The Blog

Let’s play

Jessica Wilson

Jessica Wilson

Learning vs. play

Where did kids get the idea that school was not fun?  That learning was not fun?

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewing another teacher’s student for a proficiency assessment and I asked about school.  He said that he liked learning but didn’t like school.  Isn’t that sad?  Well, maybe it’s not.  I actually told him that school wasn’t like life, and aspects of life like happiness and success are very friendly to people who love to learn.  I told him that I hoped the next year, his last year in school, would pass quickly, and he could enjoy what came beyond, the life of learning.

Why doesn’t he like school?  When did we accept the idea that school is tedious and discouraging? Where did we buy into such a message? Well, from everybody.  We got it, too.  We got it from Calvin and Hobbes, from Charlie Brown, from business leaders and talk show hosts.  At best school is presented as a tool to endure and manipulate to get what you want and at worst it’s a purgatory you have to survive until you can get out.

We have an opportunity every day to change this message.  Let’s change it!  To start, let’s play!  Let’s call the playtime vs. learning time dichotomy what it is: a lie.  Let’s believe and champion that playtime and learning time should not be different.

Learning through play

As young children develop, they learn through play.  Why should older students be any different?  Here are some reasons we should be playing:

  • Play creates attention, and attention creates long-term memory.
  • Play gets students moving, and movement creates long-term memory.
  • Play stimulates more senses and sensory stimulation creates long-term memory.

Guidelines for play

Sometimes this looks like chaos, but it should be anything but random.  It’s frustrating to attend a conference session on games and get a grab bag of ideas for filling class time with games that get kids thinking up a word that starts with B (in others words, not communicating anything).  So how do we play and learn at the same time?

  • Align play to your goals

Even when I choose a seemingly random activity to infuse some fun in class, it usually applies to what we’re working on at the time.  If not, it at least applies to a proficiency goal we’re working on, like using idiomatic expressions.

Your goals might be to preview a theme, review a theme, recycle key vocabulary in light of a coming activity or assessment, process authentic resources, or work on a proficiency skill like narration.

  • Require communicative language

Nothing’s more useless in a language class than an activity, fun or otherwise, that takes up a lot of time but requires little to no language.  I’m all for coming up with creative uses for Play Doh and drama, but let’s keep the communicative language flowing.  Also, avoid games and activities that require students to come up with discrete words apart from meanings.  Bad crossword puzzles and word searches (what’s the communicative function of a word search, please?) are no substitute for real communication.

This isn’t to say that fun can’t be spontaneous.  I’m still thinking of all the ways you could modify Carrie’s motivating, spur-of-the-moment Oscar award idea, El bigote.

Spontaneous or not, let’s fill our classrooms with learning that is fun rather than competes with fun!  Then share your great ideas with the rest of us.  Speaking of ideas, browse the recent Langchat summary on tips for a more successful and fun language class.  Here’s a recent game I’d never heard of, from Brian Kandel, using a fork to practice listening skills.  You can also browse through my communicative activities tag, which includes a nine-part series on fun activities I gleaned and tweaked from several sessions at Central States.

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April 21, 2014 0 Comments

New activity resource: Tweetfest!

tweetfestIn a recent focus on social media and political upheaval, I needed an interpersonal communication activity that related to the issues.  I needed to present students with relevant authentic material to spur conversation.  I needed a way to monitor what they were doing.  I wanted it all to apply to the focus.  And so, TweetFest was born.

I didn’t use a Spanish name for the activity on purpose because I want you to be able to use it regardless of the language you teach.

1. Locate relevant tweets by searching Twitter. Write the person’s Twitter user name and their tweet in the top box.

On Twitter you can search for a vocabulary word or phrase from your current focus, or you can browse trending topics in various areas.  For example, today one of the trending topics in Venezuela is #EnLosBañosPúblicos.  Sounds fun, right?

Remember a tweet that starts with RT actually came from the person after those letters (they stand for ReTweet) and so you should use that name.

