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Linguacafé: The idea that rocked my interpersonal world

What would you do if you had taught high school Spanish for years and then suddenly you were given new responsibilities involving…


If you’re like me, your first day you’d come away thinking

What are they thinking? What was I thinking? WHAT DO I DO?!

Conversación *k59


Learning from the best

In high school we can often get the impression that high-schoolers are like kindergarteners [remove tongue from cheek], but they’re not, and I was woefully aware of this the first year I tried to teach elementary school after ALL my training and experience was in secondary schools.  The first time I tried this I didn’t have a professional learning network, but my second time around I knew just what to do – ask for help.  Two amazing women were instrumental in helping me feel comfortable in my skin in front of kids ages 2 to first grade.  Nationally-recognized elementary guru Marcela Summerville direct-messaged me her phone number on Twitter and gave me a half-hour crash course in preschool Spanish.  You can read more about what I learned from her in my summary of how I approach elementary learning.

The other woman was Nadine Jacobson, then a teacher with more than 600 students at a local elementary school, now working for Middlebury Interactive.  I didn’t know her at the time but my good friend Thomas Sauer was the Jefferson County (KY) world languages specialist then and he told me, “You really should find a day your school will let you come observe her.”  So I did, and just watching her in two classes (coupled with the phone call with Marcela) taught me as much (or more!) about elementary teaching as I would have learned in a training program.  Note: For many helpful elementary resources like units with their goals, see Nadine’s class wikispace.

Conversation practice, adapted for all levels

So what does this have to do with interpersonal speaking, you ask? And will you take away anything from this post if you’re a secondary teacher?  Everything, and I hope so.

Nadine’s classes did an activity around the beginning of every class period called Linguacafé.  Linguacafé is a conversation activity that gets kids talking, helps shyer students have a low-anxiety speaking outlet, and gives the teacher opportunities to both give meaningful feedback and complete administrative tasks like collecting homework or taking attendance, or even setting up the next video, while students are still engaged with language.

Here’s the process.

Practice conversation targets

In kindergarten and first grade, we did Linguacafé every single class period, but you don’t have to.  We only had class once a week, so it never got “old” with the kids.  But you could do it every class period regardless of age.  Simply varying the conversation targets adds variety.

Particularly with elementary kids who are struggling to cognitively parse parts of sentences anyway, the students need practice before starting Linguacafé.  Secondary students may skip this step.  But first, I asked for volunteers (and those who volunteered and accomplished the task got to color in a smiley-face on their participation chart; following Nadine’s example we called them “sí, se puede”s).  Two (sometimes three) volunteers would stand in front of the class and model the conversation.  With kindergarten, this always started with how are you and its potential answers.  By the end of first grade, students could choose from many different dialogues they knew, including answering how are you? what is it? what color is it? what’s your name? what’s the weather? and more.  So first, you need to have students model some of their options or the specific conversation you’re targeting.

Pick your music

Routine is key with elementary kids, and it’s not a bad thing with older ones either.  I only had between 15 and 20 minutes per week with my elementary students, and anytime I could use a routine to not have to give instructions, directions, orders, etc. was a great help.  Enter the music.  My students knew that as soon as Hola a todos began, they were to begin Linguacafé.  When Adiós came on, everyone was to get to the end of their conversation and return to their seats.  For secondary students, you’ll obviously want to pick something different (how about something by Kevin Karla y la Banda, perhaps Call Me Maybe?)

Get ‘em up!

Often at the beginning of the year, I’d ask my students,

What do we do for Linguacafé?  Stay quiet in our seats or get up and talk to our friends?

I bet you can guess what happened.  Kids are conditioned as to what school is supposed to be like.  I got a chorus of

Stay quiet in our seats!

