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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Road to Proficiency Is Littered with Errors

As I  prepared my Spanish 3 Honors students for their [drum roll] Interpersonal Communication Assessment, I noticed that the level of anxiety started rising in the room. Now, my 3's are used to speaking to me and to each other in Spanish on a daily basis. However, the words oral assessment  make most of them break out into a cold sweat. So, I told them "If you are perfect and make no mistakes, you will NOT get a 100%. You will not get a 100 because if you make no mistakes, you stayed safe and gave me [this much]. It is not possible at this level of proficiency for you to be perfect AND do what I am asking you to do. I want you to interact, to ask questions, to communicate as if you were doing this in the real world". I also added "I want to be so caught up in the story that you make me forget to check for mistakes." I drew their eyes towards the I Can Statements and reminded them where their focus needed to be as they prepared for this assessment.

I Can Statements:
  • I can shop at (Sra. Carnes') Mercado Artesanal and buy souvenirs and clothing for myself and 2 other family members or friends. 
  • I can bargain with the vendor and get the best price for my purchases.
  • I can describe the items that I am buying by how they are made (material, color, design, etc)
  • I can talk about for whom I am buying these items and for what reason.
  • I can pay for the items accurately and ask for/give change in Mexican pesos
 I transformed the front of my room into a Mercado Artesanal with a variety of items from LatinAmerica. Students didn't know exactly all of the items that they would find at El Mercado though we had been working on this vocabulary in our Las Compras unit. There were no prices listed at the shop. Students had random partners with whom they had not had an opportunity to practice ahead of time. Though we had watched videos, read articles, discussed and used idiomatic expressions during the unit, they didn't have a script.I set up a table as the bank and they had to collect their pesos before they went shopping. I had run off copies, in different colors, of all currency bills up to 1.000 pesos.

I teach 3 Spanish 3 Honors classes. I was lucky to have 2 heritage speakers in one of my classes and they  played the part of shopkeepers. What happened next was a thing of beauty. The kids acted as if they were really at a market in Mexico. They were totally engaged in the event to the point that it seemed as if some of them forgot this was an assessment. They improvised, told stories, acted their part as customers convincingly, and loved the bargaining process. My heritage speakers did a great job acting as shopkeepers. Language bubbled up organically such as students saying "Soy un pobre estudiante" and the shopkeepers saying "Soy un pobre vendedor. Tengo que dar de comer a mis hijos". Then the students would get more outrageous "Mi hermana está muy enferma con influenza, tiene frio y necesita un sarape. Deme un descuento por favor".  This happened naturally and I couldn't believe that these kids could produce that much language. They did it because they were engaged in an activity that was meaningful and relevant to them.They also had a specific goal in mind, to get the best price for their items.

During the interactions, I took notes of their fluency, idiomatic expressions, use of vocabulary, communication exchanges, etc. I also noted their mistakes. When they were done, I looked at the annotated rubrics. Everyone had mistakes, some just a couple, others a few. Then, I looked at the I Can Statements posted on the board. I felt that if every one of the kids in that class were dropped at a Mercado Artesanal anywhere in Latin America, they could successfully make a purchase, bargain for a better price, describe the item and reason for the purchase to a friend or L2 speaker and pay for the item. For the first time in my teaching career, every kid in the class got a 100% for that assessment.

The lesson for me is this: The Road to Proficiency is - no, MUST BE, littered with errors. We need to let our students know that it is necessary to make errors in order to get better at speaking a new language. Then, as teachers, we have to walk the talk and reward them for those errors.

Disclaimer: Not advocating or suggesting that we should always give 100% to everyone. But, when magic happens, it deserves to be rewarded.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Learning from our ESOL partners

Our school's ESOL teacher and I have partnered to work together to build language and literacy skills in an ESOL student.This experience is opening my eyes regarding the process of language acquisition with teens who have zero target language exposure. I understand that every child is different and that students bring a range of prior knowledge and experiences. However, since this child speaks no English, we are building on a blank slate.

