Friday, December 30, 2011

Reflections of a New Semester

This school year has seen some changes, marking the next step in my evolution as a teacher. What follows are some reflections of the first semester on the implementation of flip class, standards-based grading, mastery learning, and immersion in a family setting. In my research prior to initiating these changes, what I found was compelling evidence to make the change. Some of these findings are noted and my observations behind them. This is by no means statistical data, but rather observational data to support or contrast what research and other classroom teachers are finding.

Flip Classroom

Research by Aaron Sams, Jonathan Bergmann (Colorado), Karl Fisch, Khan Academy

Research/experience suggests: Students move at their own pace

My observations:

Nothing is worse than sitting in a class and having to review concepts that you already know very well, or being in a challenging class that seems to move too fast that you feel like you are drowning. Allowing students to move at their own pace means you are allowing students to learn on their own time. If they need more time to understand something, they take more time. If they don’t need as much time as we have planned for them, don’t beat a dead horse.

This showed up right away at the beginning of the semester. A particular Spanish II student started with a more challenging concept. He struggled with it for 3 weeks, missing his progress check. Since he was spending the needed time with it and mentally working through the concept as evidenced by his daily work, he was still awarded full credit on his progress check even though he had nothing concrete to show for it. By the next 2-week check, however he had not only “mastered” that concept, but also 2 additional concepts and was ahead of his peers! This also showed up in other students throughout the semester. It’s very cool to see this in action.

Students also began to understand what they were good at and what they struggled with, such as grammar, conjugation, vocabulary, etc. Eventually they were able to get into a new unit and start with the “easy” concept first and then leave the more difficult concepts for the end of the unit when they had more time.

This idea was really valuable when I had a student who demonstrated extremely slow processing skills. Once he understood the concept, he retained it, but getting him to understand the concept was very labor-intensive. We were able to slow down time for him and he completed quarter 1 Spanish in the amount of time other students completed the first semester. He still met the goals, just like the other students, just a bit slower. If this had been a “normal” class, this student would have failed and been looking for another class to take second quarter. Fortunately, he was able to reach success and also picked up some skills through the conversación second semester.

Modifications for second semester:

I really like how the students are able to choose what they want to study and when. This is the ultimate reflection of student-centered, differentiated instruction. For this reason, I will continue to allow them to move at their own pace. I will try to encourage them to progress at a rate that they can move as I think some are moving slower than their abilities.

Research/experience suggests: Students have a deeper understanding of the material

My observations:

A number of Spanish II students struggled with a certain concept and tried to just hand in an assignment before completely understanding it. Through conversations with them, they realized that they needed to watch the entire video explanation, get help from their “family” but not allow them to do the work for them, and/or complete additional learning activities to better understand the material. Fortunately, I was able to have these conversations with them get them to a point where they could more deeply understand the concept. In a traditional class they would have a surface level understanding of the material and be able to complete an assignment, but wouldn’t have the opportunity for the deep understanding without holding up the rest of the class. This is just one example of many that I could have demonstrated here.

Modifications for second semester:

Previous to this year, I have had conferences with each student every 2 weeks. These lasted about 5 minutes each and it gave me an opportunity to see what the students knew and could do, offer reteaching or extension to learning. Unfortunately because I had to meet with every single student in a limited time, there was no room for additional time with the students that really needed it. Now I can conference with the students that really need it and push the other students during the conversación time at the beginning of class. This balance seems to be more ideal for the conference component and I will continue to conference with students in this capacity.

Research/experience suggests: Lectures become homework; homework becomes classtime: students are more engaged in the learning process

My observations:

One of my goals in the flip class model was to put the responsibility of learning the lower-order thinking skills (LOTS) on the student. In the past, I was frustrated with spending class time memorizing vocabulary and doing Quadrant A learning. I wanted to advance my students into the other quadrants and higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) during class and not have to worry about those low-level tasks. This is what I wanted to have happen as homework! I wanted more quality, hands-on discussions happening during the brief 40 minutes I had with them each day.

What flip class offered were students listening to and watching the lectures, on average, three times for each concept. Some students also got a one-on-one explanation or a whole-group face-to-face instruction time in addition to the video. This indicates that students are replaying explanations, pausing, reviewing, and reinforcing concepts. Traditionally, students get one face-to-face, whole-group explanation with some redirective guidance as needed later. While the video watching is theoretically supposed to happen as homework, I am ok with students watching during class. At any given moment, students are in one class period may be working on 6-7 different goals or concepts. Again, this is the ultimate in student-directed, differentiated instruction. Students are engaged at different levels.


Students know that there is an explanation, some examples, and then a task that they have to complete and show me. Some students will just watch the first part of the video, thinking they understand and then go straight to the required task for that goal, without fully understanding. This leads to the student having to redo the learning task. I struggle getting the students to watch the entire video and show me their notes. Most students are able to direct their learning, but other students need that structure and step-by-step approach; these are the ones not doing the steps.

Modifications for second semester:

Currently, I am in the process of making the videos more interactive with accompanying note-taking strategies, based on research-based CRISS strategies. I am unsure what to do about those who can and simply won’t, however. This has long been a challenge for me and why I seek change, new approaches, and out-of-the-box ideas.

Research/experience suggests: Progress checks needed - must be self-motivated, learn to prioritize, manage time and tasks, etc.

My observations:

Students were seen making a learning plan for themselves. Some even voiced their plan with me to be sure it would be one that worked. I saw Stickies used to check off their goals as they went through the unit, or what they had planned to do for the week. I heard kids talking in their families about prioritizing the tasks necessary to complete the unit goals, students were being metacognitive about why they had chosen to do things in the order they were doing them. These were great discussions to be a part of and listen to from afar. I had conversations with kids about what they were doing to complete their goals and they were able to immediately explain that they were doing X before Z so that it was easier. While I didn’t necessarily always agree with them, it made sense to the student so that was the important thing.

