The Blog

Quick tech to start your year: One-Click Timer

What’s the technology that gets used the most in my classroom? Broadly, I suppose it’s YouTube.  Outside the classroom, Edmodo and Google Docs for sure.  But as far as a little tool, certainly the one I use the most is a timer.

If you’ve been teaching any length of time you know that setting a timer can keep kids on task and focused very effectively.  If you’ve given or attended a conference presentation you know that setting  a timer does the same thing for teachers talking shop in small groups.  So, it’s not hard to imagine why I love this new tool I found.

It takes a lot for me to switch from one tool I’ve used for a while to another one, but this one did it.  I was long a fan of Online Stopwatch.  It was simple and effective.  And added another tab.  And was full of ads.  And I often forgot to click “start” after I clicked “set” because I felt like “set” was going to start the thing.

easey tech 3 one click timer

Without further ado, then I found the Chrome extension called One-Click Timer.  Spoiler: it’s actually two clicks.  Click the button on the toolbar, click the time you want.  That’s it.  My only complaint has been that the sound when it’s done doesn’t seem to push out to my bluetooth speaker, which is often connected to my computer in class.

Go get the extension now – I’m giving you two minutes to get it, try it, and love it.

Here’s a video someone did about it.

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January 29, 2016 3 Comments

Quick Tech to start your year: Video DownloadHelper

I love networking with great people. Not only is it how I figure out answers to what I’m doing wrong, it’s also where I get the best tips on new tech tools that will simplify my life without further stressing me out.  This tool is a great example.  I was talking to Thomas Sauer at a conference about how much trouble the presenters were having getting the technology to work. (Side note, next time you’re in a conference presentation and the internet is working abysmally, ask all the participants to turn their devices’ data operation off and see if that doesn’t help. Sometimes participants cripple the presenter by being told the wifi password and then slamming the site’s bandwidth).

Anyway, Thomas remarked that the first thing every presenter ought to do when the presentation is ready to go is to download everything that requires internet so the session can still happen if (when) the internet goes wonky.  I concurred and wondered aloud why doing so had to be such a cumbersome process, how just recently I’d discovered a tool through someone’s blog that might be slightly less complicated than the one I had been using.  You know, the ones where you copy and paste a YouTube URL into another website’s search tool and then you have to figure out what to click on to download the video and what cleverly worded links will just take you to an advertiser’s site.

“I just use the add-on downloader in Firefox.”

Wait, you mean, there’s like an add-on tool for it?  Because Chrome’s went by the wayside a long time ago.  And was terrible.  And besides, I don’t use Firefox.

“I only open Firefox to download the video. Then I close it and I’m done.”

Wait, I can do that.

easy tech 2 video downloader

And that’s how the Firefox add-on called Video DownloadHelper became my go-to application for downloading YouTube videos. It’s not limited to YouTube. As soon as you access a site that has a video you can download, the little icon up on the top of the browser becomes active. Click on it, click on the format you want (I use .mp4, the first option), choose a folder for it, and it’s downloading.  I promise: three clicks.

If the wifi in your building isn’t terribly reliable as mine isn’t, or if you want to present a video at a conference whose wifi may not be all it’s cracked up to be (it never is), give this easy little Firefox tool a try.  Below you’ll find a video from the developer on how to use it.  If you love it, next time you see Thomas buy him a fair-trade coffee for all of us.

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January 26, 2016 4 Comments

Quick tech to start your year: Screencastify

I may seem pretty techy to some, but let me tell you, technology overwhelms me quickly. It changes every half second, right? And with all the blogs I follow, some days it seems like I get several blog posts delivered at almost the same time referring to approximately 72 different technology options I must use for something right now. No lie: first, I hit delete. Next, I shut my laptop. Tech overload.

So if you hit delete and close your laptop here, I forgive you.

But if you’ve stuck with me this far I want to announce a three-part series of blog posts on simple – no, I mean really, really simple – tech tools that I’m loving this year.  I’ve tried and tested them and they definitely meet my criteria to become a must-have tool: 1) they’re so easy anyone can use them and 2) they make my teaching life easier. I mean it. Only three tools. Really simple ones. Stay tuned.

easy tech 1 screencastify

First, Screencastify.


I’m not a coder or developer so it’s easy for me to point fingers but boy, I would have thought someone would have come up with a simple, free solution to screencasting long before a year ago. But when I wanted to record what was I was doing on my screen, I used a tool created by Jing that required me to do all sorts of opening and closing, saving, time limiting, storage limiting, saving and uploading and decision-making; yes, it was a mess.  I did it a few times for the blog and then that software left my radar.  But then someone thought up this Chrome add-on.  Brilliant! It’s IN MY BROWSER! It takes TWO CLICKS! It UPLOADS DIRECTLY TO MY YOUTUBE CHANNEL.  This tool solved every single frustration I had with previous screencasting attempts.

Watch this guy show you how to use Screencastify. Click here to visit the Chrome store to add it to your Chrome browser.

On my computer: I see my students once a week, so anything I can do to get them involved in language outside of class is a benefit to us all.  I suggest they play Lyrics Training (oh wait – let me Screencastify that to show you how to use it, guys! I’ll post it to Edmodo!).  Another option is listening on Audio Lingua (need some tips on searching for good audio? I’ll Screencastify that for you! Linked on our Edmodo group!)
On their computer: I can ask my students to narrate anything via Screencastify, share the video with me, and boom- I’ve got a speaking sample that didn’t take up precious class time.  Here’s a slideshow; as you look through it, tell me who the family members are in the picture.  Click on this link to the electronics department of Amazon Spain and screencast yourself telling me which things you like the best and how much they cost.

There you go. I love Screencastify. Keep an eye out for the other two posts in my top three SIMPLE tech recommendations for 2016.

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January 22, 2016 0 Comments

Chameleons and bears and early language class, oh my!

Where is the magic intersection of great children’s literature and stories particularly helpful for early language acquisition?

I’ve spent a lot of time investigating my answers to this question and I hope my choices and the adaptations I offer here are helpful to you, whether you teach the young or the old who will tolerate a bit of the young.  For more information on children’s stories that do more than teach language in the world language class, see this post where I borrow a lot of recommendations from Helena Curtain, as well as this post where I share some stories I’ve found useful with my own kids, some of which, as you’ll see below, I’ve adapted for my classroom as well.

Here are the stories I regularly use in my curriculum for 5- to 12-year-olds.  In my adaptations here, I’ve used or included the English so that those of you who teach other languages can translate as desired.

Bears on Chairs: Sharing and problem-solving

When my kids come through the door not knowing that loco means crazy (or will describe our class), our first story is this lovely rhyme by Shirley Panteneau and David Walker.  The plot line is that four bears have chairs but the fifth bear doesn’t, and they’ll have to use their minds and hearts to figure out how to get that fifth bear on a chair.  Through the whole first semester (in a schedule of 16 weekly meetings lasting one hour each), we used this story to practice the targets:

  • numbers one through five
  • vocabulary “chairs” “bears” “how many” “cool” “oh no!” “what a problem!” “very good” “hi” “on” “and”
  • structures “where is” “this is” “his/her name is”

It’s not nearly as cute without the rhyme, but here’s my adaptation of Bears on Chairs.

