanish, but that's almost incidental.  What my students learn from me may well be something other than Spanish, but they should be learning from me.  Since I am teaching Spanish, they should learn things like communication strategies, how to learn vocabulary, how to study a culture and live in it (in certain instances), things like that.  As I alluded to above, I think I'm pretty good at teaching my students other things--it was once suggested to me that I'm more of a philosophy teacher than a Spanish teacher.    This was simultaneously a great compliment (to me--a great insult to actual philosophy teachers), and a heartbreaking strike against my actual job.

2.)  1st-year Spanish classes should be conducted in Spanish, 80% or more of the time.  After that, they should always be in Spanish.  (I don't remember where I got the 80% number.  If I find it, I'll cite my source later.)  I'm not good at this.  I speak maybe 10 minutes of Spanish in a 60-minute class.  That's like 16%.

3.)  In order to run a class entirely in Spanish, the students need to have a very strong sense of community, and an ability to self-direct their learning.  These things do not happen by accident.  I'm not great at this, either.  I've focused really hard on making this happen on purpose, and it hasn't stuck as well as I'd hoped

4.)  Early-level Spanish classes should focus on speaking communication, with reading and writing as support structures.  I do this fairly well, in that we don't do that many writing activities without a fair amount of speaking to go along with it.

5.)  Higher-order thinking skills and social justice are important elements of a world language class.  I'm getting better at this, but I'm pretty sure I'm sacrificing the communication aspect of class to these goals.

The thing is that I'm not sure what I'm not doing right.

Why this post?  Why now?
On Friday, Kris, our teacher coach, observed my 10th grade Spanish II class.  It wasn't an unmitigated disaster, but I think it's fair to say that it was a disaster with few mitigations.  I talked most of the hour, I did it in English, the board work was a review activity that took 15 minutes, we spent a lot of time going over classroom management issues.  I didn't get on to new learning activities until the last 20 minutes of class or so, and even then it was a listening activity.  The students didn't make it any secret of how bored they were.

This isn't the first time that happened, and every time they tell me this, I try to ramp up the next week's lesson plan.  I'm guessing I just don't understand what my class is supposed to look like, or at least how to make it happen.  This is disappointing.  The last few years, I've started the school year very excited to get started on the work.  The last few years, by the time winter break comes along, I'm demoralized, having performed tremendous amounts of work, seen no real benefit in either learning or classroom management, and with huge amounts of work (which should prove useful, but may well not) to do ahead of me.

So Kris has given me a few pointers, and I'm going to try them out this week.  She started out by suggesting I re-think my board work activity.  So we'll go from there.  Hopefully, we can get me doing what I should have done all along.  I suppose it's better that this happened now than after winter break; now I'll have time to implement a few changes and analyze them.  (This blog post took over 3 hours, over the course of 2 days, to write.  It takes some time.  This one was obviously important, but I can't afford to do it all the time.) 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

2009 ACTFL Teacher of the Year Toni Thiesen.  Here is her Wikispace.

What is she doing that the rest of us aren't?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bad wisdom, vol. 1

Once upon a time, someone told me that there were only two reasons to teach Spanish to students:  "Either you love Spanish, or you love students.  And there are going to be days, no matter how much you love them, that the students are going to drive you crazy.  So you REALLY have to love Spanish."

I do really love Spanish.  And it turns out that, as much as I love them, the students drive me crazy.

But there's a verb in the phrase "teach Spanish to students."  Turns out, I love teaching, too.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dina. Marzano.

Dina takes on Marzano's take on rewards and positive behavior.

She doesn't like SW-PBS very much.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Teachers sell their lesson plans.  School districts ask for a piece of the action.

I don't really know what I think about this.  I've bought stuff from people who are better at making stuff than I am.  I don't really have anything I'd want to sell, but I have stuff I probably could sell, if I format it differently.  So I don't really see anything wrong with it.

But the music industry just lost the "selling content you can find for free on the internet" fight.  The movie industry is ripping itself apart over the same issue.  I'm not sure that I'd want to wade into waters that somebody else has already filled with chum.

So I'm not sure where this goes.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


The other day I wrote a quick blog post from school, making noise about assessments and a new format and the like.  As I was finally assembling the tests, I was having second thoughts.  It wasn't a grammar-and-vocabulary test, which is what I think of by force of habit as a test.  This assessment was only communicative skills--listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  I keep telling students that I don't care if they memorize vocabulary lists or whether they can conjugate verbs or not, that what matters to me is their ability to communicate.  In the first year class, the emphasis is strongly on the comprehension skills, with production being fairly limited in length and scope.  This is in line with language acquisition theory, which says that comprehension will develop before production, and will always occur at a higher level.  It's also in accordance with the ACTFL national standards and the corresponding levels of performance for Novice-Mid to High.

But my tests haven't really reflected that--until this year, the tests have always been (1) listening comprehension (2) reading comprehension with a cultural trivia component (3) grammar and vocabulary sections.  Largely, this is because I took as much of the text-book-provided tests as my students could reasonably do in a day, copied them off and stapled them together.  But I've started redesigning my unit plans the way they're supposed to be designed (see here and here)--which means my assessments needed to be re-written to match learning goals.  And if I don't care if they can memorize vocabulary words, I shouldn't test them on memorizing vocabulary words.

I've hesitated to do this, for three reasons.   1.  It marks a dramatic departure from what I think of as a Spanish test, and I had a hard time wrapping my head around it.  2.  I was worried that a sampling of communicative tasks would overestimate students' abilities to use the language comprehensively.  3.  I wasn't really sure that I was good enough at communicative assessments and using rubrics to assess communicative ability to create a reliable assessment.

I've learned to live with (1) in other contexts--the job of professional educator is not at all what I thought it was.  It's a great deal deeper, more exciting, and science-based than I expected it to be.  (If I'd known what my job was actually going to be, I would have taken a lot of laboratory science and social science classes, and not, for example, Astronomy, Ocean Systems, or Health and Well-Being.)  So, I'm just kind of getting used to the idea that almost everything I thought I'd be doing is the wrong thing, on some level, to do.  (Still trying not to throw out the baby with the bath water...)

Having run a couple of tests, I can now address (2) fairly accurately.  When the learners are participating in good faith in the assessment, their communicative performance gives at least as accurate picture of their language skills as the previous test formats.  And, of course, it has the added advantage of, y'know, actually testing what I want them to know.  So we can pretty well set (2) to bed.

Concern (3) remains a concern.  I'm not sure that this first communicative-based exam I gave really gets to the heart of the matter.  But neither did what I was doing before, and change and learning have to start somewhere.  I've changed, and now I'm learning.  A greater sampling of communicative tasks is probably in order, although the format is about right.  My primary concern is with the speaking/listening section.  The first time I tried this, I asked the students a question, and graded them on how well they answered it.  They then had to ask me a question, and write down the answers.  It was the first chapter test of a high school Spanish I class, so an open-ended question probably would have been too much.  But that section as it stood was much more reactive than creative, I think.

The other part of that is the rubrics I'm using.  Given the nature of a limited testing scenario, I don't think I can break the comprehension skills up the way I did.  So, I'll be looking for another way of doing it, so that the comprehension grade really tells the learners what they need to know in order to improve.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Zoom zoom zoom

Things that didn't die tonight because my car is sweet:

3 horses
1 coyote
1 neighborhood cat
3 neighborhood teenagers
1 neighbor who was burning leaves in the middle of the night
Any number of unseen deer

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Speaking / listening assessment strategies

Today is the first time I'll assess speaking and listening as part of a larger summative assessment.  Already, I can see that the rubric by trimesters that I gave the students will be insufficient to the task of assessing their conversation accurately in this context.  The fundamental conflict is that the assessment task doesn't reflect the grading scale, and the grading scale doesn't accurately reflect the learning objectives. 