Human nature makes kids take the “low road”. Why should I do work when I can socialize, watch movies, play games, etc? This obviously leads to procrastination. Some students have been doing the minimum they need just to complete a deadline. As expected, students will put off for tomorrow what they could be doing today. “I’m done with my progress check” is their thinking and why do they need to do anything else since nothing is due for another 2 weeks. My response is always the same, “so start working on the next deadline; never stop and never give up, always keep learning!” Yes, they need progress checks. Yes, they are going slower the farther away they are from a deadline. Yes, the progress checks are keeping them from digging a hole too deep to get out of at the end of the quarter.

My biggest concern at this point is their lack of vocabulary. The students seem to be doing really well with the grammatical points, but if a student is struggling, it’s because they are not doing their vocabulary. While I see students starring blankly into a screen thinking they will magically learn their vocabulary by starring, I encourage them to use other means to work with their vocabulary. I have included links in Moodle that access games, tutorials, and interactive activities. Students have also requested other, nontechnology-based activities so I have made paper-based activities. Unfortunately, they have only used the large flashcards and none of the other activities available to them.

What else have I done? We have conversation nearly everyday in which they should be using the vocabulary they are supposedly learning. I strongly encourage them to find 5-10 new vocabulary words that they can use daily during the conversation time. The conversation topics are very conducive to incorporating each student’s vocabulary. I have also strongly encouraged the students to learn their vocabulary at the same time they are learning the grammar. I have also required some students to show me 3 different ways they have practiced their vocabulary before retaking a test.

Another problem is that some students are only using one method of studying their vocabulary and lack the skill to generalize. For example, a vocabulary word was “to primp” this quarter. One activity asked the students to give a word for “to fix or straighten oneself”. When they got to the quiz, they couldn’t make the bridge between the two English words to come up with the Spanish word. A discussion then ensues regarding if this was a legitimate word or not. Quickly leaving the argument, as it isn’t the point of the assessment, the student is encouraged to practice the vocabulary multiple methods before proceeding to the next attempt.

To summarize, the progress check is working just as it should, but students are achieving the minimum standard. Vocabulary acquisition also continues to be a challenging issue.

Modifications for second semester:

I still have to decide how I will be adjusting for the vocabulary issue and those who stop, or at least slow to a near halt. I have come up with 3 options, or perhaps a combination of the three:

a) Push more conversation. If they aren’t going to use the work time, why should they be given time to sit on their laurels? OK, that was snarky. What if they had more time to practice what they have been studying?

b) Emphasize a need for constantly working – learning is not a destination, but rather a journey.

c) Make a cultural shift to mimic life -long learning. We are constantly learning and, as a graduate professor once said, “The moment you stop learning is the moment you stop living.” I struggle, however, with getting adolescents to learn to push themselves to bigger and better things. This is a good life lesson. I will keep giving my best effort, though.

Standards-based Grading:

Research by Marzano, Shawn Cornwally (@ThinkThankThunk), Matt Townsley, Scriffiny

Research/experience suggests: Meet minimum standards

My observations:

Students and parents are accustomed to #sbar in the elementary grades PK-4. So, why should this change when they take that transitional walk across the parking lot to the “big school”? They understand #sbar and it’s underlying philosophy. Ultimately, a grade should reflect what a student knows and can do – nothing more, nothing less. If a student doesn’t score well, additional work shouldn’t be given just to arbitrarily raise a grade; either the student knows the concept or she doesn’t. Having said this, additional work can be done to show a better understanding. What’s the difference? Scenario 1: Student performs at C level work. Additional work of writing a paper brings student up to a B level work. This paper does not necessarily show a developed understanding of the C level concept or skill, but more points were earned to raise grade to a B. Scenario 2: Student performs C level work. Additional work is done through practice, one-on-one conferencing, lab environment, or another activity to deepen student’s understanding of the concept or skill that now the student understands at a B level. Scenario 2 is what I am trying to create in my classroom, and I believe it is working (mostly) successfully. This is something that I have had in place for over 10 years now.

Modifications for second semester:

The continuation of high standards for students to achieve will remain in place.

Research/experience suggests: Eliminate grade; focus on skills

My observations:

First quarter was awesome! I had the most exciting start of a year that I ever had…until 2 weeks before the end of the quarter. What changed? Letter grades had to be assigned. See my previous post on grading: How to Kill #sbar in the Classroom. When grades are all but eliminated, every assessment is only worth 4 points, and the culture of the class is focused on skills and concepts rather than assignments, the atmosphere is very different! I loved how students were openly participating, taking risks and trying new things. Once grades came back into play, the risk taking went away and they went back to the low road in their journey and they closed their mind to real learning. This has saddened me very much and I’m not sure how to get that back. The variables affecting this are out of my control, but I continue to have great conversations with kids and help them to see how making mistakes is really giving them a deeper understanding of their learning. Elimination of grades is really the direction we need to go in order to maximize student learning.

Modifications for second semester:

With a new semester brings a new start, a clean slate, a fresh page in the grade book. Students often see a new semester as a new beginning. I am hoping to focus on this and bring back the risk taking. I like what the students are able to accomplish in this environment and I often cheerlead their efforts to positive learning and increase in skills and concepts.

Research/experience suggests: Grade becomes a collection of skills rather than a collection of points and assignments.

My observations:

This is similar to the discussion from the earlier topic. I will elaborate the idea with this: the younger the learner, the more structured the assignment needs to be. The older the learner, the less structured the assignment needs to be. I began the year assigning a specific task for each learning goal in Spanish I, pairing it back a bit for II and most of the assessment in III coming from the practical portion of the lesson: the conversation. This has worked well, and I still agree with this, but the upper level learners are still engrained in the idea that if they turn something in, they are learning. Second quarter I added a few more assignments to appease the transition. I think I have a nice happy-medium for now. Perhaps by the end of the year I can eliminate all assignments and just focus on the conversation and acquisition of skills and vocabulary.

This has been a great component and approach to teaching and learning. Kids aren’t completing assignments for the sake of completing them. Learning does not necessarily equate to completing an assignment. Case in point: the student who took 3 weeks to learn a difficult concept. He wasn’t producing anything, but was definitely learning! By the time he understood it well enough to produce something, he had a deep understanding of the concept.

