Thursday, March 5, 2015

Storifies for Day 1 of #SCOLT15

Since I live tweet at the conferences I attend, I thought it might be nice to create some storifies rather than just leave the information out there in the twitterverse. Plus, then I get to include information I found interesting from attendees in other sessions!

Today I attended Bob Patrick's session on Reading and Writing in the Foreign Language Classroom. I compiled Miriam's and my tweets here:
Storify: Comprehensible Input

While I was listening to Bob describe what and why for a comprehensible approach, I was also reading some tweets describing great tips on helping students engage in conversations in their target language.
Have a Real Conversation Tweets

Other tweets I was glad to read!
Other Tweets of Interest

I'll hopefully get to keep bringing you these Storifies as we continue through the next two days!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Update: My Letter on the Governor

     Back in November I sent a letter to my governor's office. I anxiously awaited for a response from him and got one shortly after.

      Let me begin by saying that I haven't been avoiding an update, but rather, I've been considering how exactly to update.

     Governor Deal did send a reply via mail to me. He thanked me for writing him and acknowledged my work in education, but regretted that he would not be able to meet with me and said he would continue working with "forerunners in education".

     My consideration in responding has been difficult. I want to say so many things, but I also continue the conversation in a productive way. I should admit that I was disappointed in his response, but not surprised, especially with the state Congress' continued focus on incarceration (although more transparency is a good thing) and the proposal of continued cuts to teacher benefits.

     There have been a lot of posts on the work teachers do - the hours we work, the quantity of work we have, the amount of work we take home, the kind of work we do with students, etc. My arguments to Governor Deal remain the same. I hope he takes what I said seriously, especially with the recent protests in Atlanta from teachers and other school support staff.

     At the risk of "preaching to the choir", I'll use this post to, hopefully, dispel some of the of the commonly misunderstood things about teachers. These are based on things that have been said to me, or my friends/family, or things that I've recently read on other blogs and comments.

Teachers get paid a full year's salary for only doing 9-10 months of work.
- While the school year is 180 days, teachers do get (or have the option to get) a paycheck for each of the 12 months of the year. That being said, those summer paychecks are just money that was held back during the school year. Teachers may get a paycheck in June/July, but it is for work they did from August to May. Teachers also only get paid for the hours they are required to be at school (8 hours or so). However, many teachers arrive before they are required or stay after for clubs or tutoring. They do not get paid for this, but it is expected that they do these things. Teachers also don't get paid for advisement classes (roughly 20 minutes each day in some schools), lunch hour tutoring (or any other tutoring), duty stations (before school, during lunch, or after school). These are all considered part of the expected work. This doesn't include the extra time teachers spend at home grading papers, reading emails, making parent phone calls, or coming up with lesson plans.

     Rachel wrote about this in 2012 in detail. She totaled her hours spent working; you may be surprised.

But, after the first year, don't teachers have all the lesson plans written or downloaded? I mean, what do they really do during planning?
- Some teachers do, yes. You'll find, however, that teachers who love their job, and really care about their students are always updating and editing plans. The plans that worked in one class/last year, won't necessarily work the next year. Similarly, information that was good the previous year won't be good in the coming years. For example, while I know what a VHS is (along with a cassette tape, an 8-track, and a boom box), kids in my class have almost never seen a VHS. Any lessons that talk about VHS or cassettes or a floppy disk are all out of date. If I simply download lessons off the internet, or use my textbook, then I'll be teaching outdated information. Good teachers write their own lessons every year AND download lessons and materials AND refer to textbooks and print materials AND collaborate with teacher in their building, or in their discipline and outside. That is what we spend that planning hour doing. That... or grading...