This what I have observed from the ESOL teacher:
  • She lowers the students' affective filter 
  • She creates community in her classroom
  • She gives the students time to adjust and to familiarize themselves with English and their environment
  • She is the biggest advocate for her students
  • Her ultimate goal is proficiency in the language
  • She encourages the student's efforts at language production at every step of the process
  • She does not focus on their mistakes
  • She doesn't rush language production before students are ready
  • She doesn't give quizzes and tests on the material taught
  • She uses children's books 
  • Comprehensible input is her biggest strategy
  • The more advanced students help the new beginner students
  • The curriculum is applicable to what students need at the time
  • Testing is only used to measure proficiency and adjust instructional goals
There are obvious differences between ESOL and World Language students. The biggest difference is the fact that students are surrounded by English and what the teacher does in the classroom gets reinforced all day long at school. There is also an urgency and survival instinct that kicks in (particularly in states where people don't speak Spanish) where they  need to learn English in order to survive in their environment.

However, I still think there are so many great lessons that I can learn from my ESOL colleague. During the next few weeks, as I work with this precious child who gives me the best hugs and who sees me as her anchor at school, I want to spread some of that nurturing spirit to my Spanish  students as well. I want to work on lowering the affective filter and furthering the spirit of community in my classroom. I want to use children's books. When someone is learning a new language, beginning readers can be a wonderful tool to teach literacy skills. I need to give them time to adjust to new concepts and not overwhelm them. I need to keep it positive and focus on what they CAN do, not on what they can NOT do. The biggest and most challenging of all tasks will be to use tests only for the purpose of measuring proficiency so that I can adjust my instructional goals.

I think that ESOL teachers are living examples of this saying "They don't care what you know until they know that you care". They are the master teachers of care.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Death and Burial of The Old Country Project

I've discovered that the road to proficiency-teaching has many potholes and that it is not a straight line. I will blog about that another day. There is so much to learn and know that I feel as if my head is going to explode with information overload. In order to keep alive my vision to continue on the path to proficiency-teaching and not go crazy, I am doing more of a process of elimination rather than adding too much right now. So, several things have been put to rest such as the grammar based assessments and the vocabulary quizzes (words in isolation).

However, there was one thing that has been a highlight of my years and the favorite of my students every year that I  have taught, The Country Project. I like teaching with a PBL (project and problem) approach. I think it is good for students and everyone has a clear sense of direction at all times. In terms of content and culture, my students learn a lot about the facts and customs of specific countries and people. In the past, I always felt a wave or pride surging when they presented their final projects to the rest of the class or to guests who came in to observe them. They would have snazzy, glossy digital presentations and were speaking in Spanish for 5-8 minutes in fluid language.

But, But, But.... this year when my students were working on their country project, I felt conflicted and uncomfortable every step of the way. It was almost as if for 1 month, I halted the proficiency bandwagon we were on to work on the project. So, I will dissect it here so that I can clarify in my head about why the Old Country Project is NOT compatible with a proficiency based approach.Even though I insisted that they find some Spanish sources and that the discussions be in Spanish as much as possible, the reality was the following:

Research: was done in English and translated by students.
Discussions: Done in English
Digital presentations: Took entirely too much class time
Writing out the project: Translated from English to Spanish with feedback from me. Corrections were probably where most learning took place.
Learning process: A lot of memorization
Final presentation: Students memorized very well but as I looked around the room, not a single student was truly engaged and understanding what was being said. The entire presentation was strictly for my benefit. Even the students themselves didn't know what they were saying completely.

When the month was over, we were all disoriented and trying to regain our footing. Students asked me if we were ever going to do songs, El Internado, homework choice and blogging again. We had set aside all of those things during the very long month that we were working on THE COUNTRY PROJECT! The news to me was that they missed those much simpler activities that we were doing which were proficiency based.

By the way, one of my life's mottos is "It's feedback, not failure". So, I have no regrets about the country projects of my teaching past. They served their purpose but it's time to put them to rest.