Modifications for second semester:

The continuation of focus on skills rather than collection of point and assignments will remain in place.

Research/experience suggests: More effective learning discussions with students involving detailed feedback.

My observations:

As stated in a previous topic, conferencing has been extremely valuable and an integral part of my teaching for a number of years now. It has evolved and taken on some changes, but the underlying philosophy remains the same. Conferencing and educational discussions with students is perhaps the most effective component in learning. I can keep kids grounded, give them wings, or show them a path they never knew was there.

Feedback is something that takes the most time, but is the most effective in directing learning. Comments such as “good job” or “nice work” do not show students what they did in relationship to the learning target. Meeting a goal is more than just assignment completion. How well do they understand the learning goal? What did they do well? What can they do to improve or deepen this skill? The conferencing and oral and written feedback are most effective in moving learning forward.

Modifications for second semester:

The continuation of conferencing and educational discussions will remain in place.

Mastery Learning

“In general, mastery learning programs have been shown to lead to higher achievement in all students as compared to more traditional forms of teaching” (Anderson, 2000; Gusky & Gates, 1986)

Research/experience suggests: higher achievement

My observations:

While I have always had a mastery approach (for at least the past 15+ years), I never implemented it with vocabulary. This is the first year for mastery of vocabulary. Language is a content that builds on itself so “mastery” of one concept needs to happen before moving on to another concept. I set the mastery level at 80%. In the past, students had to show a minimum of C work to earn a grade. They could redo a learning task, but a minimum of C was the standard level.

I often grew frustrated that students would rush through vocabulary tasks, “space off” during vocabulary lessons, or in some way rush through and get less than 30% on their vocabulary assessments. I needed to do something different. I wanted them to keep trying until they could achieve the minimum expectation in vocabulary too.

One thing I have been gravely disappointed with this past quarter is the increased level of cheating. A red flag was raised at the end of first quarter when the students were getting 90+% on their vocabulary quizzes, but couldn’t use the vocabulary in conversation. Again, the beginning was great as they were taking risks, and reaching beyond their usual comfort level. Once the letter grade came into vision, the pressure to perform also rose.

Modifications for second semester:

To make another step toward responsibility for learning, I’m going to have students meet a grammatical goal next to a vocabulary goal. Since grammar and vocabulary are intended to be learned side-by-side, this makes sense. The students have been separating them as if they were two distinct entities, rather than one influencing the other.

I am also going to use the clickers with my interactive whiteboard to create weekly assessments. These will give me an indication of their level of understanding with the grammar and vocabulary. I will also be able to recycle old goals to be sure they are retaining previous skills. My goal is to have additional whole-group discussions about why certain answers are in/correct. This will hopefully get them to become more metacognitive as well.

Immersion and the Family Setting

Research/experience suggests: built-in mentors

My observations:

We learn our first language in the comfort of our home surrounded by multiability speakers. The parents are the highly proficient speakers; there are adolesents with mid-range abilities; there are preschoolers or young children with limited language abilities. All 3 levels come together at the supper table to have a conversation centered around a chosen topic. Given this, why should learning a second language be any different? This year Spanish I, II, and III are all mixed together to learn as a family. Spanish I is the “children”; Spanish II is the “parents”; and Spanish III is the “grandparents”. Ideally, each table group has a mix of each level.

The built-in mentors have worked great. It produces a culture in class of students being knowledgeable to answer questions; they don’t have to rely on the teacher to give all the answers. This moves the focus of the class from teacher-centered to student-centered. Students are asking their parents or grandparents for assistance on various matters. I have heard not only some mentoring happening this year, but also some great encouragement and positive reinforcement among the students.

Creating this environment can be challenging. This was the first year I have had a predetermined seating chart. I wanted to be sure there was a relatively equal mix of I, II, and III students in each family. I also looked at their personalities and learning styles to get the best match I could. In looking at the families, I wanted to be sure there wasn’t a family full of slower learners or all challenge-ready students, but rather a mix of various learners so that there would be some amiable mentoring happening. This proved difficult in a couple of sections, but it worked great for the vast majority of families. Only one family needed some “counseling” by the end of the semester.

Modifications for second semester:

The idea of mentors in the classroom was great. The concept of family-style learning will continue into second semester, even though the students are not keen on the idea yet.

Research/experience suggests: I/II learn from II/III; II/III reinforce concepts from I/II

My observations:

While this was my hope when I first entered into this school year, I didn’t know if I would actually achieve this goal or not. Truth is, this is one of the best things to happen this year. Spanish I has become sponges for Spanish II and III material. Spanish II and III are getting the reinforcement of prior learning, as well as advancing themselves in their current curriculum. In the past I spent a lot of time reviewing what was discussed and learned in previous levels so that we could build on those skills in the current unit. This year, it is just a natural part of the daily lesson. Students are getting the concept of learning and reinforcing skills. They can’t verbalize it or explain it, but they are doing it.

Each year I offer a challenge of a speaking contract to my IIIs and IVs. This contract is entered voluntarily by the student and states that he will speak Spanish 100% of the time in class, or if they see me in the hallways, at games, shopping, or other location. This year a number of the Spanish I and II students wanted to enter that challenge as well, many with great success!

Formative assessments happen throughout the course as a spot-check for progress. These assessments lead to a summative assessment known as a semester test. The students have a 10-minute conversation with me with a list of sample questions. Students were answering questions to my surprise with grammatical concepts and vocabulary from one or two levels above them. Keep in mind that no script of any kind can be used with this assessment as it is a conversation so students are really using their grammar and vocabulary from their knowledge base. When I asked them how they know those words, they replied, “You taught us those in our conversation last [week/month/quarter].”

Modifications for second semester:

This has exceeded my expectation and will be continued into second semester.

Research/experience suggests: Students become comfortable with language learning in a relaxed environment

My observations:

Some students had gained a strong sense of family in the setting. One abuelo was even heard commenting to his hijo, “That is just not what we do in this family.” Many students often used the terms “padre”, “abuela”, “hijos” as they referred to their classmates. It is definitely a relaxed environment on most days. Students are collaborating, laughing, and all working toward a common goal.