I remember that creating the comprehension rubrics were particularly difficult; I may need to revisit them in light of these difficulties.  More clarity when I'm not actually at school.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dina Strasser and Bob Marzano

The Art and Science of Teaching, Chapter 5, a la Strasser.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reteaching behavior through video clips

Today for the first time, we tried re-teaching and supporting positive behavior through showing students video clips and having them process what they watch.  This is a technique we got from the High School PBS summit in Lansing; local giant Kalamazoo Central High School presented the idea.

We'll have a more formalized look at perceptions later.  Both the students and the teachers will have a poll to express their ideas about it.  But my initial perceptions are these: our initial attempts earn three stars out of five.  There were the logistical difficulties, of course--any time you do anything for the first time, particularly things that involve moving students from room to room or getting 20 copies of a DVD out to teachers, some things are going to go wrong.  Despite the logistical difficulties, the strategy of using high-interest video clips as instructional tools is sound. 

The post-video conversation was mixed.  Some classes really got into it, especially at the high school level.  The middle school students started getting some good reflection, but they were too often derailed by other students goofing around.  I don't think that, universally, we achieved the level of student buy-in and ownership we wanted.  In my class, a lot of my students looked like they felt they were being lectured at.  That was the opposite of the point.  Hopefully, I'll get better at asking questions in a way that inspires the students to talk, and I'll sit down and shut up.  (Maybe I'll just sit down and shut up anyway; let the kids stew in silence for a little while.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Driving test on the redesigned lesson plans

I've now sketched up three unit plans in the format I described in my last blog entry--two for Spanish II, and one for MS/HS Spanish I.  I also differentiated it for a 6th grade class, in which we cover a lot of the same "immigration" materials.  (Once I get the unit plans down onto paper, and curricula written and aligned to standards, articulating the curricula is on the agenda.  Which makes it an action item over the summer of 2011.)  I've written 3 weekly plans for Spanish II, based on the unit plans, and 2 weekly plans for Spanish I.  This provides a place to start thinking about how well it's going, I think.

So far, having an overarching plan really helps clarify my thinking, and it makes it much easier to decide what's important about an activity and what's not.  This means that when reality happens, as it so often does, I have a much better idea of what part of a lesson plan I can jettison to account for, say, 25 minutes of grade-A teenage emotionally-driven angst.  (Not all at once, of course, nothing I'd feel comfortable kicking anyone out of class for.  It was just a constant drone.  As I'm sure it was for the students involved.)  Or having to re-establish, review, and re-teach respectful classroom behavior.  Again.  It's much easier now to make snap decisions--"Give 3 examples of ways Hispanic Americans come to live in the United States--" and what can wait for another day, lesson, or year--"Why do such a high percentage of Cuban Americans live in Miami?  En español, por favor"--in order to accommodate the limited time and frequent de-railings of a class.  (I'm still working on keeping on task all the time, too, but "big picture" ideas are helping me identify what "on task" and redirection skills I need to develop.  That's another blog post.)

Having an overarching picture helps write the weekly plan, too, but the translation isn't flawless.  In an ideal practice, my unit plan would contain all of the assessments, all of the practice activities, all of the guideposts that my students will pass along the way to doing whatever it is they're supposed to be doing--comparing baseball in Puerto Rico to baseball in the United States, for example.  What I'm finding is that when I write the unit plan, I'm only including some of the learning activities.  The daily lesson plan contains many more learning activities per learning goal, they're divided up a little bit differently, and they're still based in large part on the book.

In fact, one of my great weaknesses remains a dependency on my textbook to guide instruction.  For example, I just finished writing the next unit outline, about weather.  We're going to review what students know about weather systems in Spanish; talk about how to dress appropriately for weather around the word; examine weather in Michigan, Puerto Rico, Spain, and various locations in South America; and try to find some patterns based on the information we get.  For reasons that are not immediately obvious, the book contains a lesson on direct object pronouns.  This grammatical construction doesn't tie into any of our learning goals directly.  There's no reason to use it in terms of most weather conversations.  Sure, it's useful when talking about clothing and other kinds of stuff, but the book contorts itself pretty heavily to make it work.  As I'm going from the unit plan to the weekly plan, the unit plan doesn't say anything about direct object pronouns.  But the students need to know them before they can do indirect object pronouns.  (I believe they do, anyway.  Maybe it's more accurate to say that I need them to know DOP's before I know how to teach them IOP's.)  So what wins?  The less-book-based (but still book-influenced) unit plan I presumably wrote all by myself, like a big boy, or the text book?  (Have I written any "evils of textbook thinking" posts recently?  We're probably due). 

In this instance, the book wins--I'm going to teach direct object pronouns.  And I'm going to revisit the unit plan to see that the gratuitous grammatical structure makes it in there.  Hopefully, I can figure out a way to make it more obvious why it's there, and integrate it better into the "big question" learning goals.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Redesigning lesson plans and grading sheets

I'm trying to redesign my lesson plans, so that I'm doing them the right way.  I'm writing them out as unit plans--starting with what students need to know and be able to do, moving on to how I'll know if they can do it, then worrying about how to get them to do it, and what to do about it if they can't.  So my order of operations is: Objectives, Formative Assessments and Summative Assessments, Instructional Activities, Interventions.  Once I have all of that, I can teach my students to manipulate the time necessary to do the activities.  We can do station work (which a lot of my students like and are shockingly good at it), practice transition procedures, spend less time worrying about learning activities and more about learning.  It will also help move away from the text book.  In short, I'm working on making my lessons do all the things they're supposed to do.

This is as opposed to my de facto method of lesson planning--fill 60 minutes of class time a week, make it as informative and interesting as possible, and give the book-generated test afterwards.  This is a survival-level-teacher technique, and I'm trying to get beyond that now.  I've survived, I'm in year 4, I need to stop being a mediocre teacher.  And the ability to plan seems more and more important to that.

It isn't easy--I still have to fill the 60 minutes a day, I still need to make it as interesting and informative as possible.  Right now, I have a sort-of cross between the two--I have a unit outline (in a format given me (not personally, she was a presenter at a conference) by Helene Curtain) in which I try to include all the information, but down below, I have a much more learning-project-oriented list organized by communicative objective.  Besides which, the form includes a BEGINNING activity, a MIDDLE, and an END.  I'm not certain I know how to divide a unit of study into that.  I can do it for an individual learning goal, but not for a whole unit.

At the same time, I'm trying to make my grading process more in line with the principle of standards based grading, and not just a traditional gradebook with an extra column for standards.  The high school used to use a program called Standards Score (formerly WebGrader), but we don't anymore.  WebGrader has difficulty taking into account anything besides standards, and the high school divides its grades into Standards (no less than 80%), Employability Skills (10%), and Final Exam (10% plus all the standards you can grab).  That's how I figure it works out, anyway.  If any of my readers from our school want to argue with me about that, I'll happily post corrections here.

I also have to be able to assess most of my standards more than once.  It's not just that students', say, speaking skills need to be getting better.  They should also be able to perform a growing number of communicative tasks in a growing number of contexts.  (A portfolio is obviously where I'm going with this, and I've said this before.  We're still working on it.)  So, how do you figure the idea of multiple standards assessments into the notion of "you get the standard or you don't"?  The answer, I think, is that you have to be able to do (and have done) each standards some percentage of the time (75%, maybe?), and then you've gotten the standard.  Another really hard change.

But, I keep slogging through the hard work of being a good teacher.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why teach

Last week I was sick.  I was gone two days and had two terribly sub-par lesson plans that day.  This was week 2 of school, and we hadn't established norms or talked about substitute behavior. 