Choose something you know will be fairly comprehensible but challenging, something that doesn’t include questionable material (there’s a whole lot of raunch on Twitter), and a tweet that will spark conversation among students.

2. Distribute TweetFest papers and start a timer.

Choose whether students will work in groups or alone.  Working with a partner will add interpersonal conversation to the activity, but having students work alone will keep classroom noise down.

Give students a reasonable amount of time to read and comprehend the tweet and compose a reply in the box underneath.  I began with 3 minutes but this was not enough for my intermediate low readers to comprehend authentic tweets about the Venezuela protests and political crisis.  5 minutes was more appropriate.

3. Pass the papers and add some time.

Have students, pairs, or groups exchange the TweetFest papers.  Add a couple of minutes to your timer because now the students have to read and understand 2 tweets instead of one.  If they don’t understand their classmates’ tweets, allow them to talk about it – negotiation of meaning is a critical skill.

Have fun with an activity that unites authentic resources, culture, social media, and interpersonal communication.  You can download the TweetFest activity for free on my resources page.


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April 17, 2014 2 Comments

Black Box Podcast episode 2: Circumlocution


What is circumlocution? Can it be taught? Should you teach it? When? If novices shouldn’t be required to produce language, should we teach them circumlocution as a tool to solve communication problems?  All of these questions are addressed in this second episode of the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast.  I had a real light-bulb moment working with this article, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.

As the second episode of the month, this is a paid download.   You can listen to this podcast at your leisure for half the cost of a tall mocha.

Transcripts for paid podcasts are released one month after the audio, and the audio file becomes a free download six months after release.

Listen now: $1.99

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April 15, 2014 1 Comment

An impromptu “langcamp”

A few teachers had expressed interest in coming to hang out with me for a day, and I’ve finally been able to schedule such a thing.  If you don’t live far from the Louisville area and you’d like to come “talk shop” with me on Monday, April 28, please let me know through the contact form.  I’ll be teaching two sections of Spanish 1, a special treat for me since I don’t normally teach novices, and my regular AP (level 4) class.  The rest of the day we’ll be brainstorming curriculum development and lesson planning, focusing on incorporating storytelling and authentic resources into effective lessons.

Perhaps I’ll see you then!

**UPDATE 4/14**
This event is now full, but plans are underway for a similar 1-day workshop (I’ve dubbed it “Camp Musicuentos”) in the summer.  Use the above link for the contact form to let me know if you want to be informed of these plans.

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April 12, 2014 2 Comments

See you at ACTFL ’14

I’m pleased to announce that I’m participating in three sessions you’ll see at the annual conference by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Kick the Vocab Quiz

This session will offer reasons and strategies for eliminating vocabulary quizzes from your classroom, in the interest of fostering real long-term memory and deep vocabulary development.  I’ll also address what could replace these quizzes.

The Personalized Language Adventure: Adding Student Choice in Homework

This session I’m copresenting with Bethanie Drew and Laura Sexton will cover ideas for replacing traditional, unmotivating, ineffective homework with the student choice activity I first suggested years ago that has caught on with teachers across the country.  Bethanie and Laura’s perspectives will be especially helpful for teachers of novices; my implementation of this idea has been with intermediate and pre-advanced students.  We’ll all tell you how we monitor and assess this homework, as well.

#Langchat- Your Always-There Professional Learning Network

I’ll be playing a supporting role in the session that will tell you all about #langchat, the weekly Twitter chat for world language teachers that I co-founded in 2011.  We’ll talk about what it is, why you should be a part of it, and how to join in the conversation.

If you don’t catch me at a session, you can stop by the booth for Calico Spanish in the exhibition area and I’ll be there often, also.

I hope to meet many of you in San Antonio this fall!

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April 11, 2014 0 Comments

4 ways to keep curriculum relevant

Kira Kiriakin

Kira Kiriakin

Textbooks can be really helpful.  Yes, I did say that. They can give you structure and ideas.  They can facilitate communication among you, parents, and schools.  They can provide you with assessments, sometimes good ones.