Modifications for second semester:

The family setting can be a very powerful component of this approach. I will continue to help the students see the benefit of this mix second semester.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How to Kill #sbar in the Classroom

So, how do you kill #sbar in the classroom – assign a letter grade!

This year I made the leap into full standards-based grading. It has been going quite well. Conversations with students have been centered around the question, “Señora, how can I show you I am proficient on goal [X]?”, rather than “How many more points do I need to ____?” This is so refreshing for me, as an educator and life-long learner.

This past week, however, has been a little different. Kids are all of a sudden reverting back to questions like, “OK, so if I don’t pass this quiz, what will my grade be?” and “how many more quizzes do I need to do to have grade [x]?” argh!! What’s the difference? End of the quarter grades! All of a sudden reality has set in and kids realize they need to have such-and-such a grade. I have observed kids who are very focused on their learning goals shift their focus to grade and point-centered beings again. I know reality sets in soon or later, but I am hoping to reach a point in time when we don’t have letter grades pressuring kids under a deadline from outside the classroom.

Yesterday there were about half a dozen students in my room after school trying to reach their required minimum number of goals for an arbitrary letter on a piece of paper. While I do understand the importance of those letters, I don’t like how it corrupts the learning environment for learners.

One particular student best demonstrates this phenomenon. He scrambled to get assignment X completed for the sake of completing it, but didn’t truly understand the material. He took an extra 5 minutes to actually watch the video notes. In my questioning with him, it was very apparent that he didn’t really watch the video at all! He was just trying to write some bogus nonsense just to complete it. After about 10-15 minutes of questions and answers, he had a much better understanding of the concept. While he missed hanging with his friends who were waiting for him, we had a great discussion about completing a task versus learning a concept. This is what I love about #sbar. Unfortunately, the pressure of a letter grade got in the way of his initial learning.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Changing Times in the WL Classroom

This is the video created to help parents understand the changes taking place from a traditional classroom to one utilizing standards-based grading, flipped class, mastery learning, and immersion.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Portal of Change

The first week of a new approach can be nerve-racking and exciting all at the same time. I couldn't be more pleased with how the first week has gone. The first 3 days were spent experiencing the rationale behind the changes.

Day 1: Mr Miyagi and language learning through immersion (Thank you to whoever posted that idea!)
Day 2: What is a family? Standards-based grading and mentoring
Day 3: What is my grade? Why don't I have a letter grade? Flipping with mastery

A little background on what's different, aside from the above listed items: When I take students abroad, they love the family stay and say they learn the most. We learn our native language in the comfort of our homes surrounded by language users of all levels, novice through proficient. It is the respectful, nurturing environment, negotiation of meaning, and stronger speakers helping weaker speakers that produces a powerful learning environment. Students ranging from levels I, II, III, and IV are mixed in each class period to simulate this and arranged in “families” of each level. Level I learners are the “children”; Level II learners are the “parents”; Level III and IV learners are the “grandparents”. Between families there are also “cousins” and “uncles/aunts” to help, mentor, and ask questions if I am busy.

What I have noticed so far...

* Students are indeed learning from other students.
They are able to hear what more experienced language students are saying and produce the same structures, with meaning, without direct instruction!
* Students are indeed using what they learn from other students and applying it in an immersion situation. The repetition of the conversation and the simple sentences are catching on and staying with them. Even after a short amount of time, students are remembering what they learned the previous day(s) and applying it to what they are learning today for more complex sentences.
* Students who struggled under the previous learning environment are thriving in the immersion experience. Turning in multiple assignments wasn't their way of demonstrating learning; this gives them more hands-on learning. It should also be noted that those who were succeeding before are still succeeding in this environment as well.
* Students are loving the flip class model. After a couple days, some have already completed a course goal and are moving on to the next. They really like not being held back in order to "beating a dead horse", but rather go at their own pace.
* Students still need direction for how to learn independently. After 3 days of instruction, they still asked, "What am I supposed to do?" It is great to be able to sit down with these few students, side-by-side, and walk them through the process.
* Students are already starting to use their older mentors for help. In turn, older students have indeed been learning from the younger students.
* Students have been engaged in educational discussions to redirect their learning in this short beginning phase. The stage is being set for deeper discussions later about their learning process.

* Discipline issues have been minimal due to focus on learning rather than accumulation of points and task
* More students are on task for longer periods of time. Each has individual goals set and work on those goals until completion. Another goal is set and they work toward that goal. It's all about collecting skills.

The photos show the kids in action! There is the family environment with mentoring, immersion conversation, and flipped environment.

While this all sounds great and we're ready to get all you readers signed up, I am well aware that this is the "honeymoon" period and the wheels may very well fall off at some point. For now, I am excited for the where the possibilities are leading and it is all falling together as I had planned and hope! My next step is to complete a video for the parents to get on board with what we are doing in class and understand how their learner will be assessed.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Evolution of a Teacher

As I graduated from college armed with a teaching degree I set out for my first teaching position. The one thing that has remained the same throughout my tenure is my philosophy: Every student can learn. I am constantly on a quest to find how to best match teaching and learning.

The early years

My first year of teaching was probably not unlike any other teacher in the early 90s. I walked into my room full of desks, a chalkboard, and a big desk. I was fortunate enough to also have a file of worksheets and other seemingly necessary papers. My classroom also came with shelves of books and magazines in the target language! I spent time looking at all the resources and the sacred teacher-edition of the textbook assigned.

While I was presumed well-trained in Madeline Hunter lesson design, my learning activities were very teacher-fronted, sit-n-git style of teaching. My units were directed by the textbook and consisted of vocabulary, grammar, test, repeat. Of course at the time I believed I was doing a bang-up job. To any of my students from that year, I apologize!

This position lasted only one year and I moved to a public school. I was wise enough to know that there was more to teaching than what the textbook was providing. However, this was the approved curriculum so on I went.

During the next two years I discovered a way to assess students orally, but it was only a small portion of the grade. Conversational activities and projects also became an introductory part of my teaching style.