The Mixed-Up Chameleon: Be who you’re made to be

As usual, I overestimated how quickly my students would develop a good interaction with the first book, Bears on Chairs, and we didn’t get around to using The Mixed Up Chameleon.  But I still love and recommend the book, especially if you have more time than I did. The targets here are:

  • colors
  • vocabulary “was” “said” “saw” “so” (describing words)
  • states of being “I’m hot” “I’m cold” “I’m bored” “I’m happy”
  • structures “I’m not” “I want to be…” “_____ is [descriptor]“

Though I wasn’t able to use it this year, here is my early novice version of The Mixed-Up Chameleon.

The Other Bears: Celebrate differences

I’ve got to say that this might be my favorite early language class story of all time. The message is so critical: it’s exactly what we are trying to get across to our students.  As I said in my earlier post, the message of this book is not to tolerate differences, but to actually celebrate them and how they contribute to all our lives. I can’t wait to walk my little ones through this story of younger bears helping the older bears see how every bear is happier because there are other bears (cough, Academy).  And of course, there’s the language.  This book is easily adapted to practice important targets:

  • family
  • vocabulary “look!” “other” “more” (descriptors)
  • structures “I (don’t) like” “I love” “they are (not)” “in a bad/good mood”

Here is my early novice adaptation of The Other Bears.  We’ll be doing this story all semester, but if I had a better schedule and more time with my students, we’d end the year with The Very Busy Spider (a.k.a. Keep Working – It’ll Pay Off).

Have you used one of these stories successfully with your early learners? What other simple, beautiful stories do your students love and benefit from?

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January 19, 2016 0 Comments

Blogs to Watch 2016

Whom are you listening to?  It’s a critical question.  Whom you’re listening to in the long-term can have a significant impact on your practice in the classroom, and that’s a big deal.  Here’s my annual post about whom I’m listening to on new(ish) websites.

I’m not having a “YOU MUST READ THESE BLOGS!” feeling for this post like I had in the past, but I do have some wholehearted recommendations of blogs that I really learned from in 2015.

Read these. Yesterday.

The Language Gym

When Gianfranco Conti’s blog came on the scene in May 2015, it made a bigger splash than any blog launch I have ever seen, and for good reason.  The blog was getting hundreds of hits a day almost immediately.

You may get the impression from the Language Gym icon that Gianfranco is some nerdy superhuman, and you’d be on the right track.  I told him not long after he started blogging that I could tell a couple of things about him right away: 1) he really knows what he’s talking about, and 2) he’s not the primary caretaker of three small children.  Wow, this guy is prolific.  And brilliant.  Two things you need to know: Gianfranco has a strong background in Second Language Acquisition research and theory – really strong – and sometimes you have to know some of that lingo to really understand what he’s getting at.  Second, he’s Italian and teaches in Southeast Asia, so he comes at the issues with a perspective based in European frameworks.  He and Steve Smith are almost finished with a book that’s a practical guide to language teaching (thanks guys for giving me a sneak peek) but while you’re waiting for it, definitely catch up with Gianfranco on The Language Gym.

At first I was frustrated that my subscription to Gianfranco’s blog didn’t work; his posts didn’t arrive in my email, my preferred way to read posts.  Then I discovered Bloglovin’, the tool that delivers blog posts to my email in a nice digest with or without signing up on the individual blogs (though Weebly still will not let me add blogs there to Bloglovin’, and some of the latest blogs I’m most eager to follow have showed up on Weebly!). So if you can’t get a subscription to work, sign up for Bloglovin’ (and do it anyway for all those other blogs that don’t have subscription options). (Follow my blog with Bloglovin)

Madame’s Musings

Okay, yes, I know this blog appeared technically in 2014, but it was the second half of 2014, and I didn’t find it until the beginning of 2015, so it was new to me.  Absolutely every French teacher anywhere who wants to pursue proficiency-based teaching ought to be following what Lisa Shepard has to say and taking advantage of the vast amount of work she puts into the resources she freely shares at Madame’s Musings, especially the IPA offerings.  And the rest of us can find a whole lot of gold nuggets there too.  I’m always excited to get these in my email (and I’m super excited that I get to meet Lisa at the upcoming CSCTFL ’16.)

Read these too.

supporting each other

supporting each other

This is more than an honorable mention section: I truly recommend these blogs as well but didn’t put them above for reasons that will be apparent.  First, can it be true that I have never included in one of these posts my esteemed colleague and friend Colleen Lee-Hayes?  She’s been blogging at Language Sensei since at least 2013 but I want to take this opportunity to tell you to follow her everywhere.  A more clear-headed, friendly, respectful, reflective teacher you will not find.  If we didn’t live thousands of miles apart I promise I’d be after her to pretty please be one of my best friends.

I want to mention a few others I’m excited about that didn’t produce a lot of content in 2015 but have me hopeful:  Another Japanese-teaching colleague, John, began blogging and Journey Toward Proficiency in 2015 and I love getting his posts when he’s able to write. Sticking on the Japanese theme, I’m so grateful that Iya turned the taco talk and sushi talk into such beautiful documents and I’m looking forward to seeing her post more on her new blog in 2016.  I was excited to see Maestra Schemmer start blogging after I’d long followed her on Twitter, and the same for Sarah Bolaños, for whose collaboration I am always thankful and a better teacher. It won’t take you long to see why Nicole Naditz is one of the most respected world language teachers in the country (and ACTFL TOY ’14) and how much her reflections can inform your practice.  And some of the best language teachers and professionals I’ve ever met started blogging together at Path 2 Proficiency.  I wanted to include this above, but the blog really just went live and hasn’t accumulated many posts yet.  I know it’ll be a superstar resource, though, because of the people behind it (talking about you, Thomas, Alyssa, Paulo).

Have I missed a great blog you can recommend?

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January 11, 2016 7 Comments

Resolve for 2016: Walk free, and pay it forward

Stuck and confused.

Those are the two words that describe how I feel as I contemplate what I want to change, do, and be in 2016.  (No, I don’t have to have it figured out by January 1.  There’s a lot of 2016 left.)  I’m thankful for the online language teaching community for helping me find some clarity, including Laura’s reminder to find reason (if you’re needing more reasons, the Black Box videocasts are a good place to start) and Thomas’s clear plan for how I can be an EPIC teacher and in total practicality, Kara and Elena’s unit packet for the movie ”Canela” and how that is helping me develop what I hope will be a better semester for my students.

And so, I encourage us together this year to consider a couple of possible resolutions: get unstuck and walk in freedom, and then, pay it forward.

freedomWe’re free! Let’s act like it.