Teacher salaries are competitive and they have tenure! Bad teachers can't be fired!
- The average starting salary  is about $39,000. The average starting teacher's salary is around $36,000. The Washington Post gives a nice little visual for what this might look like across the country. With years experience, and higher degrees, teachers can move up the pay scale. In Georgia, teacher salaries top out (with years experience and doctorates) around $100,000 a year. Payscale gives a nice little chart about various doctorate salaries in different professions. You can see that professorship and education are at the bottom of that chart. Teacher salaries can be and are in some places competitive, however we are not paid bonuses (hiring, or otherwise), are subject to raise freezes, and furlough days, and are limited on the amount we can claim on taxes for expenses.

   There is a process for firing a teacher, like in any organisation. Public school teachers do not really get tenure and contracts are year to year. In the state of Georgia tenure means that once you've taught for four contract years they get the expectation that they will get a new contract each year unless just cause is shown. It is not a permanent position with no chance of termination. When a teacher is presumed to be "bad" there are steps that are taken. Data must be gathered and a plan produced for how the teacher can improve. This happens in most professions whether through re-training or "probation". If the teacher doesn't improve according to the plan he/she can be let go. However, teachers can be fired immediately for all sorts of things, just like in any other job.

Teachers get every weekend off AND two months in the summer and they get done at 3:00 pm every day! 
- I want to answer this, not from the perspective of a teacher, but from the perspective of a daughter of two teachers. I know the things I do every year, but I think this question is better answered differently. My parents have been teachers as far back as I remember. My dad started out as a minister, but I was an infant then. My mother taught elementary school and my dad taught high school. Let me preface this by saying that I loved my childhood and my parents. While there are things that upset me as a child, I would not have had it any other way, knowing what it prepared me for as an adult.

   I spent a good majority of my weekends and summers at my parents' respective schools. At one point, I would ride with my dad to his school in the morning to carpool with someone else to my school. At another, I would carpool with a student to my mother's in the afternoon, and wait for her, and then go home. When my mother because a computer technology teacher, I spent even more time with her at her school, either helping, where I could, or staying out of her way, and most of the time failing. I remember following my dad around his school and spending time with other teachers or in administrators' offices when he had meetings. To me and my siblings, my parents' schools were like second homes to us. We mostly enjoyed "hanging out" there and I learned lots of skills that have become handy as an adult (like how to fix a broken copier).

     I also remember how often one or another parent was absent. My parents could never drive on school field trips or come to performances/class parties during the day. As a kid, I was upset by this, especially when other parents and kids couldn't understand why I couldn't bring in baked goods, or my parents couldn't volunteer to chaperone this or that. I remember weeks and weekends when my parents were at conferences or taking students abroad. I also remember my parents working very hard for many years towards higher degrees (they have their doctorates now) both for their own learning and to make our lives better.

   My parents brought home grading every night. I remember my dad grading essays and my mom figuring out how to make her walls useful to her students. Their jobs didn't end at 3:00 when the kids left. They were constantly working and making sacrifices for their students and it was difficult as a child sometimes. However, if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be a teacher today.


     Teaching is not an easy job, and there isn't a teacher out there who expects it to be. Good teachers become teachers despite all the difficulties and problems because they want to work with kids and help them become adults. My hope, through my letter to the governor, and through this post, is that the dialogue can continue. With transparency (on both sides) and discussion, maybe we can begin to fix the problems with education policy. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Quid dixisti? ¿Que dijiste? What did you say? 你说什么?

I love having a diverse class. I love when my room is full of different cultures and languages and, even though I teach Latin, I want to connect to them all.

There are a few things I've tried this year and I have some major plans for next year to make my classroom more diverse itself, more welcoming, and more useful. I want to honour and help my students and let them know that I not only acknowledge their backgrounds and cultures, but I want to celebrate them.