My fourth year of teaching led me to my current landing position. I was fortunate enough to be greeted with a curriculum director who later took on technology responsibilities. This person was very liberal in allowing me freedom to experiment and take risks, giving me the greatest advancements in my teaching.

A textless environment

Knowing that conversation was the ultimate goal in a world language classroom, I emphasized this in my daily lessons. While still being guided by and using a textbook, I started to unconsciously wean myself from its proverbial apron strings. I began to bring in realia from my travels. The world had begun to have a distant presence in my classroom.

My nagging frustration with a textbook was still there. Elementary classrooms had learning outcomes in the form of a checklist that guided their curriculum and they used that list to report to parents. I began writing outcomes for each of my courses; I needed a guide for what I was doing. I took these lists to the Curriculum Director and this began the journey to curricular freedom! By the next year, I was teaching without a textbook telling me what to do.

Eventually I realized that there was a need to assess all components of a language: reading, writing, listening, speaking, and culture. This guided my lesson planning. The following year my district commenced block scheduling. What a revolutionary way of teaching; I quickly grew to love the extended time with students and develop the needed relationships with them. The students kept notebooks divided into the different skill components. I would collect them and grade them at home. This did not last long as I spent too many hours and sleepless nights going through thrown-together binders only to have students look at a grade and none of the feedback. It was disappointing to see all those hours reduced to a 2-second glance.

The notebooks quickly transformed into something that has become a very powerful strategy that I still use today: conferencing. Conferencing allows me to individually work with each student every 2-3 weeks. We celebrate their successes, reteach difficult concepts, and have mini-lessons to advance top students.

The couch classroom

Sometime between here and the year 2000 I was able to make a trip to a classroom about 1½ hours from my district. It was another revolutionary experience for me. The teacher had no textbook, but was connecting to classrooms across the world. I was envious of his connections and did not know how to make these connections. Any answer just sounded like, “Well, you just go out and get them.” How? I really wanted this.

Another interesting component of this classroom that really stayed with me was the idea of couches. He said, “We learn our first language in the comfort of our home so why should the learning of our second language be any different?” Rather than the traditional student desks in rows for learning, he got couches donated from people who wanted to get rid of theirs, but still had some life in them. About 6 couches were arranged in a semi circle with kids from all levels of the language. Since I was never comfortable with rows in my classroom and always had a semi circle arrangement, this was inviting to me. His statement was one that would stay with me for many years. I wanted what he was able to achieve.

The 21st Century

Welcome to the 21st Century! Computers didn’t crash, I didn’t lose all my money and investments, and there was no chaos in the streets.

That summer I started my masters. Four years later I completed this journey. Honestly, it was the beginning of yet another chapter in my evolution. My final research project was entitled “Computer-Mediated Communication in the High School Classroom”. The idea of using technology to help students become better learners was born.

Students were introduced to more and more technology. Projects were created to culminate learning. We eventually got rolling labs, ceiling mounted projects and teacher laptops. I felt like I was at the height of my profession and had perfected teaching. Like everything, new changes were on the horizon.

New Changes

In 2009, the Board approved to move forward with the 1:1 laptop initiative and a computer lab walked into my classroom every period. We also dropped block scheduling for a traditional 8-period day, had to prepare for a site visit and equity visit, and hired a new administrator. These were some rather major changes in a couple of very short months.

When hearing of the switch from block to a traditional schedule, I knew some of my students would have to sacrifice some of their 4-year plan for graduation. The Technology Director and I began researching possibilities. I first started creating something in my course websites. Eventually we decided on Moodle since it was free and had lots of youtube tutorials. I logged over 250 hours creating two courses in Moodle. Mind you, I had zero experience with Moodle, was previously teaching in a mostly teacher-fronted classroom and had to create a course in which students could take the year-long course in about 8 weeks over the summer, completely from home without a teacher in front of them. There was tons of scanning, Internet-surfing, power-point creating, adjusting of worksheets and handouts, and creating audio files so the students could teach themselves. In the end, it was so successful that I also created the remaining two levels in Moodle and used this to guide my courses the next fall.

Moodle was a place to house all the tutorial links, learning activities, virtual tours, and any links that the students may need. I essentially became a paperless classroom within 2 months. Later that fall I had a great opportunity to meet up virtually with 2 other classrooms in the state and create collaborative projects between classrooms. Students were working with kids from the other two schools to create projects and turn in electronically in their perspective classes. My learning curve made a huge turn upward that year. We worked for over 4 months on these projects before the teachers met face-to-face, and that was to present the project to a group of fellow educators!

While I quickly realized that I was really just digitizing my regular classroom, I saw a need to give the students more than just word documents and power points. They needed the connection to the real world and more “Quadrant D” experiences. I did some research on project-based learning and incorporated these components into my assessments. This also allowed me to “google-proof” my activities and assessments.

Since the online environment was all set up, the past 2 years students were able to take any course independently online. I have learned a lot from these homeschooled and independent students as well as the crash-course summer students. They have secretly been my guinea pigs for the past 2 years.

The Nagging Couches

The idea of the couches from my trip across the state was still in the back of my mind and an ideal that I continue to achieve. During this past year, I began conversations with the Technology/Curriculum Director, and a couple science teachers. I even began an online PLC to discuss the topics of standards-based assessment and reporting (#sbar) and a flipped classroom and have visited some flipped classrooms in the state. Given the outcomes I had established many years before, the practice of making student redo assignments to a minimum level of proficiency, and my experience with Moodle, the possibility of #sbar and #flipclass has become well within my reach. This is a great step toward the couch approach and makes conferencing with students much more feasible and on-demand.

Next year my classroom will only have a handful of desks for the purpose of minimal test taking and for those who prefer to learn in a desk. The majority of my classroom will be at large tables and assigned to a “family”. All levels will be mixed – I through IV. The “toddlers” (level I) will be learning not only from me, but also from the “teenagers” (level II), and the “parents” (level III and IV). They can also cross families and have discussions with their cousins, aunts/uncles, etc. If I am busy helping a student in class I can just tell them to ask their family. We all learn together; the teacher is not necessarily the fountain of knowledge.

