The Blog

Book Club ’14: The Kite Runner

Plot summary: From GoodReads,

Amir is the son of a wealthy Kabul merchant, a member of the ruling caste of Pashums. Hassan, his servant and constant companion, is a Hazara, a despised and impoverished caste. Their uncommon bond is torn by Amir’s choice to abandon his friend amidst the increasing ethnic, religious, and political tensions of the dying years of the Afghan monarchy, wrenching them far apart. But so strong is the bond between the two boys that Amir journeys back to a distant world, to try to right past wrongs against the only true friend he ever had.

The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.

A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years, The Kite Runner is an unusual and powerful novel that has become a beloved, one-of-a-kind classic.

My take on it: What can I say?  I’m not a professional book reviewer – I read a lot but rarely review the books I read anywhere.  So I don’t have all the fancy terms about “flavor” and “colonized” and “ensconced.”

It’s a tough read.  Not because of the writing, which is very good, but because of the themes.  She’s Never Coming Back is a book about evil and rape and abuse in a different country, and it’s trash and you shouldn’t waste your time on it.   The Kite Runner is a book about evil and rape and abuse in a different country, and so much more, and everyone should read it.  I learned about Afghanistan.  I mourn for the casualties of their wars, the suffering children especially.  I reveled in the rich cultural descriptions that made the people seem so much more than their wars.  I hated reading it, and I loved it, and I’d do it again.  It will ask you:

  • what will you do to fight the evil in the world?
  • how will you take care of the one who says to you, for you, a thousand times over?

Some quotes:

To make me think about my time with my kids, the son wondered

why it was always grown-ups’ time with him [his father].

[I] ached for the mother I had never met…

And that right there was the single greatest moment of my twelve years of life, seeing Baba on that roof, proud of me at last.

I wanted to be just like Baba and I wanted to be nothing like him.

So much here to learn and meditate on about the big relationships in our lives.  When he’d treated Hassan badly,

I almost apologized, then didn’t.  Hassan understood I was just nervous.  Hassan always understood about me.

I was the one who went to school, the one who could read, write.  I was the smart one.  Hassan couldn’t read a first-grade textbook but he’d read me plenty.  That was a little unsettling but also sort of comfortable to have someone who always knew what you needed.

Everywhere I turned, I saw signs of his loyalty.

He was just a Hazara, wasn’t he?

The general didn’t let his wife sing:

Every woman needed a husband.  Even if he did silence the song in her.

About God:

Caught between Baba and the mullahs at school, I still hadn’t made up my mind about God.

If Baba was wrong and there was a God like they said in school, then He’d let me win.

Bowing my head to the ground I…asked for kindness from a God I wasn’t sure existed.  I envied the mullah now, envied his faith and certainty.

One caller from Finland, a guy named Ayub, asked if his teenaged son could go to hell for wearing his baggy pants so low the seam of his underwear shoed.  The mullahs decided that Ayub’s son would go to hell after all for wearing his pants the way he did.

(You scoff or think it’s just radical Muslims, but I went to college with “Christians” who were pretty sure I was going to hell because I wore pants at all… though not at school, of course.  That would’ve gotten me 10 demerits and a visit to the Discipline Committee.)

About teaching,

I know it sounds childish, but the first time Ziba wrote her own letter, I knew there was nothing else I’d ever want to be but a teacher.  I was so proud of her and I felt I’d done something really worthwhile, you know?

daughter: “[In a newly free Afghanistan] they’d need teachers too.”
dad: “Anyone can teach.” (he wanted her to be a lawyer/politician)

About language,

I barely had time to register that she’d addressed me with “tu” for the first time and not the formal “shoma

About America, and culture, and the rich:

jeans– cowboy pants, we used to call them.  In Afghanistan, owning anything American, especially if it wasn’t secondhand, was a sign of wealth.

[back in Afghanistan, someone from a lower class says to him] You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.

I told him that in America you could step into a grocery store and buy any of fifteen or twenty different types of cereal.  The lamb was always fresh and the milk cold, the fruit plentiful and the water clear.  Every home had a TV, and every TV had a remote, and you could get a satellite dish if you wanted.  Receive over five hundred channels.

And some last random quotes,

Looking at a photo:

I tried to conjure Ali’s frozen face, to really see his tranquil eyes, but time can be a greedy thing–sometimes it steals all the details for itself.

After an execution for adultery, by stoning, as the halftime show at a soccer game, simply,

Second half was under way.

A psychopath’s take on his massacre,

‘let the bullets fly, free of guilt and remorse, knowing you are virtuous, good, and decent.  Knowing you’re doing God’s work. It’s breathtaking.’  He kissed the prayer beads.

It’s amazing how people who think that Hitler was an anomaly don’t realize that there are actually so many people who live out the evil inside them, with gusto.  And then ISIS comes along and beheads people and spreads the videos on the internet and we finally start throwing around the word evil again.  Because the heads were Western, and there were videos.  And we don’t like videos.  Not ones with real beheadings.

How shall we then fight?

Tags: , .

