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.)