The typical lesson will include the first 5-40 minutes 100% in the target language in conversation or some hands-on task. Just as a family may sit around the supper table and be able to communicate about nearly any topic, so too can each family in class have a conversation and work together to a common goal. The remaining time will be spent accessing Moodle to take assessments, discuss outcomes, watch online lessons, and collaboratively or independently work through learning activities.

Students will be working at their own pace to show proficiency with the outcomes. Deadlines will need to occur to keep students moving forward and make good use of class time. This is one thing I learned from my independent kids. Without deadlines, they will wait and then panic at the last minute and turn in less than adequate work.

I hope to keep moving forward with #sbar and #flipclass so stay in touch! Who knows, maybe next year I’ll be able to have my couches and reach beyond my idol of all those years ago.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A New Twist on a Old Favorite: PD

As differentiated instruction has pushed to the forefront of education, so too has DI within professional development. Quality educators see the need to keep up on the newest research through reading professional literature, sharing ideas with other content-alike educators, collaborate with colleagues across the district, state, country, and throughout the world. As South Hamilton continues with a 1:1 initiative, we are realizing that learning takes place outside scheduled designated times. Given these recent changes in education, teaching, and learning, shouldn’t it be logical that our PD also takes on similar changes? We are pushed to change teaching to meet the needs of our students, but how much have we really changed in the past number of decades to meet the professional needs of our staff – yes all staff?

Here are some of my proposals for taking a fresh look on our PD.

1. DIPD [differentiated instructional professional development]

Just as we have Professional Growth Goal Plans that we write each year, this could expand to include other options. Teachers also need choice for buy-in. They can choose one or more, depending on how in-depth they approach it.

1a. Professional literature – read Drive by Daniel Pink, or some other professional book, have a book discussion with colleagues. These colleagues could be in the district or outside.

1b. MISIC – we are officially going to this so let’s give time to work on it.

1c. PLC – create own PLC for topic(s) of choosing. Some examples may include technology in the classroom, flipping classes, Moodle, early childhood reading strategies, collaboration projects, twitter, skype, etc.

1d. Regional Curriculum Work – some courses being added each year; we currently have about 5 courses actively creating and collaborating across 2 counties.

1e. Conferences, Workshops, and Conventions – attend 1-2 annually related to a district goal or an individual classroom-related goal.

1f. Peer Observation – The opportunity to reflect on one’s own teaching and gain insight from other quality educators is a characteristic of a highly effective teacher. Likewise, there are certified administrators with the New Evaluator’s License. Putting this to work would be a win-win for everyone.

1g. In-house mentors – Have teachers sign up to be mentors for the staff. Want to know more about Smart boards? Go see teacher X. Moodle? Flipped classroom? Web 2.0 tools? Effective classroom management techniques? Each teacher need would have a peer as a go-to person when needed. This list would be publicized so that it would be easy to find and locate the mentoring teacher. Again, the list is endless.

2. Fed-Ex Days & 20% time

Google and other companies are learning that creativity and production are most prominent when workers are left to themselves to work on projects of their choosing. Google has a 20% time. One day out of five is regarded as a pet-project day. Products such as Google docs, Google calendar, Google sites, and other amazing products are a result of this 20% time. They were not paid to create these products, just allowed the freedom to think outside the box for a short time on the clock.

Another major company has, what they term, “fed-ex” days. For example, they work all day Thursday researching new ideas and then have to “deliver [an idea] overnight” and present it to the group the next day. Again, the idea of free, open creativity is at work to produce new thinking and ideas.

Taking this idea, bringing it into the schools to creatively brainstorm ideas on major issues may be the solution to many frustrations. Likewise, we learn best from our peers who are a wealth of information and resource for creative problem-solving. What if we have a fed-ex day for improving D/F list? alternative uses of ppt, garageband, twitter, skype, etc? ways to use web 2.0 tools in the classroom? strategies to help struggling readers? The possibilities are endless!

These could be presented a la “speed-dating” style. Bring your ideas to share. You have five min to share your idea and move to the next person. Imagine the ideas you could get in 30 minutes, an hour.

3. The Schedule

FACTS: We currently have 191.5 contracted days. Five of these are holidays, 180 are student contact days, leaving six and a half days for PD. Likewise, an additional PD day is gained through teachers writing and logging an additional 8 hours of work toward professional development goals. Currently these are scheduled between back-to-school in service days, full days throughout the year, and two-hour late starts. Teachers are always looking for more days with students and the district is always wanting more time for teachers to develop professionally while working toward district goals. Both of these can be accomplished through some creative thinking.

Hold on to your hat! Here we go…

NEW THINKING: The student contact year will be 187 days, leaving 4.5 days for whole district meetings and instructional time. The remaining 187 days will be earmarked as student contact days. While the law only stipulates 180 days, this would give seven snow days already built in that wouldn’t have to be made up! This would also be a better argument for teams going to state championships, Spring Fling, and other activities that interrupt the school week. Teachers would individually take their seven PD days wherever and whenever they wanted.

For example, the Early Childhood Reading Strategies PLC wants to meet for 2 hours to discuss a new piece of research and how that will impact the classroom strategies used for student learning. Those teachers take their own 2-hr late start or some chunk of time during the day to discuss this issue. The time is logged, reflections documented, and they go back to class at the prearranged time.

The required seven days of PD will still be enforced, but it is taken at a time that works for the teachers in that group. If a teacher didn’t want to give up the extra seven instructional days or plan for a sub, these hours could be completed outside of the contract time, thus the “whenever and wherever” component.

How we think about professional development should be as refreshing and changing as our classroom. We are life-long learners. How are we supporting this effort in our PD model? How can we make PD more meaningful to the participants? What did you learn today that you didn’t know yesterday? How are you a better teacher today than you were yesterday? last week? last month? last year? Are you a first-year teacher with 10 years experience or a tenth-year teacher with one year experience (repeated ten times)? Is your PD really professional development or professional stagnation? What are you doing to change that?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Professional Reflections on Literature

The past few years I have read some inspiring books. Teaching is a career that takes a lot of time to nurture so I choose my readings wisely and consciously. Below are the past 3 books that struck a chord with me regarding where I am professionally as well as some brief reflections.