December 20, 2014 0 Comments

Best of 2014 #3: Sample homework choice systems

Again, I skipped #6 and we’ll get to it later, and you’ve already seen #4 because it was part one of the post also including #8.  So here we have the third most-popular post of 2014, the one offering up a more user-friendly version of my choice-in-homework project, along with several adaptations from amazing colleagues.  It was published in August, and had it been published earlier in the year, it would have been the top post of the year.  It also was the material for a very popular session at ACTFL, which I did with Bethanie Carlson-Drew and Laura Sexton.  Teachers far and wide are hungry for ways to access student motivation, and the autonomy that comes when you turn homework on its head in this way is simply and incredibly motivating.

Putting homework in their hands: Sample systems

hwoptions snapWhen I posted last year about my latest update on the Elige tu propia aventura homework choice activity, the post quickly became one of the top 10 of the year.  Accordingly, I frequently receive requests for my list of options and how I divided them into a point system.  The problem is that I was experimenting with InDesign to develop my ebook resources and chose it to make my AP syllabus and the Aventura document – and your average teacher isn’t going around with InDesign on her computer.  So the best I could offer was a PDF.  Plus, I’ve only done this activity with intermediate and pre-advanced students and many teachers wonder what the options would look like for lower levels.

Wait, what?

Screeching halt.

If you haven’t been with me for the journey through giving up the pretense that trying to excessively manipulate my students’ out-of-class time is going to predict to me what they learn, you could always browse through my choice tag.  If you don’t have that kind of time, here’s a run-down:

  • Autonomy and intrinsic motivation are high predictors of success in learning.
  • Language for communicative purposes cannot be learned in isolation.
  • Frustration is common in traditional homework because there’s no one around to help.
  • Frustration blocks language acquisition.
  • I give two and only two homework assignments per week.
  • These assignments are always the same: do an aventura activity and post a free-topic blog
  • Student autonomy in these assignments is very important to me.
  • These two graded assignments free me from grading or entering grades for most other formative activities.
  • As time passed I realized that not all assignments are worth the same either in time commitment or in usefulness for language acquisition.
  • Assigning choices a point value allowed me to require students to challenge themselves and to adapt the same list for various learning levels.
  • This idea is one of my most widely-used and several other teachers have developed their own lists and systems.

I’m so excited and impressed with how other teachers have adopted and adapted this idea and thought it would be helpful to link all the documents for you here.  Plus, I took all the content from my InDesign file and put it in a Google Doc for you to copy/paste and adapt for your situation.

Choice activity documents

My options and point system

Kara Jacobs‘ system

Noah Geisel‘s system

- some Pinterest ideas Noah found useful

Laura Sexton’s options

Tana Krohn‘s list

Bethanie Carlson Drew’s updated list (and I stole the name from her!)

Katherine Matheson’s version

And how could I leave out-

The Creative Language Class’s Real World Homework

(developed completely on their own creative genius!)



Tags: , .

December 18, 2014 0 Comments

Book Club ’14: Crazy Busy

To give you an idea of how crazy busy I feel sometimes, I bought Crazy Busy and then it sat on a shelf a full six months before I even started it.  Then I managed a chapter or two in a couple of months.  Then I made a decision to spend 15 minutes or so each morning reading a personal enrichment book and made it through the rest of the book in short order.  If you feel like you’re crazy busy and somehow you’re missing what really matters, you can’t miss this book.  Especially if you are a follower of Christ, you will find a lot of help in identifying exactly why your busyness is overwhelming you.

Summary: DeYoung offers seven “diagnoses” in this short book for why you may be way too busy, in all the wrong ways:

  1. You are beset with many manifestations of pride.
  2. You are trying to do what God does not expect you to do.
  3. You can’t serve others without setting priorities.
  4. You need to stop freaking out about your kids.
  5. You are letting the screen strangle your soul.
  6. You’d better rest yourself before you wreck yourself.
  7. You suffer more because you don’t expect to suffer at all.

My takeaways:

From the chapters:

  • I’m crazy busy because I think I’m important and I want everyone to know it.
  • I’m crazy busy because I think I can and should be what everyone needs all the time.
  • I’m crazy busy because I’m lazy in things that matter and hyper-focused on things that don’t really.
  • I’m crazy busy because I think if I don’t feed my kids the right food, turn off the TV, play Mozart, sign them up for dance and gymnastics and direct their every step they’ll fail in life.
  • I’m crazy busy because I am glued to my computer/iPad/iPhone.
  • I’m crazy busy because I stay up too late and so I can’t function with efficiency, patience, and love when I’m awake.
  • I’m overwhelmed by my busyness because I think, you know what, I’m a college-degreed American and things are supposed to be easy for me.

Aside from addressing those issues, DeYoung offers really one solution that isn’t easy at all, and it’s to do the one thing that really matters, the thing Martha missed but Mary didn’t: be devoted to Christ, and know Him better.  If you’re truly too busy to read the whole little book, just reading that last chapter could change your life.

Here’s to a perhaps equally busy but much less crazy 2015.  I give you full permission to not think I am important, or that I am Super Mom, or that my kids are Super Kids!

And now, it’s my new bedtime.

Tags: .

December 17, 2014 0 Comments

Book Club ’14: The Hobbit & The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Hobbit

Reading the classics is always on my to-do list, thanks to my parents, who both loved a book that had stood the test of time (my dad and I had so many private jokes about the time he made me fight my way through A Tale of Two Kitties… I mean Cities).  This year I read two, and unlike my experience with Dickens, I enjoyed them both.