On the first day, I asked my interim itinerant educator (hey, I was a sub for years, and I'm here to tell you that they deserve a better title.) to ask my Spanish 2 students to review last year's vocabulary.  I asked them to do this by drawing a picture of 10 vocabulary words from a single vocabulary group, and provided page numbers where they could find the vocabulary.  (If there are any communicative theory practitioners out there, you'll see why this was a sub-par plan.)  They did such a TREMENDOUS job of it that I took their assignments, photocopied it onto goldenrod paper, gave each of them a copy, and used it as the core of their review.

Another class had to make themselves ID cards, but the e-mailed form lost its formatting in transition.  There was supposed to be a little box in the corner for picture or drawing of themselves, but that box was entirely missing from the 5-line. 1x2 inch assignment.  On the assignment the students actually got, there was no space for anything.  AJ drew a little smiley face next to the "foto" line anyway.  Made me smile after a loooooooong, tiring day.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child:

Social networking and teacher/student relationships

The Century of Web 2.0 has made children of us all.  Like children, we all want to play with the shiny new toys that an inexpensive worldwide network of communication (and music videos!  And clips from Bollywood-style films starring Natalie Portman!  And the latest gossip about the latest subject of gossip!  [Not to mention metagossip!]  And recipes--my god, the recipes! etc.) provide for us.

And, like children, some have no mechanism for deciding what's appropriate behavior in this completely unprecedented situation.  The stories of otherwise intelligent, professional, well-educated and well-intentioned adults getting themselves into trouble by posting pictures on Facebook or MySpace are rampant.  This behavior isn't just limited to teachers, either--I seem to remember something about a meteorologist or something getting fired from the TV station she worked for after posting semi-nude pics of herself somewhere. 

There seems to be an added element of terrifying when teachers get involved, though.  After all, we're supposed to be professional role models.  What does it do to classroom management if a student finds out that his teacher likes a good fart joke?  For that matter, what does it do to fart jokes?

And so, some school districts are left in the bizarre position of deciding for their teachers what is okay for them to put on the Internet on their own behalf.  The last thing a superintendent needs to discover is that the award-winning second-grade teacher had a great time at last week's Hash Bash, or whatever the polemic issue of the community is.  So, the superintendent may quietly draw up a draft that says something like, "Technology can be a powerful tool for education, and social networking can be a great way of building relationships.  We encourage the use of technology, both amongst our students and our staff.  But so help me, if I find your cleavage online, it's ring-a-ding-ding for you, bozo." Then she runs it past the school board, which harrumphs for a while until Mrs. Flanders cries, "The children!  Won't someone think of the children?!" and the motion passes unanimously.

That isn't what anybody signed up for--superintendents never intended to be censors of teachers' personal lives; teachers didn't agree to surrender out-of-school rights that everybody apparently has.  (Behaving like a jackass in front of the whole world evidently isn't illegal, even for teachers.)  Monitoring teachers' behavior is a particularly thorny issue because technology CAN be powerful juju.

So where does this leave us?  Are we stuck with the choice between not acting like idiots and the threats of termination from High Command?  Or to put it another way, the choice between self-censorship and external censorship?  I don't know.  I just try to remember not to write anything down that I wouldn't want someone else reading, and to compartmentalize my personal, professional, and political lives.  And while we I wait for Web 3.0 and the inevitable rise of the machines, I'll let Louie Armstrong speak for me.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Duncan on "Face the Nation"

Secretary of State Arne Duncan spoke to Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation on Sunday.

He gets a lot of it dead right, I think, and says a lot of the things that a Secretary of Education ought to say.  I like particularly that he made a point of praising the national union heads for their efforts in education reform.  As always, the charter school thing is niggling at me.  He likes them, I don't understand them.  He explains them thus: "I'm not a fan of charter schools, I'm a fan of good charter schools."  What does that mean?  Schieffer says that charter schools don't have some of the restrictions of other public schools.  Really?

But from the premise that charter schools drive innovation, a premise that I think is at best unfounded, he says a lot of things that sound really familiar to me.  And I like the idea of a government official helping other people to do what everybody knows works.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Spanish I Rubrics

If you're just stopping by:  What follows is really World-Language-Teacher specific.  If you're a WL teacher, I'd like your feedback on the trimester-level breakup of performance.  If you know anything about rubrics, I'd love your thoughts on the format.  Otherwise, feel free to skip this; it's long in the tooth.

My reader will remember that, a few days ago, I tried to identify the gradeable elements of the various communication tasks.  (The other branches of the expectations will have to wait.)  After several days of making stuff up, I think I have a few useable rubrics.  I present them for your consideration and commentary.


END OF SEMESTER I:  Expresses ideas, in familiar contexts, by selection from a list
END OF SEMESTER II:  Expresses ideas, in familiar contexts, using memorized words and phrases
END OF SCHOOL YEAR:  Expresses ideas, in familiar contexts, using memorized words and phrases, including some studied in other contexts.

END OF SEMESTER I:  Forms Spanish sounds appropriately when they're similar to English
END OF SEMESTER II:  Forms Spanish vowel sounds appropriately
END OF SCHOOL YEAR:  Forms most Spanish sounds appropriately

END OF SEMESTER I:  Word order always resembles English word order, even when it's different
END OF SEMESTER II:  Uses correct word order in the context of adjectives and questions
END OF SCHOOL YEAR:  Uses correct word order much of the time

END OF SEMESTER I:  Short (3-5 word) utterances, long pauses in between
END OF SEMESTER II:  Medium (6-9 word) utterances, short pauses in between
END OF SCHOOL YEAR:  Medium (8-12 word) utterances, almost no pause in between them


END OF SEMESTER I:  Expresses ideas, in familiar contexts, by selection from a list
END OF SEMESTER II:  Expresses ideas, in familiar contexts, using memorized words and phrases
END OF SCHOOL YEAR: Expresses ideas, in familiar contexts, using memorized words and phrases, including some studied in other contexts.

END OF SEMESTER I:  Frequently makes spelling errors based on English spelling conventions
END OF SEMESTER II:  Occasionally makes spelling errors based on English spelling conventions.
END OF SCHOOL YEAR: Rarely makes spelling errors.  Some of them are based on Spanish spelling conventions.

END OF SEMESTER I:  Word order always resembles English word order, even when it's different
END OF SEMESTER II:  Uses correct word order in the context of adjectives and questions
END OF SCHOOL YEAR: Uses correct word order much of the time

END OF SEMESTER I:  Few sentence types, mostly short
END OF SEMESTER II:  Combination of short and medium sentences
END OF SCHOOL YEAR: Combination of short and medium sentences, with some compound ("and" statement) sentences

Listening / reading comprehension
Big Idea Comprehension
END OF SEMESTER I:  Identify the main idea of a simple oral presentation, in a familiar context
END OF SEMESTER II:  Identify the main idea of a medium-length oral presentation, in a familiar context
END OF SCHOOL YEAR:  Identify one or two main ideas of a medium-length oral presentation, in a familiar context

Detail Comprehension
END OF SEMESTER I:  Identify one or two supporting details of the main idea
END OF SEMESTER II:  Identify three or four supporting details of the main idea
END OF SCHOOL YEAR:  Identify five to eight supporting details of the main idea

Word Comprehension
END OF SEMESTER I:  Identify a few familiar words and cognates
END OF SEMESTER II:  Identify several familiar words and cognates, and define a previously-unstudied word
END OF SCHOOL YEAR:  Identify most familiar words and cognates, and several previously-unstudied new words


I'm well familiar with the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines.  They were written by people way smarter than me.  Our state standards and benchmarks are based on the ACTFL Standards and the Proficiency Guidelines.  It's also based on the assumption that a secondary school student can attain the Novice-High level of proficiency after two years of skilled study.  What I'm trying to do with these rubrics is picture how to break that process down into six trimesters.

I'm shooting to stride the line between high expectations and realistic achievement, but I'm afraid I may be underselling my students a bit. 