I am not saying that I won't do country projects again, but I will never again ask Novice High to (some) Intermediate Low students to deliver a country project at the same level that I would expect them to do it in English. These are my new guidelines:

  • In order for proficiency to be the main goal, the tasks must be at their level of proficiency. 
  • I won't attempt to prioritize technology over language. Having students spend 2 class periods Photoshopping themselves unto important sites and monuments in Spain or  Mexico, cool as it may be, does NOT advance their proficiency in the language. 
  • I will streamline content so that it is compatible with proficiency goals. Less width and more depth. 
  • Pinterest, info-graphics and short authentic readings in the target language will be the main sources for the next projects. 
  • I will answer the following essential question for the next project: "How does this activity/project further the students' proficiency goals?"
Would love feedback from anyone who has found a great way to do PBL or projects with a proficiency based approach. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Relationships Are More Important Than Being Right

Lately, I've read in Twitter passionate discussions of #authres versus teacher made materials for students. I perceive that some teachers' feelings have been hurt by the notion that the call for 100% #authres leaves non-native teachers out. I have been out of the loop for a few weeks due to my oldest child being injured in a car accident, so I have missed the actual discussions/tweets about the issue.

This blog is about relationships in our World Language teaching community. In previous leadership positions, I have witnessed teachers come to a standstill over instructional issues that were dividing them bitterly. The positive side of this argument is that many of us, WL teachers, are passionate about what we believe. We have invested ourselves in learning about instructional strategies and we deeply care about teaching students. We think that our way is THE way to teach students successfully. The flip side about this passion is that in the process of protecting what we hold so dear and spreading its gospel, we are alienating others who don't feel that way. I promise you that I have no agenda and don't even know who said/tweeted what to whom. I just want to share what is in my heart.
 I am a passionate person, have a strong sense of values, often believe that my way is the best way, and I want to be right. But, being married for almost 25 years, having teenage children and in laws, being in leadership positions, and teaching high school students has taught me a valuable lesson:

As an extrovert with a big mouth, strong personality and impulsive tendencies, I have had to learn this lesson the hard way. I am still learning it every day in my relationships with my peers. But, the rewards that I have reaped in having positive relationships encourage me to continue aiming to look at arguments from a relationship filter. It saddens me when I see fractures in our World Language community over philosophical issues. Let's look at common ground in the goals that we want for our students and the advancement of World Languages in the USA. But HOW we get there is going to vary from person to person and we need to respect that fact. Leading by example is more important than making universal or dogmatic statements. I have learned so much from people who selflessly share what they are doing in their classrooms. Show me and then let me make my decisions about what I want or need to do with that information.

To my non-native peeps, you are invaluable to the sustainability of World Language programs in the United States. We simply could not have a World Language program in this country if it weren't for you. You bring something to the teaching of other languages that natives can't begin to comprehend. Many of you learned the second language as teenagers or young adults and have a compassion and understanding for how your students think, feel and learn that I don't have. You are some of the most creative and committed teachers in World Languages today. So, even in a fully #authres world, you bring an authenticity to the learning process that those of us who are natives don't have. Hold your heads high and keep up the great work that you do every day.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

El Día de los Muertos and The Cultural Triangle

I grew up in Ecuador in a non-Catholic home, so we didn't celebrate Día de los Muertos, other than eating "guaguas" (day of the dead bread) and drinking "colada morada" (thick drink made from purple corn flour and flavored with pineapple, cinnamon, cloves and raisins). To me, this celebration was scary, particularly from my observations when we were on vacation in the Andes mountains. Day of the Dead is not as big a celebration in Ecuador as in Mexico but in the small towns people have processions where they wear masks of skulls or devils and carry caskets through town. Looking at this as an outsider, was quite terrifying to my young mind.