The years of hype over The Lord of the Rings has finally gotten to me, but I was told I should read The Hobbit first, and so I did.  I expected to find it tediously layered writing in the same way I dislike much of C.S. Lewis’s work (but love the man and his life).  I truly enjoyed the mystical, fanciful, serious battle between good and several evils in The Hobbit.  Next stop – you guessed it – the Rings trilogy.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

First question, why hasn’t Disney done this as a movie?  It would be their next big hit!  Pimpernel: she married him in love, but a twisted trick in her past in the French Revolution turned him against her, so she finds relief being the fashion queen of England.  Now he’s just silly and shallow, but he’s the richest man in England, so of course he amuses everyone.  Meanwhile, who is this heroic man-among-men who rescues the ill-fated aristocrats from Madame Guillotine, this so-called “Scarlet Pimpernel”?  He must be brave, he must be handsome, he seems to have a thousand lives - but who is he?  And how much longer can he continue to evade the committee of the people?

I didn’t actually read this book – I listened to it.  If you haven’t yet experienced the free public-domain audiobooks on Librivox, Karen Savage’s expert rendition of The Scarlet Pimpernel would be a great place to start.  And so I hear, any book she’s read in its entirety for the site is worth a listen.  It accompanied me well on the tedious I-35 trip for ACTFL!

Tags: , .

December 15, 2014 0 Comments

Best of 2014 #5: How I use verb charts

I’ve skipped the #6 post for now and you’ll find out later why.

Two of the resources I released this year were verb charts, a free pack of the three most common tenses and a complete pack of 8 charts available for purchase.  You can find both of them here.  But before you use them, please read this post, the 5th most popular post of 2014.

How I use verb charts

It occurs to me that putting resources in blog posts is all well and good, but then months pass and the blog post gets buried, and what if a teacher who just found Musicuentos needed that very resource?  So, I’m about to begin releasing resources I’ve developed through a special section of the site.  You’ll never guess what the first one is going to be.

Okay, I’ll help you out. It’s verb charts.



I know, I just broke your matrix a little bit.

But for sure, I couldn’t release resources offering you verb charts without explaining how I use them.

verb chart

When to introduce verb charts

The biggest difference between the me I am now and the me I was when I first started teaching, regarding verb charts anyway, is when my students see them.  In my opinion, verb charts aren’t useful in acquisition but they are helpful in refining accuracy.  So, my students do not see their first verb chart until their eighth semester of language class.  See, I started to notice -and I bet you have too- that my students couldn’t get to an accurate verb conjugation without going through the list.  The ones who were good were just better at hiding that they were doing it; they did it in their heads.  You’ve seen it, that pause that means the student is thinking, “hablo, hablas, habla” and then comes up with “Ah! Hablamos!”  But if my students didn’t know there was such a thing as a verb chart, they wouldn’t have to “count down” so to speak.

In my novice classes, I introduce verb endings as patterns.  Not by “regular verbs,” “stem-changing verbs,” “g-verbs,” and so on.  Because when students want to talk about what they do in the summer, it makes no communicative sense for me to say “No, you can’t use that word because we haven’t done stem-changing verbs yet.”  Rather, my patterns are by subject.  We storytell and pattern with the I subject for a while and then quickly add the you so students can ask questions of a classmate.  Then we add the we as a reporting tool- I do this, do you do this?, we do this.

By the time my students get to intermediate-mid, however, we’re starting to really focus on developing some accuracy in multiple time frames.  At this point, I find it helpful to give them access to an organized picture of how verb endings work.  They’re aware enough of the changes and have used the changes enough that the chart becomes a tool for checking themselves, not a tool for how to find the communication in the first place.

How to use verb charts

My other important caveat with verb charts is that I don’t teach them.  The chart is a tool for my students to use to check and improve their accuracy, not for me to teach.  Why? Because they’re not communication.  They’re not comprehensible input.  Therefore, they are not a teaching tool in a communicative classroom.  So, I pass them out, we spend about 15 minutes looking at the information, and then they go in a notebook for students to use as a reference when they want to.  I don’t talk about them again unless I’m asking a student to check something they’ve done.

So please, feel free to download my verb chart resources.  But don’t lose sight of the goal of your classroom: to encourage accuracy as a part of  communicative competence, not to teach accuracy for the sake of writing the correct letter in the blank.

Update March 1, 2014:

The Simple Verb Pack is now available on the Resource page and through  my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Tags: , , .

December 14, 2014 0 Comments

Book Club 2014: Amazing Grace (Kozol)

Today, a book I was eager to read but ended up disappointed with.

Summary: From Goodreads:

The children in this book defy the stereotypes of urban youth too frequently presented by the media. Tender, generous and often religiously devout, they speak with eloquence and honesty about the poverty and racial isolation that have wounded but not hardened them. The book does not romanticize or soften the effects of violence and sickness. One fourth of the child-bearing women in the neighborhoods where these children live test positive for HIV. Pediatric AIDs, life-consuming fires and gang rivalries take a high toll. Several children die during the year in which this narrative takes place.