Sorry, I still don’t like them.  I don’t like doing extra work any more than you do, but I still can’t bring myself to use a textbook (though we do supplement our AP curriculum with the workbook Triángulo Aprobado). But the biggest reason I don’t like them simply can’t be avoided: textbooks are out of date as soon as they’re printed.  Before, actually, because the content has to be complete a long time before it goes to print.  This week as my students worked on a new activity I call TweetFest (resource out later this week!), looking at a hashtag that started with #8A, they were taken aback when they realized it stood for 8 de abril.  They were looking at something someone thousands of miles away wrote in Spanish that very day – within half an hour of when they came in the class, actually.  That’s up-to-date.

Now, don’t get me wrong – old news isn’t always irrelevant.  History is almost always relevant, but you can’t often understand its full relevance without the light of current information.  So how can you infuse your curriculum with relevance without ignoring the critical past?  Here are four ideas.

1. Supplement the big idea.

You don’t have to come up with brand new units every year to stay relevant and effective.  That doesn’t even make sense in proficiency-based teaching: novice students, for example, can talk about their world, and those topics stay fairly consistent.  Rather, change a source here and there for a listening or other activity.  Update the source to something both relevant to the big idea and current.  In the example of the Twitter activity above, I always include a section on political protests in our AP unit on global challenges.  However, even the  nature of such a unit requires an update, right?  Last year students looked at the protests in Spain and the Mexican student protest #YoSoy132.  This year, we kept #YoSoy132 but of course we had to add the protests in Venezuela.  It was a natural update to a theme I incorporate anyway.  In a unit on art and music, students evaluate a couple of important historical paintings at the Museo del Prado but also look up a modern artist, evaluate his or her art, and even contact the artist.

2. Compare historical figures.

It’s really important for students to learn about people who played an integral part in shaping the fabric of the culture whose language you teach.  Don’t throw out these important aspects, but add in some more recent people students may already know about and compare them.  Or, ask students to compare these people to themselves.  In our unit on social change, we look at César Chávez and compare him to Juan Luis Guerra, and particularly ask this question: does our social or economic background determine whether we can effect positive change in the world around us?  My students love Guerra’s music but had no idea who Chávez was.  In this way we brought history, modern music, and students’ own lives together.

3. Have students update.

Sometimes there’s something so good you can’t bring yourself to get rid of it.  You can keep it and save yourself some research time by setting aside time for students to update you on the situation.  The summer before I began teaching Spanish 3 at my current school, Ingrid Betancourt, 3 U.S. contractors, and several Colombian police offers were dramatically and completely peacefully rescued in a perfectly executed spy operation right out of a movie script.  The whole dramatic story of their kidnapping, complete with proof of life videos and an actual video of the rescue itself, was so engaging and relevant it made one of the most memorable topics of the year, part of our unit on narrating stories.  In subsequent years as the story got “old” its engagement still didn’t dull for new rounds of Spanish 3 students who had never heard it, but we added more relevance, language input, and critical thinking by having the students investigate and update particular aspects of the story for the whole class.

4. Keep an eye on the news with your units in mind.

I’m always advocating asking students to do more critical thinking from the beginning, and infusing your “normal” novice units with current news or local issues is one way to do this.  Two ideas came to me recently from some colleagues relevant to a unit on food.  Bethanie suggested using the food unit as an opportunity for students to investigate whether and how Spanish-speaking parents have access to the local school district’s lunch menu.  Could your students work on some solutions?
Did you know that much of the recent drug violence in Mexico has been concentrated in an area that provides many of the avocados sold in the United States and is affecting their production and sale?  Me neither, but this tidbit from Mira struck me as a great way to make a food unit even more relevant and infused with culture and critical thinking.

Get kids thinking, spice up the topics, keep it relevant, keep it fun, and most of all, keep them learning!