The Wall of Languages

This actually started by accident. A Chinese speaker of mine was showing me something on my board and I forgot to erase it. In the next class, a girl, who also speaks Chinese, came up to the board, read it, and wrote a response. The next day, two Korean students wanted to see if they'd get any hits and wrote a message in Korean. Soon after, Spanish speakers started their own thread. Before I knew it, my board was suddenly taken over by everything except Latin! I couldn't bring myself to end the conversation, so I got a large sheet of butcher paper and taped it to my back wall. I had students copy over messages from the whiteboard and the conversation continued. In roughly a week, the paper was filled and students started asking for more. At one point, over 15 languages appeared on the wall, Latin included. Students were able to connect with each through language, and across my classes. 

I will need to post a picture later, as our board is being replaced.

Making Connections
This year I also made a commitment to use my knowledge of Spanish to help my Spanish speakers make connections. A lot of them already do this, but, especially in the upper classes when we start looking at grammar explicitly, there was room for improvement. With the help of a Spanish teacher, I started reviewing my Spanish and, particularly, the grammar rules. Now, I can quickly point to a similar rule in Spanish to help my native speakers. It has made this year a lot easier grammar wise for both me and my students. We've been able to make a lot of connections, but I am also able to explain equivalents in English and Spanish, making the class a lot easier for all involved. 

Working with ESOL/ELL

One of my goals for next year is to make my room a place where any student can succeed, even if they don't speak English. I tell students, teachers, and parents that all a student needs to succeed is knowledge of how to speak at least one language. While using a Comprehensible Input style lends itself to students of all types, including ESOL/ELL students, I realised that my classroom does not. My safety net is posted, but in Latin and English, along with my question words.

Along with the help of some students, I've started a lofty project:

  • safety net words will be posted on a large poster board in English, Korean, Spanish, and Chinese (along with Latin)
  • helpful phrases (like can I go to the bathroom) will be posted with visuals to ensure understanding
  • basic vocabulary lists for Latin I (see this link for the first two weeks of Latin I) are being separated out so that ELL students can have one in their own language. 
  • a commitment from me to provide hand signals for each new word (and in the process my kids will learn some American Sign Language too!)
I've already begun working on this and I hope as I foster these relationships my resources will grow and I will learn somethings in the process. I'm posting my resources below and I have a request. If you see any mistakes or you know of something better, please let me know! 


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Data Doesn't Have to Be a Four Letter Word

I am not one to sing the praises of data collection. Specifically, I actively hate what legislators and the powers that be have used the excuse of "data collection" to do. I have written before about how I feel about test-driven class curriculum, and have complained very loudly on facebook (and written some legislators, Arne Duncan, and President Obama) about these things.

But I believe in useful data. Data that focuses on what I need to improve not only my teaching, but my current students' understanding so they are more successful in my class. This class, this year.

Last semester, we covered (I'll say "covered" until I can feel confident that "learned" is the correct word) 123 vocabulary words. This is a low number for a traditional textbook, but it is still a lot of words my students are juggling around in their heads, with a lot of potential for forgetting and confusion. I need to know what words have been forgotten in general and since the two week break we just completed. I need to know what words I need to review so students can comfortably function in the language their second semester. I need data.

I actually came up with a really simple way to collect that data, and I'm making students help me collect the data because I don't want to spend hours outside of class doing it myself.

Collecting the data

I put together two quizzes, each a little over 60 words (123 seemed like a lot for one day), for students to take. I asked them not to write their names on the quizzes, so I can have accurate data, and to do their best, with the threat that it would be more work for them the more words we needed to review.

In class each day I assigned a quiz, explained the purpose and the need for accurate data, and students wrote in the words they knew. Then I took up the quizzes, passed them back out at random, and had students grade them as I quickly went through the list. Lastly, I called out the words on the list, one by one, and had students raise their hands if the paper they graded missed the word I called. This is where the anonymity and exchange of papers was really important. No one in the class (except probably the student who wrote the paper) knew who had missed what word, so it prevented embarrassment (as much as possible) and encouraged honesty. I recorded the results on a data sheet I had previously created (see bottom of post on how to create one yourself if you aren't too familiar with worksheet programs) which you can see in the image below offers me the total number of students who missed each word in each class, the total for all classes, and the percentage of my students who did not know a word.