On June 19, 1865, a group of soldiers showed up in Galveston, Texas, to deliver and enforce the news that the Union had won the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation had declared slaves free.  This was almost two and half years after the Proclamation had actually declared them free.  But the slaves there were not living in freedom.  They had it, but only in theory.  They couldn’t walk in it – and one reason was that they didn’t even know about it.

How can we feel a little less stuck in 2016?

Take it to your leaders.

I have to admit, as far as program content from goals to assessment go, I am completely and totally free.  My students’ parents don’t even want number/letter grades for their kids, much less force me to give them.  But most programs are not like that.  I hear many teachers talk about struggling to follow the proficiency path within the expectations of their administration and/or program chair.  But more often than not, I’ve found that we often assume those expectations are actual rules and that does not turn out to be so.  Why not have a talk with your leaders in 2016 and find out how much you’re actually tied to whatever baseless practice you’re trying to break free from?  Some questions:

  • Will you let me turn in my attendance halfway through class so that I can take advantage of students’ high brain power at the beginning?
  • Will you let me give a performance assessment as my final exam if I show you how I can translate my feedback into a number/letter grade?
  • After my own research and professional development, will you let me sequence tasks and offer practice in a way I believe will offer my students better opportunity for growth if I can show you where similar topics are addressed in your textbook?

Stop trying to be anyone else.

There’s a reason God made you to be you.  He wanted you and exactly one you in the world.  If you try to be Laura Terrill, you are cheating the world of something it really needed: exactly one of her and exactly one of you.  Don’t read my blog and think that I or anyone else wants you to be me.  Don’t read other blogs and get tears in your eyes over all the acronyms you don’t even recognize much less are implementing.  You are a good teacher, and you want to be a good teacher, and your students need you to keep walking on your journey with them – not mine.

Scale back the content.

I still believe the biggest mistake we make is teaching too much content.  I don’t want to.  And I still do.  I plan too much and get frustrated when kids can’t do it all.  I need a reality check to remind me that learners can do more for a longer time if I’ll stop bombarding them with so much content.

Skip a pointless activity.

Your students will celebrate.  No one else has to know (wink, wink).  I’m not asking you to throw your textbook out the window.  I’m asking you to take that activity on page 152 that you know that you know is a waste of everyone’s time and simply skip it.

We’re walking free.  Now what?

Pay it forward

Here’s an achievable, meaningful resolution for every teacher: decide to contribute something to the field.

You could, for example, contribute to a collaborative project, such as this one where we’re sharing activities paired with authentic resources by topic and level.  Or this one where we’re trying to show what we think about whether a textbook activity should be adapted or used as-is or tossed out.  You could set yourself a calendar reminder to spend 15 minutes a week using a venue like one of these to share something that has worked well in your class.  Or, you could create your own venue:

What about starting a blog?  Don’t worry about who will or will not read it, how often you’ll write, or whether you’ll get criticized or retweeted and such.  The biggest value in blogging is in the thought process you go through documenting your own steps forward – and backward.  And let me know where you’re sharing so I can partake!  Selfishly I’d ask you to use WordPress because they have the easiest plug-ins that will deliver your posts to my inbox (since I’m too scattered to remember to check so many blogs regularly).  Or if not, I can easily add you to my Bloglovin’ feed (unless you’re using Weebly; I have not been able to add Weebly sites to Bloglovin’; boo on Weebly).   I’ll mention a few blogs I enjoyed last year in a couple of days in my annual Blogs to Watch post.  Will I see you on your own blog soon?

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January 6, 2016 0 Comments

Top post of the year: The 2015 updated rubric

My old rubric served me well for four years, but it was time for a change.  A clean slate, a lot of websites, a lot of feedback, and a lot of collaborative brainstorming later, I finally had something I was willing to put out and test out.  Check the post below – the links go to the latest version based on feedback from teachers using the feedback.  And I may make some more changes after contemplating my recent end-of-semester assessments.  The top post of 2015 – published in August and still accessed twice as much as the next most popular post – was the lengthy discussion and release of my updated performance-toward-proficiency rubric.

best of 2015 rubric

(And happy 2016, everyone!)

The 2015 updated performance assessment rubric

This might be my most important resource release this year.

First, you can read here about all the things that frustrated me about that snazzy 2011 rubric that I used to use (and that got downloaded from this site a lot). Some of them probably frustrated those of you who used it, too. So I decided to do a total overhaul. No starting from the original document allowed. A blank page. (Well, really I started with a yellow legal pad and about 12 Chrome tabs open.)

Unpacking it

From talking to lots and lots of teachers about it, I hope I can anticipate a lot of questions you might have about the document. Several teachers helped me realize that simply posting it out here isn’t enough. You need some explanation on it. And so I may do a screencast and I may do a PDF but at least, here are explanations of the sections along with some screen shots.

2015 rubric page 1

Just looking at the front you can see some major changes. In the old rubric, there was an incredible amount of information that required very small type. The center sections were the target proficiency levels and they were colored in, which visually communicated, in my opinion, that half the rubric was irrelevant. So to begin, since by the time I’m doing performance assessments Novice Low is not a target at any point, I removed it. And since the majority of our students do not achieve intermediate mid in our classes, I kicked off IM and IH as well. But some do. And so I have promised Bethanie Carlson-Drew that I will develop a version ranging from NH to IM.

You’ll also notice the title is Performance toward Proficiency. This is because most of us are not qualified to say, and it is not our intention on assessments to say, “You achieve X proficiency.” Rather, our message is this: “On this particular performance, you are using language characteristic of X proficiency.”

Another major change was the column on the far right: it is a place you can simply check if either the section is not applicable or there is insufficient evidence to assess the category.  For example, the comprehension section is not applicable in a presentational writing assessment.

Page 1:

There are now four major sections on the front page and each is divided into a few subsections.