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April 9, 2014 3 Comments

Tutorial on the best free PD you’ll find in your own home

If you’re interested in the kind of professional development where:

  • you suggest the topics
  • you vote on the topics
  • it’s no big deal if you don’t show up
  • it can be life-changing when you do show up
  • it grows your personal learning network by leaps and bounds every time
  • if you don’t like the topic you can skip it
  • challenging the status quo is embraced with open arms

then you really ought to check out #langchat.

Last night’s #langchat about assessing participation was so inspiring I drafted two blog posts and followed at least 15 new Tweeting teachers in the first half hour.  And one of the items tweeted out was this tutorial by my fellow #langchat moderator, Colleen.  If you’d like to hang out with us but don’t know how, it’s definitely the place to start.

I’ll “see” you there!

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April 4, 2014 0 Comments

The Musicuentos Black Box Podcast: IT’S HERE!

No April Fools’ joke here!

Muscuentos Black Box PodcastEvery project I work on matters to me, but some are just really close to my heart and I don’t know how else to explain it.  One is the proficiency-based, comprehensible input-filled curriculum for homeschooled elementary students I’ve been working on with Calico Spanish.  Another is the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast.

The heartbeat of this blog has never been to provide you with activities for your classroom, though I do that often.  It’s always been to share what I keep learning about how students actually learn, how the brain actually works, and how we can use that very valuable information to evaluate any activity we might do in the classroom.  That’s the only way we’ll make the best of the very limited time we have.  Last year I began to be frustrated by how many activities and worksheets I was seeing fly around the internet and into our classrooms with more thought on filling lesson plans with something rather than engaging students in activities that work for memory and learning.  At the same time I was wondering why so many teachers weren’t considering research as a base for evaluating curriculum, I realized that I hadn’t done much with it myself since getting out of grad school, not journal research anyway.  We’re all busy and many research articles cost money and unless you’re at a university, it’s hard to find the resources and even harder to find the time to explore them.

That’s when the idea was born.  I wanted to provide teachers with an easy-access, engaging way to keep up with some research that should be impacting how we teach.  I decided on a podcast so you could listen while you are doing just about anything, rather than having to sit down and read a long document.  I decided to call it the Black Box, since that is how second language researchers refer to what happens in the brain between input and output.  The premise is that we can know what goes in, and we can know what comes out, and the point of research is to try to develop models that explain what’s happening in between, inside the brain, to help us facilitate that process.

I’ve been working on the idea for four months, and now it’s here.  I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about it.  Most episodes will last less than twenty minutes.  The first episode of every month, released around the first, will be free.  An additional episode will be released about mid-month and you can download it for $1.99, which helps offset the costs of the website, the resources I develop, and my time.  I know it’s a bit cumbersome to download them to a mobile device from the website, but know that plans are also in the works for a Musicuentos app that will deliver the podcast directly to your iOS device.

Listen now

Sit down for your lunch hour or start washing your dishes and give me 17 minutes to introduce you to the first episode of the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast.  The topic is one we don’t often talk about: pronunciation.  Do students who have “high aptitude” improve their pronunciation more than others?  Do students who use specific strategies improve their pronunciation more than ones who don’t?  The answer will surprise you.  Listen now and find out!  Then use the contact form to send me feedback on the podcast or suggest an article for a future episode.

If teachers will take a few minutes every two weeks to make this podcast a part of their routine, I’m convinced that the Black Box will be the biggest thing to hit world language teaching in 2014.  Listen now and see if you don’t agree.

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April 1, 2014 3 Comments

Authentic visual illustrations of proficiency (Spanish)

Got intermediate Spanish students you’re trying to push to use some advanced skills? How about using these authentic “memes” to illustrate some proficiency differences?

All three of these phrases mean basically the same thing, but they use different language to express it. Once students get to intermediate low proficiency, pushing their proficiency higher has a whole lot to do with complexity of phrases and “deeper” vocabulary. Once they start flirting with advanced low, it’s time to really focus on idiomatic expression as a natural way of speaking. This first example shows increased complexity but no real depth of vocabulary; all of these words are fairly high-frequency.