Some of my language is a little squishy--how long is a short utterance?  Is it the same length if a student is listening to it or speaking it?

This is really content-specific, but I think the rubric is open to commentary from any educated educator.  I'm slow to the coming of rubrics, and can use help making them.  If you have any thoughts, please let me know.  If you know anybody who might know more about this than me, please send them my way.  If you know of performance rubrics broken down into sememsters or trimesters, I would REALLY like to see them.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Portfolio assessments / The quantifiable components of communication

Every year, I think, "This year, less of my learners' grades will be based less on a written final exam and more on a portfolio of artifacts, encompassing their communicative achievements throughout the year."  And every year, I understand a little bit better what that means.  I have a list of contexts (and, by extension, some vocabulary sets) I'd need to see represented; I have general communicative modes that learners need to master; I'm working on a list of specific communicative tasks that learners would have to be able to perform; and some examples of activities that students can do to cover these contexts in those communicative modes are forthcoming.

But what I've still managed to avoid learning is how to assess all of this.  How well does a 1st-year high school (or this year, 8th grade) learners need to speak Spanish?  How much culture (and how many cultures) do they need to know?  How many comparisons between language and cultures do learners need to make?  How much do they have to bring connections from Spanish into their other classes, and vice versa?  And how on Earth do you assess a learner's role in her communities?

So we'll start with communication.  What components of communication can an outside observer accurately assess?  Well, there are the communicative skills, of course: speaking, listening, writing, and reading.  And there are the communicative modes: interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational.  So far, so good--I can watch all of these things happen.

What's in all of those things?  What follows is me making stuff up.  It seems like I should have had an easier time finding these things in research, but I haven't yet.  If anyone still reading this knows where I can find some research on this, please let me know.  Even if you can make something (reasonable) up that I haven't yet, chime in.

Interpersonal communication
Equal participation--Engage in both parts of a conversation--listening and speaking, or writing and reading--in equal measure, and participate evenly with the other members of their group.

Responsive to communicative situation --Asks clarifying questions, responds to questions, makes sure that listeners are following the conversation, modifies speech as necessary.

Interpretive communication
Comprehension--Fairly straightforward.  Indicates an understanding of the language in some manner.

Vocabulary recollection--Remembers studied vocabulary in context.

New vocabulary learning--Uses a variety of strategies to determine the meaning (and importance) of unknown vocabulary. 

Presentational information
Erm...stage presence?  Appropriate illustrations, maybe?  None of these are necessary to the communication aspect, but are important nonetheless.  More information forthcoming.

Fluency:  Speaks without undue pauses.  Everybody has to take a breath to think in mid-speech-stream.  Long silences are just awkward, and hamper communicative tasks.  In addition, sentence structure varies in order to keep the listeners interested.

Vocabulary:  Word choice is appropriate for the communicative task.  Advanced speakers have a variety of word choices, and can pick the most appropriate.

Syntax:  Word order aids communication.  Novice-high or better level speakers can change word order in order to change sentence meaning.

Pronunciation:  Speaker sounds similar to native speakers.  There is some evidence that this can only be taught up to a certain point.  Experience tells me that this point is the introduction of new sounds--the rolling 'rr', the flipped 'r.'

Comprehension:  Indicates understanding and asks for clarification where necessary and possible.

Application of strategies: Uses a variety of strategies to understand new vocabulary.

 Similar to speaking: Vocabulary, Syntax, and Fluency.

Spelling:  Written words follow accepted, standardized spelling.

Comprehension:  Indicates understanding of an age-appropriate, skill-appropriate text.

Application of strategies: Uses a variety of strategies to understand new vocabulary.

Pronunciation, reading out loud:  This is not exactly a vital communicative skill, but we seem to do a fair amount of this in English, so it bears some examination.  Sounds that come out of reader's mouth accurately reflect the letters written on a page.

Okay, getting sleepy.  More soon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Curriculum? I barely knew 'um!

As always, there's so much to write about: Chapters 6 and 7 of Never work harder than your students (which I finished reading on the 2nd week of summer vacation); summer PD courses (of which there were several, none of them in Spanish, I'm afraid); metablogging; how to fix public education and pay for the changes in one fell swoop; beginning-of-year preparations; developments in SW-PBS; a new professional learning team at our school which I'm super-excited about. (Excited enough, apparently, to channel my inner 14-year-old girl. "Super-excited?") And as always, my time would be better spent doing these things than writing about doing them. But I'm actually working on curriculum today, so it's on my mind.

I'm on year 4 of my project to revamp the elementary and middle school curriculum. Thus far my efforts have largely been confined to actual classroom activities--trying to find the kind of activities that younger students like to do, engage well with, and learn lots from. There have been a lot of experiments with songs, TPR storytelling, word-picture matching, and the ubiquitous color-the-picture handouts. The first 2 have had great success; the third, limited success, and the less said about the last, the better.

But one of the things I'm learning as I go to professional development and read books and think really hard about what's supposed to be happening in classes is that, more important than individual activities, is a sort of road map of activities, a curriculum guide. "Know where your students are going," Robyn Jackson might gently admonish me. In fact, I can hear her saying it in my head, right now.

So I've been trying to puzzle that out. Where are my elementary students going? I wrote one blog post on this recently, which sort of shaped out some of the outer limits. The conclusion was that my elementary program should have students interested in Spanish, excited about learning more Spanish, aware of the ways that Spanish class can tie into what they're learning in their core classes, and a little more linguistically aware. (Okay, so it doesn't say all of that. Not in so many words.) But within the context of having an exploratory program, each year the students should be more aware of the Spanish-speaking world and their growing place in it. They should be able to pick up a new linguistic context, a few more communicative tasks, maybe a new song. They maybe should learn a little bit about Spanish in the US, and a little bit about other Spanish-speaking countries. By the time they middle school, maybe they should know something about Spanish artists, musicians, actors, filmmakers, the movers and shakers of the mundo hispano.

Today I'm going to try and define these things concretely--at least at the "content expectations" level. I have some unit plans which need revisiting--in fact, since the NNELL conference last May, I know I need to revisit all of my unit plans, and working in a lot more culture a lot more explicitly is definitely on the to-do list, too. By the end of today (tomorrow, at the latest--the day is getting on), I'd like to have the following: Content Expectations K-2, Content Expectations 3-4, Content Expectations 5-7. (8th Grade Content Expectations will be the same as High School Spanish I content expectations; this year, I understand, it will be the same class.) I would also like to have 2 or 3 unit outlines begun for each level, at the "big ideas / learning objectives" level.

About the CE's themselves: I've been working with a set of EXTREMELY outdated content expectations. The Spanish instructor before me (and remember: in my school, there's only one of us at a time. We're like half a Sith order, only a good deal less evil. (For those of you who got the reference without clicking on the link: welcome to the Dark Side!)) had to make up some expectations before the State released the draft version of their standards, so she was working blind. As a result, the existing expectations are 1.) few in number; 2.) generic in all the wrong places; 3.) specific in ways that limit learning; 4.) focused too much on unquantifiable student behaviors. So I'm taking the state Standards and Benchmarks document and keeping all the standards that mesh with what I know about K-7 learning behavior. (Not a lot, but more every year.) After that, the task will be to make sure they all get taught and learned and assessed in 30-35 class sessions of 1 hour.

My prediction is this: in June of next year, I will have taught elementary and middle school students more Spanish than last year. I will have come nowhere close to teaching and assessing all the expectations on my list.

UPDATE: As I begin actually working on them, I notice myself actively de-emphasizing writing-based communication, both presentational and conversational. This is because a.) I thing spoken communication comes before written / read communication, and reading comes before writing and b.) I only get 30 hours a year with these students; and have no real mechanism for giving homework. These may ultimately prove to be faulty assumptions.

