Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Useful videos

Now that Delicious is going the way of the dodo (everybody tells me so, that's how I know) there are two things I should really start doing here, in my own little space on the interWebs.  First, I should start cataloging serious alternatives: lots of people have them.  I followed someone's directions and imported all of my Delicious links into Google Bookmarks.  It seems a poor alternative thus far, largely because I can now not find my Google Bookmarks page.  Nor can I add bookmarks without going to Google Bookmarks.  For Delicious, I just pressed Command + D.  Viola, permanent record of link forever.  (I'm still doing it, and will up until the day they officially pull the plug.)  (Which, evidently, they might not.) 

Second, I should start using the space to keep track of links I want to keep track of.  Well, I've kind of been doing that already.  But I should probably, I don't know, do it better or have a better tagging system or something.  (An analysis of tags as the most insanely useful, or not, way of organizing information is forthcoming.  Some year.) 

For example, Nova has a bunch of videos online, like this about Machu Picchu.  There are others, I'm sure.

Finland, Finland, Finland...

Linda Darling-Hammond has taken to various publications to talk about Finland's educational model.  She did so again in the fall in NEA Today.   While the article presents a great many ideas that US policy makers should take note of, and while many aspects bear further investigation (doctorate, here I come), one particular point jumped out at me, grabbed me by the ears, and started pounding me in the middle of the forehead.

     All students receive a free meal daily[...] (Darling-Hammond, 2010, par. 19.)

Imagine if we suggested something like that here.  No, really.  Think about it for a second.  Envision it.  Every student gets a meal.  You walk into school, you get lunch.  The ramifications are kind of staggering.

Start with the un-shaming of the free-and-reduced-lunch program.  You don't have to be ashamed of not paying for your food.  Nobody does.

Move on to lower-middle-class income families.  Parents who skimp on school lunch because they can't really afford it stop trying.  Their students eat a decent meal.

The upper-middle class families continue to send their students to school with lunches from home.  Sometimes, though, the students eat the school lunches, because for whatever reason they don't bring one.

Some parents talk about "charity," and how they won't accept it.  School officials and policy makers simply state that it is now the policy of X state to provide every student with a good, nutritious meal at no front-end cost.  Besides, the parents are still paying for it, just like they're paying for physical improvements to the school and teacher salaries.

Initially, a great deal of food is wasted as students who have never eaten school lunches before try them.  The issue of taste comes up at school board meetings.  At the same time, health-conscious parents take a closer look at the contents of school lunches.  This brings about a push for school lunch reform.  As a result, school lunch improves in nutritional value and tastiness.  This reform applies financial pressure to the companies that currently produce large amounts of, let's say, pre-packaged cinnamon rice.  This, of course, doesn't happen everywhere at the same time, and it happens last in urban districts with high levels of poverty, where most students are already receiving free and reduced lunch.

I once had a student from Finland in one of my Spanish classes. I told her there was a song about Finland.  She didn't think it was funny.

Also, no mention of school lunches.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Why I love my friends: A holiday post

Those who know me probably refer (hopefully lovingly) as a Nerd.  The capital N was intentional, and well deserved.  I'm getting too old to be one of the cool nerds; hopefully I'm old enough soon to be considered retro, and thus cool again.  That cycle gets shorter and shorter, so it shouldn't be long now.

As a result of my friends' knowledge of my nerdliness, I have received a few really, REALLY nerdy holiday gifts, with which I am inordinately pleased.

Exhibit 1:

This is, as you can see from the title, a fundamental bibliography of Don Quijote.  During my graduate class on Don Quijote, we read the Murillo edition, and would refer frequently to his footnotes for cultural clarification.  For our term papers, we were encouraged to consult this bibliography as a great starting point for finding source information.  The Bibliografía was no longer in print, though, and essentially impossible for a graduate student to acquire.  We all borrowed our professor's WELL-worn copy, and were grateful for the chance.

Since then, there have been an amazing number of times when I've wished I could pull up some quick articles about Quijote on some theme or another.  I've thought longingly of this bibliography, wishing I could refer to it just to see how much research had been done on the topic as of 1978.  And now I have a copy.

I know, nerdy, right?  But, admit it: kinda awesome.

Exhibit 2:

This, friends, is an ocarina, which is sweet enough.  But wait, there's more:

It's an Ocarina of Time!  This is a genuine replica of the instrument played by the intrepid hero Link in the video game classic The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.  I played a few scales on the ocarina, and it has a good sound to it. 

I know, awesome, right?  But kind of nerdy.

The best part about this is that these came from different friends.  They're appealing to my nerdy nature from all sides!

Thank you, guys.  They're great.

NB:  I already had a Don Quijote tag, ready to use.  That's cool.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Free WL resources

These come courtesy of Carrie C. on the ACTFL listserv.  (Not that Carrie C. seems to have a variety of free video sources for different school subjects.  For Spanish, they have the video for the textbook series "Destinos."  They also have a college-themed version.  That, combined with some scaffolding, would go a long way to help a learner find comprehensible input.  (Ray, if you read this....) 

For the teacher, they also have a seminar on K-12 language teaching and some arts instruction methods courses that look really interesting.  

Also on the free video front, the BBC has a whole host of language tools.  The Spanish video was insufferably slow-going for my taste--it felt like "Dora the Explorer" for adults.  ("Can you say 'largo?' [pause] ¡Muy bien!)  But maybe it's just what some learners need.  And maybe later lessons focus on providing comprehensible input. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Important lessons learned from literature

Any plan that involves faking your own death is a bad plan.

Also, any plan that involves losing your hat is a bad plan. (Can't find the exact reference right now.  It's from Girl Genius.  Yes, it's steampunk.  Yes, I know what I said about steampunk.  Yes, I've read the whole thing.  Sue me.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Literature circles

A quick link to a blog post about literature circles.  Is this something that I can use in higher grade levels?  Does anybody out there use literature circles?  I have a group of fairly disengaged high school seniors.

h/t Edutopia

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hmmm...maybe my students CAN use it.

I've long been excited by GoAnimate. I've posted all two of my animations in other blog posts. But I've encountered difficulties when students use it. These range from the standard technology issues ("Mr. Cosby! I broke the internet!" One time it was almost literally true.) to simple time-management issues. There were a lot of things about it that my students didn't understand the first time around, and would be able to do better after having some experience with it. there were also some issues sharing the resultant videos, strangely.

But now GoAnimate for Schools is live, and theoretically, it would solve the sharing problem. It also means that the limitations suffered by mere mortals--the character creation difficulties, for example--would also be overcome. 

As for my students breaking the Internet, well, I understand it's fragile anyway.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

One for when I get "spare" time

I'm wondering about the culture clash between standards-based education, which I wholly believe in, and "holistic" learning, where students learn things that are not necessarily part of the curriculum. It's something that bears closer examination.

I'm a proponent of standards-based education. From that perspective, my dogmatic twist on this thorny issue is that if you write the standards well, if you write them with big juju thinking skills at their heart, if you think "big" enough about them, then they can incorporate holistic learning practices. They don't have to be in conflict. The problem comes when your standards are a list of 200 things your students have to know before they can leave Algebra class.

But like I said, that's an article of faith with me. I'm pretty sure the research is there to back me up on this one. I'll just have to wait until I retire to look into it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sir Ken Robinson rocks the animation

The inimitable Sir Ken Robinson doing what he does best--blowing holes in the education world.

Hat tip Open Culture.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

More books I want

Doing Literary Criticism by Tim Gillespie.  In my "Teaching Reading" class in college, we had a mini-unit on using literary theory to give readers a purpose for reading.  I found it to be mind-bogglingly useful in that and subsequent classes.  Picking a literary theory provides students with a way to pick out key information.  This is useful as students learn to read an entire text, and also when (as often) they're required to read a book they don't want to, or are stuck on.

Stenhouse Publishers here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

To my students: Thinking vs. knowing


The difference between when I ask you a question and when you ask me a question.

It's a common enough scenario in our class: I ask you a huge question, give you no guidance or background information, and demand that you analyze, choose and defend a position on it in three minutes.  I imagine that this is frustrating for you sometimes, especially since my skills at communicating my goals are not great.

This happened on Friday, and instead of just answering the question, one of your classmates responded, and then said, "What do you think about this topic, Mr. Cosby?"

I didn't exactly deflect the question, but I didn't exactly answer it right away, either.  I think I said something about not wanting to presume to know everything, to which somebody said, "Well, you expected us to know the answer." 