As a Spanish teacher, I have always avoided teaching about Día de los Muertos until this year. I went to Pinterest and saw a ton of really cool ideas and I learned a lot about DDM. So, I am teaching about it this year and my kids are learning a lot of new vocabulary and about Mexican culture. I am also making connections to  Halloween and asking kids to compare and contrast both celebrations.

I created a lesson plan which I had to submit for another purpose and I thought I would share it here with you. There is a lot of stuff in here and some of it will be done in the Amazing Race groups, other activities will be done individually and yet others will be part of a choice menu.

Lesson: El Día de los Muertos Versus Halloween
Spanish 3 Honors
Essential Question: How does culture affect the way in which people celebrate special events?

Modes of Communication: Interpretive Reading, Interpretive Listening, Interpersonal Communication (Spoken and Written), Presentational Writing

Instructional Strategies: Cooperative learning, Connect to prior knowledge/learning, Comparing similarities and differences, Vocabulary Development, Demonstration, Differentiating Instruction, Displaying student work, Nonlinguistic representations, group/share, use of visuals/media, Use of walls to extend learning, Using higher level thinking skills, and differentiation

Day 1

In their Amazing Race Cooperative Learning Groups, students ask and answer in Spanish the following questions:

1.      ¿En qué piensas cuando ves esta imagen? 
2.      ¿De qué países se trata esta imagen? 
3.      ¿Cuál es el propósito de esta imagen?  

The groups come together to share their thoughts on the visual with the large group. 

Note: We had a great discussion 100% in TL with my kids regarding who would want Halloween to infiltrate Mexico  and who would not. I showed them a few icons from DDM, wax candles, flowers, calacas, la catrina, etc. On the cons they said "abuelos" or "personas tradicionales" and for the pros "niños". I probed further "por qué les gusta a los niños Mexicanos, Halloween?" They said "tienen caramelos", "llevan disfraces". Who else would be interested or not? I used my fingers to indicate money. They said "personas en tiendas", someone said "personas venden". I said .. "venden qué? They said "flores, velas, calaveras de azúcar, máscaras de esqueletos, etc". Then a precious child who is my daring kid said from her head "disfraces de Halloween vienen de Estados Unidos, disfraces de esqueleto vienen de Mexico". BINGO! They got it. In a 10 minute discussion they had experienced the cultural triangle.

Conmpare and Contrast: Students look at two articles with pictures about DDM. They create a Venn diagram in their groups, and make a comparison to Halloween. They need to write several complete thoughts and not just list vocabulary words. When students are done, their work is posted on the outside wall and the whole class does a gallery walk looking at what each group posted. There is some discussion regarding the accuracy or inaccuracy of the posts.

Days 2 – 6
In the next few days, students will do some of the following activities:

Analyze interpretive readings regarding Day of the Dead
Watch a Mexican commercial for Day of the Dead products
Read infographics depicting the perspective of Mexicans regarding Day of the Dead
Read a list of Tweets from people in Mexico regarding Day of the Dead
Watch a silent video about day of the dead and create a narrative in the imperfect and preterite tenses regarding what is happening in the movie
Write a short narrative about what they would do if they were in Mexico on November 1st & 2nd
Read in depth infographics comparing Day of the Dead and Halloween
Create an altar with offerings
Email a fictional student in Mexico explaining how Halloween is different from Day of the Dead
Follow #DiadelosMuertos and tweet 3 times regarding what they have learned
Read and analyze a poem about day of the day
Create their own poem about Día de los Muertos
Prepare "pan de muertos" and do a Gouin series about it. 
Blog in Edmodo regarding what they have learned about Day of the Dead and their opinion about it.

Differentiation: Students will have a menu of choices from which they can choose some of the above activities. Some of the activities are required and some of work will be done in their cooperative Amazing Race groups while others will be done individually. Out of respect for students’ religious beliefs, activities such as the altar will be in the choice menu.

Materials and Resources:

Infografias Comparación entre Noche de Brujas y Dia de los Muertos -

Reading Materials attached:  (only certain sections will be used)
Mexican perspectives on Day of the Dead: