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Recipe for a fantastic year

Pre-planned targets, emergent targets, Light-circling, heavy-circling and not targeting at all: they all have their place in a level 1 classroom

A few years ago, when all of my stories had targets, we created a fun class story called Frankie el mentiroso. You can see the original lesson here. Looking at that post helps me see how far I have come in these past years. This is a story that I created with a Spanish 3 class. This year, about seven months into Spanish 1, my students are just sitting back and enjoying hearing this story.

Back in those days I targeted obsessively, mistakenly believing that students acquire what I target and mostly do not acquire what I do not target. I must have been confused if I had read Stephen Krashen´s suggestion that most of what we acquire is almost certainly non-targeted input. I was too close to the grammar syllabus that I was in the process of rejecting to be able to recognize that a vocabulary syllabus is just as absurd.

My experiences this year working mostly with emergent targets has flipped everything on its head. While before I would carefully lay a foundation of essential structures, this year working mostly with One Word Images (OWIs) throughout the first semester has ironically led to a stronger foundation due to incredible student interest generated by the process. Here is my recipe for an awesome year:

(1) I started the year with student interviews and quickly getting students familiar with the third person of the Super 7 verbs. I purposely chose interview questions that featured these highest of high-frequency verbs. It sounds ridiculous, but I actually used this power point with the interview questions in both Spanish (large letters) and English (small letters). During August kids would just turn around and read the question I asked… until they did not need to. It happened naturally while we were busy paying attention to their answers.

(2) Early in the semester I taught my students the process of creating OWIs. We made them twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. These might take 20 minutes each time; the rest of the time was used on interviews (one student could easily take another 20 minutes) and other CI activities. OWIs are definitely the WOW! activity that I incorporated into my teaching this year, and I am not the only one enamored with this powerful technique. Take a look at one of Cameron Taylor´s blog posts about using OWIs with his daughter. Important: we ended each class with a short Write & Discuss activity to summarize what happened in class that day and then added that writing to an FVR binder.

(3) Very quickly kids wanted to start expanding their OWIs into stories, which we did on Tuesdays and Fridays. Both OWIs and the narrative vignettes that emerged on the following day depended heavily on the Super 7 verbs, but there was also a lot of emergent structures. When, for example, students wanted a fountain from which blue chocolate flows, I needed to slowly circle the new information (una fuente de que salía chocolate azul… notice how I carefully simplified the language). Here you can see a story they made in early September (a month into the school year) about that fountain; if this had been a pre-planned class story the story would have been a hopeless failure. Look at how complicated it is! But this OWI turned class story was THEIR story unlike any TPRS story I have ever worked with before. It is fascinating how powerful the OWI technique is.

(4) By mid-October I was occasionally sprinkling in a pre-planned target structure. Mostly this was by “asking” one of the stories that I have used before. In the past I prefaced these targeted lessons with a lot of PQA; this year I would just work with the main text in one single class period. If the lesson required more than one period then I put it off and waited until later, when we could finish the targeted lesson in one period. Here is an example of a “one class” targeted story that we did to focus on the word ningún. The first power point took most of one whole class. We then read the additional story “Panqueques” about two weeks later, and that was also completed in one class period.

(5) But I was also telling completely non-targeted stories via the Story Listening technique, as you can see in this lesson.

(6) We also started watching El Internado in January using an emergent approach. No way I am going to pre-teach all of those structures!! Instead I look at each scene and ask myself, “What do the characters want?” That question is enough to simplify the tv show to make it comprehensible to my students… no need to doddle translating all of that dialogue!!

(7) A tremendous amount of reading is essential, starting in the first semester with class-created texts being added to the FVR binders every day. By September I was doing short, simple book talks (mostly on Wednesdays) about the books in my FVR library that they would eventually start reading independently. By January we started FVR for the first 5-10 minutes of class… students who do not feel confident reading from the TPRS books pick up the FVR binders that we created during first semester and reread texts that we created together.