The percentage was really what I was looking for. In a dream world, I would hold every word to a 90% rule--it is only good if 90% of my students know it. Or even a 100% standard. But it's unrealistic. I am currently standing at 186 students. With 186 students of varying personalities and learning strengths, it would be impossible to teach everyone everything perfectly. 

So I'm looking for 80% understanding. It's from the traditional TPRS standard "80% of 80%" which translates to "at least 80% of your students understand at least 80% of the language you're using." 

I went through and color-coded the words with that standard in mind. If 20%-30% of my students didn't know a word, I colored it yellow. For 30%-40%, orange. And if more than 40% of my students did not know a word, it went into the red zone, as a word that I need to cover first and with the most repetitions.

Trends I saw

I found a few trends that reinforced my expectations and understanding of language learning. Generally the words that were red were words we had not spent as much time on. There were a concentration of them at the beginning of the semester, and at the end of the semester, representing words we began with but didn't really repeat again and words that we ended with and had maybe a week or two to work into repetitions.

The first day we collected data on the first half of the vocabulary for the semester, and the great news is that after a semester of repetition, over 80% of students knew 70% of the words. That's honestly a very good number, and better than any year I've taught previously.

The second half of the vocabulary did not fare as well, and that is most likely due to less repetitions and more words competing for repetition in stories. For that section itself, I found that 80% or more of students only knew 31% of the words (although if I slackened it to 70% of my students knowing, it becomes less dire). For all the words over both days, 77% of the words were generally known (over 60% of students knew them). In specific, 60% or more students knew 77% of the words, 70% or more students knew 62% of the words, and 80% or more students knew 51% of the words. It's not perfect, but it's a starting point, and useful data to have in my hands.

What I am doing with the data

The whole point of collecting this data is to use it. I am using the red words first; I have a list of words that less than 60% of my students know and that is a major focus for my review. After making sure we have a decent number of repetitions of those words (using any combination of the activities Miriam and I have discussed in our different posts), I'm going to add the orange words, and finally the yellow. This review might take a week, or it might take two. One of the wonderful things about teaching without a textbook is that I set my own deadlines. I am focusing on vocabulary students need to know for a county-wide test, as I've mentioned in a previous post, and I can take time to make sure my kids really know it. This is a rare luxury, and I know that well.

If I weren't free to spend two weeks reviewing past vocabulary, I would work to fold these words into my upcoming lessons, at a rate of two per day. 

But I'm lucky, so I'm going to take advantage of that luck.

How to set up a spreadsheet to do math for you

It's actually not too hard. I've used spreadsheets for this sort of thing before, and "programmed" one to calculate percentages for me so I can quickly look up the grade for 13 out of 15 without a calculator.

Basically, I wanted something that would add the totals for each word, then divide it by the number of students I have, and give me the percentage of students who missed each word.

I started by laying out what I was looking for:

Then I highlighted across the periods so I could set up the spreadsheet to add the total number of students who did not correctly translate "surgit." I clicked the sum symbol on my program (I use Google Spreadsheet, but all worksheet programs have this capability).

Once I had my total set up, I set up my percentage. I clicked the space next to the total, and typed in the code "=H2/186" to stand for the specific square I wanted to divide (for me the total, which was on H2--squares are designated on a Battleship sort of system) and the number of students I have total (186). 

Lastly, I added in some numbers so you could see the math work, and I selected the square for the total, pressed ctrl+C (you can also right-click and select "Copy"), selected the squares underneath, and pressed ctrl+V (you can also right-click and select "Paste"). It will automatically fill the squares with the appropriate row's total. 

Do the same for the percentage column and you have a worksheet that will automatically figure out your percentages for you.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review Stations to Ring in the Finals

This is just a quick post to tell you about what I'm doing in my classes today. Mostly because I love this kind of review--it's very independent--and it helps the kids by asking them to think in unusual ways and has them up and moving.

