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Where will the CI community be in 100 years?

Will we be playing a 22nd century version of online games with our students, or will we have learned to have deeper, more humane face-to-face conversations with students?

So much about my teaching has changed since I started writing this blog. When I first started TPRS I felt like my biggest weakness was a lack of resources, above all a lack of interesting stories. The blog was a place to share those lessons with other new teachers. Nowadays the Invisibles have led me to tap deeply into my students´ imaginations and I barely ever use pre-made stories. Almost everything (in beginner as well as advanced levels) is generated from what the students indicate that they want to say, so a huge portion of my blog is simply a relic of how I used to teach. It is not a bad way of teaching… it is just not where I am currently at. I have been trying to write a post about this, but it is so big that every time I get started I see that I need to grow just a little more to really describe how my teaching is changing.

Teaching in a high-poverty district, I understand the desire to impose some structure. Especially with students who appear to be dangerously lacking structure in other parts of their lives (whether it be due to poverty or absent parenting or whatever), but I am trying to move away from the impression that language class is any work at all. For me it started with FVR and Krashen pointing out that any sense of accountability will ruin the experience of pleasure reading. It took a while to fully assimilate that insight into my real classroom practices, but now I am finally at the point that my kids come to class and curl up with a novel before any talking begins and I think that is just so cool. I finally got the heritage speaker girl who always used to skip my last period class to come and I don´t want her to regret it. I want kids to bring that perspective to every part of my class, just curl up and enjoy the experience.

I have not even been pushing the self-assessments based on the interpersonal skills rubric. I abandoned it because I hated going through them and having to figure out which students are “playing the game”, which students are being honest, which students “deserve” to earn a low grade. To my thinking there are less coercive ways that take longer, because they require me to deepen my relationship with some kid who has adopted a deeply hostile posture towards schooling. I just want to suspend it all, all of the grading and monitoring, even the self-assessments, and take one of the comfy chairs myself and enjoy chatting in Spanish with them.

Teachers new to TPRS/CI often ask about testing (not to be confused with the formative assessments that we do every 20 seconds while interacting with students). “What is in your grade book?”, they ask me. Ironically if you ask the people who are conducting CI workshops around the country, many will privately admit that they do not really spend time on testing. At all. Replace all of your testing time with more comprehensible input and you will be amazed at the gains your students will achieve. That is not just the result of more time being exposed to comprehensible input; that is also the result of a more playful, less judgmental classroom.

I am not alone here either… last summer on a CI teacher Facebook group someone posed the question about what you would like to change in your class, if you could. Overwhelmingly all sorts of teachers, from those that meticulously backward plan their lessons to people like me who let it emerge without planning, nearly everyone wanted to be rid of grading. Languages are acquired naturally in a low-stress environment; most of the assessment in my class is invisible to students, it is collected non-stop and used at the moment it is collected to shape my teaching in that moment. The district-required midterm exam for my classes is a class story that we create during the exam, and nobody even gets a paper until we have verified that everyone is ready. For day to day grades, I am feeling good with the One Word Images (OWIs) and stories created based on OWIs, followed by a simple exit quiz that is so easy that it is kind of a joke. Just enough to keep their attention in class, but also a kind of wink that tells them that I really don´t care about that grading crap.

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Your heritage speaking students think you are weird

Advice for teachers new to teaching heritage speakers

Imagine being an American high school student placed in a basic literacy class. You need this class. Perhaps you are aware that your writing is full of errors. You may even recognize that this could be good for you. However, there is one major problem: your teacher is British. how brit sound to americans Nobody in your world speaks like her, not even educated adults. Sometimes you do not even understand her! A kind and progressive educator, she never corrects your dialect, but there it is every time she opens her mouth. Would you imitate her? Would you try to figure out which part of her speech to imitate and which part to discard? Or would it just be way too weird?

Unless you share the cultural background of your students, you are weird to them. Probably very weird.

It is my own voice, my own dialect, that dominates my classroom. Even when working with authentic resources, it is my voice that scaffolds materials used in class. One quick & rough way that I assess literacy on the very first day of school is simply by observing the eyes that glass over the moment I start speaking Spanish. The top third often can adjust, whereas the least literate third of my class often shut down when first confronted with a different dialect. I suspect that this is not limited to non-heritage speaking teachers; I have a Salvadorian friend who once told me that his first week on a scholarship in Spain was immersed in depression because he could not understand his professors. You could try adapting your dialect to your target population, but if you are a Spanish teacher you will quickly see how futile that can be. While most of my heritage speaking students are Mexican-Americans, this year I also have kids in my class whose families come from Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Argentina, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. Even the kids from Southern Mexico sound weird to the kids from the North! There is a reason why they hesitate to speak Spanish among themselves until they have developed solid friendships. To put it bluntly, you simply have to prepare to be the Brit teaching American English.

One way to prepare is to plan on using a lot more scaffolding than you think they need. Don´t be bullied by the top third of the class who forcefully indicate that they understand. Watch for glassy eyes and antisocial behavior. Those are signs that the student is lost, or has been lost for years. Be clear that every student is going to earn a good grade in your class. Not “can earn” a good grade; is going to earn a good grade. My experience with heritage learners of Spanish is that they bond and will eventually react positively to community goals. State that goal from the very beginning, and repeat it as you stop the lesson to make a graphic organizer to explain an authentic resource. Repeat it as you write what you just said on the board because you want everyone to observe the spelling. Repeat it whenever a student is tuning you out.

Heritage learners also need to hear a huge variety of dialects, but forcing that on them is a hard sell. Some of my heritage learners are so deeply immersed in a relatively homogeneous community that they do not differentiate between what is regional dialect and what will be widely understood universally. The idea that eventually, for example in college, they will need to be able to communicate with people from many regions is rarely a convincing approach. Too far away. Students need to be interested in hearing a different dialect now. That is why we start the year watching El Internado and not El señor de los cielos. Students need to feel that people they know, not just their teacher, speak different dialects of Spanish.

My main strategy is to explicitly and repeatedly invite them to join a larger community of Spanish speakers. Soon after they become addicted to El Internado I begin to introduce other videos and audios that expand upon the dialects (and registers) that they have been hearing. Enlarging their language community through reading and videos is the only way I manage to address the issue without communicating inappropriate value judgments about their language. As Jody Noble pointed out recently on a facebook discussion, the identities of heritage learners are often wrapped up in their language. For adolescents with few secure anchors (feeling like outcasts both here and in the country of their parents), their language will not change until they want it to change. Here are some sources I use to help expand my students´ language community:

Sources for human interest stories (videos and audios)

(1) Radio Ambulante is kind of like the NPR radio program This American Life, but in Spanish and focusing on Latin Americans. Lots of interesting episodes; my favorites include El náufrago and Instrumentos de guerra. Barbara Davis has a collection of processing worksheets on her TpT store that accompany some of the episodes. They ask students to focus on specific details while listening and are great for post-listening discussion. I do not collect these as a grade; instead we use them as a framework for listening & discussion, often followed by a quick write that I do collect and grade.

(2) AJ+ español has a small but very interesting collection of Spanish language videos supported with Spanish subtitles. I have used them in my advanced non-heritage learners classes as well; my favorites include La Cholita Luchadora de Bolivia and La Velocista Ciega.

(3) Although the language in the articles at Veinte Mundos tends to be too advanced for my students I often peruse their articles for human interest stories. They often come with a short video, or a quick google search will uncover a video related to the subject of the article. So many interesting pieces; students have enjoyed learning about Biblioburro, La Música que sale del basurero, and Ecobici.

(4) Azteca noticias has a recurring part of their broadcast called El Otro México which focuses on some aspect of the Mexican experience. Check out this one on el oficio del afilador. A simple google search for “el otro México tv azteca” will turn up lots of 5-6 minute videos. While I love watching these, I have a harder time making a graphic organizer on the fly for these. Perhaps that is a project for the future…

(5) I always get a lot of mileage from these short, pleasing videos called 6 grados de separación. Each video traces the cultural appropriations that have led to objects and practices that are considered typically Mexican, such as horchata, rebozos and La Virgen de Guadalupe. The graphic organizer is easy: print off a blank world map and have students fill it in as you watch. Since this goes fast we watch it once without writing, and then again stopping at each spot to give students time to write notes and help them find the right place on the world map. You can find a list of all of the videos here, where I blogged about using these videos with non-heritage speakers.

(6) I use RTVE sparingly because if I am going to make lesson plans around a video I want to be able to download the video to my computer and be sure that the video will be available in the future. Sometimes I can manage to download a news item from RTVE, but it is hit and miss. Nonetheless I do like to occasionally show the first ten minutes of one of their documentaries, which will often take us twenty or more minutes to actually watch because these tend to be more challenging for my students. Every thirty seconds or so I will stop it to check for understanding. If the video does not work, sometimes you can find it on youtube.

Please feel free to recommend more sources for short human interest stories in audio & video. I have just barely scratched the surface, but while I am sliding down the chute of an academic school year I rarely have time to search the internet for new sources. Having a source that routinely publishes new articles is invaluable!

What about speaking and writing?

I have written so much about reading that you might think that my classes are mostly receptive skills: reading and listening. You would be correct. Or rather, the writing they do is to verify their comprehension and work out the ideas that they are processing. I rarely comment on spelling, word choice, grammar, sentence structure or anything that is not connected to understanding the message that they are trying to communicate. I am convinced that students learn to write by reading, although there are good reasons to do some writing with your heritage learners especially if the input was challenging (read pages 30-32 of that paper closely). I also believe that they learn to speak by listening. Although there is speaking in my classes, there are even stronger reasons never to insist on it.

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Great student engagement

Flow is a crucial element for language teachers to consider, but it will never make it into the common core and no one will ever get a billion dollar contract to measure it.

I have been revisiting the concept of flow since Stephen Krashen tweeted about this and Blaine Ray followed up on the moretprs Yahoo group with a simple piece of advice: “internalize this”.

Flow is the kind of high student engagement where we do not even notice time passing. Flow is essential to great teaching, but elusive.

Last Friday I decided to pay close attention to flow in my own lessons. Specifically I wanted to take note of what I was doing when I interrupted flow (clueless!!) and what I may have done to encourage flow in my classroom. How do I even identify flow when I’m hip deep in it?!

Susie Gross´ famous advice to “teach to the eyes” can be as much about identifying flow as it is about measuring comprehension. In this case I am blessed to be working in an urban school where my students make it very clear when they are not engaged. I started my career in a highly competitive suburban school where it was easy to confuse a well-trained rule-follower for an engaged learner. Nonetheless, flow is a difficult variable to measure… and that may not be a bad thing. Pearson Educational will never get a billion dollar contract to measure flow in our classrooms. The real problem, though, is not in the voodoo of measurement.

I´m not going to achieve flow unless every one of my students truly cares about the subject matter. A few years ago I arranged for a meeting of all of the department chairs in my district to decide what exactly are the essentials for each level. Comically enough, one of the “essentials” that made it onto that list were “items found in a bathroom” (chapter 4b of the textbook that I was eager to jettison). Unless your students have an intrinsic interest in bathroom supplies then this joke of a curriculum is an unnecessary obstacle to creating flow.

citation-krashenAs for my own classroom, I found that I was interrupting flow most whenever my grammar pop-ups lasted more than five or so seconds. Five seconds is just enough to tell them what it means and then get back into the story. My twenty second grammar pop-ups derailed the process!  It turns out that twenty seconds is just enough time for me to go beyond the meaning of the phrase and start generalizing about language rules. However a five second pop-up, twenty seconds of story-asking followed by another five second pop-up was, as the Goldilocks in our class story said, “perfecto”.