UPDATE 2:  As I continue to work on it, and have advanced far enough into the process that I can start looking at articulation concerns, I'm deciding this:  The main difference between kindergarten Spanish and 3rd grade Spanish is going to be less about the standards and benchmarks applied.  It's mostly going to be about the different contexts.  We're going to be doing most of the same things, but the higher grades are going to be doing MORE of it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Admirable characteristics

This one's not exactly off-topic, but not exactly not. I found myself pondering (like one does on long car drives after long weeks) the qualities of people I admire. I considered my friends, I thought about historical figures, I contemplated fictitious characters infused with characteristics by their authors, I mulled over the authors of fictitious characters. (I'm NOWHERE NEAR out of synonyms for "thinking.")

What I decided is that I admire clever people: people who do clever things, people who do things cleverly. I don't mean showoffs--the guy who walks on wires between buildings springs to mind. I mean like the team that came up with the iPhone. My students are well aware of my affinity for the iPhone. I don't have one, would lose or destroy it if I did. But they're clever little devices. Facebook is clever, even if many of the people using it are not. I think that a lot of Cirque de Soleil performers are clever, even if they are showoffs.

But above all I like people who use language cleverly. By this, I don't mean politicians who can turn anything into a question about their latest amendment offered to the Farm Subsidies Legislation of the Day. That's not clever, it's self-serving. It also doesn't mean using big words because you can (and I say this unironically, knowing that I do it all the time. Unironically? Really, Cosby? Not even the spell checker recognizes it as a word.) That's not clever, either. At best, it's a play to seem smarter than you are. At worst, it's the active abuse of language, an attempt to make things more confusing.

What I DO mean by clever language use, I think, is this: using words in new and creative ways, successfully making words do jobs they hadn't originally been intended for, ordering words in beautiful ways. I like puns, for example. You can debate whether puns are clever or not, but consider: A hot dog vendor, fallen on hard times, can't make both ends meat. (As many of my favorite puns do, this one comes from Terry Pratchett's excellent Discworld novels. Each of them is a lesson in clever. This example is from The Truth.) Whether the end result is clever or not (and I think it's a hoot--and that may tell you all you need to know about me), the process to get to that joke takes a fair amount of cleverness.

Martin Luther King used language cleverly. Reading his speeches is nothing at all like hearing them, and I can only conclude that listening to a recording is nothing like hearing them live would be. But reading it, removing the time element from the equation, the cleverness underneath shines through. He wrote what I think of as High Oratory. He referenced literature, the Bible, historic works, the classics. A third of his speeches were metaphor. (I made that number up.) And yet, you don't have to know exactly what he's referencing to understand what he's talking about. "I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land!" (Watching the video again gives me chills. It's 90 degrees outside and I'm shivering.) That's clever. In addition to being clever, he was also a teriffic presenter; he's always a joy to watch. In addition to all that, he was right. But being right wasn't enough to make him the historic figure he is. (Cf. 2:36 into the previous video--who is that guy?)

Ani Difranco uses language cleverly. (Never mind the "mister lighting person" reference. The hymnal reference is clever.) Joaquin Sabina uses language cleverly. These are the people who impress me.

So what place does this self-indulgent essay have on an otherwise professionally toned blog? Well, here's the next step in my reflection process (told you I had more synonyms): how does this apply to me, my relationship to my students and co-workers? Well, I'm easily impressed by cleverness, particularly in language use. That is, in part, why I became a language teacher. (Growing up, I found it easier to experiment with linguistic cleverness in Spanish. Harder to do well, but easier to play with.) That piece of self-awareness also suggests the kind of student I'm going to like instinctively, and the kind of student whose good qualities won't be so obvious to me. I can also increase my awareness of how I interact with students and their parents. It's AMAZING how often cleverness is exactly the wrong tactic. Also, I can use this to examine my priorities. Am I assigning a certain project because it's best suited to a given learning objective, or am I doing it because I think it's clever? And even when cleverness is appropriate, how I use it is important. Am I being clever at students, or am I providing students an opportunity to be clever?

In short, then: Correctness is more important than cleverness. The guy in the MLK video had a point, even if it didn't blow me away.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What kind of elementary program do we have?

I read an article in this month's MiWLA publication from a woman named Stacy Witkowski, who teaches elementary education on the other side of the state. At last year's MiWLA conference, she presented a session on how to teach elementary education, and was asked (elected?) to repeat the session at the regional conference. I attended her presentation in Michigan; I did not attend the Central States conference. She was a little self-deprecating, but she's probably further along the learning curve than she realizes. I took a number of REALLY good ideas from her presentation, and have some thoughts about the Q-and-A session afterwards. (The idea of giving all elementary students a T-shirt with their name on it, to be worn in school during the first week, during specials classes, and when there's an itinerant educator in the room, is one that's never quite left me.)

In the article, she mentions some of the different models of elementary Spanish programs, and all the different schedules a school can develop to implement these models. She lists among them FLEX, FLES, and Immersion programs, and goes on to define them. (I've read all of these definitions and numbers somewhere before, but I don't know where. I'm just saying that Stacy didn't just make them up. Although, if she did, I'd still believe her.)

FLEX stands for "foreign language exploration." Stacy suggests that if your students get an average of less than 60 minutes of world languages a day, you probably have a FLEX program. The students will learn a few words, get familiar with the sounds, maybe remember from one year to the next the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" in Spanish. (I was mega-excited that last year's 1st graders still remember the "Coquí" song from kindergarten. Then I found out that it was on Dora the Explorer. From a learning standpoint, still exciting, but...) A suitable expectation is to get students excited about the language. An unsuitable expectation is fluency.

FLES stands for (I think) "foreign language in elementary schools." There's a website: . Stacy suggests that programs of this kind have at least 75 minutes of language instruction a week (15 min / day minimum). This kind of time dedication can lead to strong lingustic skill development, if not true fluency.

Immersion stands for--well, immersion. All target language, all the time. It's not a word I like very much, because if you immerse a human in something as fluid as language, they'll drown. That's just nomenclature, though. We don't have this kind of program.

These definitions are never very far from my mind, because once my principal asked me, "Why can't our elementary students speak Spanish?" He didn't mean it as a criticism of me, but the answer that leapt to my mind was, "Because the elementary Spanish program has been poorly served by the last 3 people to hold this position, and I'm not doing such a bang-up job yet." I don't remember if I actually said this out loud or not.

But it did set me to wondering--after 5 years of elementary school Spanish, how much should a student know? She should certainly have a pretty solid grasp of some basic stuff--how to ask for things, use manners, colors, numbers, etc. She should probably be able to differentiate spoken Spanish from other spoken languages, but that's not a content expectation.

I meet with the elementary students once a week for an hour, or twice a week for 30 minutes, whenever I can manage it. This year, I may or may not meet with the students of one class for an hour a day for 3 weeks straight, then not again for 12 weeks. So how much Spanish can you learn in that time?

I think we have a FLEX program, strictly from the numbers. But I think we have the potential for a pretty good FLEX. Our elementary students should be learning more than they are, but I don't think we can realistically expect them to speak Spanish after elementary school.

After middle school, though....

Friday, July 3, 2009

Never work harder than your students, Cha. 5

Use Feedback Effectively

Jackson starts off with an all-too-familiar scenario about her time in the classroom: as a new teacher she would give grades; she would spend hours upon hours leaving unique comments on students work; she would pass work back, watch students flip to the grade at the end, and dump the work into the recycling bin; the next week, students would repeat the same mistakes. Every day, some enterprising students would ask her what their grades were; every parent-teacher conference, she would explain what a student's grade meant to engaged, but confused, parents.