The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman ©2005
This book provides a historical overview of the US and world economy of the 20th century and how technology has affected it. This was my first eye-opener of how quickly technology is changing our society and our world. As educators, we can either get on board with this new perspective or we can continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is happening around us. If we continue to teach 21st century students with a 20th century approach we will undoubtedly fail.

From Good to Great by Jim Collins ©2001
Three things stuck out in this book to me.
1. Good is the Enemy of Great
Education is steeped in tradition. Making decisions based on the past and what is traditional makes us complacent. In order to progress and move forward, we can not settle for "good". Good is comfortable; it's easy. Our children deserve much better than good enough!
2. The Ship Company
Collins described a ship-making company in one of the chapters. They posted a sign in front of their plant. "We built great ships, hopefully at a profit, sometimes at a loss, but always great ships!" What sign are we hanging in front of our schools? What are we hanging our hat on each and every day? What is our logo that drives us? Can we say the same of our students [or citizens, employees, insert your own noun]: We produce great students, sometimes National Merit Scholars, sometimes fast food workers, but always great students?
3. Hedgehog Concept
This is similar to the ship-making company. Collins' website,, describes a Hedgehog Concept in this way, "The essence of the Hedgehog Concept is to attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, and then exercising the relentless discipline to say, 'No thank you' to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test." You may call this a mission statement of sorts for a company, business, or school. It is a single, long-term goal that is to be attained. All decisions are made based on that goal. If an opportunity does not allow clear movement toward that goal, regardless of how enticing it may appear, it is rejected. How many times do we as schools and educators jump at the next shinny bell or whistle that comes along? Let's step back and evaluate how that will help us reach our goal. Does it fit our Hedgehog Concept?

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink ©2009
Motivation 1.0: Food, water, and sexual gratification - Survival
We operate under basic survival instincts.
Motivation 2.0: Carrots and Sticks - Extrinsic
In the 20th century we were driven by positive, extrinsic rewards (carrots) and avoided negative extrinsic consequences (sticks). These may include if-then rewards: if you do X then you will get Y. Menial tasks could be performed using carrots and sticks and we could make a living with these veggies and fiber. Unfortunately, the carrots and sticks negatively impact motivation in the long run. However, as Friedman points out, these types of tasks are being outsourced; anyone can do this type of work. What companies want, and will pay for, is what we are now calling homeshoring: America's creativity and out-of-box thinking, bringing us to...
Motivation 3.0: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose - Intrinsic
When companies (and teachers and parents) give employees (and students and children) these three freedoms, productivity significantly increases and turnover significantly decreases. Personal satisfaction and "flow" reaches an all-time high. This is best described by "FedEx Days" and 20% time. Rewards are granted with now-that approach: now that a job is completed, you will be granted Z. Once basic levels of compensation, benefits, etc are met, autonomy, mastery, and purpose become more important to retaining high quality people and getting high quality work. "Hire the right people, pay them well, and get out of their way." How are current educational systems allowing administrators, teachers, other staff, and students to be autonomous, reach mastery in their jobs/course, and giving purpose to their work? Perhaps a better question is how (and why) are these discouraged and suppressed?

How do we improve education in America? How are we improving what we are doing in our own classrooms? What are we doing today that we didn't do yesterday? last week? last year? What steps are we taking toward our Hedgehog Concept? How have our ideas changed regarding what education is and how it is delivered since we started our own path in education? What sign are we hanging in our state, in front of our school and classroom to advertise who we are? How are we contributing to Motivation 3.0? What steps are we taking to give up control to make staff and students autonomous? If money and time were no option, what would your idea of education look like? What are you doing with your 20%? What will you be delivering tomorrow as a result of "FedEx"?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Conversación y Café Expanded

Yesterday about 40 Spanish students had another great conversación y café session with Paulino Brener. After our last session, he thought it would be a good idea to expand the session and try to skype with two classrooms. The Newell-Fonda Spanish students were invited to join us this time and Paulino surprised us with a guest! Direct from Argentina, Pat Verano spoke about some of her favorite things to do, eat, and see there. Students were tempted by pictures of cuisine, geography, and other sites in Argentina. Variations on pronunciations were also introduced to the students. How exciting to bring native speakers into the classroom to provide authentic topics, realia, as well as listening and speaking practice.

A googledoc was initially used to brainstorm questions for Paulino and shared with him and the students in each school ahead of time. Paulino offered some suggestions for the students when writing their questions. Additionally, he provided links for the students to further their understanding of the given answer. After the Skype, students were quizzed on the conversation to assess their understanding of the conversation.

The students loved the conversation and were excited about the topics that were provided by the native speakers. Thanks to Paulino Brener and Pat Verano!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Learning Centers

In preparing for a sub, and after much repetition, conversation, and practice, my students need a fresh way to review and use their grammar. Students need and embrace choice in transforming the information into something new, without me there to guide them. Below is a list of ideas I came up with for them to practice their weather expressions. We regularly discuss what they are learning, how they are learning it, and what they need to be successful. I tried to tap into the various learning styles of my students, their interests within the classroom, and what they have expressed as positive ways to increase their learning. In about 10 minutes, I was able to brainstorm 15 activities! wow. In the end I am only choosing to offer six of these choices. Perhaps later in the week when we start forecasting weather I will mix it up with six new activities from the list. Here is the result of my planning, discussions with students, and weekend work. To see some student examples, search the twitter hashtag #shspn1 Monday morning. If you want to see any of the materials, let me know and I would be very willing to share them. Please share any other ideas or variations on these that you use in your classroom.

Learning Centers – weather

1. Vocab wheel “Wagon Wheel Wonders”
This is an activity from a strategy called Vocabulary Wheel. Sometimes students forget that sentences are really groups of words that are put together. This strategy will help them form sentences and put those sentences together to form a paragraph. It serves as a stepping stone to independent writing and also builds confidence. Students will choose a word from each wagon wheel to create their wonderful sentences. Post 3 to twitter. Don’t forget the class hashtag.
Wagon Wheel #1: seasons
Wagon Wheel #2: weather expressions
Wagon Wheel #3: temperatures
Wagon Wheel #4: days of the week

2. crossword
This is your basic crossword puzzle I created from, but it really addresses the logical/mathematical learners. Students will translate the words and phrases from English to Spanish to complete the crossword. It includes both vocabulary and grammatical expressions. Be careful with your spelling or your words may not fit correctly!