They enter with the desks rearranged into six "stations," each with a story selected from the stories we've read this semester and a set of instructions. You can find the complete instructions here, but they boil down to one of the following: write a haiku, song, 2-sentence summary, or parallel story (all in Latin), draw a single scene to illustrate the entire story, or draw a short comic.

The instructions on the board are pretty straight-forward, and I always explain everything pretty thoroughly the first few times students face this kind of activity. I have them turn in a paper with all of their work so they focus and get it done. It's something I can record quickly while they take their finals next week.

To help students know where to sit when, I wrote combinations of letters on tongue depressors that I will hand out and ask them to follow. This helps them mix up each time they are at each station so they work with different people all the time (I posted my current incarnation of the letters here--it's just a list of thirty six letter sets, and I repeat some if I have more students).

And that's basically it! Simple, easy activity for the end of the semester!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Using Asking a Story to Produce Reading Material (And What to Do with It)

I've been writing some heavy (read: long) posts lately, so I thought I'd do something light, describing a three-day sequence of activities I recently did in my class.

Basically, I used the stories we produced in class via asking a story as reading material that could produce more repetitions of vocabulary and give me a break from creating the repetitions myself.

Day 1

I usually draw pictures to illustrate our stories as we go (by that I mean I draw stick figures like crazy) so students and I have a visual both to reference for vocabulary and to remember the details. If a student asks, I will allow the student to draw for us instead, as long and he/she is willing to sacrifice beauty for speed and not be a distraction. Either way, I have a visual record of each story as we tell it. I took advantage of that image and at the end of each class I took a picture of the board. This was very handy because I teach six classes and I forget many details over the course of a day.

At the end of the day, I typed up the stories from each class, using the pictures as reference, and glossing any words that were particular to a class but not universal across classes (what my CI training calls "icing words"--words that are not intended for students to learn, but that they learn because of interest; each class tends towards different interests).

Day 2

We began the day by reading the stories from each class and having the students discuss which stories they liked best (aside from their own, which they of course favored). Then I asked new stories, drew pictures, took pictures, and typed them up.

Day 3

Armed with stories from two days of asking, with repetitions of the words built in sixfold, we started with students again reading the stories from each class and discussing which stories they liked best. Then I gave an extension assignment I like to use when I have time to give to it (because it takes at least one period, sometimes two): writing a children's book.

They really are not advanced enough to write a grammatically correct story on their own (they are in their first year), so I had them choose one of the twelve stories we now had and write one-two sentences per page with clear (not necessarily beautiful) illustrations. I put this instruction powerpoint on my board, and was able to grade the books as they came in pretty simply.

Quick, easy, and a nice brain break. Plus repetitions. Also, once you've done this in your class, you can leave similar assignments for a substitute--one of the hardest things to figure out when you teach CI style--and it's not so much of a strain!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Adventures in Untextbooking: ACTFL 2014

Myself, Miriam, and Bob during our presentation. Thanks to
Jon Valentine for taking this picture!

This year I was very excited at the chance to present Untextbooking at the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Convention.

The topic is one close to my heart; giving up textbooks is everything I'd hoped (awesome!) and feared (work!) it'd be. There are days, I won't lie, that I walk into my classroom, exhausted by the energy I pour in there and other facets of my life (family and grad school, in particular), and I just wish I could say "Class, turn to page 53, and do what the book says." I will write a post with suggestions for those days within the next couple of months, because I am working on activities that aren't as exhausting for the teacher. We all need breaks and downtime.

But in general, I am really, really happy with untextbooking. My students are more engaged, and learning more, than in any year previous. It's not magic; not every student buys in (though some of the hold outs are beginning to yield!) and even my most enthusiastic students have off days--they're teenagers. However, I have learned after over a decade of teaching that perfection doesn't exist. Instead, I look for improvement. And the improvement is all the sunshine and rainbows I could ask for.