  • Message Type: What language do I use?
    The first section is called Message Type and communicates to students what kind of language they are using. The ingredients and how they come together, if you will.
    The first sublevel here is structure. What pieces of language are the students using: just words and a few phrases? Phrases and some sentences? All sentences when appropriate? How much does the structure reflect their native language (“Yo gusta deliciouso taco”)? I have to give you a major caveat here: for some unknown reason and in a very confusing turn of phrase, ACTFL says that Intermediate Low pronunciation, structure, etc. are strongly influenced by the first language, and that those features in Novice High may be strongly influenced by the first language. I promise. Check it out. This seems completely backwards to me and so I made a judgement call to switch them.
    The second sublevel is depth of vocabulary. I’ve always loved this phrase. It’s what happens when students throw out “I adore it” instead of “I like it” and “many people perished” instead of “many people died.” Is the student just using very common words he’s memorized? Can she begin to personalize words by, for example, adding -ísimo to adjectives?
    The third sublevel is context. This is a positive section helping students realize what situations they can handle. Is it very common situations they have practiced? Good job. More contexts that are still familiar, everyday situations? What about throwing a bit of complication in there? Great work! More contexts for you!
    QUESTION about this context section: a teacher friend asked me a very good question: if we’re dictating the context in the scenario, is it fair to judge this part? In other words, should this section be eliminated, or is it needed to tell students what kind of contexts they’re handling and let them know if they’re going beyond or behind their demonstrated proficiency here, compared to other areas? Let me know your thoughts.
  • Message Depth: How do I support my communication?
    The second section is called Message Depth and communicates to students how well they are supporting section 1; that is, how does the language they choose to use flesh out their message?
    The first sublevel here is content support. This is one place I desperately needed on a rubric that simply didn’t exist on the JCPS rubric, and I noticed the need for it from scoring AP essay after AP essay. I needed a place to tell students how well they were using prior knowledge to support their message. Could they include references to what they’d learned from authentic resources in the unit? This is what ACTFL calls “talking about something I have learned.” In this section I can tell students how well they provide examples from interpretive sources and elaborate on them.
    The second sublevel is communication strategies. How do students sustain communication? Lower-level novices have a lot of difficulty keeping up a conversation and they often switch to English or just stay silent. Or use  and no in ways that don’t make a lot of sense, right? But as they improve, they can ask some questions and even use minimal circumlocution to keep talking when they don’t know a word for something.
  • Message Interaction: How do we understand each other?
    RUBbox3InteractionThe third section is Message Interaction and is probably the most straightforward of the group. Simply, can the learner interact with someone in the language? Are they comprehensible and how much do they need things repeated in order to comprehend something themselves?
    This section has to do with the ever-present question of errors. I get asked at almost every workshop: “How do you assess errors? How much do you correct them?” I have two answers, depending on the student’s goals: for the College Board, patterns of error are what you’re looking for and trying to help students eradicate. For example, I had students who consistently wrote verbs with no attempt to change the endings at all. That’s a pattern. On the other hand, ACTFL’s guidelines are more about comprehensibility. When the error causes a breakdown in comprehension, in that the student made an error that means I can’t understand their intention, this is a problem.
    Also, the proficiency level sometimes has to do with who can’t understand the learner. I can understand many things that someone who doesn’t speak English, or isn’t used to dealing with language learners, wouldn’t understand. As students improve their proficiency, they begin to be more and more comprehensible to native speakers who are not “sympathetic” – that is, they don’t know how or aren’t willing to work harder to understand someone who is a language learner.
    This aspect was on the back page of the previous rubric under “Minor focus.” In scoring assessments, it never felt like a minor focus to me when an error made a learner incomprehensible. So it’s on the front now, on equal footing.
  • Cultural awareness: How do I show what I know about other cultures?
    RUBbox4 culture
    This was a glaring omission on the previous rubric and really it was the AP exam that made me want to add it, followed by the new ACTFL performance indicators which include a section for cultural awareness (the language here is a mixing of the language from that document). I didn’t have a place to tell students how well they were incorporating cultural knowledge into their production, something absolutely essential for the AP. So if a student can do that, I want to let them know.
    To see a much deeper explanation of this aspect including some production examples, please, please read this post.

On to the back page!

2015 rubric page 2

Page 2

The back page is a back-and-forth between me and the learner. They fill out some of this at the beginning of the unit, and some of it after they get my feedback.

  • Proficiency Goals
    The student actually fills out what proficiency I’m expecting to be shown on this performance.
  • The Staircase
    On my old rubric, I simply put a smiley face in the box for “approaching expectations” or “meeting expectations,” etc. But what if a student showed novice high proficiency in two areas and novice mid in two? What then? Well, I put the smiley face at “approaching expectations” for novice mid, but farther up in the box, toward “meeting expectations” (novice high). Yes, really. Like any student ever noticed that.
    I think it was Greg Duncan and Megan Johnson-Smith who first got me mulling over sublevels to the sublevels. What if there were a way I could tell a student, “Great job! You’re performing novice mid in several areas, but look at these two! Novice high!” What was that? Well, it’s Novice Mid +.
    I fill out this section. The plus signs and minus signs are my way to communicate how many of the categories they’re holding at a certain proficiency. I love, love this part.
  • The grade
    Yes. I’ve given in, and there’s a grading scale.
    For more information on how I’ve always assigned grades to a proficiency rubric (there’s no change here), see this post.
    So, I’m trying to put ownership of the learning in the student’s hands, and my thinking here is that the student looks at the proficiency I’ve marked and circles the expectation box herself. Then you can put the grade in if you want to (I think I still won’t). And you have a nice feedback box here on the proficiency part.
    My students aren’t allowed to score below “approaching expectations.” If this happens they must set a date to re-try. Depending on my class size, I also allow students who score “approaching” to re-try if they want to (and I have had several take me up on this offer to improve).
  • My language tasks
    The one part of the old rubric that absolutely had to go was the “task completion” section. As it turns out, in three years of scoring assessments I misunderstood this from the JCPS rubric and what I considered “task completion” was on the front in language use. But the back “task completion” section said “I completed (part, almost, all of) what I was asked to do.” And I was scoring AP assessments a lot. On the AP, students are told to incorporate all three of the authentic sources they’ve seen into their presentational essay. If they didn’t, their score would suffer significantly. So it wasn’t a “minor focus” for us like it said on the rubric. It was a big deal. And my old rubric didn’t give me a place to say that.
    For an analysis of task completion and this issue being the one that inspired me to overhaul the rubric this year, read this post.
    In this section, the student writes (at the beginning of the unit) what language tasks they will be asked to perform in the assessment. Will they need to show they can disagree? Incorporate information from an infographic you discussed in class? Mention some opinions of another person in class? Here’s where they record that. Then, you check whether they’ve shown strong, weak, or no evidence of this skill.
    This section is not a place for students to write “I can use 7 verbs in the preterite tense.” If you have them write that sort of thing here, you might as well tear up the rubric because what you are doing is not a proficiency-based performance assessment, it’s a grammar test masquerading as a performance assessment. If you’ve determined that’s what you’re looking for, stop reading now and close this tab. Please.
  • Teacher feedback
    This is pretty straightforward.
  • Student reflection
    This is perhaps one of the most important sections in the rubric and you owe it to Colleen Lee-Hayes and Natalia Delaat (ありがとう y спасибо colegas).  We’re putting the ownership in their hands!

Whew. If you care about using this kind of rubric, I hope you put up with all that explanation!

Two more issues to go.

Where’s interpretive mode?

Good question. Please know that if you do stand-alone interpretive tasks on integrated performance assessments and use an interpretive rubric or some sort of scoring system to grade them, you are in the majority and I am not. Honestly, I do not know another teacher who handles this the way I do. So don’t feel like I’m telling you that you need to do this.

Eliminating stand-alone interpretive assessments was something the College Board inspired me to do. In the AP essay, students are given sources on which to base their essay, but there are no comprehension questions on the source. Rather, the writer must use the information they understand from all three sources to inform their response.