3. blog – describe pictures and post in blog
We have been using the 4 questions in class to describe seasonal pictures. Add any additional information can be added to complete the story. These are the questions:
¿Qué tiempo hace? ¿Cuál es la estación? ¿Cuál es la temperatura? ¿Qué hace en el tiempo?

4. Vocab and grammar practice website.
I maintain a classroom website that has podcasts, tutorials, and other classroom links on it. This particular link will take them to learning games created on Thanks to all the wonderful teachers for making their work public!

5. Pattern puzzles
This is a strategy that helps students organize and categorize information, as well as notice patterns. It again address the logical/mathematical learner. It's a great way to get students to transform the information they just learned. It's like putting together a puzzle, thus the name. Proficient learners recognize that there are patterns of information in content. This strategy can be used to review learning or, from a constructivist point of view, be used to teach new concepts. Using the seasonal pictures in the envelopes, student match strips of paper with the weather expressions with the appropriate picture.

6. Calendar/stories
In an attempt to make an activity more authentic in nature as well as utilize the technology that they have at their fingertips, they will be looking at the iCal image and explain the weather and activities as reported on the calendar. These ministories will then be posted to twitter.

7. Ta ta ti – aka tic tac toe, a speaking/listening activity
In groups of 2, one student has a card with a 2x4 table and simple weather pictures in each cell. For example a sun or a cloud or a rain drop would be used. The student with the card does not show the second student, but rather describes the weather in the picture. The second student draws the pictures that are described, in the order described, on his/her paper. The card and the drawings are then compared for accuracy at the end. The drawer will take a picture of both the card and the picture drawn and post to twitter.

8. Happy/sad
This is another speaking/listening activity for my verbal kids. Read a weather description and a situation. These could be prewritten or the students can make them up on the spot (one way to differentiate!) Partner holds up a happy card or sad face card, depending on how the character feels.

9. 4-square
This strategy is also called a “Magnet Summary”. Using an index card (or a 2x2 table), identify the topic (season) and write it in the center. Each corner serves as a magnet to that topic. So, in one corner write 3 types of weather; in another, 3 times; in a third, 3 activities; in the fourth, 3 temperatures. Students will then create sentences to explain that season using one item from each magnet. For example, “En el verano, hace mucho calor. La temperatura es 84 grados. A las ocho y media mis amigos practican el béisbol.”

10. poetry writing
Poetry can be anything we make it. There are rules to poetry, and then there are no rules. It can rhyme, or not rhyme at all. It can be restrictive or a totally open, free-flowing, mindstreaming. It can have a structural pattern or the words can form a picture. Poetry is the most versatile style of writing. We are only limited by our own creativity! Students use their vocabulary and grammar to create a poem about weather, the seasons, or temperatures.

11. 8-page book
This is another one for my kids that need manipulatives. Create an 8-page book, choose a weather expression to write at the top of each page, and then draw a picture for each one. Be sure to state the temperature, season, and what you can you in each type of weather reported. Share it with at least 3 other students and have them sign the back of the book. Their signature means that they have read it and agree with the grammatical structures and use of the vocabulary. This is a great way to get peer tutoring/editing and also reciprocal teaching.

12. Peek-a-boo
Our Elementary Booster Club purchased a die-cut machine and so I asked permission to use it to create some 9-tab window die-cuts. I put weather expressions on the outside and the answers under the "doors". Students will translate the sentences and lift the flap to see the correct answer.

13. Doodling
This is to get their creative thinking going! There are random lines drawn in boxes, 12 in all, and the students will complete the drawing. I posted this template on twitter earlier tonight. Look at the initial doodling lines and finish the drawings to create weather images. Write a sentence to explain what the weather is doing. Take a picture, and post it with the statement(s) to twitter.

14. Hands Down!
OK I admit it, I love my kids and they have the best toys, uh I mean classroom props, in the whole world! If my husband can't find something in the house, he has resorted to, "Are you using that at school again?!" This game uses the strategy of matching, speed, and honesty. Using the “hands” from the Hands Down game, match Spanish cards with English cards using the weather expressions. There is an aspect trying to fool your opponents so you have to be careful not to lose your cards. The goal is to get the most matches.

15. Song
Create a rap, hoe-down, lullaby, hip-hop, etc using their vocabulary and grammar. This will allow them to get up and dance, role-play, create music, and be social.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What Scrabble Can Teach Students

Teaching a World Language is often about building confidence in the language and showing students they CAN speak it. One day last week we had an "off" day. It was to mix things up a bit and to put away the computers. I pulled out some old Scrabble games and the kids created words from their vocabulary base. There was a host of unexpected conversations that took place.

1. What is that word?
2. Is this a word?
3. If I know ____, can I form ____?
4. What words start with/contain W?
5. How many vowels can I use in this word?
6. What was the ___ form of that verb?
7. others...

It was interesting to see some of the words they came up with during the game. There were also unexpected 21st Century Skills they were using in the process.

1. Creative problem solving - they didn't know what word to create or when there wasn't enough room to create the word. You can see one group just started building off the board. Another group put tiles upright to divide words that ran into each other. They also used what they already knew about the language to *ahem* create new words. Some were accurate; some were not, but they were manipulating the language nonetheless. SCORE!
2. Working as a team - if they didn't know what word to use, they would help each other out, not for personal gain, but for the gain of the group.
3. Leadership - They all took on a leadership role in the group at some point during the game. The stronger students helped the weaker students. Encouraging comments were given when a difficult word was accomplished.
4. Collaboration - some groups worked and counseled between groups to create words.
5. Self-directed learners - The teacher didn't have to be right there for them to create new words; they helped each other!

I think we'll do that again someday soon. :) Besides, we all had fun; that's what learning is all about!