Watch the video below and look at how easily students are interacting with a story that I originally created for a level three class. As I watch this, I can recognize that there is no such thing as “hard structures”. After telling them the story in a story listening style presentation, students read a copy of the story on their own. Afterwards I quickly read the story aloud, clarifying any remaining doubts. By slowly exposing them to (a) a lot of non-targeted/emergent-targeted input as well as (b) a well-curated foundation of targeted high frequency input, my students are all superstars.

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What does it look like to teach El Internado in a non-targeted manner with a Spanish 1 class?

Teachers often ask me about a list of target structures that I need my students to master before we can start El Internado. What do they need to know?

The legendary Susan Gross used to say that she could teach Pobre Ana on day 1, and there was no mention of target structures, just good TPRS skills that make each phrase comprehensible as students encounter them. I approach El Internado in the same way. I do start second semester when students have a firm grasp of the sweet 16 verbs and a few words that are high-frequency in El Internado, but for the most part we are just processing simple Spanish as we encounter it.

I have made videos of myself teaching but this post is going to be different. Every day, as I teach a little of El Internado, I am going to take a photo of the writing on the board at the end of the class and post it below. Some days (like yesterday) I spend much of the class on El Internado, but most days we only spend 20 minutes talking about one single scene. The writing will show you what students really have to understand in order to enjoy the show. These paragraphs are written quickly together at the end of a lot of oral conversation about a scene. Come back over the next few weeks and read new photos that I will post below. As you read each entry, ask yourself if you could lead your level 1 students through such a discussion. I bet that you could.

January 10, 2017
January 10, 2017
January 11, 2017
January 11, 2017
January 12, 2017
January 12, 2017
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Becoming Better at Asking

Recently I have been concentrating on techniques that guide me to ask rather than tell a story.

Asking rather than telling a story seems like a basic TPRS skill, but it is a really difficult skill to master. The difference between telling and asking has nothing to do with remaining comprehensible. Although I always include lots of comprehension checks and I proceed very slowly, I am telling a story when the majority of the content comes from me. Storyasking, on the other hand, requires that the majority of content comes from students (with the exception of a story framework containing the target structures). Asking a story is often more compelling than telling (even telling a personalized story) because students have invested their own ideas into the story.

I have struggled with storyasking. Sometimes I have a dynamite story to tell, like when I tell a joke in class. A joke is a compact, beautifully told story. Even though I might spend twenty minutes preparing to tell the joke, I have a very specific plot from which I do not want to deviate. A joke is a good story to tell rather than ask. Sometimes when I want to ask a story I have very specific details that I will allow students to add and it comes out more like a mad libs activity: you can add an adjective to my story but it is still my story. Other times I give the kids too much freedom. Rather than adding details they add entire plot structures. In the middle of the lesson I find myself confused as to how to reconcile their story with the one that has the target structures I need to teach. That is not a terrible situation if students remain interested, but not so much if I end up scrapping their story altogether so that I can tell them my pre-planned story.

question words
Last week I decided to spend an entire class setting the scene before even introducing the target structures. I used the question words posted on my wall (and all in Spanish, of course, writing on the board to remain comprehensible). I announced that we are going to make a new story but we need to imagine a few details first. I started with the word “when”. At first the class was confused. When what? So I wrote on the board: When does the story take place? My students already knew the word “take” (toma) as well as “place” (lugar), but they had never seen these words placed together in this way so I wrote an English translation on the board. The first class threw out several suggestions but we ultimately voted on “20 años en el future” (20 years in the future). The next class decided on “en la edad media” (in the Middle Ages… seriously, this is the impact of FVR because I have a childrens illustrated encyclopedia in Spanish about life in the middle ages). The last class decided that it would take place in the 1920´s.