A gently written work, “Amazing Grace” asks questions that are at once political and theological. What is the value of a child’s life? What exactly do we plan to do with those whom we appear to have defined as economically and humanly superfluous? How cold — how cruel, how tough — do we dare be?

My take: I expected to get a lot more out of Amazing Grace than I did.  For one thing, what GoodReads called “gently written” was a quality that to me made it seem like Kozol was disorganized in his writing.  I had trouble tracking it, but maybe that was part of the point.

I gave Amazing Grace two stars on GoodReads, because it’s hopeless; it’s a collection of anecdotes that don’t try hard enough to make a point, but rather show that it’s everyone else’s fault, and surprisingly enough, since you can’t control others’ behavior, there are no solutions.  But as Mrs. Washington says in the book, “People also simply change their minds.”  Times and illnesses and people change, and politics and the AIDS crisis have a different face now than they did twenty years ago.  And so I am looking forward to reading Kozol’s follow-up book published more recently, Fire in the Ashes, on my reading list for 2015.

Shop more meaningfully this Christmas

As a retired teacher, who attended New York’s PS 65 and volunteered there at the time of the writing, preaches to these children and to us, ”You can’t control what you were born as, but if you can control yourself, our life will be more peaceful.”  As for me, let me encourage all of us to remember that we can control ourselves, and our compassion, and our spending, even at Christmas.  If you read the book Radical: Taking your Life Back from the American Dream, and choose to “radical”ize your Christmas shopping (and maybe your life?), perhaps we’ll make a real difference in the gross injustice in our country and our world.  Some very different Christmas catalogs to start with: Compassion, Gospel for Asia, Samaritan’s Purse, and World Vision.  Or you could give someone a much more meaningful gift card, like one I got from an encouraging reader, from

Back to the book, my major issue was that while Kozol ends the book recognizing that there are no easy answers (that is the truth here: there are no easy answers), as he walks among these children and destitute people in the midst of the AIDS crisis in New York’s poorest neighborhoods, he -and they- succumb to the very strong temptation to imagine there are easy answers, namely, if only we threw more money at the problem, everything would be fine.

For example, Kozol mentions a money manager who had earned more than $1B in a year:

An extra 20 percent tax on his earnings, if redistributed in the South Bronx, would have lifted 48,000 human beings–every child and every parent in every family of Mott Haven–out of poverty, with enough left over, I imagine to buy many safe new elevator doors and hire several good physicians for the public schools that serve the neighborhood.

So, there you have it.  After story after story about the government  accidentally canceling people’s welfare or cutting their check or losing their records, Kozol buys into the belief that this same government would suddenly become effective at ending poverty… drug use… lack of education… work ethic problems… unemployment… if it could simply take more money from the rich, and give it away.  And give it away as efficiently as it does everything else, of course.

I try to sympathize but I know that I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a child in these neighborhoods.  I don’t live an ostentatious life in my own estimation.  I live in a 1250-sq-ft house with one bathroom, no garage or basement or playroom or swimming pool.  My girls share a small bedroom and their clothes share a dresser, which is in their brother’s even-smaller bedroom.  But we have heat and air, food in our refrigerator and pantry, and when our roof leaked and shower tiles fell off we were able to fix them nicely.  We have a lovely Christmas tree and “O Holy Night” playing over ad-free Pandora radio.  It’s a blessed life that makes it so that I (and probably you too) can only try to work hard to show empathy and compassion to families who suffer in true poverty.  But on the other hand, I’m pretty sure a blank check alone never solved anyone’s drug addiction.

David, a boy whose mom was dying of AIDS:

God…is not powerful enough to stop the evil on the earth, to change the hearts of people…. [Evil is] what the rich have done to the poor people in this city… Somebody has power. Pretending that they don’t so they don’t need to use it to help people–that is my idea of evil.

A woman, on the subject of what if the children went and stole everything in FAO Schwarz:

You have to ask if they could ever steal back half as much as has been stolen from them.

One more:

If you moved these families into a nice suburb, nine tenths of this feeling of constriction, I’m convinced, would be relieved.

But the obvious questions are left out, as they usually are: Who is the “you”?  Who is going to move them to a “nice suburb”?  What defines a “nice suburb”?  Where is it?  What if they don’t want to go there?  Who’s going to pay for the house when they get there?  Who’s going to teach them to maintain that new life you wanted to give them?

David’s mom and her journey toward death break my heart, but she can be very judgmental and nonspecific in her opinion that if only the rich gave more money to the poor, everyone would be okay:

“Women who pay money like that for a brassiere must think their chest is made of gold.  Are you goin’ to tell me that these people are too poor to pay their share?”

So while she blames the rich for being judgmental of the poor, she gets to determine what “their share” is, and what they’re allowed to spend their money on, and that they obviously didn’t work hard to get it, and that there must be enough to spread around to people indiscriminately so they can get what they need with some of them working for it and others not.