To me, this is what we do with interpretive tasks in real life, and this question is always in my head: how can my class better reflect the way this plays out in real life? We watch a movie and we don’t fill out worksheets on it. We don’t draw pictures of it or answer multiple-choice questions about the plot line, which we may not accurately remember even though we understood it at the time. No, we use what we saw to tell our good friends what parts we loved, what we hated, why the actress was terrible, and how it compares to the first installment in the series.

That is what I ask students to do with integrated performance assessments. So the answer to your question (“Where’s interpretive mode?”) is that it’s in “Content support” and perhaps also in “My Language Tasks.”

If you’d like to see an example of how I do this, here’s one for novice.

I don’t think this heading will work.

Please tell me all your issues. I’ve been developing this rubric for six weeks and it’s been reviewed by dozens of teachers, but it can’t be a game-changer unless a whole lot more teachers “get their hands dirty” with it, using it on real production assessments and contacting me about how it’s working for you. I’ll continually change this post with updates.

So where is it?

Ready to get the file? If you put up with the rest of this post, you deserve it!

Download the PDF here (last updated December 2015). Contact me or comment below if you’d like access to a .docx file to edit. Please respect intellectual property rights. If you modify the document for your purposes, please leave the footnote at the bottom directing users to for credits. You may modify the footnote to include a reference such as “Based on the Musicuentos performance assessment rubric. For more information visit”


I didn’t write this rubric. I simply stole a lot of stuff and put it in one place. I can’t begin to effectively acknowledge how much the work of some very smart people helped inform this rubric in all its drafts. Thanks to Amy Lenord, Colleen Lee-Hayes, Bethanie Carlson-Drew, Martina Bex, and the Ohio language gurus, whose fingerprints can be seen in various sections here. The majority of the wording is taken from either the ACTFL performance descriptors, Can Do statements, and proficiency guidelines; the old Jefferson County (KY) performance assessment rubric; and the Ohio rubrics. Thanks to Natalia Delaat, Thomas Sauer, Sarah Bolaños, and Jacob Shively who took the time to give me honest, in-depth, extensive feedback that greatly improved the validity and user-friendliness of this document. I know your time is super valuable, and we’re all indebted to you for your generosity with it. And definitely, thanks to Melanie Stilson, who gave me the push I needed to get working on this project that had been on a back burner for a while.

Thanks to all the teachers at Camp Musicuentos who gave me some rocking suggestions for improvements. For one thing, you owe the staircase to them, and that might be the best part of the document.

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December 31, 2015 0 Comments

Book Club 2015: Make It Stick

I appreciate anecdotes, but I’ve been passionate for a long time about finding out what science says about how people learn in general, and how people learn language, and why people choose to learn anything.  It’s what makes Brain Rules and Drive my top two books from the last decade to recommend to any teacher.

So this year, I was especially pleased that the book chosen by our #langchat community as the #langbook read over summer break was Make It Stick (Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, Mark McDaniel).

First, my major caveat: this is not a book about language learning, and I feel like the subtitle “The Science of Successful Learning” is even a bit misleading and perhaps would be better rendered “The Science of Successful Remembering.”  The book is really about lower-level thinking skills, I think, primarily knowledge and its application.  (But as this blogger says in his thoughtful review, “knowledge is as important as imagination because knowledge is what allows us to imagine.”)  For our classes, particularly vocabulary falls heavily in that realm, and so I recommend you read this book and this blog post with this essential question in mind:

How can scientific research help students better learn vocabulary for long-term retrieval?

Now, let me go through some suggestions Brown et. al give us for how to make it stick, with my favorite quotes.

To Learn, Retrieve

In order to put information in long-term memory, learners need to practice retrieving these memories.  Retrieval practice cements learning, and,

the kind of retrieval practice that proves most effective is one that reflects what you’ll be doing with the knowledge later.

But don’t just retrieve.  In retrieving, learners need to connect new information with old (we’ve known this for a while; turns out it’s brain fact).

Knowledge is more durable if… you have firmly and thoroughly comprehended a concept, it has practical importance or keen emotional weight in your life, and it is connected with other knowledge that you hold in memory.

What does this mean for language learning?  It means practices in which we continually ask students to retrieve language in a way that connects to something meaningful – project/problem-based learning, life skill activities, application to what students want to do with their lives – is going to make it stick for them.

Mix up your practice

Learners don’t just need to retrieve the memories; they need to retrieve them in different ways.

Interleaving and variation mix up the contexts of practice and the other skills and knowledge with models more versatile, enabling us to apply our learning to a broader range of situations.

Embrace difficulties

ball-605592_1280“It’s hard!” students often whine.  (And so do we, eh?)  What we really ought to be doing is saying, “Yes! It’s hard!  How can I make it harder!”  This one challenged me: as it turns out, easy is not preferable.  I’m still ruminating on this one.

Two familiar lessons… some difficulties that require more effort and slow down apparent gains–like spacing, interleaving, and mixing up practice–will feel less productive at the time but will more than compensate for that by making the learning stronger, precise, and enduring. Second, that our judgments of what learning strategies work best for us are often mistaken, colored by illusions of mastery.

Added effort increases comprehension and learning. (Of course, learning will not improve if the difficulty completely obscures the meaning or cannot be overcome.

The act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known as generation…. Being required to supply an answer rather than select from multiple choice options often provides stronger learning benefits. Having to write a short essay makes them stronger still.

Even strategies that are highly likely to result in errors, like asking someone to try to solve a problem before being shown how to do it, produce stronger learning and retention of the correct information than more passive learning strategies, provided there is corrective feedback. Moreover, people who are taught that learning is a struggle that often involves making errors will go on to exhibit a greater propensity to tackle tough challenges and will tend to see mistakes not as failures but as lessons and turning points along the path to mastery.” Failure is “an essential experience on the path to mastery.

This doesn’t just mean we should make it hard and leave it there.  We need to make it achievable.  It’s true there are desirable difficulties;

if, however, the learner does not have the background knowledge or skills to respond to them successfully, they become undesirable difficulties.

Avoid illusions of knowing

Another key to making it stick is to realize what you don’t know, and don’t fool yourself into thinking you know it when you don’t.

To become more competent, or even expert, we must learn to recognize competence when we see it in others, become more accurate judges of what we ourselves know and don’t know, adopt learning strategies that get results, and find objective ways to track our progress.

The authors discuss a model involving two systems of knowing.  System 1 is what they call the acquisition, the “automatic system,” the one that is “unconscious, intuitive, immediate.”  System 2, on the other hand, is the “controlled system,” the monitor, the one that “considers choices, makes decisions, and exerts self-control.”  I’m considering what it might mean to think it’s okay to encourage and access this System 2 in language learning; I know that I monitor my language production continually.  I monitor more than I don’t, and you know, it works for communication.  I may not be quite as fast as if my past perfect subjunctive ending were intuitive, but it works for me.

A problem is, according to the authors, that System 1 can be fooled, can give us illusions.  Our “training and professionalism can be hijacked by System 1 illusion.”  I don’t know what this means in world language learning, or if it can be considered to work here, but I’m thinking about it.

When we are supporting an illusion of knowing (I have been guilty of this and the field is fraught with it!),

Personal narrative is invoked to explain emotions… It is nearly impossible to avoid basing one’s judgments on subjective experience.

download-1013981_1280Another pit we often fall into is wondering why our students aren’t picking this up as quickly as we think they should, or as quickly as we think we remember we did:

What psychologists call the curse of knowledge is our tendency to underestimate how long it will take another person to learn something new or perform a task that we have already mastered.

Another part that gave me (good) pause and food for thought, being a teacher on a journey trying to move from a teacher-directed training to a student-centered practice:

When it comes to learning, what we choose to do is guided by our judgments of what works and what doesn’t, and we are easily misled. Our susceptibility to illusion and misjudgment should give us all pause, and especially so to the advocates of ‘student-directed learning’…we know that students need to take control of their own learning by employing strategies like those we have discussed… but few students practice these strategies, and those who do will need more than encouragement if they are to practice them effectively.

Get beyond learning styles

I had long heard conflicting information about learning styles; I enjoyed reading some actual fact about what the research was saying.  A team of researchers was commissioned in 2008 to find out whether learning style claims were supported by scientific evidence, and to summarize with a quote from this review:

There is no empirical research that supports the idea that learning is more effective when instruction caters to the learners preferred style of learning.

Yes, learning style research is almost all invalid with shoddy evidence, BUT:

When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences for how the material is taught.

According to Sternberg, perhaps a better way to look at the issue is to consider analytical, creative, and practical intelligence instead, and take a multi-directional approach to learning (spoiler, the multiple choice test isn’t it):

different cultures and learning situations draw on these intelligences differently, and much of what’s required to succeed in a particular situation is not measured by standard IQ or aptitude tests, which can miss critical competencies.

What does this look like in practicality? In language learning?  To start, let’s use more images:

Humans remember pictures more easily than words. (For example, the image of an elephant is easier to recall than the word “elephant.”) So it stands to reason that associating vivid mental images with verbal or abstract material makes that material easier to retrieve from memory.

For more, check the summary on the book’s website here.

Increase your abilities

Great news: “I can’t” isn’t permanent!  You actually can increase your ability.  To summarize from this blogger’s review:

Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.

And this is why Growth Mindset is on my list of must-reads for 2016. (#LangBook?)  Why make the effort?

Effortful learning changes the brain, building new connections and capability…. The nagging voice that too often asks os “Why bother?” We make the effort because the effort itself extends the boundaries of our abilities.

Closing tips

  • Explain to students how learning works.
  • Teach students how to study: retrieve often, retrieve in different ways.
  • Create desirable difficulties in the classroom.
  • Be transparent. (Watch more of the Black Box and you can be more transparent about what’s possible in language class learning!)

Best takeaway and challenge for 2016:
Get started without knowing what you’re getting into

door-194217_1280In their chapter on desirable difficulties, the authors introduce us to Bonnie, the “blundering gardener,” who more or less stumbled into being an expert in the field of gardening.  I love, love, love what she says about “blundering;” it so resonated with me and is a key difference for me between sitting and wishing I were doing something and actually starting to do it:

Blundering means that you get going on your project before you have figured out how to do it in the proper way, before you know what you’re getting into. For me, the risk of knowing what you’re getting into is that it becomes an overwhelming obstacle to getting started.

What is it you want to start with your students that you’re not starting because you want to know what you’re getting into?  Give up some control and get rid of that overwhelming obstacle: Let’s do something great (together?) in 2016 without knowing what we’re getting into.  Maybe it won’t work out.  But the effort may just “extend the boundaries of our abilities.”

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December 29, 2015 2 Comments

Best of 2015 #2: The five things I must have in my syllabus

In the twelfth year of designing syllabi, you may not have “the syllabus to end them all” – of course not!  We’re always changing based on successes and challenges, right?  But by this time I knew the five ingredients I had to have in a syllabus, and you wanted to hear about them.  This August post was the second most popular of the year.

best of 2015 syllabus

(I hope you got what you wanted for Christmas!)

The 5 things I must have in my syllabus

Stressed about creating your class syllabi this year?

There are a lot of really great syllabi flying around the internet. There are even competitions to see who can do the (best? most creative?) one. I have to tell you, it’s stressful. I don’t at all think it’s intended this way, but I think it feels like really heavy peer pressure – including for those creating and posting their syllabi.

Whoa. Infographic syllabus, I didn’t know about those. I’ve got to do an infographic syllabus too! Otherwise, how will my students know how cool my class is going to be?

Oh my. Infographic isn’t enough. That interactive, infographic syllabus is amazing. If I’m going to be amazing, I have to do one too.

I am not mocking. I’m telling you honestly, these are the thoughts in my head, and so I’m guessing they’re in other teachers’ heads too.

I saw a few tweets last week that helped me realize I’m not alone in feeling this pressure (whew), and as I happened to be developing my syllabus for this year at the time, I decided to mull over what I thought were the essential items on my syllabi, and blog about it. And so, in order of importance:

5. Content overview

syllabus sem overviewI think this is the most-often-skipped element in a syllabus. Because of the syllabi I received in college (since I was homeschooled, that was my introduction to the concept), I assumed that a syllabus always gives students an overview of what the semester’s content entails. But when I got a teaching job I quickly found out that many teachers don’t include this, and the reason is usually that they haven’t mapped it out.

If all you can get done before school starts is determine 1) what units/chapters you’re going to teach (you don’t have to teach them all!), 2) how long they will last  (probably) and 3) where they fit in the calendar, you’ll feel more prepared for your school year and your students (and their parents) will greatly appreciate the bird’s-eye view.

4. Assessment policies

My students need to know this: how are they going to be assessed, and how often, and how will grades be calculated?

3. Tools

What tools will help students succeed in my class? I include both what resources will help them at home (Word Reference and Forvo are at the top of my list) and what they need every time they come into class.

syllabus12. Classroom culture

I believe that creating a target-language classroom culture centered in respect and mutual success begins on the syllabus. I outline brief guidelines for how we interact with each other and why.

And the top thing I must have in my syllabus:

1. Clarity

This is what keeps me from trying out some new ways to create syllabi. I know myself, and I don’t want to get so distracted by trying to be fancy that I muddy the waters. If my students start the year finding my syllabus confusing, will they be slow to believe they’ll comprehend what’s going on in class?

Please notice that I didn’t call this post the five things you must have in your syllabus. I do believe the one essential ingredient is clarity, but how that looks for you and your students, well, it could be a whole lot different than mine. So if you need permission to do a plain-Jane syllabus with clarity in your expectations and plans, here you go! I give you permission.

Have fun creating something that works for your classes!

Oh- and if you came to this post thinking I was going to post my syllabus, here’s the PDF, and here’s the .docx for you. The included images are royalty-free. Don’t feel like you need to use anything on mine, but I do want you to know that it includes (finally) a novice (no measurable proficiency) adaptation of the homework choice options.