It reminded me of a few days earlier, when I asked you about a camera angle in To Kill a Mockingbird.  "Why put the camera there for this scene, and why not somewhere else?"  One of your classmates asked, "Does this have a correct answer?  I like things that have correct answers."  My response to that was similar: There may well be a correct answer, the director made that decision for a reason.  I can only guess at what it was.  The better I am at the language of film, the more likely my guess is to be close to correct.

The common theme to these two scenarios, dear readers, and the theme that connects a thousand others just like them, is this:  When I ask you a question like that, it's because I want you thinking about the answers.  I want you to come up with what you think the best answer is, and I want you to defend it.  When presented with new evidence, I want you either to explain how the new evidence fits into your position, or I want you to change your position to accommodate it.  I do this because I think that this is the most reliable way for people to learn.  There's something pretty Socratic about it, and I'm not sure how I feel about that, but there you go.  That's pedagogy for you.  I don't expect you to have the right answer every time, the first time.  You often get the right answer, or at least a right answer, because you're smart.  And even when you're off-base, you quickly come to a right answer.  But for our purposes, that's sort of the cherry on the sundae.  I want you to think in as many different ways as possible, and I want you--and this is the kicker--to be aware of your thinking as you do it.

When you ask me my own questions back, there's a different dynamic.  Based on past experiences, you imagine that I have answers to all the questions I ask.  Maybe you visualize a Teacher's Annotated Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, which gives me questions to ask and themes to present.  Such things exist, and I use them when my own thinking is unclear or incomplete, or honestly, when I'm in a hurry.  So I feel like when you ask me a question, it's because you want to know the answer, and you want me to give it to you.  Your motivations are your own--I like to think you're checking your own thinking process against that of a respected local authority.  You may simply be tired of thinking.  But the point is this: When you ask me a question, it's because you want the answer.

The problem with that is the nature of the questions I ask: "What are the qualities of leadership?  What does a society owe its people, and what do leaders owe to unwilling members of a society?  How do stories and leadership relate?"  These questions have no one answer.  My objective is not for you to know how to answer them, it's for you to know how to ask them.

So, just keep thinking.  A lot of good will come of that, far beyond the limits of school.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

To my students: On being and becoming teachers.


A few weeks ago I told some of you that I was inspired to teach Spanish by my high school Spanish teacher, and that I hoped to be able to do the same for some of you.  I said that the mark of an excellent teacher is not how many students he has, but how many teachers he creates.  This is as close to a religious belief as you will ever hear from me.  However, something didn't feel right about the way that conversation ended.

I said that I wanted for you to become Spanish teachers.  That wasn't quite right.  I want you to live happy, good, full, productive lives; I'm teaching you because I think that what you learn from me will help you do that.  Communicating in Spanish will open doors for you that have previously been closed.  These doors are not just in the Spanish-speaking world.  These skills that I hope you're learning in my class will open doors inside your own head.  In some cases, they'll build whole new wings on the mansions of your mind.  (Or the airplane of your mind.  Pick your metaphor.  You build wings on both.)

I want you to love Spanish.   I want you to love speaking Spanish, and I want you to be fascinated by the myriad cultures that use Spanish as their primary language.  I want to have a part in bringing that to you. People who feel this way sometimes become Spanish teachers, because it lets us work with the future of our world AND speak Spanish.  But many other people who love Spanish just as much as I do, decide not to become teachers.  They become business people.  They become doctors or lawyers.  They become farmers.  They become stage magicians.  They re-mix YouTube videos for fun and profit.

I don't want you to become teachers for my sake, which is what I said if you were listening carefully.  I hope you like Spanish class.  I hope that you look forward to coming.  I hope that you like the way I teach.  But what I want for you, what I really want for you, is for you to find what you love and spend the rest of your life doing it. 

That's what I'm doing.


Señor Cosby

Sunday, November 14, 2010

True dat.

From Education Week:

Comment of the Day:
"We are asking teachers to be doctors, lawyers, artists, scientistsn and sociologists but paying them as though they were the manager at a Wendy's. "
— greeney

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How dare teachers want to retire someday?

More to the point, how dare teachers expect their contracts to be fulfilled

This kind of thing always makes me angry.  The author may well have a point that we have been promised more than the states can actually afford.  However, the implication is that teachers are a luxury that society cannot afford.  The whole tone of the article, from the first sentence to the very last self-righteous "Don't say you weren't warned", is one of dire warning and dismissiveness of negotiated contracts.  He even takes the requisite left hook at teachers' unions. 

There are three reasons this makes me angry.  One of them is entirely visceral and gut-driven, and I think the other two probably are as well, but they feel more rational.  The visceral reaction is, of course, that my team is being attacked.  Nobody likes being referred to as the cause of the next savings-and-loan crisis.  And I don't think we're being given anything we haven't earned.  Traditionally in this country, civil servants tolerate a comparatively low salary and a heavy work load in exchange for a not miserably poor retirement after many years of dedicated service.  Teachers qualify as civil servants.

There.  The good news is, I feel better.  The bad news is, I've spent so long trying to express emotion without being vituperative that I don't remember what my two actual points were.  Well, maybe I'll remember them later, write another blog post.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

More stealing toys

Editing edition

I'm going to link to Larry Ferlazzo's post about photo editing tools.  He talks about Wylio and ImgOps.

While I'm at it, a user review of another website I stole from Mr. Ferlazzo.  I've mentioned the website CutMP3 before as a potentially interesting piece of software.  I haven't had a chance to play with it, but one of my students (at my recommendation) used it in a "book soundtrack" presentation.  He said that it was easy, took him not much longer to do than just assembling the playlist would have, and played back perfectly in Windows Media Player.  No word yet on whether it plays in iTunes, but my student gave me all of his source files.  Mac tests are forthcoming.

Incidentally, Mr. Ferlazzo cites TechCrunch as his original source for the picture-editing software.  I think I'll try following them for a little while, too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What next?

The elections yesterday brought sweeping changes to the party in power in Michigan. The governor is now a Republican, the Senate was already Republican and is more so now, and the House is probably Republican now, as well. The two newest members of the state school board are Republicans.

I have one education policy question, and one selfish-but-can't-survive-doing-this-job-otherwise question for our new policymakers. 1.) Are you going to leave the Michigan Merit Curriculum more or less intact? 2.) Is my job part of the "wasteful spending" you expect to be able to eliminate? 'Cos I've got to tell you--after something like 6 consecutive years of more-than-billion-dollar budget deficits, I don't see a whole lot of waste left.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Edublogging on Halloween

It's been a disappointing evening at the Cosby household this Halloween.  We've only had two trick-or-treaters; they were appropriately grateful, but still.  This has left me a lot of time to do the grading I didn't do yesterday, because I was doing schoolwork.  It's also left me a lot of time to do the lesson plans I didn't do earlier today, because I was busy making calabaza en tacha for Día de los Muertos.  La Señora Cosby was once again gracious enough to make calaveras de azúcar, for my not-officially-a-Spanish-club to decorate.

So, of course, I'm blogging.

I actually tripped across another book I want, and I wanted to record it here before I forgot it.

O'Connor, K. (2009).  How to grade for learning.  Linking grades to standards. 3d ed.  Corwin. ISBN 9781412953825.

O'Connor signed off on PowerSchools, which is the grading software we're using.  I sort of dropped the ball on the whole standards-based grading thing this year, so it's much more traditional-grading than I would like.  For what it's worth, I'm making sure that the standards assessments are worth four times as much as the practices and homework and whatnot.  So, there. 

Happy Halloween, everybody.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Value-added analysis of auto mechanics


About 1,000 Kalamazoo auto mechanics and 300 auto body shops are included in the Señor Cosby’s database of “value-added” ratings.

Domestic and imported vehicles’ mechanics who worked on at least 10 automobiles from 2003 to 2009 were evaluated by the Blog analysis.  Most of Kalamazoo’s auto mechanics are included.  Evaluations for independent, front-yard auto mechanics that do not report to the state authority were not available.

An auto mechanic’s value-added rating is based on a few key indicators of performance of his or her customers’ vehicles.  The difference between expected performance and actual performance is the “value” a mechanic added or subtracted during the year.  A body shop’s value-added rating is based on the performance of all cars worked on during that period.

Small differences in rankings are not statistically significant, particularly for those rated near the average.  In some cases, recent gains made by mechanics and body shops may not be reflected in their ratings. 