My students can use "advanced" grammatical structures, and have been doing so since week six of Latin I (probably before that point, but that is the week I officially started using subjunctives in their readings). This is not because I'm a genius teacher or they are genius students. It's simply that I don't treat the structures like they're difficult, so my students don't know they aren't supposed to know them. We have focused on a much more limited vocabulary list than in previous years when I've been guided by a textbook, but I am able to make sure that the words are used over and over so that instead of throwing a bunch of spit wads at my students and hoping a few will stick, I can create a permanent vocabulary of useful words that students easily recall. I am excited about the things we read and I have the ability to change focus when my students' interest wanes. I love the flexibility and personalization available to me when I don't let a textbook rule my curriculum.

So, it's exciting to share this with other teachers and hopefully help them create a similar experience in their own classrooms.

This year's ACTFL was really, really good. I loved the sessions I attended, and was even going to put together a Storify report for you, but Laura Sexton (@SraSpanglish--she is most definitely worth following for her tweets over language learning and methodology) already beat me to the punch. You can find her Storifies here. The travel was an adventure (lost luggage and half a day spent blind just amplify the value of the experience, right?), however even so, I have no regrets and really can't emphasize enough how important it is to join professional organizations and attend conferences, whether local or national. You meet other like-minded people, form friendships, and get the chance to learn about some of the newest ideas about pedagogy. Between conferences and my Personal Learning Network, I constantly have ideas running through my head about ways to improve my classes.

When I decided to present about Untextbooking at ACTFL, I invited Miriam (who started this experiment with me last year) and Bob Patrick (@BobPatrick), who joined me in untextbooking this year, to present with me. Both are great presenters and I very much enjoyed teaming up with them to hopefully help other teachers try out authentic material in the classroom.

For the purposes of our presentation, I made a Google Presentation:

Miriam created an amazing resource for teachers looking for examples in Spanish, French, or German (we'd love to add to it in those or other languages--just let us know if you'd like to contribute), with a list of short videos for movietalks and resources/blogs we find useful for this particular topic. We presented the basic ideas, then each of us presented a type of CI activity that we like to use in class.

To be honest, there was not much discussed that is not already in this blog, either thanks to Miriam or myself. If you are new to the blog, I'm including a list of previous untextbooking posts below along with their most basic descriptions. As always, please post any questions or comments or recommendations!

Untextbooking: What Does the Fox Say? My introductory post explaining why I started this journey and my first steps.
Untextbooking: Of Monsters and Men An update post discussing a unit I was creating in what is often considered "advanced" Latin and ways I had approached that for Latin II.
Untextbooking - students' first review Miriam polled and recorded feedback about Untextbooking in her classes.
The Untextbooked Classroom: A Glimpse A recent writeup that describes what I do to create a unit without a textbook for my classes.
Untextbooking: Creating a Vocabulary List without a Textbook The basic process I followed to create my vocabulary list this year for Latin I.

Also, the following posts are about ideas and activities that I feel sort of go hand-in-hand with our new untextbooked classrooms:

Movie Talk/Movie Shorts Miriam describes in detail how to do your own movie talk.
Standards Based Grading (SBG) - Making it Work in a Traditional Gradebook Miriam has done what I'm afraid to do--jumped into SBG. I think however SBG is key to focusing on student mastery, which is part of the point of leaving the textbook, so I will be doing this next year.
Reconsidering Retakes A quick overview of how I offer retakes in my classes this year.
Retakes - The Redux Miriam's approach to retakes. Either one offers students the chance to show mastery of a subject later if he or she did not on the first assessment.
Read Dating - and other ideas from the Reading Toolbox Miriam has collected some awesome activities to help you reteach and reread texts you introduce in class.
Vocabulary Toolbox Miriam collected activities for teaching and introducing vocabulary as well!