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December 26, 2015 0 Comments

Book Club 2015: All the etc. in one post

How I love to read. Reading is a way I both escape the world and try to figure it out, to learn new words and meet new ways of thinking.  If you like, you can check out my posts tagged book club.  Last year I put out a series of them that crowded the blog in the middle of the best-of-the-year posts, so this year I decided to post all the non-professional books here in one post.

The must-reads

BEST OF 2015:
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Summary from Goodreads:

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

My take on it:

This Pulitzer Prize winner might be my favorite book I’ve read in quite some time.  I appreciate Doerr introducing me to Werner and humanizing the German soldier, a perspective often missing in World War II-era literature, one of my favorite genres (in case you couldn’t tell).

The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown

Summary from Goodreads:

Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled  by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.

Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant.

My take on it: Stunning. I couldn’t put it down.  A captivatingly written account of hard work and triumph in one of my favorite time periods to read about.

Same Kind of Different as Me, Ron Hall & Denver Moore

Summary from Goodreads:

Meet Denver, a man raised under plantation-style slavery in Louisiana in the 1960s; a man who escaped, hopping a train to wander, homeless, for eighteen years on the streets of Dallas, Texas. No longer a slave, Denver’s life was still hopeless—until God moved. First came a godly woman who prayed, listened, and obeyed. And then came her husband, Ron, an international arts dealer at home in a world of Armani-suited millionaires. And then they all came together. 

But slavery takes many forms. Deborah discovers that she has cancer. In the face of possible death, she charges her husband to rescue Denver. Who will be saved, and who will be lost? What is the future for these unlikely three? What is God doing?

My take on it: Every single person who puts money in a jar in front of someone on a sidewalk and wonders how they can really make a difference should read this book.  I was challenged and inspired and brought to tears.  The quote from Denver that will stay with me for a long time:

I heard that when white folks go fishin they do somethin called ‘catch and release.’  That really bothers me. I just can’t figure it out.  ’Cause when colored folks go fishin, we really proud of what we catch, and we take and show it off to everybody that’ll look.  Then we eat what we catch… in other words, we use it to sustain us.  So it really bothers me that white folks would go to all that trouble to catch a fish, then when they done caught it, just throw it back in the water.  So, Mr. Ron, it occurred to me: If you is fishin for a friend you just gon’ catch and release, then I ain’t got no desire to be your friend.

I’m struggling right now with a couple of relationships with women who need a friend and need help and I don’t know what to do or how to be both or where to draw boundaries or whether I can handle more neediness; I’ve been pondering whether they are looking for a friend to catch and release, or whether I am.  Read this.

Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

Summary from Goodreads:

Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).

Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.

New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all.

My take on it: Australian Liane Moriarty is definitely one of my new favorite authors.  ”Gripping” is an understatement.  She pulls off gripping and funny with an expertly crafted plot.  I’m also a fan of The Husband’s Secret, which I would categorize below under “worth your time” but this one had to be a must-read.  The way the book was written captivated me, the way the plot turned stunned me, the characters made me want to change and keep my eyes open and compassion ready.

Worth your time

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

Summary from Goodreads:

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

My take: This book is on everyone’s best-of-2015 for good reason.  You might need a pot of coffee to help you pull an all-nighter with it.  Rachel with her life spiraling out of control draws you in and keeps you thinking, “But it could be me.

Babies, Bullets, & Bee Stings, Hannah McDowell

Summary from Amazon:

In this fast-paced account of a farm-girl from a preacher’s home who develops into a medical missionary, the reader is treated to a first-person account of what life is like on various mission fields in Central America. Her story spans baby deliveries by flashlight to veterinary-level treatment of injured horses-while the town’s folk watch in awe. Her experiences reveal a brave mother and wife whose singular purpose in life is to share the Gospel with as many as possible. After graduating from a prestigious medical college, Hannah turned away from an incredibly large salary offer as a certified nurse-midwife-only to practice medical nursing on dirt floors and primitive clinics. This volume takes the reader to the front lines of missionary life and service, and reveals to the rest of us what it means to serve God in other lands. 

My take on it: A good friend had gotten a copy of this book from the author and handed it to me to read.  I took it on a family trip and came away with better definitions of the words brave and service.  I can tell you that after the Haiti earthquake I wasn’t trying to find the nearest plane that was bound for the island.

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

Summary from Goodreads:

This is the testament of Paul Bäumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army of World War I. These young men become enthusiastic soldiers, but their world of duty, culture, and progress breaks into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches. 

Through years of vivid horror, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the hatred that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against one another… if only he can come out of the war alive.

My take on it: I try to read at least one classic per year and this was a good one.  I read about the wars and evil in the past to remind myself of what we’re capable of when we let our innate selfishness have free reign.  This was a book I knew that Hitler had banned, and I knew the author’s last name was Remarque.  So, I assumed it was a Frenchman who wrote the book from the Allied perspective even though that made “the Western Front” make little sense.  The German perspective was a surprise to me.  It’s not an easy read but it’s easy to read and worth your time.

Second Forgetting

Summary from Goodreads:

Alzheimer’s disease has been described as the ‘defining disease’ of the baby boomer generation. Millions of Americans will spend much of their retirement years either caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or experiencing its effects on their lives firsthand. When a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they face great uncertainty, knowing that they can expect to live their remaining years with increasing confusion and progressively greater reliance upon other people to care for them. As the disease advances it seems to overwhelm a person, narrowing their focus and leading them to forget critical truths about the Lord, their life with him, and his promises.
Through the personal stories of those affected and the loved ones who care for them, Dr. Benjamin Mast highlights the power of the gospel for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Filled with helpful, up-to-date information, Dr. Mast answers common questions about the disease and its effect on personal identity and faith as he explores the biblical importance of remembering and God’s commitment to not forget his people. In addition, he gives practical suggestions for how the church can come alongside families and those struggling, offering help and hope to victims of this debilitating disease.

My take on it: Someone at my husband’s work knew that my family was dealing with my mother’s dementia.  It’s not Alzheimer’s, but rather Parkinson’s dementia, but when she can’t remember why she called me, and every day she finds out for the first time that we’re coming for Christmas, it seems much the same.  I appreciate that coworker passing this book along to us, as it helped me learn more about dementia and how to help and understand my mom better.  I sent it to my sister-in-law, who is now my mother’s primary caregiver.  I highly recommend this book to any Christian dealing with a loved one’s dementia – or one who has been diagnosed with this terrible process.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt

Summary from Goodreads:

1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life – someone who will help her to heal and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

My take on it: What adolescent hasn’t harbored forbidden feelings for a fantastic adult that cared for them (in a loving and totally not creepy way)?  For many, that person is a teacher.  For June, it’s her uncle- adult, related to her, and gay.  But her sweet, best-friend relationship with him is touching and sweet (and totally non-creepy) and you feel the loss with her when he dies.  If you remember the mid-eighties (I only barely do) and the height of the terror the AIDS epidemic brought when it exploded into the world, you’ll recognize that era, when the disease just barely had a name everyone recognized and a stigma and a hopelessness that no one knew what to do with.  It’ll be worth your time to spend a few hours watching June come of age while bringing her family and the human face of AIDS together.