Although value-added measures do not capture everything that goes into making a good mechanic or school, the Blog decided to make the ratings available because the bear on the performance of providers of important services, and in the belief that auto owners and the public have a right to the information.


What is “value-added” analysis?

“Value added” analysis is a statistical method that estimates the effectiveness of a mechanic or shop by looking at key indicators of performance of the cars they’ve worked on--in this instance, the functioning of the left turn signal, the fuel efficiency measured in kilometers per hour, and the acceleration rate, measured as the time taken to go from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour.  These scores are aggregated to form a single rating.  Past scores are used to project each car’s future performance.  The difference between the car’s actual performance and projected results is the estimated “value” that the mechanic or shop added (or subtracted) during the year.

Do value-added scores tell you everything you need to know about a mechanic or a body shop?

Not at all.  Even advocates of the method say it should count for half or less of a mechanic’s overall evaluation.  In reviewing a mechanic’s performance, administrators may want to consider their supervisor’s observations, the quality of the automobile’s appearance, mechanics’ abilities to work on systems other than the three mentioned, and many other factors.  Similarly, auto owners looking for a shop for their car may also want to consider factors such as the shop’s state credentials, honesty and integrity policies, and their own impressions of the mechanics and the shop.

Why publish individual mechanic’s ratings?

Research has repeatedly found that mechanics are the single most shop-related factor in an auto’s long-term functioning, yet until now, auto owners have had no objective information about their effectiveness.  The Kalamazoo Auto Body Workers Association has had the underlying data in hand for years but has not used them to inform auto owners--or mechanics themselves--about how mechanics are doing.  The Blog made the decision to release the information because it bears on the performance of service providers and the belief that auto owners and the public have a right to judge it for themselves.

How accurate are mechanics’ rankings?

Value-added scores are estimates, not precise measures, and readers should not place too much emphasis on small differences in mechanics’ percentiles.  As a technical matter, both sampling error and measurement error contribute to the variability of the estimated mechanic effects. The percentile rank is based on a point estimate for each mechanic, but the mechanic’s "true" rank falls in a range around each point estimate. In general, the potential for error is smaller at the high and low end of the scale and wider in the middle.  Put another way, the scores are most accurate for the most effective and least effective mechanics and somewhat less so for mechanics whose scores are closer to average. The range of potential values for acceleration was plus or minus 5 percentile points at the 20th and 80th percentiles. For turn signals and fuel efficiency it was plus or minus 7 at those percentiles.

Is a mechanic’s or schools score affected by low-achieving vehicles, diesel trucks, Fords, or other cars with challenges?

Generally not.  By comparing each vehicle’s results with its past performance, value-added largely controls for such differences, leveling the playing field among mechanics and shops.  This distinction means that the assessments of the auto mechanics are strictly measures of an individual mechanic’s ability to exceed expectations.  Research using Kalamazoo Auto Associates data has found that teachers with a high percentage of autos who are easily-repaired autos or Fords have no meaningful advantage or disadvantage under the value-added approach.  The same applies to mechanics with high numbers of Audis, at one end, or Kias, at the other.

LA Times Teacher Ratings
LA Times value-added FAQ

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I went to the MiWLA conference today.  I always like going to this conference; it reaffirms my sense of competence as a teacher, and I always come away with a few good ideas.  In the past, I often went with a sense of insecurity in my job, and came away feeling reaffirmed.

Today, I went feeling great in my job, and came away wanting to be anything but a Spanish teacher.

I have been toying with the idea of learning to program in a few different languages, and creating language content.  I've especially been excited by the idea of electric textbooks, especially of the open source variety.  I talked to a small business owner in the educational content field, and got some great ideas for how to move forward with a similar situation.

I went to a meeting called "K-16 Articulation."  Now I want to be an ISD curriculum advisor.

The thing is, I'm still super-excited to go back to my school tomorrow.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Animation test

I don't remember if I've already tested this, and I can't be bothered to search the archives to find out.  I should actually be working right now. 

Go!Animate is an online tool for creating flash animations with relative ease.  I say relative because it's still a fairly time-consuming process, and it isn't quite as intuitive as it likes to think it is.

I created this animation because in Spanish I, our most recent unit was about basic socializing.  The exam for the unit is a one-on-one conversation.  I have one student whom I know knows all the stuff, but I don't think I've ever heard her speak individually in class.  My thought was that, instead of having a straight-up conversation with her, she could help me do the voice-over work with this cartoon.  It turns out that you can't directly record voice-overs into the video--you have to use a different piece of software to record them, and then import them into the animation.  If your objective is creating videos, that's not a problem, but if your objective is getting reluctant students to speak, you add a whole layer of abstraction and hassle that you don't want.  So that idea isn't really going to work.

Anyway, without further ado, two methods of sharing the video:  the link,

and the video embedding: Las presentaciones by jcos

Like it? Create your own at It's free and fun!

Update:  You can sort of record your own voice.  You call a telephone number, and it will record you, and by some mechanism, it ends up attached to your video.  It's still not as good as just pressing a record button and talking to the computer, but it might be able to work.

Teachers' unions

I did a brief spiel on Cesar Chavez for Hispanic Heritage Month, and in it I emphasized the role of the National Farm Workers' Association.  My seventh-grade class, which often calls out anything I say which even hints at political overtones, asked me many questions which made it clear they'd heard that unions were bad.  My eighth graders just wanted to know what unions did for me. 

As I answered their questions, I tried to make it clear to them that I was a biased source of information, that everything I was going to tell them was pro-union, and that therefore I couldn't be trusted to provide the whole story.  (It's more important that they know valid information when they hear it than that they like teachers' unions.)  But it made me think again about what unions are, what unions do, and why unions are generally unpopular in the US and generally getting less so.

And then I came across this excellent post by Audrey Watters, about why almost everything they say about teachers' unions is wrong, or at least skewed.  I would only add the following things.

When teachers' unions oppose reform, it is not because we (the teachers, and the members of the unions) are opposed to improvements.  We are, however, opposed to being taken advantage of.  Part of what unions do is make sure that their members' working conditions improve over time, or at least not get worse. 

And part of the argument that a certain flavor of education "reformer" makes is that teachers do not deliver value for money.  The obvious solution to this is for teachers to increase their work load and complexity by an undetermined amount up to infinity without an increase in compensation in other areas.  They call it--and this might be the worst part--accountability.  (As this paragraph currently exists, it's awfully straw man.  I'll find some examples--well, honestly, probably when I retire and write my book in the history of education at the turn of the century.)  Unions (at their best) try to slow that process down somewhat, to force consideration of whether each change is going to actually improve the students' education experience, and whether it would place undue hardship on the teachers.

This is the take-away quote from this article:   "If unions oppose merit pay, it isn’t because they want to just reward long-time teachers with higher pay, quality of instruction be-damned. It’s because what counts as “merit” in these proposals is not the same as being a good teacher."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Stealing other peoples' links

Online MP3-editing software?  Sweet!

I can do it in Garage Band to a certain extent, but unless I want to pass my laptop around the classroom every time I want a student to fiddle with a song, I'm the only one.

Great thanks and hat tip to Larry Ferlazzo for pointing it out.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

More books I want

The brain that changes itself, by Norman Doidge.  Recommended to me by Elaine.  It's apparently about the way your brain changes its shape all through your life, and the long-term value of learning.  Since what I do is highly dependent on brain research, and since Elaine declares it highly readable, I'll be acquiring a copy as soon as feasible.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Well, that's September gone, then.

This has been a REALLY good start to the year, I think.  I hope my students would agree.  I actually spent the first two weeks on community building, and have an outline for continuing it through.  I have enforced my rules consistently, and when I noticed a big upsurge in students pushing the boundaries, I responded in what I think is the appropriate way.  The students had seen the consequences for consistent disruptive behavior already, so the students who were testing the rules were unsurprised by their consequences.  After a few minutes, I found an excuse do to a re-focusing activity, like Braingym.  The next day, we re-covered our expectations, a la Randy Sprick, and rehearsed the routine where the students fell apart.  This was in my 8th grade Spanish class.  In almost none of my other classes have I had any difficulty that I couldn't pin on "the teacher kept us in the chair too long."  In fact, in my honors English 12 class, I have asked the students to re-write the rules--none of my original rules are a problem. 

All of this almost certainly has more to do with the school climate and the students themselves than with my opening sequence.  This school is something of an anomaly.  There's no school-wide positive behavior support system, the school expectations are not posted on banners all over the walls.  And yet the students know.  And even more amazing, they follow them.  I am frankly stunned at the internal level of communication between faculty, staff and administration that must be going on to make this happen.

What will be REALLY interesting is to see what happens in December.  Our football season ends in September, and the football coach is evidently a key part of keeping this whole system running.  We're a "Friday Night Lights" kind of school, except instead of the football players expecting special privileges because of who they are, they're held to a higher standard of comportment and academics. It's awesome. 

I'm clearly well-liked by the students.  My Spanish students tell their parents they like my class, and their parents tell my principal, and my principal tells me.  In return, I call students' homes as often as I can to gush about the wonderful things they're doing.  If it keeps up like this, the positive behavior stuff will just end up running everything.  And wouldn't that be nice? 

My Spanish 7 and 8 classes are what I expected them to be--start with social niceties, and go on from there.  (I expected my 8th graders to have had Spanish 7, and evidently this isn't universally true.  So that was a surprise.)  My Spanish I class is a little different.   They all claimed some familiarity with Spanish from middle school, but none of them could tell me what they knew, and nothing I've taught them so far

As for my actual performance in delivering content, I give myself a B in my Spanish classes, and a pretty generous C in English class.  In my early Spanish classes, I teach students the geography of the Spanish-speaking world.  (It's one of the content expectations.  I didn't write them.)  It's part of my Schmoozing 101 unit (hat tip to Annette from the County ISD for the name); students have to know where their Spanish-speaking friends are from without running to Google Earth.  (Although that is precisely what I do.)  But it's the sort of thing I hate--it's basically memorizing, it takes FOREVER to do right, and apart from some commands, I have a hard time doing it in Spanish.  So the students aren't speaking as much Spanish as I want them to.  (I've finally got the "draw your own map" project doing what I want it to do, though...yay!)  So they're learning what I'm teaching, I'm teaching it in the right way, but it doesn't feel like the right thing to teach.  I'll be working on that for future classes.

My Spanish II has thrown me a complete curve ball, because they're grammarians at the fourth-year level, but have the communication skills of people who have never spoken Spanish.  Because they haven't.  They have surprisingly strong packets of vocabulary, but there's no reliable way to predict what they have.  I've spent most of the last month selling Spanish as a vehicle for communication, and met with a few days of wide-eyed terror-stricken stares when I refused to translate directions.  They're starting to catch on, though, and I think they love it.  We started a unit in which we'll review everything that happens in a day, with a focus on them speaking Spanish every single day. After that, it will be my standard Spanish II curriculum, with a de-emphasis on grammatical concepts that they already know extremely well, and with plenty of time for back-filling.

Unsurprisingly, my English classes are a little meh.  I have a clear learning goal, and a good vision of what steps we need to take to get there.  I think my day-do-day practice is good instruction, because a lot of my students are doing good learning, some of them actually against their will.  (That was kind of a joke.)  I can clean up some of my routines, particularly the beginning of class.  But there's a gap, and I keep feeling like there's something missing.  I look around and wonder what I'm not teaching.  I may ask Annette from the ISD if she has time to observe me teach someday soon, and give me some pointers.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Stealing other peoples' links

In what I suspect is going to become a tradition, I'm going to post a link to a "Technology for Teachers" blog post, so that I'll be able to find it again later.

7 sources of free sounds for multimedia projects

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lots to read

Right.  I've started re-reading I read it, but I don't get it by Tovani.  My summary of the first couple of chapters will be up...erm, as soon as I finish reading the first  couple of chapters.  Chapter 1 is in deceptively simple storytelling form, so I'm not sure I caught the lessons from it.

Also, my textbooks came in.  I'll be taking a course in elementary Spanish methodology from a private college, starting in a few weeks.  As it happens, the two textbooks for the class are books I've written about here before--Languages and children, 4th ed., by Curtain and Dahlberg, and Teacher's handbook, 4th ed., by Shrum and Glisan.  So hopefully I'll have a chance to at least start reading those before the school year starts.

I'm writing syllabi for my new classes, although I'm still not certain which levels of English (or, for that matter, Spanish) I'll be teaching.  The grading policy should be about the same for each class, unless the district has a grading policy I don't know about.  And I'm VERY excited--I think I finally have a workable portfolio outline, something that my students can start working on from Day One.

And every teachers' website on the Internet is firing up with "Good first day of school" posts, and I've been trying to catch as many of them as possible.  Below are a few, so I can close the blessed tabs, along with a few words of take-away for each.

Using literature the first weeks of school.  From Elena Aguilar at Edutopia, a few books that a middle school teacher can use to set the tone for reading and community-building from Day 1.  She suggests Seedfolks, by Fleischman, The house on Mango Street by Cisneros, and The library card by Spinelli.  I can definitely use Mango Street; Aguilar even suggests a few ways to do it.

Start of the year routine and handouts.  Some typically excellent suggestions from the always-excellent Heather Wolpert-Gawron.  Random seating chart; beginning-of-the-year handouts; Find-a-Fib activities (X true things, 1 false things, you guess the false things); creating Works in Progress and Portfolio folders; a sample of content; and introductions to class-specific elements, like websites and positions.  I do a lot of these things already, so it's good to see them confirmed by somebody I have a great deal of respect for.

The best kind of teacher evaluation--Larry Ferlazzo writes about how to evaluate teachers the right way.  Regular observations by people who know the teachers, the students, the school, and what good teaching looks like; multiple sources of data; regular feedback from students and parents; and self-reflection.  This enforces the idea of collaborating to improve student achievement, and helps teacher leaders to know what areas need improving.  It sure beats blaming teachers for rotten test scores.  Ferlazzo also has his own blog:

Monday, August 16, 2010

On food in school

Mark Bittman is a chef and activist for healthier eating.  He wrote "How to cook everything," which my best friend in college had.  I didn't cook ANYTHING more complex than spaghetti and jarred sauce the entire time we lived together, but I flipped through it once, and it seemed good.  He also wrote "How to cook everything vegetarian," which looks good.

Bittman, like so many others, has been advocating for healthier school lunches and a more sensible approach to free and reduced lunches.  In this blog post, he does a good job of explaining the school lunch reform bill that just passed the Senate, and explains its shortcomings. 

Everything in education is controversial.  We can't keep things the way they are now, but nothing can change in any direction.  This is true for even the most self-evident piece of our school systems--our students don't eat well, including at school, when a lot of them are eating on Uncle Sam's dime.  We're feeding our students blocks of salt, sprinkled with sugar, fried in oil, and sometimes breaded.  Such vegetables as we do manage to sneak into the cafeteria are canned, processed, salted, boiled, and, in the best cases, flavorless.  My wife still tells stories about hiding peas in her milk container so she didn't have to eat them.  That's what school-lunch vegetables are--they serve more as an exercise in stealth than a nutritional supplement.

This bill is an okay answer to a long-overdue question.  Using Marzano's grading rubric, I would give this a 2.5.  Maybe that's the best we can hope for.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Technology and how teachers are using it

Earlier this summer, I bought a Mac laptop computer.  I did this because I know how to use a lot of the tools it comes pre-packaged with.  iPhoto, while not the world's best photo editor, makes moving photos to other applications very simple.  (I like '09 less than I like '06--they did something to the organization options that I find simultaneously more invasive and less intuitive.)  Garage Band is an AMAZING piece of software, and I have endless fun with it.  It also lets me (or a student) record a podcast and export it to iTunes.  From iTunes I can convert it into an MP3 file and distribute it in one of myriad ways.  Mac's Work suite is pretty well designed, too, although, again, I like the '09 version less than the '06 version.  The software designers seem to have de-prioritized simplicity for the sake of lots of cool mouse-clickable buttons.  The big advantage is the ease with which bits of some applications move into other applications.

But for as much as I love my Mac, and am excited to use it in my classroom, it turns out that my tech fu is no longer at the black belt-level I thought it was.  (Well, maybe it is, but like a 1st-degree black belt, not a 3rd-degree, like I thought.)  So, here are some of the apps and sources I'm finding online that can make my job better and easier:

Free Technology for Teachers.  This is a blog about, well, I'll let you guess.  I'm going to start following it a lot more closely.  In the meantime, it led me to the some of the following websites.

Screencasts.  Just the other day, I wanted to create a video out of Google Earth.  I could do it in Google Earth, for the entirely reasonable price of $400.  I decided against it.  Today, I found out about a whole host of screencast tools, which will permit me to do just that.  They will also let me make how-to videos for the whole lot of new technologies I hope to introduce.  I'm just going to link to this post, which describes a variety of tools for doing this:  Four free tools for creating screencasts.  I'm going to download Jing and play around with it, and maybe I'll try some other things.

Online whiteboards.  Colleen Young highly encourages the use of these for teaching math.  She recommends Sketchcast with some reservation.  We'll play around with those, too.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Snappy answers to interview questions

Q. Have you ever been offered tenure at another school district?

A.  Yes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Good songs for elementary Spanish classes


Señor Cosby: Los Grandes Éxitos

A few years ago, at the MiWLA Annual Conference, I watched a presentation by a very wise elementary Spanish teacher.  Among the things she said was that she started every class with a song.  Ever since then, I've taken that advice to heart--I began every class with a song.  Because nobody likes to sing the same things over and over, I tried to rotate songs every month or six weeks.  That worked out to singing a song about 12 times, plus various re-runs throughout the year.  I teach it to students using call-and-response,  with the goal of having them sing it on their own by the end of the run.

I primarily used one of three recordings to get ideas for songs: Teach me more Spanish, Teach me even more Spanish, and De colores by José Luís Orozco.  (See how long it takes you to spot the outlier.)

And so, without further ado, my favorite songs to sing to students:

"De colores."  I like this one more than the students do.  It's kind of hard to sing in call-and-response, but it's a fun little song with a long history.  For a variety of reasons, it's a personal favorite.

"Guantanamera."  This song went over surprisingly well with all of my classes.  It just goes to show you that José Martí speaks to people of all ages.  Or maybe it's Pete Seeger.

"Day-O (Banana boat song)."  I remember Harry Belafonte's version of this fun song from  The Muppet Show and Beetlejuice.  On one of the Teach me Spanish CD's (I forget which one) they have a really good translation.  In many of my songs I try to add movements that illustrate the meaning of the words, and it works GREAT with this song.  The students' favorite part is that I teach them a little dance step for the "viene la mañana y me quiero ir" line.  I'm a bad dancer at the best of times, and I ham it up, so they all get to laugh at me and then have a little fun with no pressure.

"En la pulga de San José."  This one's a lot of fun, and it's a childrens' song in the traditional sense.  It has a lot of repeated language, so they can pick up on it quickly.  The version I learned (and then taught) had the narrator buying instruments at the fair--una trompeta, un clarinete, una marimba, and one other I'm not remembering.  The students had lots of fun with playing the air instruments, and after they got the gist, we would extemporize other verses with other instruments.  If musical instruments aren't high on your list of vocabulary sets (and, really, why would they be?) you can switch out any sets of nouns--food would would work ("yo compré un jitomate, una banana," etc.), clothes, toys maybe.  It's a pretty forgiving rhythm, if your objective isn't necessarily good music.

"A la nanita nana."  I sometimes pull this up into my higher-level (middle- and high- school) classes.  It's a lullaby, and I honestly have no idea if it's traditional in any kind of way.  The Cheetah Girls did a version of this song in their second movie, when they were doing it up in Barcelona.  (Don't look at me like that.  One of my students told me all about it.)

"El barco chiquito."  Great fun, and they get to practice moving their mouths really fast with words they already know: "Pasaron una, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis siete semanas."

"Bate, bate chocolate."  Everybody loves this one!  Especially when we get to the "chocolate as fast as you can" contest.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Status update

I have accepted a new position.  Now, instead of teaching K-12 Spanish, I'll be teaching 7-12 Spanish and 9-12 English Language Arts.

You read that right.  I'm an English teacher.

The most helpful comment so far has been from a friend of mine who said, "If you need help learning English, feel free to let me know.  It's my first language!"

I've been re-writing syllabi in my head to reflect this change.  It's a little tough since I don't know exactly what the district curriculum looks like, but building community in the classroom and general expectations remain about the same. 

My profile picture and the basic color scheme of the blog were chosen to match my previous employer's logo and colors.  Contrary to popular opinion, I do not look like a blackline drawing of a bobcat.  (The color scheme is one of Blogger's defaults, of course.)  I'll  update my picture later, but I'm going to keep the color scheme.  It works, y'know?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What if I were an English teacher? Pt. 2

As part of my preparation for some theoretical Spanish / English split post, I've been looking over Michigan state documents on teaching ELA and the standards and benchmarks.  Mostly I'm looking at the state standards: I haven't yet processed the Common Core standards, although from what I remember by flipping through them way back in March, the Common Core and the existing Michigan ELA S&B's are pretty similar.   Since they're the law of the state, though, I should download and study them.

(I have at least one non-teacher regular reader here.  So a few definitions might help: This post refers heavily to the state Standards and Benchmarks, both in ELA and in World Languages.  This is a list of skills in the respective languages that students need to have by the time they finish a class.  Because of the recursive nature of language learning, they're skills and knowledge that learners need to show progress on from year to year.  The Common Core standards come from a movement to set nationwide, consistently high standards.)

And I keep saying this, but the standards are shockingly similar to the standards for World Languages.  The first strand focuses on expressing yourself through speaking, writing, and visual presentations.  The second, unsurprisingly, is on interpretive skills--reading, listening, and viewing.  Those two correspond nearly identically to the Communication thread in the World Language standards.

The third thread is called "Literature and Culture," clearly an exact match for the Culture thread in WL.  The fourth is called "Language."  The title doesn't say much, but as I started reading the actual standards, this strand has elements very similar to the Comparisons and Communities strands. 

The standard sets have much more in common that differences.  The biggest differences here are that, in ELA, the learner is not assumed to have formal study in another language, the way a high school Spanish learner is.  This seems obvious--as I re-read what I just wrote, I think, "Why would I write something that obvious?"  But it's a striking and important difference.  Part of the goal of studying Spanish is to compare it to English, to improve the learner's skills in both languages.  If I were to walk in to teach an English classroom, I think that would be the biggest change to bear in mind from Day 1 forward.  (That and, of course, not to speak in Spanish.) 

On the 14th amendment

Passed along without further comment.

1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Santa bypasses Michigan's children again.

Michigan does not make the finals for RTTT funds.

Fine arts and phys ed vs. "academic" classes

During these summer months, I've been practicing martial arts.  I studied in a dojo for four years, so I have a pretty solid basic set, but I haven't been to the dojo in almost four years, so my skills were not what they could have been.  Besides, since that was the last time I had any regular exercise, I was powerful out of shape.  So I've been practicing the basic skills, and trying to make my form as good as I know it should be.  After today's exercise, a story from one of my high school classes bubbled up to the forefront of my mind. 

In a conversation about band class, Tara* said, "I don't want to do concerts.  I just want to play my instrument."  This confused me at the time, but since that wasn't the topic of conversation, I didn't explore it too deeply.  But it stayed with me, and now, 6 months later, I've been chewing on it.  If you don't want to play in a concert, don't you just want to practice your instrument?  Can't you do that on your own?

Then the parallels between my situation and Tara's occurred to me.  If I never get into a real fight, if I never even test for another belt level, am I really practicing martial arts?  If I'm not really, I don't know, "doing" kobudo, why practice?  The answer came back, "I like doing it, and I need the exercise."  In other words, the practice is worth doing on its own merits.  If Tara felt the same way about band class, what would be my issue with that?  Come to that, did I think of my high school band or choir classes as practice sessions for our thrice-annual concerts?

And then I thought about the way Tara behaved in my class.  Did she engage whole-heartedly in my classroom activities? Well, most of them, with varying levels of enthusiasm.  Now that I think about it, though, I can tell which activities were worth doing on their own merits and which ones were just "practices for the concert" by the way Tara acted towards them.  I used to think that the class sessions that Tara and her classmates would get worked up about were the "fun" ones, the ones that involved cutting out shapes from paper or playing with toys ("utilizing manipulatives," in teacherspeke.)  But now I think students worked harder and better on the activities that were worth doing on their own merit. 

In contrast, they blew off the activities whose only value were as practices for other activities.  You can tell these kinds of activities because, in response to the question, "Why do we have to do this?", the best answer you can come up with is, "You'll need to know it later."

I don't excuse the students' lack of personal responsibility, and in lieu of a more detailed examination of the specific activities, I stand by the value of the activities I gave my students.  (I give my students practice activities I think will help them learn Spanish.  I don't use "time filler" activities.)