Don’t misunderstand me, though.  I think a reality check and a heavy dose of personal responsibility and empathy would go a long way for the rich and the middle class, too – and for the poor and addicted.  There’s a lot of material in this book that will make you stop and think about how to address problems in our society that should concern every single one of us.  Some quotes that made me pause:

A teenager:

If you weave enough bad things into the fibers of a person’s life–sickness and filth, old mattresses and other junk thrown in the streets and other ugly ruined things, and ruined people, a prison here, sewage there, drug dealers here, the homeless people over there, then give us the very sorst schools anyone could think of, hospitals that keep you waiting for ten hours, police that don’t show up when someone’s dying, take the train that’s underneath the street in the good neighborhoods and put it up above where it shuts out the sun, you can guess that life will not be very  nice and children will not have much sense of being glad of who they are.  Sometimes it feels like we’ve been buried six feet under their perceptions.  This is what I feel they have accomplished.

About Häagen-Dazs:

This familiar detail, something that belongs to the everyday world, something I would buy at my store too, seems reassuring, safe, and normal.  It shuts out the sense of peril for a while.

A poet, when a child asked if he would teach him to write:

It was in my mind that I should not encourage him in a career with so much disappointment.

Columnist Annie Roiphe:

[Cruelty is] “the fuel that powers the palace” of our satisfactions.

David, the same boy whose mother was dying of AIDS:

It isn’t bad to sound like children.  Children sometimes understand things that most grown-ups do not see.

Services like those for orphans of AIDS, welfare offices, soup kitchens, and so on,

are needed–all these and hundreds more–if our society intends to keep on placing those it sees as unclean in the unclean places.

Quoting Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, A.D. 251 about an epidemic:

It is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good.

Kozol’s comment on Cyprian:

Consolations of this nature, however, have not always been persuasive to the victims of a plague.

At a prison:

I knew, even before I asked, how many must have been the former students of some of the schools I’ve visited, which in an awful sense, have come to be their preparation for life on this island and in many ways resemble prison buildings, although the facilities on Rikers Island are, in general, in better shape than most school buildings in New York.

Semantic somersaults are often undertaken to avoid the use of clear words on a matter in which clarity is badly needed.

A teacher in NY about screening black kids to put in private schools by scholarship:

In one sense, it simply makes things worse in public schools by pulling out the children that a teacher counts on to keep class discussions going and to spur the others to succeed… A dream does not die on its own. A dream is vanquished by the choices ordinary people make about real things in their own lives.

The big question Kozol made me ask: what decisions am I making that are vanquishing someone’s dream? And to put some personal responsibility on it, what choices are they making about real things?

About schools like Stuyvesant,

The question that no one wants to ask is: What do other kids deserve and how is the whole idea of a “deserving” or an “undeserving” person used to mask some of the cumulative consequences of injustice?

About holding up examples of kids who succeed, to make everyone feel better:

The trouble with miracles, however, is that they don’t happen for most children – without making clear how rare these situations are, we may seem to be condemning those who don’t have opportunities like these or, if they do, cannot respond to them.

[We] inflate exceptionality into a myth of progress that is not based in reality.

As Kozol asks, “How does a nation deal with those whom it has cursed?”

“Down south,” says Mrs. Flowers, who has relatives in Alabama, “people let you know exactly where you stand.  Here in New York they smile and smile and pat you on the head and then they send you back where you belong.

Less than 13 percent of the doctors practicing primary care in the Mot Haven area are certified by medical boards to practice.

[A pastor:] If New York were a Judeo-Christian city, “I think that we’d be asking questions all the time. ‘Where does my money come from? Who pays a price for all the fun I have? Who is left out? Do I need this bottle of expensive perfume more than a child needs a doctor or a decent school?’”

Seeing these women in the street, you feel almost ashamed of your good health and worry that, no matter how you speak of them, it may sound patronizing… Maybe we simply ask forgiveness for not being born where these poor women have been born, knowing that if we had lived here too, our fate might well have been the same.

It’s hard to think that any city that has love for children would allow them to grow up in such a place.

The killer is the street in which we live like rats.

It strikes me how much Kozol has to hedge sometimes to make the point he wants to make (like any researcher, I suppose; emphasis mine):

White American physicians, numerous studies seem to indicate, often evince a strong aversion to providing heath care in such neighborhoods.

Elizabeth, about finding a man,

I’d rather have a peaceful little life just with my kids than live with somebody who knows that he’s a failure.  Men like that make everyone feel rotten.

To end, some quotes, sad and/or poignant and/or resonant, about God, good, and evil:

…devout black women, in whom Cornel West has rightly said one often finds a spiritual strength unknown to most other Americans…

The evil is already set in stone. We just move in.

“I pray. I talk to God. I tell Him, ‘Lord, it is your work. Put me to my rest at night and wake me in the morning.’ “
“Do your children have the same believe in God that you do?”
“Yes,” she says, nodding at her daughter and her son-in-law. “They do. This family talks to God.”

“If you don’t believe in God and don’t believe in family or society and don’t believe you’ll ever have a job, what do you have?”

People in every era, as we know, want desperately to find a visible explanation for their suffering.

“People who don’t have no hope are dangerous.”

[The poet:] ”Children long for this-a voice, a way of being heard- but many sense that there is no one in the world to hear their words, so they are drawn to ways of malice. If they cannot sing, they scream.”

Tags: , , .

December 12, 2014 0 Comments

Book Club ’14: A Step of Faith & Walking on Water (The Walk series)

If you’ve never read Richard Paul Evans, think Nicholas Sparks (but even sappier) with a much-needed sense of morality.


These two titles represent the last two books in a five-book series that started with The Walk.  Alan’s wife, the love of his life, has a horse-riding accident, and in the month that transpires between the accident and her death, his partner steals his business, and he loses almost everything he owns.  And then she dies.  So in his grief he makes the obvious choice – to walk across the country.

As Alan journeys from Seattle to Key West on his own two feet, he learns poignant lessons and meets fascinating people.  Sometimes the sections of the story are too disjointed.  Sometimes the diary entries are ridiculously contrived (really, Richard, no man alive thinks like this, I’m pretty sure).  But I read these books as an escape, a quick read that can make me cry and laugh and enjoy thinking about what it would really be like to just get up and decide to walk across the country.

By far, my favorite installment was the second one, Miles to Go, but all five of them were good, light reads.  They’re not going to change your world but they’ll entertain you for a weekend.

Tags: , .

December 10, 2014 0 Comments

Best of 2014 #4 & #8: Curriculum planning outside the textbook

It’s time for the 8th most popular post of 2014, which was the second in a two-part series, and it just so happens that the 4th most popular post of the year was the first part in the series.  Since it makes sense to read them in order, I’m offering them both to you here.  They detail the process I go through to develop curriculum plans with or without a textbook.  The first post is about what I do in the summer(ish), and the second is about what I do as I’m going to begin each unit.

If you’d like to work with me on putting this process to work in a way that works for you, then you’ll want to come to Camp Musicuentos.  We’re doing two locations next year: Louisville, Kentucky and Warwick, Rhode Island.

Part One

You can do it! * Lupe

You can do it! * Lupi

I’ve been told several times recently that the concept of planning your own curriculum is all well and good, but where do you start?  What steps do you take?  Now that I’ve been textbook-free for five years, I’ve refined my own process to the following steps.

Before school starts

If you think you have to have everything planned before the first day of school, you really have a daunting project ahead of you.  Here are the steps I actually take when I write and rewrite curriculum maps and guides (which I have done every summer for at least one subject – always tinkering!).

  1. Become familiar with I Can statements and proficiency standards.
    Visit and revisit the ACTFL or good state standards and I Can statements for the level you’re planning.  Ask yourself, what can a student at this level do?  Where are we headed?  What will our goals be?  As an example, if you’re looking at a novice curriculum, keep in mind the overarching principle that novices can talk in simple ways about topics that are familiar.

  2. Sketch a list of topics and potential units.
    The key here is your overarching, guiding question.  If novices can talk in simple ways about familiar topics, what are the topics that are familiar to them?  Well, the ones that are part of their world: family, school, friends, fun, routines, places, and so on.

  3. Actually delineate what the units will be.
    Narrow units to a number that fits your calendar; between six and nine is a good number and fit well in a 36-week school year.  Resist doing too many and remember that most language teachers address too much content.  As you look at your list of topics and develop a title and focus for your units, think about activity, not language function: “Around town with my friends” helps you focus on communicating meaning, and may include vocabulary and grammar related to shopping, numbers, describing, transportation, making plans, and eating out.
  4. Schedule your units.
    Look at your school calendar and set dates to start and finish the units.  I begin a spreadsheet and run the dates along the left column, including the day of the week, date, and which week/day it is (so Tuesday of week 3 is 3-2, unless the Monday was a holiday, in which case it’s 3-1).

  5. Assign I-Can (or Can-D0) statements to your units, working from last to first (for more on backward design, see Understanding by Design).  What will students be able to do at the end of this unit?

  6. Plan and date assessments.
    This is why it’s critical to choose level-appropriate Can-Do statements before you plan assessments.  Ask what your students can do as one or more integrated performance assessments to show you that they actually can accomplish what you set out to achieve.  Then date them near the end of your unit.  I have small classes and long units, so I currently plan my performance assessments by mode with 4 per unit: one interpersonal speaking, one interpersonal writing, one presentational speaking, on presentational writing (and the presentational assessments include interpretive because students are required to incorporate authentic sources).  However, if I were planning now, in light of the evolution of the IPA and for large classes, I would plan two and have them be more integrated.  In shorter units, I would plan one.

That’s it – that’s the bare bones of what you really ought to have planned out before school starts.  Not so much to do this summer, right?  Stay tuned for the next installment to find out what I do before each unit begins.

Part Two


 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!

Tags: , .

December 9, 2014 0 Comments

Book Club ’14: Five Days at Memorial & Men We Reaped

Two nonfiction books today, both set in the same area (New Orleans) in the same era (Katrina and after).  One is about Katrina, one isn’t really, both are about choices that may or may not lead to death, and both will make you stop and think about why and when people die.  It’s a reflection on ethics everyone should make.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital

Summary: From GoodReads,

In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs 5 days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.

After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

Five Days at Memorial, the culmination of six years of reporting, unspools the mystery of what happened in those days, bringing the reader into a hospital fighting for its life and into a conversation about the most terrifying form of health care rationing.

In a voice at once involving and fair, masterful and intimate, Fink exposes the hidden dilemmas of end-of-life care and reveals just how ill-prepared we are in America for the impact of large-scale disasters—and how we can do better. A remarkable book, engrossing from start to finish, Five Days at Memorial radically transforms your understanding of human nature in crisis.