The next question is “where”… following the process the classes voted on “in space” (we later narrowed it down to Mars), “in Yemen” and the last class chose “Brooklyn”. Yemen in the Middle Ages required a quick break so that kids could do a minute of research on google to figure out what Yemen was like in the Middle Ages (this was done in English). One student discovered on Wikipedia that there was a large slave market in Yemen during the Middle Ages, so we all agreed that would be our location. Once we got to the “who” question we chose a student in class who would be the protagonist of our story, and at that point I had a student actor to verify information with.

After going through all of the question words we had spontaneously created a title for our story. All classes created a rich beginning full of possibilities. There were traces of an emerging plot, but not completely because we had concentrated on setting the scene with all of these question words. I had thoroughly circled everything and the white boards were covered with notes. During the last ten minutes students wrote a two paragraph fluency write: the first paragraph summarized the story we had created thus far while the second paragraph was about what they thought would happen in the story. Kids passed it in and I have had the weekend to read through the ideas that they generated. On Monday we are going to review their stories and then I will be able to start with the phrase, “clase, hay un problema”.

The basic story structure that I will adapt to each story is about a kid who wants to do X but is embarrassed to say it to her/his friends because s/he has a friend who makes fun of people who do X. Simple. There are two structures that I will introduce while asking the story and we will circle them like crazy: “is embarrassed” and “makes fun of”. I am still planning on storyasking the rest of the story, but I am starting from a point in which the class has generated a large amount of the content already and I can use this material to spin around the target structures that I want them to acquire.

After we build the story I am going to type the story up, have them read it again and then illustrate a specific scene from the story. Each student gets a different sentence to illustrate. This sounds like a good activity to do on the day before Spring Break (Friday). Then I will have three different, illustrated stories that all focus on the target structures “is embarrassed” and “makes fun of”. All three stories will be stapled and added to my FVR library; given that they will be comprehensible and student-created I am sure that they will be highly-compelling reading for my students. I might even scan them and add them to the online FVR starter library .

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Tres bebés: Spanish 1 story

noseI have rewritten one of the stories I previously posted for Spanish 2 so that it works for my Spanish 1 class. Some of the vocabulary is simplified, and it is all in the present tense. It is a good story derived from a Matava script about three babies, three mothers and the things they put in their noses. The sheet is 1/2 page (two stories per page), and comes with picture blanks for students to add illustrations as well as comprehension questions and a story prompt. Click here to download it.

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Juliette quiere un coche – Spanish 1 story

tortugaI was absent the other day so I left behind a reading with plenty of review structures and space for students to illustrate the story. The only out of bounds word that I used (unintentionally, of course) was único, which my students figured out on their own. The next day I put the drawings under a document camera, projecting them on a large screen, and students retold the story adding three new details (for instance, one student added Juliette tiene pelo verde). It is exciting that many of my students are already capable of understanding so much at this point in the year.

After the retells I had students do a quick write (trying to write 70 words in 10 minutes); while most were able to coherently retell the basic structure of the story it was useful to recognize the few who could not. Those are the students that I need to pay close attention to as I pace myself to their processing speed. This is just a reminder to myself: the few who can maintain a fast pace may impress me, but with a slow pace the entire class wins the race.    Click here if you´d like to download the reading.

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Spanish 1 story, 2nd week of school

tacosHere is a basic story that I asked kids to translate as a quiz on the Friday of the second week back to school. Ten days of instruction. Keep in mind, of course, that there are plenty of visual cues in my classroom. When I give it I tell students that it is okay to look at the walls, but it is not okay to look at each others papers. I sit in the corner with a class list and check off the names of students who do use the vocabulary posted on the wall… this helps me (1) identify who has acquired the structures so well that they don’t even need to look up, as well as (2) who needs to be encouraged more to use the word wall (for instance they may not be tracking my laser pointer when I use it while speaking in class). In a class of 40 I think that this kind of feedback is essential in order to alert myself so that no student “falls through the cracks” early in the year.

Click here if you’d like to download the story as a .docx file. I left it like that so that you can easily change the name of the teacher and any other details to suit your classes.