The theme of her "Common Practice" section for this chapter is the disconnect between grades and learning. We use grading systems for everything BUT how well a student knows the required material. Grades can reflect the timely completion of work, test-taking abilities, work ethic, even new and clever ways of cheating. The way to bridge this disconnect, she proposes, is (unsurprisingly) to use feedback effectively. It's not just enough to spend hours on comments about THIS assignment; how to do better next time seems to be a key element. She also makes it clear that assessments are not the same thing as tests, and there needs to be a lot more non-paper-and-pencil tests. Not that those things aren't important--state tests and AP exams are paper-and-pencil tests--but effective teaching of the concepts on the tests trumps the test format every time. And alternative forms of tests frequently give teachers and learners a better grasp of what they're learning, and how well they're learning it.

How this will help my students

Jackson's practical suggestions for using feedback effectively are no different from Marzano's--or, for that matter, my principal's. There aren't a lot of new concepts in here that I'd never heard before. There's one major difference between my exposure to those other sources of information, and this: here, now, in the middle of the summer, with Jackson's book on one side and Marzano's Art and Science of Teaching on the other, I have time to work out what this means for my practices, and what that will mean for my students. In other words, instead of just talking the talk, I can work on walking the walk.

On the grounds of feedback, I think I'm more in the "give comments and watch them go unheeded" category than in the "master teacher" stage. Jackson gives a specific system for helping students collecting their own learning data that I may try implementing. I've already decided that my students will have portfolios next year, and I'm looking into making them e-folios. This should help students have a better idea of where they stand. Also, she talked about a consistent set of rubrics--I'm not sure how well this will translate to world language classes, because the subject isn't "writing." It's writing, and reading, and speaking, and listening, and doing all of these things in combination, plus culture, comparisons, connections, and communities. But the shape of the idea will be about the same, I think: a rubric for conversation activities, one for presentations, and one for comprehension activities, with culture elements involved in all of them. More on this later, I suspect.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Putting on airs

When I was a teaching assistant during grad school, my title was John. My students referred to me by my first name; my colleagues referred to me as John; my professors referred to me as John. My school friends referred to me as Juanito Cobos, but that was sort of an inside joke.

When I was a substitute teacher, I referred to myself as an "itinerant educator." I would go anywhere, and teach anyone anything, including things I didn't know.

These days, I go to the same place to work every day. My school district has 300+ students in it; I'm the only World Languages teacher. (A lot of other teachers work WL into their curricula, particularly in the younger elementary classes. And we're starting to do some more distance learning with WL. So I'm not the only one teaching WL. But I'm the only WL teacher.) Because of this, and because I teach all grades except PreK, I call myself "World Languages Department Chair." Really. I have business cards. (They're not for people who might someday be bosses or colleagues. They're kind of a gag.) These business cards used to say, simply, "World Languages Department," as in, "I am the World Languages Department." But people kept assuming that meant that I work in the WL department, not that I work as the WL department. Not grandiose enough. So I promoted myself. It was a very nice ceremony, if I do say so myself.

Now, thanks to this article, I think I'll start referring to myself as an "applied cognitive engineer."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


The ad link on read, "Stop Motion Sickness." When you click on it, it tells you ways to avoid getting nauseated in the car, on planes, etc.

What I read was, "Stop Motion Sickness." I immediately wondered when Henry Selick's new movie about vomit was coming out.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

People doing, etc.

Dina Strasser's take on Chapter 4 of Marzano's Art and Science of Teaching.

She's a better teacher than I am. She's a better blogger than I am, she's a better analyst and applied researcher than I am. And dammit, she's better at sarcasm than I am, too.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Insufficient answers to pressing questions

Bob Herbert describes extraordinary results in a charter school (2 charter schools, actually--a middle school, and a high school that they made in response to their initial success in the middle school). 48 of 48 students in the graduating class are going on to college. All of these students face the difficulties educators point to--poverty, first to attend college, etc.

Eduwonk (hat tip for the article) frames this as the reason to have charter schools.

But my fundamental question remains unanswered--why can't we do this with public education? Why don't we? I think Eduwonk would say "Teachers' Unions! Vested Interests! Education Lobbyists!" Is my industry so politically powerful? Is it so short-sighted that we'd betray our professional principles and destroy our credibility?

At the same time I write this post, I happen to be listening to a Smithsonian Folkways podcast about labor movement folk songs, and it occurs to me that I toe the Union line pretty strongly. So let me clarify: I, of course, celebrate the success of all the students of Gaston Prep Middle and the high school (unnamed in the article). I honor the tremendous effort and sacrifice, and admire the professional dedication, of Tammi Sutton and Caleb Dolan, the educators responsible for creating and driving the schools that have helped this graduating class. I look forward to continued success from these schools. I don't question that in another educational setting these students would not have met anywhere near the same degree of success. I look forward to continued success from these schools.

What I question is, why wouldn't these students have had the same degree of success in their local public schools? What did this school do that public schools don't do? Why don't they do it?

The heart of my criticism of charter school is this: Charter schools and similar reform efforts are based on the notion of competition between education providers. The theory runs thus: as charter schools show their worth, non-charter schools will have to reform and improve student services, or parents will choose schools that will do the best job by their students. "Free and open market forces" will decide the distribution of limited resources--the victors will survive, the failures will dissolve. With the failure of just a few schools, we'll achieve a much higher degree of educational efficacy in education. And maybe that's the case.

But we already have a system of distribution of limited resources. It's called the "public education system." It is not immune from criticism: It is a near-monopoly; it's a bulky bureaucracy with many share-holders whose objectives sometimes work at cross-purpses; change is nearly impossible; every rule change has a million unintended consequences. Public schools fail a huge number of students, and these students are disproportionately the ones who most need help from the public sector--minorities and special-needs students.

But, and here's the rub of it, I think, charter schools and other competitive systems of education reform seek to dilute pools of limited resources, in effect robbing Peter to pay Paul. This inevitably leads to incentivizing "trade secrets," which is the opposite of what we want. If a school finds something that works that nobody else is doing, we want people standing on the rooftops screaming about it. We want successful teachers to be rock stars, the subjects of articles and TV specials, teacher educators, article-writers. We want their techniques studied, spread, maximized. To that extent, anything that charter schools can do to make us better, I'm all for it. I remain extremely sceptical, however, that diffusing the nation's education resources is the best way to do that.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Activity analysis: "¡Somos Arqueólogos!"

One of the things I should do a lot more of is examining my activities to see if they're doing what they should, and how to improve them. My methodology teacher, Michael Braun (maybe more about him someday--he also taught me Spanish in high school, and looking at his classes would probably go a long way towards explaining why I think about teaching Spanish the way I do), suggested keeping a binder with assignment sheets in it, and writing notes on post-it notes. I'm going to work on having that system in place by the start of the next school year, but in the meantime, I offer you this:


Imagínate que eres arqueólog@, quinientos años adelante de hoy. Tú (arqueólog@) descubriste la casa en que tú (estudiante) vives.

¿Cómo es este domicilio tan raro? Identifica 5 cosas en la casa. ¿Cómo son estos artefactos? ¿Para qué crees que sirven? (Acuérdate: Tú vives en el futuro. El mundo es muy distinto. Imagina que no sabes nada de la vida actual.)

[Imagine you're an arqueologist, five hundred years from now. You (the archaeologist) have discovered the house in which you (the student) lives.

What is this strange structure like? Identify 5 things in the house. What are these artifacts like? What do you think they're for? (Remember: You live in the future. The world is very different. Imagine you don't know anything about life today.)]

LEVEL: This project was designed for 2nd-year high school students. There's no reason it couldn't be adapted for 1st-year students, or indeed for any time a description of the house becomes necessary.

OBJECTIVE: Students will describe objects in their house from the perspective of someone who doesn't know what they're for. This will help them think of common household objects in Spanish, contextualize vocabulary of common household objects, and establish background knowledge for comparisons of common household items in their house and a house in a Spanish-speaking country. It will also provide students with the vocabulary and language necessary to describe their houses to other students in Spanish.