More advanced proficiency, however, includes not just complexity but also ease of idiomatic expression.  Notice here how the very English equivalent “perder el tiempo” has been replaced by “no sirve de nada,” a useful and fun idiom. (For some songs involving this idiom, check out De qué sirve by Reik and De qué me sirve la vida by Camila.)



Finally, this last example includes the same complexity, and an idiom, and this time it’s one of the most important idiomatic expressions for intermediate students to get a handle on.  It’s so ubiquitous it’s one of our major focus phrases for Spanish 3 and AP: darse cuenta de (que) for “realize.”

How about this for a “homework” assignment: can your students find an appropriate, creative commons photo, and use an app like PicMonkey to combine the last two phrases into an even more advanced expression?

In the Musicuentos spirit, for more songs involving common idiomatic expressions, check out the post Got idioms?


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March 31, 2014 0 Comments

Curriculum planning outside the textbook, Part 2

 To find out what curriculum planning I think is necessary before school begins, click here for Part 1.

Before the unit starts

  1. If you haven’t already (see Part 1 #4), choose a platform to help you organize yourself.  I use a simple Excel or Google Drive spreadsheet.
    On the left, I list the date, number of the week and day in the school year (so the second day of week 12 is 12-2), and the actual number of the day in the year (day 84, for example, so I know how many days we’ve met). But I like data.  Use whatever works for you.
    Along the top, I use the categories I use for planning: Explore, Interpretive, Interpersonal, Presentational, Assessment, and Resources.  That way, I can look at it and quickly determine if my activities are too heavily weighted in one area.spreadsheet
  2. Since you know what your units will be and have a good idea of what your assessments will be, look at the first unit’s assessments.  Ask yourself:  What do they need to do the assessment?
    If your assessment goal is “I can say what I want in a hotel” then students will need tools to express wants/needs/preferences, and vocabulary about hotels.
    If the goal is “I can talk about why I like a place for vacation” then students will need vacation vocabulary (transportation? geography? activities?) and will need tools to express likes.
    Let’s say a goal is “I can tell my friend some activities I’m going to do on vacation.”  Then students need activities vocabulary like “going to,” “have to,” and perhaps days of week and telling time.
    The key is that you’re looking at everything in terms of meaning all the time.  It’s not that you’re never approaching grammar.  You have to.  If students are going to talk about what they’re going to do, they’re going to need to be able to use the “going to” construction.  But the point is to talk about what they’re going to do, not to use the “going to” construction.

  3. Consider the vocabulary they need.  I still advocate developing a short list of potential vocabulary they’ll need.  You can’t control what they’ll actually acquire but let’s face it, especially at lower levels, some of the vocabulary to do particular things will be common.  To talk about what they’re going to do, all students will end up using words like eat and sleep.

  4. Look at your end goals again and ask: what grammar will they need? Develop a short list of structures you’ll need to hit, like “quiero,” “me gusta,” more opinion phrases, descriptions, and “ir + a.”

  5. Brainstorm the activities; come from the assessment and go from end to start.  What should they be doing immediately before the assessment(s)?  What other things can they do to get there?  Go backwards from there.
    In our example, if they will need to talk about vacation places, what activities can we do to practice to get them there? Some may be from a textbook.  Perhaps they’ll look at place reviews, or official amusement park websites or a tour guide article.  Maybe they’ll watch a YouTube tourism video and put comments in order or categorize them as true or false.  Maybe they’ll watch Disney commercials and do cloze listening quizzes and answer questions about trips to Disney.  We’re brainstorming communicative activities all designed to get us to the goal: our proficiency-based performance assessment.