So, I want to start looking at my daily practice activities.  I've already sort of ranked them according to utility--if they're not a certain level of good pedagogy, I don't use them (or I change them so they are good pedagogy).  Now I need to start ranking them according to "inherent worthwhileness."  (There's got to be a better word for that.)  One of my main struggles as a good teacher is student motivation, and I've done a lot of research to increase my skills in this area.  Could it really be as simple as imagining myself as a 16-year-old, looking at the activity, and say, "Is this worth doing?"  If the answer is "yes," then we're good.  If the answer is "if I want to be able to do X, then yes," then the answer is "no."

*This isn't her name, although it's close.  If you're reading this, Tara**, you know who you are.  You should also know that I really do remember.  Credit where credit's due, while maintaining students' privacy.

**Still not her real name.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Classroom Instruction that Works:

English language Learners: Chapters 1 -- 2

I acquired a copy of this book at the end of the 2008-09 school year.  I was familiar with Marzano's "CITW," but I've wanted to know how the experts applied that framework to a classroom full of students that don't speak the language that the class is predominantly conducted in.  (Judging from that last sentence, you'd be forgiven for thinking I don't speak English.  For what it's worth, I do.)  As the name implies, the authors wrote the book intending to give content teachers the tools they would need to reach their ELL students.  The techniques, though, should be about the same for teaching a classroom primarily in Spanish to non-English speakers.  (There may be some differences in motivation, but for reasons I'll explain later, they shouldn't be that big.)

Chapter 1 reviews the 9 high-impact (what Marzano now desperately wishes he'd called the "high-probablility")  strategies from "CITW."  The authors, upon first encountering these strategies, figured that these strategies had been taken from effective ELL classrooms.  The rest of the book is taking one of these strategies at a time, and showing in detail how they apply to an ELL classroom.  My job in this series of blog posts will be to steal as much as I can and apply it to Spanish classes.

Chapter 2 outlines the stages of language acquisition; in fact, it's called "The Stages of Second Language Acquisition."  This chapter is based on Krashen and Terrell's The Natural Approach.  This book is also the grandpappy of the communicative approach, to which I subscribe, so I was familiar with a lot of the ideas in this chapter, if not the actual tables they published.

The biggest piece of information, they argue, that you can know about your English Language Learners is what level of language acquisition they occupy.  This will permit you to tailor your tasks to their language skills.  These stages, according to Krashen and Terrell, are:
  • preproduction, at which students are still learning to understand vocabulary and may be able to answer some questions by pointing at pictures; 
  • early production, at which students can understand and may be able to answer "yes" or "no" questions;
  • speech emergence, at which students have a decent understanding and can produce simple sentences in response to questions, but who still make significant grammar and pronunciation mistakes;
  • intermediate fluency, at which students make few grammatical mistakes and are able to make hypotheses about content;
  • advanced fluency, where a teacher can essentially pretend that this student was born speaking English.
This doesn't strictly relate to lower-level Spanish classes, of course.  Coming into a Spanish I class, all students are going to be in the "preproduction" stage, plus or minus a few episodes of Dora the Explorer.  But one can see the parallels in ACTFL's proficiency guidelines (speaking downloadable here; writing downloadable here).

But even this understanding is incomplete, argue the authors.  Citing Cummins's research (1984), many ELL students learn the language of social activity, even as they continue to struggle in their classes, because they don't have academic language skills.  This has obvious implications for how much content ELL students were able to learn.

Interestingly, Marzano et al. also argue that this is a difficulty for students who have not had the life experiences necessary to develop this vocabulary, even if they are born into English-speaking families.  The lesson is essentially this: academics, even in kindergarten and first grade, requires its own language.  Some students are already more familiar with it and are better equipped to learn the new language, while others will struggle mightily in order to learn it.  All students need a mechanism to teach them this vocabulary, even if not all students need to take advantage of that mechanism.


Hill, J. D., & Flynn, K. M. (2006).  Classroom instruction that works with English language learners.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R. J. (2004).  Building background knowledge for academic achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

I cite Hill and Flynn citing the following:

Cummins, J. (1984).  Bilingualism and special education:  Issues in assessment and pedagogy.  Cleveland, England: Multilingual Matters.

Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T.  (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom.  Oxford: Pergamon.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Teacher evaluations, continued

Just links, really. 

As I'd hoped, Pittsburgh Public Schools has graciously published their RISE rubric online.  The PDF is here.  Apparently the RISE acronym is original. 

The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (the people who put together the news stream I got the previous post from)  has their own set of standards, called the Core Principles.  If one were interested, one could download them here.  Scroll down to "What Teachers Should Know and Be Able To Do."

All of these teacher evaluation rubrics are very similar in content.  They vary a little on specificity vs. generality, as well as on focus and what one would want to do with the information.  But they all basically agree on what good teaching generally looks like.

Notes on teacher evaluations

As I may or may not have mentioned before, I get an e-mail full of news stories compiled by the NBPTS.  Today's features a couple of stories about different attempts to do just that. 

First up, from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a story about Pittsburgh Public Schools.  They have developed and tested a system of teacher evaluation.  It includes a rubric with 4 ranks: unsatisfactory, basic, proficient, and distinguished, and 12 criteria in four categories: "planning and preparation," "professional responsibilities," "the classroom environment," and "teaching and learning."  The article does not say what the criteria are, alas.  I'll poke around on the Internet tubes and see if PPS has posted it somewhere for public consumption.  The article cites Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation.  as the source of their rubric, so I'll look into that, as well.  The article says that the teachers involved and the teachers' union both have nice things to say about the system.  The chief of performance management, Jody Spolar, cites this as a way of talking about the teaching profession.

Second, the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium has a draft of what they're calling the Model Core Teaching Standards, described on their website as "a set of principles of effective teaching."  They break their 10 standards into 4 groups, as well--"The learner and learning," "content knowledge," "instructional practice," and "professional responsibility."

Both systems tie into both Danielsen's classification of a teacher's professional obligations.  It also reminded me of Marzano's "common language of instruction."  In 2010, we're still talking about what makes a good teacher.  But at least we're having the conversation.

Monday, July 12, 2010

More books I want

Some WL-specific books this time.

Blaz, D. (2001).  Collections of performance tasks & rubrics: Foreign languages.  Larchmont, NY: 2001.

The value of this book in a collection should be self-evident--the more examples of performance assessments that one has to hand, the more effectively one can design them.  Besides, I'm finding it tough to know if my performance assessments are really actual assessments, or not.  But what I'm really dying to see is the examples of rubrics that they give.

Shrum, J. L., & Glisan, E. W. (2009).  The teacher's handbook: Contextualized language instruction [4th ed.]  Thompson and Heinle.

(Bibliographical note:  I don't have the book in front of me, and I'm having a devil of a time figuring out where Heinle is based.  As an international textbook company and a subdivision of Thompson, I'm guessing their main offices are in New York with branches in London, Berlin, Sydney, possibly Beijing, and several other major cities around the world.)

On the ACTFL Language Educator listserv, Randy B. recommended this as a college-level WL textbook, saying that his/her students found it to be relevant to their lives.  Catherine J. B. and Jessi Y. concur.  Eileen Glisan chimes in to say "Thanks for recommending our book!"  It seems like this book would be similar to Curtain's Langauges and Children: Making the match, but on the listserv, everyone who's read it recommends it highly.  My biggest question is: Contextualized language instruction?  How else would you do it?

There are seven or eight other methodology textbooks I'd like to look at: Omaggio's Teaching language in context, Brown's Teaching by Principles, etc.  But the two above are at the front of the list.

Update, 10 minutes later:  This is the textbook's companion website.   I haven't looked through it yet--it's very possible that the website is useless without the textbook.  Probably not, though.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What if I were an English teacher? Pt. 1

A lot of the positions open in my area are: 1.) elementary, which I'm not technically qualified to teach yet; 2.) middle school, which I AM qualified to teach, and would like to do, 3.) or high school, split English / Spanish positions, which I'm qualified to do, would like to do, but the prospect of which frankly intimidates me.

I've read through both the state ELA standards, and the common core ELA standards.  But it was mostly in the context of finding cross-curricular points of contact with Spanish.  The communication skills are obviously the same, but how you teach them are obviously very different.  So the goals--higher-order thinking skills and clear communication of thoughts--are the same.  But what it looks like where the rubber meets the road have to be colossally different.