1.1.N.RW.g Ask questions in writing about the attributes of places and things in their immediate environment and answer using a list of traits
1.2.N.R.c Understand written interpersonal communication on topics of personal interest such as preferences, family life, friends, leisure and school activities, and everyday occurrences (email, letters, messages, notes, and text messages)
1.3.N.W.c Write brief personal descriptions on familiar topics in Spanish such as self, friends, family, home and school

ASSUMED KNOWLEDGE: Students are expected to have an awareness of, but not yet be entirely comfortable with, the vocabulary of household items, and have a good working knowledge of words that describe physical features of objects (size, color, etc.).

ASSESSMENT: Students show their comprehension of the knowledge by successfully communicating with other students about the objects in their house. This is a formative assessment of vocabulary; it's also a practice activity for other activities to come.

STUDENT OUTPUT: Students' responses ranged from 3-5 word descriptions for each item to a bullet-pointed list in English.

THOUGHTS: I continually butt up against the difference between World Languages and core-content classes, just in terms of learning matter. In this activity, students aren't expected to learn anything new, they're expected to think about what they already know in a different way. This is designed to permit students' minds to focus exclusively on the language acquisition. I recently went to a conference that suggested it might be better on all levels if students are engaging in the culture at the same time as the language.

CHANGES: First, I need to clarify the expectations. Students did not know what was expected of them. Second, rather than having students imagine their own house a different way, it might be better to have them "excavate" a typical house of the Spanish-speaking world, being sure to include a few things the students probably don't have in their own house. (I still think it's important for students to look at their own activities in a new way, but maybe this isn't the format for it.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More reflecting than a diva's dressing room

SY 2008-09 is finally put to bed, and there's an awful lot to think about. I'm going to go into some of these points more fully in later posts, because I'm trying to get down everything there is before I forget about it.

FINAL EXAMS: The importance of comprehensive final exams became more clear to me than ever before; also, the limits of paper-pencil tests over the course of 3 days. If we're really going to test students' learning of Spanish, more and more I'm thinking that portfolios are the way to go. Note to self: find model portfolio evaluation systems. (Students present portfolios en español as final exam? That's in presentation mode of communication.)

STANDARDS-BASED GRADING SYSTEMS: My school is running on two fundamentally different grading systems, and I suspect that many others are, as well. The bulk of grades is based on the number of standards that students master (at some point, the definition of "mastery" becomes EXTREMELY important). Yet every trimester, we have to give students a letter grade for their cumulative GPA. We come up with arbitrary, counter-intuitive formulae to bridge the gap. To confuse the issue, the final exam isn't directly weighed into our "standards assessment / employability skills" formula, but it's worth 10 % of the final grade.

SYLLABI: For the next school year, we're going to have syllabi detailing what we'll be teaching, what standards the students will be held accountable for, and (presumably) how we're going to know, i.e., what assessments we'll be using. This is entirely a good thing, and by now for most of us it should simply be a matter of taking the information off of our curriculum document and putting it on to a piece of paper that students can read. We ARE all keeping our curriculum document up to date, right? Right? (trails off sheepishly)

SW-PBS: I found out yesterday that my school did not receive the Mi-BLSi grant we applied for. This means, among other things, that the system we grew last year will have to serve us for at least one more year. The good news is that the ISD's capacity for supporting the PBS program has increased substantially--our advisor has new resources to bring to bear, as well as new workers in the ISD itself. One of the main sticking points appears to be ongoing teacher training time, and that looks to be a BIIIIIIG deal.

STUDENTS LEARNING SPANISH: I'm still pondering what the results of the final exam mean. Most of my students did much better than they expected to (and as well as I expected them to), but fell down in some surprising ways--writing section, I'm looking at you here. So something's got to give there. In addition, I'm not sure that they learned to converse in Spanish as well as I'd hoped. So there's something to work on, too.

K-8 PROGRAM: Weaknesses in this program and its director are showing through the whole plan. Next year, there will be a year-long 8th grade Spanish program, so we're going to have to step it up a noch. I expect there will be a year-long 7th grade program the year after that, so I'm going to have to get a lot better really fast.

No doubt, more to come.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's all about the students

This blog post is directed at my students, but it's part of a broader conversation that all of us should spend a lot of time on. It's a continuation of some conversations we've had about school rules, why we have specific school rules, and how, when, and why to work to change them. Students, this post turned out a lot longer than I meant. If you want to skip the essay and just leave your thoughts about our school's rules, policies, and expectations, just go straight to the comments. Please remember to be respectful; I don't want to have to delete comments for inappropriate language. (Imagine you're, maybe not in school, but at least in the parking lot outside with our principal standing nearby.)

Our school board sets the school rules; these are the things that are included in your planners that we go over at the beginning of each school year, and that the school-based adults should be reinforcing all year long. This includes the school cell-phone policy (you don't have one on school; if a teacher needs you to have one for a project, give it to that teacher before school starts and pick it up after school ends), the dress code (nothing distracting; no sleeveless shirts for men, no shoulder straps thinner than 3 inches for women, no shorts or skirts that come up higher than the fingers), the tardy policy, the graduation requirements, etc. The school board consists of people who have a stake in the performance of the school. In our case, it's mostly your parents, but it can also include local business officials, education professionals (usually ones who don't work for the school), and others. Their motivation in setting the rules is to keep you safe in school, and to provide you with the best education possible. They usually work with the schools' administration to make the rules.

We also have a set of school behavior expectations--Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible. (If you poke around in the archives, you'll find out more about how these came to be than you ever wanted to.) The Bobcat Code is another way of repeating the same basic ideals. Every community has rules about appropriate behavior, and these expectations are intended to tell us all what those are for our community. It's not just to tell students how to behave. It's also to tell teachers and staff how to behave, what to celebrate, who our good citizens are, things like that.

Each teacher has their own set of guidelines, too: rules, behavior expectations, and classroom procedures. The purpose of these guidelines is to codify how teachers and students interact. You can tell a lot about a teacher by their classroom guidelines.

All of these different levels of "rules" and "expectations" have one objective: to make school the best learning environment for you possible. In order for that to be true, the following things have to happen:
  1. The rules have to be directed towards improving your learning experience. (That's why we don't have a "Buy American" clause in the policies--it's got nothing to do with your learning.)
  2. You, the student, as well as we, the teachers, have to know what the rules are, what they're for, and what the consequences of following and not following them will be.
  3. The staff has to apply those rules consistently, re-teach them regularly, and be prepared to explain (in an appropriate time and place) what the educational value of a rule is.
Changing rules isn't easy, especially at the "school-board" level. I think the best way to do that is to work through the student senate, or failing that, through the administration. The school-wide behavior expectations are a little more flexible. Talk to me or send me an e-mail for more information about changing those. At the classroom level, the teacher has a fair amount of discretion with her own expectations. She still has to enforce school rules and support school-wide behavior expectations, but "good citizenship" is a little bit different in each class, for each teacher. If you think a teacher has expectations that are detrimental to your learning, talk to her. There are ways of getting REALLY harmful classroom policies rescinded, but we all want you to be in the best learning environment possible. Try talking to us first.

In any case, with any rules change, be prepared to justify how the change will help your education. Once, I asked students what they thought about school policies. One student responded, "There should be a boxing ring where students who aren't getting along can beat each other up." We asked how it would help their education to get into fights. The response: "It wouldn't. But it would be fun." Whether it would be fun or not, it would be at the expense of the safety of the students, it would take away from learning, and it wouldn't work as well as more productive, non-violent means of problem-solving. So that's an example of a bad policy change.