For more reading on the subject and the era that you’ll find worth your time, check out AIDS and Accusations: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, and you’ll also want to listen to Radio Ambulante’s captivating podcast on When Havana Was Friki.

The Promised One: Seeing Jesus in Genesis

Summary from Goodreads:

After the resurrection, when Jesus used Scripture to explain who he was and why he came, where did he start? In the Old Testament. And this is where The Promised One begins to look for Christ, finding him in the people, promises, and patterns of the Old Testament scriptures.

With contagious passion and theological soundness, Bible teacher Nancy Guthrie shows how the book of Genesis points us to the person of Christ. Throughout ten weeks of guided personal study, relevant teaching, and thoughtful discussion questions, The Promised One will help you: make new discoveries of Jesus as seen in the shadows of the Old Testament;apply the gospel found in Genesis to issues such as shame, fear, and the desire for security and significance; develop your longing for what is ahead when the world is once again made new.

My take on it: The best Bible-study guide I have done in a long time.  Looking at the Old Testament through the eyes of the New Testament has been amazing.  I’m going through the second book right now and plan to do all five.  It’s written as a 10-week or 20-week group study but it’s great as a self-paced study as well. (I meet with a friend once a month to talk about it.)

The Goldfinch

Summary from Goodreads

It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch combines vivid characters, mesmerizing language, and suspense, while plumbing with a philosopher’s calm the deepest mysteries of love, identity, and art. It is an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

My take on it: 

I was so blown away by All the Light We Cannot See that I thought I’d take on its predecessor in the list of Pulitzer novels.  And truly, it’s a beautifully written book with a beautifully crafted plot.  I learned more about drugs and gambling than I ever knew before.  And I learned a lot more about art.  But I will also warn you: It is really long.  When you get past 300 pages and you’re not at 50% yet… really, really long.

The book is about how his mother’s favorite painting shapes Theo’s life for years. Here’s a quote that best communicates the book’s theme:

Idolatry! Caring too much for objects can destroy you.  Only–if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things–beautiful things–that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?

Really, really long.  But worth your time.

Shopaholic Ties the Knot

Summary from Goodreads:

Life has been good for Becky Bloomwood: She’s become the best personal shopper at Barneys, she and her successful entrepreneurial boyfriend, Luke, are living happily in Manhattan’s West Village, and her new next-door neighbor is a fashion designer! But with her best friend, Suze, engaged, how can Becky fail to notice that her own ring finger is bare? Not that she’s been thinking of marriage (or diamonds) or anything . . . Then Luke proposes! Bridal registries dance in Becky’s head. Problem is, two other people are planning her wedding: Becky’s overjoyed mother has been waiting forever to host a backyard wedding, with the bride resplendent in Mum’s frilly old gown. While Luke’s high-society mother is insisting on a glamorous, all-expenses-paid affair at the Plaza. Both weddings for the same day. And Becky can’t seem to turn down either one. Can everyone’s favorite shopaholic tie the knot before everything unravels?

My take on it: British author Madeleine Sophie Wickham a.k.a. Sophie Kinsella is another new favorite author for me.  I’ve Got Your Number was laugh-out-loud hilarious (movie, please) and I’ve also loved her Shopaholic series.  I read these when I need something to occupy my mind without making me think, such as on the four-hour flight from Atlanta to San Diego for ACTFL ’15.  Protagonist Becky Bloomwood is hysterically bumbling and gets herself into the deepest predicaments, and I have absolutely no idea how she could possibly get out of them until Kinsella shocks me with the perfect aha! solution.


These are the books I read but doubt you’d find worth your time (if you’re me, that is).

Touchstone, Laurie King

Summary from Goodreads:

Hailed for her rich and powerful works of psychological suspense as well as her New York Times bestselling mysteries, Laurie R. King now takes us to a remote cottage in Cornwall where a gripping tale of intrigue, terrorism, and explosive passions begins with a visit to a recluse upon whom the fate of an entire nation may rest—a man code-named … Touchstone.

It’s eight years after the Great War shattered Bennett Grey’s life, leaving him with an excruciating sensitivity to the potential of human violence, and making social contact all but impossible. Once studied by British intelligence for his unique abilities, Grey has withdrawn from a rapidly changing world—until an American Bureau of Investigation agent comes to investigate for himself Grey’s potential as a weapon in a vicious new kind of warfare. Agent Harris Stuyvesant desperately needs Grey’s help entering a world where the rich and the radical exist side by side—a heady mix of the powerful and the celebrated, among whom lurks an enemy ready to strike a deadly blow at democracy on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here, among a titled family whose servants dress in whimsical costumes and whose daughter conducts an open affair with a man who wants to bring down the government, Stuyvesant finds himself dangerously seduced by one woman and—even more dangerously—falling in love with another. And as he sifts through secrets divulged and kept, he uncovers the target of a horrifying conspiracy, and wonders if he can trust his touchstone, Grey, to reveal the most dangerous player of all ….

My take on it: I like a good suspense novel, and this one had a touch of fantasy with Grey’s mystery psychological talent, which was interesting.  Overall, in a word, it was predictable.  I finished it – all 500+ pages of it – to get to the end and find out if I was right, and I was.

California, Edan Lepucki

Summary from Goodreads:

The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable despite the isolation and hardships they face. Consumed by fear of the future and mourning for a past they can’t reclaim, they seek comfort and solace in one other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant. 

Terrified of the unknown but unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses its own dangers. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.

My take on it: I occasionally like to delve into the post-apocalyptic realm in movies and books, but I need it to seem actually realistic (I couldn’t stomach more than 20 pages of Divergent).  This one wasn’t predictable, with several twists I didn’t expect, but it moved kind of slowly, and it was cheesy.  All the capital letters you need for renaming stuff in the post-apocalyptic world.  The Spikes.  The Forms.  The Pirates.  The Land.  The Communities.  It made me laugh, and it wasn’t meant to be funny.  I think I’ll try One Second After next time.  No idea why this one was on NPR’s books of the year.

NOS4A2, Joe Hill

Summary from Goodreads:

Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country.

Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.”

Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son.

My take on it: I should have quit with this as soon as I found out that Joe Hill is actually Stephen King’s son.  This book was very interesting, but the freakish life-stealing dictator of Christmasland who drives around catching children in real reality so he can take them to alternate reality… which can also be occasionally visited by a girl with a very special bike… and an unhealthy dose of profanity, it’s way way out of my preferred genres.  I started what I thought would be a suspense book with a very creative plot and ended up reading a horror book with a very creative plot.  I guess you should push yourself sometimes?  Or maybe not quite that far.

Got any recommendations for 2016?  I’d love to hear what you’re reading and you can also connect with me on Goodreads.

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December 22, 2015 2 Comments