My take: What would you do, in a crippled hospital, ordered to stay, then ordered to evacuate, with patients who were about to die anyway?  I don’t think any of us can really answer that.  We can only say what we would hope to do.  I hope I would simply stay.  I hope the right choice would be to let a dying person breathe to the end in dignity, and not choose to, for example, smother someone to death.  This book showed me a side of Katrina I had never thought of before, and I should have.  We all should.  Because we could be next, to be in the aftermath of a natural disaster and faced with difficult choices of life or death.

Men We Reaped

Summary: From GoodReads,

In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth—and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.

My take: The summary says “because of who they were and where they were from,” and you do get a clear sense that these men were mired in a series of difficult circumstances, but I don’t remember thinking that Ward was negating personal responsibility.  People make their own choices, but for some, life makes it too easy to make all the wrong ones.  I am very blessed that making better life choices has been made easy for me, and I admire people who make them when it is very difficult, and I mourn, with Jesmyn Ward, those who do not resist making terrible choices when those are the easiest ones.

Tags: , .

December 7, 2014 0 Comments

Best of 2014 #9: Genius hour isn’t a great idea for novice classes

Before you read the ninth most popular Musicuentos post of 2014, in which I argue that Genius Hour (also known as 20 Time or 20% Time) is philosophically incompatible with teaching novice language learners, you have to promise me that you’ll click the links at the bottom to Laura Sexton’s blog, because if anyone could pull off Genius Hour in the language classroom, she can. However, if you’re not willing to put in the time she does to figure out how to make it comprehensible for them, this fad idea is not for you.

Why Genius Hour Can’t Work in a Novice Classroom

Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Sometimes, the business world comes up with a really great idea that works well in education.  Sometimes, that idea catches on like wildfire and makes a big difference for student learning.

Sometimes, it doesn’t.  At least, not for everyone.

Particularly those of us who might be considered “early adopters” have a bad habit of hearing about an innovative, intriguing idea and assume that it has to be great for every classroom.  We forget to evaluate the idea against the principles we know to be true about language learning.  I’m afraid that’s what’s happening with this curriculum scheduling approach called Genius Hour, or 20% Time.

You can get a good in-depth introduction to the concept of 20-Time from 20 Time in Education, but briefly, ostensibly the most famous perk of working for Google is the opportunity to spend one day a week, or 20% of work time, working on independent projects of the employee’s own choice.  The idea was considered so motivating and inspiring (it brought us, for example, Gmail and Adsense) that many other companies copied it, and then it spread to education.  Won’t students be so inspired and motivated if we let them work on whatever they want to for 20% of the time we see them?

I’m guessing you see where I’m going with this.  But I’m going to keep going anyway.

The power of choice

Fast forward to this summer, when my cyberfriend and colleague Bethanie had the great idea to have a virtual “edcamp” for language teachers to collaborate and brainstorm on creating and planning curriculum for the new school year.   It was called #langcamp and it’s open for anyone to check out resources and ideas (Google Drive folder, wiki set up by Laura).  Soon a subfolder was created by a teacher (Jennifer Geroux) who was particularly interested in using it in Spanish 3.   Several more teachers interested in the concept joined in the conversation and they discussed how to implement Genius Hour (another term commonly used to refer to 20% Time) in the world language classroom.  The reasons were obvious.  I’ve blogged extensively about how powerful and motivating it is to incorporate choice in the classroom, and these teachers knew it too:

I want to offer my students more freedom in choice.

I really would like to give them some freedom.

I’m interested in this passion-driven concept.

I really like the idea of something more student-driven.

So, the concept begins with a good idea, but the potential problems are also fairly obvious.

Lacking the most important tool

The teachers brainstorming Genius Hour realized that this could be really powerful for intermediate students, and also immediately had doubts about how to do something so creative with students who can’t actually create with language (the definition of novices):

I don’t want to take away from TL time.

I would like to discuss best practices of its implementation in WL classes without sacrificing TL time.

I do have my doubts about fitting it into the WL classroom without conflicting with TL use. I admit, I need a bit of convincing in that area.

I want to implement this but not at the cost of TL time.

I’d very much like to harness the power of genius hour in the target language.

The fact is that Genius Hour can’t work with novices in the target language.  Genius Hour assumes people will use skills and tools they’re good at to produce something new, innovative, interesting.  Novices, by definition, do not have these skills or tools.  These teachers were realizing it too:

Novice learners will need some general direction/guidance…otherwise I feel that the project is too open-ended and they will just be lost.

I think the topics have to be limited, especially at the novice-level.

I’m not sure how to scaffold it for novices.

We need to find balance between passion projects and TL acquisition.

Once you realize that novices can’t do Genius Hour and target language together, you have to do one of two things: give up on a lot of TL, or give up on some of the concepts of Genius Hour.