SO....after all that, what do you think about our school policy? What works, what doesn't? What could work better?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why you go to school / Merit Pay

Students--The blog post I promised you is coming. After our incident on Friday, it's more important than ever to have the conversation we started over a week ago. But in the meantime, this:

Girls poisoned to prevent their education

If I could think of no other reason for you to go to school, I'd always have "Because the Taliban don't want you to."

I blog about this so often, you'd think I don't think about anything else. But I do. Really.

Merit pay doesn't work.

I have read neither the blog nor the study. I can't believe that anybody thinks this is the final word on the issue, though.

Hat tip to Alexander Russo for both of these stories.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Never work harder than your students, Cha. 4

Support your students

Jackson starts off this chapter by defining the "Curse of Knowledge," knowing something and being unable to imagine what it's like not knowing it. She suggests that it's one of the big reasons that teachers have a hard time teaching until the remediation stage. Then, she suggests that by having remediation plans without intervening during instruction is tantamount to planning on our students' failure. This, of course, leads to frustration all around.

The mitigation to this--the principle for this chapter--is to plan interventions in to the lesson. In the planning stages of a class or a unit, a teacher decides what students should know. (This is reflected in "standard and benchmarks" and whatnot.) He then breaks that up into smaller bits, steps and stages of learning goals to put together some kind of continuity plan so that he's not just randomly pulling activities out of his file drawer. Then, he builds in learning supports over the course of the unit, so that when students trip up, they have a system to help them keep their footing.

Jackson identifies the following elements of an effective intervention system:
  1. The Plan is developed before students begin to fail.
  2. The Plan has a red flag mechanism that triggers action--objective, based on learning objectives (not behavior).
  3. A concrete procedure is in place such that when the conditions are met (less than 76%, missed standards, whatever), the procedure kicks right in. It's in the letter home, the syllabus, the class's website, on refrigerator magnets. Everybody understands the procedure, what it's for, when it happens. It's not punishment and it's not busywork.
  4. Students have shared accountability in this Plan. They have a well-defined job and responsibility for their learning.
Jackson suggests a number of interlinking steps to help support students' learning:
  • Anticipate confusion. Having once been learners of our subject ourselves, and having taught our subject every year more, we have a pretty good idea where our students will get tripped up. Prepare your students for those moments and have a variety of teaching strategies in your pocket.
  • Pinpoint confusion and uncover misconceptions. Know where your students are getting tripped up. She points out that this is tricky, because you can get right answers using wrong strategy. This action step (or whatever it is she calls it) addresses the strategies that students are using, and making sure that they're using the correct strategies.
  • Demystify the process. The process of education makes sense to educators. We live it, we dedicate ourselves to improving it, we've invested huge amounts of time to thinking abstractly about it. This is not so for student. Help them to understand why they're doing what they're doing.
  • Gradually remove supports as students improve. Make it clear that some of your "crutch" methods may be necessary now, but they won't be available forever. She makes the point of saying that, rather than changing the learning activities, try keeping the learning activities the same and changing the students' relationship to it. I'm not exactly clear what she means by this, or what this would look like in an WL class, but I get the shape of what she's saying.
  • Support the learning of students who have already mastered the learning goals. The teacher prep looks nearly the same for this step as the previous. Instead of taking the ambiguity out of a learning objective, leave some of the (learning-goal-relevant) ambiguity in. The students who already know a lot need to learn, too.
And in this way, Jackson comes back to content differentiation. These are all things that a teacher prepares for as often as possible. Jackson suggests doing this systemically, making sure that you have this process available all the time.

Our school has an "Interventions" class this year, a class we've been struggling with getting right all year long. We know that we need a mechanism to help students learn content they may have missed the first time, and this year it took the form of a 1-hour-a-day class. We've had trouble organizing the class logistically, re-teaching standards, getting students into and out of Interventions, and keeping occupied those students who don't need to make up standards. This chapter reads like Jackson has been through a number of projects like that. She's taken those experiments and tried to turn them into something.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The state of education research

The No. 1 thing a school can do to improve its student achievement is have what Bob Marzano calls a "guaranteed and viable curriculum." (I think that's from Classroom Instruction That Works, originally, but now it's one of those things that I've heard so often I've lost track of its source. One of the Marzano books, anyway.) The No. 2 thing is have a good teacher. (Or maybe they're reversed.)

But I've been tipped off by my friend Jamie (who in turn was notified by one Skeptical Hypochondriac) to NEW! SHOCKING! RESEARCH! This study concludes conclusively in its conclusion that chewing gum should be on the list of big improvers of student achievement. They've got numbers. That proves it. 3% math improvement, right? Just chew gum. Nothing simpler.

The guy paying the tab had nothing to do with that conclusion, either. I know you're all thinking it. You can just leave, shamefaced. Of course it's legit. This study shows real advances in the field of science. The scientists have been doing science for years. They know their business. They came close to finding atmospherium by chewing gum. They know their science from Adam.

It's also possible, I suppose, that the kinesthetic effect of constant motion really does help improve concentration. But there's one thing I know: don't mess with Mother Nature, mother-in-laws, or people who say their product will instantly improve your child's smartness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Duncan want charter. Duncan SMASH!

Arne Duncan and Lamar Alexander write in Commercial Appeal. They say that more charter schools are better than fewer.

Why, again, is one charter school better than one public school? What fundamental structural flaw in public (non-charter) is repaired by constructing from scratch a parallel, competing system from the same, already-overstrained budget?

Sunday, April 19, 2009


This week has been full of the small successes that show progress and make the huge fights worth fighting. My Spanish II students are finally realizing how much Spanish they know, and are starting to use it spontaneously. It was a LOOOONG road to get to this point, but they're there now. My challenge for this week is to encourage this process, not by assigning more of the same, but by providing opportunities for them to use what they know. Of course, that's the challenge EVERY week. But this week--let me put it this way. I've never started a fire, except by means of lighters or matches. But I've seen people who have started fires with flint and steel, and there's a moment when they strike the flint, and the superheated flake of stone hits the dry tinder. In that moment, the person lighting the fire has to move very quickly and very carefully to get the spark to ignite the tinder. It takes a lot of strikes to get it right, and usually more than one spark has to hit the tinder before combustion has occurred. But, if everything goes right--the winds are favorable, the tinder is dry enough, the person has the makings of a fire. I think my Spanish II class is at one of those moments right now.

The other super-big one is World Languages Day. One of the underpinnings of my philosophy is that I would like my students to be citizens of the world after leaving my class. I want them to recognize times when it's okay to transcend tribal loyalties, to know that improving the human condition isn't a zero-sum game--that making one person's life better doesn't mean you have to make someone else's life worse--and to have the sense that their life has (or at least can have) a global significance. To that end, I took 9 students and two parents to Michigan State University on Saturday for World Languages Day. In a day full of sessions, my students learned "survival phrases" from all over the world, and explored some of the cultural artifacts from all over the world. (Did you know that Tajikistan is famous for white-water rafting and cotton exports, and is over 93% mountain? I didn't.) They came out with a sense of the interconnectedness of the world, and had a great time doing it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Traits of great teachers

One of the "Try This" points of Chapter 3 of Jackson's book is (paraphrased): Make a list of the 10 most important attributes of great teachers. Cut that down until you've only got 2, the 2 most important traits of great teachers.

Here's what I came up with, in the order they occurred to me:
  • A passion for the subject matter
  • A passion for teaching
  • Love for your students
  • Communication
  • Organization
  • Planning and following plans
  • Teamwork
  • Intelligence
  • Presence of mind in the classroom
  • Sense of self-improvement
The second list looked like this:
  • Passion for teaching
  • Love for students
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Sense of self-improvement

The final list boiled down to:
  • Passion for teaching
  • Love for students
I did this list yesterday over coffee. These all seem a little generic; important, yes, but important in the way that "optimism" would be important. If I were to do this list this morning, I'm not sure it would look the same.

How about it? What do you think are the most important qualities of a great teacher?