As a mental exercise, I've started thinking about how my ELA class might look.  Learning goals?  Unit makeup?  Assessments?  Instruction?  Interventions and intervention triggers?  Obviously the answers to these questions are context-specific, but some parameters could still be set in advance.

Today's topic: A review of the training.

At my previous school, the county-wide instructional coach, taught us all to do a lot of ELA tasks.  For example, I've gotten day-long trainings in how to teach academic and content-specific vocabulary.  (As a World Languages teacher, I have a host of strategies that work well for this anyway.)  Annette also taught us how to teach deep-writing techniques, doing it in stages and getting deeper and deeper, using writing prompts, paired- and small-group conversation, picture storytelling, etc.  (Not incidentally, she also talked a great deal about building community in classrooms, an important task in all topics.)

In college, I took two English methods courses:  How to teach reading, and how to teach writing.  The reading class, as I recall, was heavy on the interventions--how to tell if a high-school student is having difficulty reading, how to determine exactly what kind, and what to do with that information.  At that time, gone 11 years now, I never expected to teach English, so in my independent work I applied most of the reading intervention strategies to ESL learners.  It helped me remember them better, but I'm not sure how effective they would really be at this point.  I still have a copy of I read it, but I don't get it by Chris Tovani, although it's probably 4 editions behind by now.  The "Teaching writing" class spent a lot of time looking at ways to motivate students to write, and what to look for once it's there.  I remember a touch of learning goals, a block of learning strategies, and a lot of interesting writing projects.  The over-arching theme of the class was writing as a community activity, not something done in isolation, but done together.  More specifics on both of these classes, as well as other trainings, as I pick apart the individual pieces.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Another book to read someday

Wormeli, R. (2003).  Day One and beyond: Practical matters for new middle-level teachers.  Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

It's like a "First Days of School" with practical advice for middle school teachers.  The first chapter is available online here.  Wormeli proposes NCB-style self-reflection, washing your hands after every class, and keeping a box in which you keep every positive note, comment, picture, etc., that you receive in your time as a teacher.  He suggests giving yourself, as a new middle-school teacher, 12 really big mistakes each day--if you stay under that, you're doing okay for now.  It would be great to see how my current practice stacks up against his.  For the first chapter, I'm doing all right, I think. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

TPRS information

I've been hearing a lot about TPRS since time immemorial, and have had my share of doubts about it.  But if the goal is to conduct class mostly in Spanish, TPRS seems to be a method with a pretty high degree of success.  So I've been looking into it occasionally, and it bears further investigation.

Via Naomi Graham, in an e-mail to the ACTFL Language Educators Digest e-mail group (listserv? whatever those things when people you don't know e-mail a message board (or whatever) and you get to benefit from their wisdom right in your inbox), a variety of links about TPRS.

Quotes from the e-mail between the stars:

***   Blaine Ray is the "father" of the method  Susie Gross presents workshops around the country in TPRS methods  Ben Slavic has a blog you can subscribe to, he is still teaching and using the method, and his blog is a wonderful introduction to what happens in his classroom and his mind.  He's a thinker!  Carol Gaab is another teacher, but I think she is mostly making presentations now and developing materials.  Karen Rowan teaches and organizes workshops around the country called "fluencyfast" for adults to become proficient in a foreign language in very intense short time (like a weekend!)
One of my classmates in my brief online learning adventure also directed me towards Susan Gross's and Ben Slavic's websites, and I looked at them at the time.  I don't know anything about the others, but I assume they're good, too.

In the next week or so, I'm hoping to hear on a job (and I'm hoping to hear good news!).  In the meantime, I'm having kind of a hard time focusing.  So soon I'll get back to these web sites and try and come up with some sort of action plan to implement this (plus the 90 other things I want to do in my classroom) in the theoretical job I'll have in the fall.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer reading list

Time for a little light beach reading.

Good, T. L., & Brophy, J. E. (2004).  Looking in classrooms.  9th ed.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

In her review of Art and Science of Teaching, Dina Strasser suggests that this is required reading.  She also suggests that, with a cover price of $118 on Amazon, most teachers won't be able to afford the 10th edition.   Abebooks has a good-condition used copy for $80, but the 9th edition seems to go for somewhere around $22, much more in line with the price of most teacher-improvement books on, for example, ASCD.  At any rate, it's a classic study of doing things right in classrooms, evidently.

Buffum, A., Mattos, M., & Weber, C.  Pyramid response to intervention.  Bloomington, IL: Solution Tree. 

I got to see Mark Mattos speak, and we were given copies of this book.  The subject of his talk was "Fulfilling our Moral Obligation to Students."  It was pretty heavy duty stuff, all about "winning the education lottery" and the like.  It's related to the "Failure is not an option" idea.  The book is about getting everyone the support they need to meet the learning goals.

Hill, J. D., & Flynn, K. M.  Classroom instruction that works with English language learners.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

The premise of this book is to teach English learners how to speak English.  My premise is that we teach our classes in Spanish, and the same tactics and strategies should kind of apply.

Marzano, R. J. (2010).  Formative assessment & standards-based grading.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

I have one question for this book: How do formative assessments fit into a traditional grading system?

Sprick, R., Knight, J., Reinke, W., & McKale, T. (2006).  Coaching classroom management: Strategies and tools for administrators & coaches.  Eugene, OR: Pacific Northwest.

This was one of the most exciting trainings I went to last year, and the thing is a.) I wasn't really supposed to be there, and b.) it wasn't supposed to be a training.  It was a coaches' meeting, and I'm only sort of a coach.  But it was my first real introduction to CHAMPS, which was one of the more immediately exciting parts of the whole MiBLSi project for me--"Wow!"  I thought.  "Really useful classroom management skills!"  After this coaches' conference, all the things that overwhelmed me about The First Days of School suddenly made sense.  They gave us this book.

And the perennial favorites, The Art and science of teaching, and Making communicative lLanguage teaching happen.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

...and that's a year.

Yesterday was the last day of school.  As last days go, I thought it was a great one.  The students participated in a wide variety of really fun, creative activities, designed, set up and executed almost single-handedly by my friend and colleague Preston.  Jeff the Science Teacher and his Experiential Sciences class built a trebuchet and spent a good chunk of the morning throwing softballs the length of most of a football field.  There was a slip-and-slide 60 feet wide and 80 feet long, a dunk tank that the principal dutifully sat in, face-painting.  The superintendent grilled hot dogs.  It was a real carnivalesque occasion.  (Hopefully I'll be able to steal some pictures from people with more foresight than me, or at least students who had their cell phone cameras on.)

It was also very sad for me and for several of my colleagues.  My position has been suspended, and I was laid off.  Kris, our instructional coach, will return to being our high school ELA teacher, which means that John (whose position was funded by ARRA money) is out of a job.  Jami, an amazing teacher with whom I've worked closely on the MiBLSi project, and was deeply loved by the students and parents, will be doing education outreach and missionary work in the Dominican Republic.  Gregg is continuing his education; instead of hiring another full-time art teacher, the administration is looking for an art/music teacher (or a part-time art / part-time music teacher; I was never clear on which).  Another colleague won't be returning for reasons which aren't mine to share.

I'm still writing a post to my students, thanking them for the four great years and encouraging them for the future.  The landscape of the school will be very different for them next year.  Children and young adults are flexible, but at least 5 and as many as 8 people they know and love (to varying degrees) will not be there. 

I'm also drafting one to the staff of our school, which I will probably never share with them.  I want to tell them to make the most of the time they've bought themselves at such great sacrifice.  I want them to know how good things are in their school, and how great they could be.  I want them to know what an honor it was to work with them.  But I couldn't tell them anything they don't already know, so maybe that little blurb will be enough.

There will, of course, also be a great deal of hand-wringing self-reflection over the year once the dust settles.

I have a great deal to say to our state legislators, and I have been saying it at length in a variety of formats.  I'll continue doing that until things improve.

I'm looking for a position now.

And at the end, there's nothing to say, except, Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Burr Oak Community Schools year of 2009 and 2010.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Kohn v. Marzano


Homework oh homework, I hate you, you stink.

Those who know me know my distaste for Alfie Kohn.  He's the clarinet player of education reform.  He writes things like "The Homework Myth" and "Punished by Rewards" and "Why Your Student's Teachers are Secretly Trying to Kill Him."  (I made the last one up.)  However, he's ten times the researcher and education reform advocate I'll ever be.  When he writes something, it is a foolhardy researcher or practitioner who doesn't take it under advisement.  Having read a number of his articles and books, it turns out that the big reason I don't like him is because I'm under the distinct impression that he doesn't like me.