Giving up on target language

If you’re a teacher of novices, let me ask you a question.  Imagine that you use one day a week of your class time and tell students that they can work on anything they want, as long as the product has some kind of target language in it (wait – that’s a caveat – more on that below).  What will your students do?  What will they learn?  I can tell you what I think they’d do.  For the ones who are really on top of things and motivated to research and produce in the target language, they’ll get incredibly frustrated.   For the ones who are in your class just to fulfill a requirement or because their girlfriend is there, they’ll do as much as they can get away with in English.  This entered the #langcamp discussion too:

If we’re not streamlining the process for them in a way that promotes some type of fluency or knowledge of culture, I feel 20 time would be a better fit outside of our language classrooms (as as a requirement to an English course, for example).

At Level 1 I probably would not require a lot of TL as they are just starting the class.

I wouldn’t require a ton of TL because the students are at least within the subject matter.

I understand the TL concerns especially with lower level students… The usage of the TL would vary depending on the project they choose.

I personally wouldn’t require TL if the students aren’t yet ready to produce the language.

Giving up on Genius Hour

Strictly speaking, 20-Time wasn’t complete freedom even for Google.  I mean, Google didn’t intend for their engineers to spend 1/5 of their time watching videos on how to bake a great loaf of bread.  They expected that projects would be related to computer programming at the very least.  With GH in the world language classroom, at least you’d have to make some stipulations: does the research have to be in TL? The product in TL? Does the topic have to relate to the cultures of Spanish-speaking peoples?  Here’s what came up in the discussion: Teachers thought that the concept meant that “whatever their passions are we can somehow put it in the WL classroom” but,

Something else to consider is that limiting the topics may take away from it being a truly passion-driven model.

In limiting topics the students can choose from (must be about culture, must be TL-related, etc) in order to accommodate Genius Hour within our classes, it kind of morphs the passion-model into a traditional “let’s research culture” project.

I do not want to limit my student’s choices for genius hour.

If it is a project that you want them to work on, the students might feel limited in their “genius” inspiration.

Mandating culture

If you’re letting students do whatever they want, there seems to be a dilemma of how to bring in the cultural element.  The idea was presented to filter the student’s passion through the lens of a Spanish-speaking country and that went over well (but is still giving students guidelines).  When it comes to “teaching” culture, though, the bottom line is that teachers who are wondering how to do it are almost always making one very glaring mistake: they’re not using authentic sources.  If they were, culture would just be there.

Guidelines plus choice

So, what’s the answer here?  As for the #langcamp teachers, at least one decided that Genius Hour did not fit with the format and goals of a world language class.  Two, that I know of, successfully tweaked the concept of Genius Hour and implemented it in their classrooms this past semester (see the Connect section below).

As for me, I’ve seen the power of letting students incorporate their own passions into class, but I’m still not sure I like the idea of a pure Genius Hour even with intermediate students -I have such little time with them, and I know more about how language acquisition works than they do.  But for sure, with novices it simply cannot work.  You can’t tell kids who can’t create with language to go create whatever they want, without sacrificing a great deal of your objectives for your class.  There’s a reason you’re the teacher, and guidelines are not students’ enemy – they’re helpful.  When I give students their options for their Aventura fluency homework or their final exam, if I hear, “Boy, I wish I could do X instead,” it doesn’t stifle them.  It opens up a great discussion of either “This is why that doesn’t work with our class,” or “You know, that’s an awesome idea and it didn’t occur to me.  Pencil it in.”

But don’t take it from me.  Take it from the people who thought it up – Google.  Not long after the #langcamp discussion, some pretty substantial rumors started flying around about how Google was implementing guidelines for 20% Time.  The press hailed it the “death of 20 Time” and so forth.  But Forbes’s Kathy Gersch called the guidelines Google’s “best new innovation” and had some great insight on the  matter (emphasis mine):

Now that Google has put some rules  around “20% time,” the one day a week an employee spends on side projects, people are having a field day forecasting the end of innovation at the company that claims to “use their powers for good, not evil.” To those people, I ask one question: Can a company in today’s highly competitive environment survive if they allow 1/5th of their employees’ time to be devoted to work that has no clear alignment with the company’s strategy?

The answer is … of course not.

If Google has indeed placed guidelines around their employees’ use of their “20% time” it’s probably a very smart move. Here’s why:

1. Urgency without alignment is wasted energy…

2. There’s room to explore and power to be generated from those “intrinsically interested.” [backstory there: rumor was that Google wanted managers to approve individual engineers' 20-Time projects]…

3. Focused free-thinking builds a “change engine” into the culture.

Probably my favorite quote was in the introduction to the piece, because it’s such a great principle to remember across educational paradigms:

Structure nurtures – rather than hinders – innovation.



If you’d like to connect with teachers interested in implementing Genius Hour or 20% Time in the world language classroom, here are some of them on Twitter and around the web.  I’m sure any of them would love to discuss the possibilities with you.

  • Catherine Ousselin @catherineku1972
  • Jenna Hacker @jennahacker
  • Jillane Baros @profabaros
    Catch her reflections blogged here.
  • Jennifer Geroux @senorageroux
  • Garnet Hillman @garnet_hillman
    Explore her GH journey here.
  • Valerie Hays @val_hays
  • Natalia DeLaat @natadel76
  • Jordan Yeager @yeager85
  • Laura Sexton @SraSpanglish
    She’s blogged extensively about her Genius Hour adventures here.

 More resources

Tags: , .

December 5, 2014 0 Comments