    To help you come up with ideas, ask yourself, what authentic resources can students explore?  Then, ask: “How can I preview them and make them more comprehensible? How can they help us develop more vocabulary? What will we do with them?  What will we do after them?  How can I verify students are exploring and comprehending?  Will I give a comprehension quiz on Edmodo?  Ask for a summary? What deeper thinking can I inspire from this resource? How can we build a conversation about the activity?  Here’s an example of this process:

    • brainstorm vocabulary related to going to an amusement park

    • students do conversations about trips to amusement park (add to vocabulary)

    • make a class list of what makes a great amusement park

    • order some activities you might do at an amusement park (time of day, before/after/during/while)

    • look at authentic amusement park resource – give your opinion and why you think that

    • with a friend, plan activities at this amusement park and report on your plan

    • do the same thing with another amusement park, different in theme

    • compare the two parks

    • make an infographic about the one you like better

    • report which one you like better and why

    • graphically represent how many students in the class liked one or the other and reasons why

  6. When you have more activities then you could ever need in a unit (always plan too much instead of too little!), plot the sequence of these activities in a logical way so they build on each other.  I fill in the cells on my spreadsheet with these activities.  I can easily move them around to reorder things according to what I think will work best and help students learn better.

  7. As a storytelling teacher, the last thing I do is consider an outline for a story to introduce the theme.  This is the method I choose to present structures and vocabulary using comprehensible input.  Students need to assimilate at least some of the language before I ask them to do anything with it, and I honestly don’t know how other teachers communicate this content in a comprehensible way without storytelling.  Consider whether you need to do more than one story in your unit.  And, will students do anything with the story once it’s done, or will we just launch into activities?

The above is what I do before the unit begins.  This process takes me between two to four hours, depending on the length of the unit and how hard it is for me to find the resources I need.  Note that what I’ve done is to map out the whole unit – I know what we will do each day.  That doesn’t mean I have each day planned out.  So I still have one thing left to do.

post it lessonSo,

  1. The Friday, Saturday, and/or Sunday before each week of my unit begins, I look at the week and plot what exactly we’re doing.  If I need to make sentence strips for a true/false activity, I do it now.  If I need to make a cloze quiz, this is when that happens.
    For teachers in the first couple of years of your career, I have one more recommendation.  Every morning, look again at your plan.  On a sticky note, write the exact sequence of what you’ll do.  This way you’ll know for sure you have everything you need and you won’t have to think, “Wait, what was I going to do next?” Put this sticky note on your laptop, textbook, notebook, whatever you keep with you a lot in the classroom so you can refer to it.  This tip kept my classes moving smoothly in those difficult first couple of years.

If you want to see more examples of curriculum I’ve worked on, here are some materials we began developing for our Spanish 1 curriculum a few years ago.  We weren’t able to finish them but they’ll give you an idea of where we were headed.

Spanish 1 I Can statements

Spanish 1 Curriculum map

Spanish 1 vocabulary

 To add one more thing, also relevant is the question of how this all plays out in a gradebook.  At my school we are required to count “daily grades” as 50% and “tests” as 50%.  Here’s what that looks like for me:

  • Daily grades:
    -weekly homework choice activity
    -blog on Edmodo
    -listening cloze quizzes such as for commercials
    -comprehension quizzes on authentic resources
    -presentational or interpersonal practice, such as an infographic students create and email to me or a letter they write to someone
    -chapter guides on our novels
  • Test grades:
    -one or more integrated performance assessments (I used to plan one interpersonal speaking, one interpersonal writing, one presentational speaking, and one presentational writing, but now I would plan one or two assessments involving more than one mode in the same assessment)
    -another test grade is the cumulative points correct on all quizzes, including our novel reading guides

For further clarification, I never ask multiple-choice questions, and my quizzes are always unannounced.

I hope this helps you on the journey to making your curriculum your own, one that works for your students and you in your classroom, a situation that doesn’t exist anywhere else.  It may seem tedious, but I think the process I’ve laid out here will make it a lot easier, and after you try it, you won’t want to do anything else!

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March 28, 2014 1 Comment