Those who know me know that I like Robert Marzano.  He's written a number of books that tell me in a clear way how I should be doing my job in order to do it better.  This makes me happy, because even if I fall far short of good practice, at least I know that I could be getting better.  The "Art and Science of Teaching" in particular provides useful frameworks for how to think about teaching.

In Classroom instruction that works, Marzano recommends giving specific kinds of homework.  In September 2006, Kohn criticizes researchers, including Marzano, to task for sloppy research, particularly on the subject of homework.  During the time that Kohn publishes this, Marzano is working on his next trick, The art and science of teaching.  In this book, Marzano cites Kohn's book, The homework myth (which I have not read yet), but not that I have been able to find.  (I skimmed Cha. 3 on practicing new information and was unable to find it.)  

I'm happy not to assign homework if it doesn't help students--that's one more element I don't have to design, align, assess, and provide feedback on.  So I'm left in a complicated spot: Kohn, a researcher I don't like but respect, proposes not to give homework.  Marzano recommends it, but may be faulty in his meta-analysis methods.  By inclination, I don't give homework, because I'm lazy.  (To the extent that someone who works 14 hours a day can be said to be lazy.)  But I'm generally inclined to believe that it's important, so I assign homework mostly of the "review vocabulary" type.  But I'm not sure where the research leaves me.

Kohn, A. (2006).  Abusing research: The study of homework and other examples. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappan.  Accessed through

Marzano, R. J.  (2007).  The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001).  Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Position papers in Spanish

So I'm always maintaining that Spanish can help with other subject areas.  Brain function, vocabulary acquisition skills, etc.  But I was talking to my sophomore class today about persuasive writing on the state test.  I gave them the following advice.

1.)  Your first sentence stakes out your position.  None of this, "I see the merits of both sides" stuff.  Stake out a position.  Even if it's one you don't believe.  Also, don't begin your first sentence with "I think...".

2.)  Your next block of writing (sentence, paragraph, essay section, whatever) says why that's your position.  Up to here, you've written about 70% of your essay.  You still have a way to go.

3.)  Your next block of writing says, "This is what the people who disagree with me think.  This is why they're wrong."

If you boil this down into five sentences, novice-mid level writers could write position papers in Spanish.  I don't know why it's never occurred to me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Shameless intellectual theft

...also known as collaboration.

Maria Foseid shared this site with us at her "Art and Science" presentation a few weeks ago.

It has some Marzano rubrics and things.  Haven't had a chance to examine it, but I'm looking forward to the World Languages rubrics.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

What a language teacher's job is

 On Thursday, I had a long, intense conversation with my colleague Kris.  She's our instructional coach this year, and I strongly hope that she will continue that role in the years to come, even as she returns to full-time teaching duties.  She expressed the concern that I jump the gun in my classes--I move too quickly from building buy-in, directly to speaking Spanish.  She worries that the students don't get why they're doing what they're doing, and thus never engage, and thus never really learn.  I take her observation to heart, because I'm pretty sure my kung fu is strong, but my students are not learning Spanish at the rate they should be.  Good practice done badly is bad practice, and if my students aren't learning, I'm not quite doing something right. 

According to Krashen, as cited in Lee and Van Patten (1995), " long as there is motivation and the right affective environment (e.g., low anxiety), a person cannot avoid learning a second language if there is sustained comprehensible input" (29).  They cite other researchers that say this is overstating the case somewhat, and they themselves stake out the position that using the language in communicative settings is necessary for learning languages.  However, to the extent that this statement is true, it has powerful implications for language learning and, by extension, language instruction.  The whole rest of their book is dedicated to outlining what those implications are.

But for now, I just want to worry at that one sentence for a little while, pick it apart and apply it.  I'm writing lesson plans right now, so the action items are immediately applicable--I can go from this blog screen to my unit plan, to my weekly plan, and apply what I figure out.

It looks like this: 

motivation + affective environment + sustained COMPREHENSIBLE input = language learning.

According to a source I don't remember right now (it was in an audiobook I borrowed from a friend, which I've since returned), as cited by Sprick (2007), motivation is a function of value times expectancy of success.  So, if students value what they're learning, their motivation increases.  If the students expect to succeed at a given event, their motivation to do it increases. 

The updated equation looks thus:

(value of learning X expectation) + affective environment + sustained comprehensible input = Language Learning

I don't know enough about what Lee and VanPatten mean by "affective environment" to perform any cute faux mathematical operation on it.  I believe, though, that this largely refers to classroom management issues, about which I've typed extensively.

Lee and VanPatten dedicate most of their book to outlining the concept of sustained comprehensible input.   They later add "meaning-bearing" to the list of qualities of valuable communication.

(value of learning X expectation) + affective environment + sustained, meaning-bearing comprehensible input = Language Learning

This means that a student has to catch that there is a meaning she is supposed to understand in the utterance.  The student also needs to be able to understand some portion of the communication.

This is a pretty clear description of a language teacher's job.  These work out to these action steps:

1.)  Sell the value of the learning.  This means explaining reasons that a student should learn languages, but also why a student would want to.  (I always think of the Rosetta Stone ad: "He was a farm boy from Iowa.  She was an Italian supermodel.  He had one chance to impress her.")  This corresponds to increasing the value of learning.

2.) Increase the expectation of success.  Celebrate baby steps.  Define milestones, and move heaven and earth to drag your students towards them.  Once they get there, make a big deal over it.

3.) Run your classroom well.  I've had a lot to say about this.  Marzano has a lot to say about this.  Jackson has a lot to say about this, Wong and Wong have a lot to say about this, and Sprick has a whole lot to say about this.  It sort of boils down to these.
  • Have a very few rules which apply all the time.  Be consistent about reinforcing them positively and correcting them when necessary.
  • Have procedures for everything.  Teach them explicitly and rehearse them.  (Behaviorism at its finest, but it will help if the students create their own procedures.)
  • Make your classroom a place where it's okay to make mistakes, and teach students how to make GOOD mistakes.  As Kryza likes to say, "This is a risk-taking, mistake-making classroom."  In fact,  Corder (as cited in Lee and VanPatten (1997)) says that mistakes are "indispensable to the learner himself" (in Lee and VanPatten, p. 22.) 
It feels like I'm missing one or two, but we'll go from there.

4.)  Give your students language they can chew.  Lee & VanPatten say that if your students are at level N of comprehension, then you should communicate with them at N + 1.  That's a hard number to hit consistently, especially with a class of 20, 30, 40 language learners.  (Not that I have a class of 40 people, but it's probably not far off for many of my colleagues.)  Lee & VanPatten have things to say about that, too.

So, there.  I've defined what a WL teacher's job is.  Not exactly my original goal, but that's okay.  My next trick:  Matching this up with Marzano's 10 reflection questions from The Art and Science of Teaching, Jackson's 7 principles of master teachers, Kryza's "Chunk / Chew / Check" lesson-planning and differentiation model, the National Board's teacher assessment tool, and Kris's "Hook your students" principle.  Also, what this means to what my class looks like.


Jackson, R. (2009).  Never work harder than your students.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Lee, J., & VanPatten, B. (1997).  Making communicative language teaching happen.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Marzano, R. (2008).  The art and science of teaching.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Sprick, R.  (2008). Interventions audio.  Eugene, OR: Northwest Publishing.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Too much reality for a Tuesday night.

"9 teenagers are charged after classmate's suicide."

I don't know if the link will be free forever, but here it is.

I feel terribly, terribly sad by this.  How do you prevent something like this?  What anti-bullying policy could the school, could the state have put in place that would have caused the students to act differently?  The DA said, “The actions or inactions of some adults at the school were troublesome.”  What actions should they have taken?  What inappropriate actions did they take?

More to the point, what do I do when this happens at my school?  We were really dangerously close to something like this for a few weeks.  (The fact that it was only for a few weeks belies this statement, as the event in Massachusetts happened for most of a year.  But it was a pretty tense few weeks.)

I have never been especially in favor of courts getting involved with school bullying incidents.  It would be a tough thing to regulate, and I don't believe in "teacher as police officer."  More to the point, I guess I don't believe in "police officer as teacher."

I don't know that I believe in it now.  This is a precedent, to be sure.  I'm going to try and keep track of this.