So you can imagine how much kids liked it when I laughed and said, “NO! We get up and talk to our friends!”  During the time the music was playing (I put it on repeat and then put on the ending song when I’m ready), they knew they were to wander the room doing the routine, which was…

Conversation “rules”

Again, the little guys need a routine and a few rules.  Here are ours:

  1. We always start with hola.
  2. We always talk with one friend at a time unless Sra. Cottrell tells us to talk to more.  Then we move on to talk to a different friend.
  3. We speak Spanish.
  4. We always end with adiós.
  5. We never interrupt our friends who are talking.

Why it hits a home run

Here are some reasons why I love this activity, after putting it into practice for three years:

  • Repetitions: Students get repetitions in a way that’s fun to them.  Even with only 20 minutes per week with my students, I watched my students acquire automatic responses to common Spanish questions.
  • Movement and noise: I don’t work well in a world where school is supposed to be quiet.  The world is changing and it’s looking for people who will innovate and “make noise.”  I love to hear the Spanish chatter during Linguacafé.
  • Engagement during administrivia: we all have stuff we have to do, or forgot to do before class, or whatever, and like I said, Linguacafé gets kids talking (instead of just writing a list of whatever all the time!) while I quickly get those tasks out of the way.
  • Class relationships: If you have kids who are cliquish, you can add a rule that they can’t talk to the same person twice in the same Linguacafé, but I found they do this naturally anyway.  Kids will get to know each other and interact with others they may not have talked to.
  • Encouragement for the shy guys: I watched my students who wouldn’t say a word in class (even in a small class) blossom and show off conversation skills I never knew they had when we did Linguacafé and they were talking one-on-one with the same friend they played on the swings with.
  • Feedback: You will be amazed at how well you start to know your students’ individual conversational ability and how many opportunities you have to quickly work with them one-on-one on what they’re struggling with if you incorporate Linguacafé into your regular schedule.

Secondary example

Okay, you get the idea, and this post is already long, but I wanted to add an example for how this might look in a secondary class.  I have to tell you I never did this in my secondary classes because it only occurred to me recently, but you can add it to the growing list of things that will change about my classroom the next time I have one.  My friend Amanda Díaz-Mora is doing a unit now on What does my day look like? and asked me about something involving goal-setting, so I borrowed her theme.  Here’s a slideshow of conversation prompts for a Linguacafé within that theme.  I’ve put them in English here; simply click “File” and “save a copy” to edit within your own Google Drive to tailor to your school and language.

If you get a chance to try Lingacafé in secondary classes, I’d love to hear about it, and perhaps have a guest post here about it.

photo copyright

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November 17, 2014 0 Comments

What we learned at IFLTA ’14: Everyone struggles, Culture leads

Since I had my precious Cottrell-itos on my trip to the annual conference of the Indiana Foreign Language Teacher’s Association, I didn’t get to spend as much time involved in the conference as I would have liked to, but I did greatly enjoy the time I did have.  I reconnected with “old” friends, made new ones, and met face-to-face with some of you in my online PLN.

I don’t like giving handouts (because I don’t usually like getting them) but I always promise to put up my resource on a blog post, so here’s that, with some good takeaways from other sessions as well.

We all struggle

Let me just say it was refreshing to hear Linda Egnatz hear that the ACTFL Teacher of the Year can still have a seventh-period class out of control!  I’m not a failure if I still can’t solve every problem presented by putting a bunch of football players together in a last-period Spanish class!

Also, I heard over and over that teachers recognize there are areas where they need to change, and where the research is driving us to change, and they’re trying.  I apologize if the artifact of microblogging on Twitter or blogging in short bursts gives you the impression that I or any teacher anywhere has all the answers and has changed everything that needs to change.  We’re using the TL all the time in 100% comprehensible ways while teaching every aspect of culture and inspiring every single student to learn language for a lifetime and dedicate themselves to improving the world – NOT!  We’re all growing.  We’re all changing.  And if the fact that it’s hard isn’t keeping us from doing something to improve today, something else or something the same next month and the year after next, then kudos to us and here’s a digital hug from me (here’s an extra one for you, Wendy).

Linda Egnatz: Three types of control

When someone goes so far as to be named the Teacher of the Year by ACTFL, you know you’re going to benefit from sitting in a session (and at lunch!) with her, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Linda talked to us about how ACTFL’s work supports our proficiency-based teaching, what motivates students, integrating the 5 C’s, and more, but what I’m really mulling over is how she explained how she analyzes student performance.

First, her idea of counting parts of an utterance – and having students focus on doing the same – fascinates me.  Push student proficiency by asking them to move beyond one-word responses.  Students can count parts: 1) who did what? 2) with whom? 3) when? 4) why? 5) in what way? 6) in what mood? 7) with what result? and you can see how they’ll get used to producing more complex utterances and pushing themselves to take risks.

Also, Linda looks at the proficiency shown by a performance by looking at what type of control the students are showing, that is, how grammatical accuracy is evident in their performance.  Here are the three:

  • Conceptual control: I know it happens but I don’t do it when I produce language except in memorized chunks.
  • Partial control: I can do it on words that neatly fit a pattern that I have practiced a lot. (In Spanish an example is matching adjectives to the gender of nouns but only when they end in the obvious -o, -a.)
  • Full control: I can apply the concept in general.  It doesn’t mean it’s perfect but the student is aware of the general concept and applies it fairly consistently.

Side note, I knew that students can’t manipulate past tense until Advanced proficiency (which makes me wonder why we do it in Level 2 anyway), but Linda said that speakers can’t handle the aspect of past (such as imperfect vs. preterite in Spanish) until Superior.  I have always assumed that my speaking proficiency was somewhere around Advanced High, but this made me wonder if I may be reaching Superior.  I know the topics I can handle are a factor there, but I wonder.

In another conversation, she talked about using tasks and activities that match student’s cognitive level.  In elementary, we can’t teach numbers by counting money in kindergarten because they actually can’t perform that skill cognitively.  Same with telling time.  But they love to talk about animals in the context of farms and zoos.  Try that with tenth graders and, well, you can imagine.  Linda suggests we use cultural resources that are interesting them on their cognitive level, like using Hungry Planet pictures to talk about food comparisons.

Super Teacher PD: best handout idea ever

A university professor (the IFLTA conference seemed very post-secondary heavy to me) did a session on PD and on his handout, he put a doodle box.  Literally, it was a box for us to doodle in if we wanted to. Whether or not you doodle in a session, you have to admit it shows how down-to-earth the guy is!

This session was set in the context of superheroes (Batman – what “kryptonite” keeps you from doing quality PD; Iron Man – what’s your “arc reactor”?; Avengers – I forget) but I really, really hate superhero movies so the analogy fell flat with me, but I appreciated how he pushed us to…

  1. ask what makes me an effective teacher
  2. set big goals
  3. remember what keeps me teaching
  4. eliminate things holding me back from PD that are within my control (i.e. watching too much Downton Abbey instead of pushing my language/cultural proficiency with a Spanish-language film)
  5. making a few achievable goals with deadlines and someone to report to

What PD goals do you have for this next year?

My session: Reality in IPAs

I really had a great group of teachers attend this session and they gave it energy and great ideas.  To find the links to the resources I offered in this session, see the post from the KWLA conference, and especially check out the Camp Musicuentos wiki (and let me know if you want to be notified when registration for Camp Musicuentos opens).

Here are some of the contributions participants made that resonated with me:

  • Set students in a scenario helping someone, especially a child, as this incorporates real service-learning and lowers anxiety.
  • Could your students potentially get a holiday job being an elf or some other character at a local mall, for example?  What a great opportunity to use language, and a fun scenario (if it’s realistic)!
  • One teacher was in an area where a tornado struck and an apartment building near her was evacuated.  She ended up helping translate for the Red Cross.
  • Remember, novices will not be able to do translation scenarios well.  Get them to picture themselves describing themselves, introducing themselves, and otherwise making friends with someone who lives nearby or whom they meet on the internet.
  • Speaking of the internet, this is a go-to realistic scenario for students in rural areas.
  • Another realistic scenario in a rural area: someone on Craigslist wants to buy [item you love but you got a new one] and is willing to travel from [some city not terribly far away] to get it but doesn’t speak English well.
  • One more: Many students in rural areas not too far from a large city will go there for big shopping trips or to see something in the theatre, for example, and may come across speakers of another language.  What about a sporting event?  Students where I live may travel all the way to Cincinnati for a Reds game.

Another resource we mentioned was Megan’s post over on the Creative Language Class on incorporating heritage speakers into your class.

Commercials in Spanish class

Some professors and teacher candidates over at IUPUI did a presentation on using commercials to teach culture (and language) in Spanish class.  You’ll be able to find their materials on the IFLTA website and in the spirit of don’t reinvent the wheel! I wanted to make sure you also knew about Kara Jacobs’s amazing resources for using commercials (presentation, worksheets, videos) as well as the document dozens of Spanish teachers have worked on for the past four years with a ton of scripts and ideas for using Spanish commercials.

What are you learning lately?  I hope these ideas and resources also inspire you to keep on keeping on!

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November 8, 2014 4 Comments

TCI in the shadow of [grammar-focused] common assessment

After I get a question repeated to me a certain number of times via Twitter, comments, or emails, I know it’s time for a blog post.

The Great Dilemma

If you have never had to consider how students in your TCI (teaching with comprehensible input) class will fit in a program that forces grammar-heavy common assessments, or transfers students into grammar-translation classes, or asks you to prepare students for standardized college entrance exams, count yourself very lucky.  But I’ve seen and heard this so many times that I know it weighs heavily on the minds of teachers on both sides of the fence, and those straddling the fence: are we preparing them for X?

A not-so-great dilemma

I’d like to offer you some relief, from this burden at least, if you’re a TCI teacher at least.  If you’re a grammar translation teacher who is wondering how your students will do in a TCI class, I don’t have a lot of advice for you, except that you should read and listen to research on how people learn language and then re-evaluate which one of you is teaching more in line with it.  But for you teachers currently teaching or developing a program more focused on teaching with comprehensible input, I do not think this is something you need to worry much about, and here are a few reasons why.

Ubiquitous format

Last year a rather antagonistic teacher at a workshop was unpleasantly shocked that I had not given my students a test -or asked a multiple-choice question outside of AP Spanish- in four years.  Perhaps you’ve heard the comment before:

But if they don’t practice taking them, how will they know how to take them?

I nearly laughed.  How old are kids when they start learning how to take multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests these days, 6? 7?  At least half the students at my high school were in private tutoring to improve their ACT scores.  Let their other classes and their ACT tutors prep them for test formats.  They don’t need one more class to do it, too.

High skills to low skills

When students are used to being assessed by circling which answer is the yo form of hablar, they may (usually) have a lot of trouble moving to a teacher or program where someone simply asks them the question (in TL), what do you do in class?  But when students are used to saying “I like to talk on the phone. I talk on the phone with my friend every day after school” they have little trouble choosing the correct form for I speak, or the translation for friend, and so on.

It hadn’t occurred to me to worry about whether my students would be ready for grammar-translation-heavy exams or programs.  The fact is, many of my students have left my class and taken such exams or ended up in such programs in college.  Not one of them has failed to test out of at least one class, usually two, sometimes four.  Not one student.  As for the ones in grammar-heavy programs in college, they hate it, but they’re excelling there, too.  Because when you’re used to refining your communicative skills, learning to analyze words comes much easier than it happens the other way around.

It's a piece of sweet coffee cake. Priscila Mateini

It’s a piece of sweet coffee cake.
Priscila Mateini

Making it even easier

Still, as you face preparing your students for a common grammar-translation assessment or a move into a grammar-heavy next-level class or college class, there are a couple of things you can do to make this even easier, and watch your students succeed with less frustration.

Patterning grammar questions

TPRS now advocates a technique called “pop-up” grammar and my understanding of it is that when grammar issues come up in the natural process of communicative teaching, we take a few minutes to ask pointed questions like “why is it X and not Y? what if the subject were B?”  I love that technique and when I’m teaching I do it a lot.  But it’s also a huge part of how I introduce content.  When I do storytelling, my target features are far from random.  They are all related to a particular grammatical or vocabulary function I’m trying to get students to be able to use in their communication.  So in my story, I may be targeting the pattern of is _____ing  and in the days after the story students will be using music, games, and activities to work on communicating with this pattern.  When students work on communicating in patterns, identifying them on a grammar-heavy test is a piece of cake.

One-day? crash course

In an attempt to broker peace within a strongly conflicted department of teachers on both sides of this fence, I made this suggestion:  what if the TCI teachers spend a day every so often, or the last day of the quarter, or the last two days of the semester, or whatever they’re willing to do in the time right before they go to another teacher’s class, hitting the grammatical terms of some of the things they’ve looked at?  I’d be willing to spend 2 days at the end of the school year going over terms like conjugation and direct object pronoun if it meant the coffee cake at the faculty meeting -and the company- would seem sweeter.  And if it would mean the grammar teacher would get off my back about preparing them for a test.

Are you struggling in a department that’s asking you as a TCI teacher to focus more on test prep?  How are you handling it successfully?

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October 30, 2014 2 Comments

More multi-tasking children’s lit

If you use children’s stories in the classroom, are those stories skilled enough to do double – or triple – duty?

Piggybacking on what Helena Curtain advised, to use literature that’s deep enough to come at life and language in multiple ways, I’d like to add a couple of suggestions for books to add to your classroom.  I’m primarily addressing this to the elementary audience but if you’re a secondary teacher (as am I by my beginnings) you’ll easily see how these books might fit in your curriculum, as well.  Another note: I read these books in Spanish, but since I’m advising you to simplify the stories, they’re a great option for teachers of any language; just buy the book in English.

Unless you’re in an immersion school, your students likely do not have the proficiency to handle these stories (my bilingual 5-year-old: “What’s rabino? What’s bulliciosos?”).  So take your targets and make the story simple and repetitive.  Add gestures and sound effects and you’ve got a winner to keep you and the students in the target language and your environment acquisition-rich.

Los otros osos (The Other Bears)

In Los otros osos (English here), Michael Thompson introduces us to the koala family, where the mom and dad are not feeling very much like making friends with bears who are different.  They don’t like the pandas’ ears and shoes.  They’re annoyed by the polar bears’ claws and coats.  And don’t get them started on the noise the black bears make!  But their kids have a different opinion- the pandas have awesome food, the polar bears tell great jokes, and the black bears sing fun songs.  Here’s what I love about this book, for the language classroom:

  • Description: The koalas are brown and black and small, the polar bears are white and tall, the black bears are… well, you get the picture.
  • Likes / dislikes: For every new type of bear, the mom doesn’t like something, the dad doesn’t like something else, the kids like something else.
  • National symbols: Each bear has something that is related to a country where it is native.  The black bears wear red, white, & blue marching band uniforms.  The brown bears are dressed in their bright, warm Russian outfits.  The sun bears have their Southeast Asian umbrellas and ride bicycles.
  • Cross-curricular: As an extension of the national symbols aspect, the front and back covers of the book contain information on different types of bears and where they are found.
  • Celebrating difference: I don’t even want to call this tolerance because that implies quietly dealing with something you don’t like without hurting other people over it.  No, the koala bear kids celebrate difference – there’s something about the culture and personality of each type of bear that they really like.  This is a message our kids need to explore.

Siempre puede ser peor (It Could Always Be Worse)

Unless your library has the Spanish edition like mine, buy the English book as the Spanish version will run you close to $100 now that it seems to be out of print.  A poor family lives in such tight quarters (I learned the word apiñado here) that everyone’s at each other’s throats.  The father will do just about anything to make things better, including following the Rabbi’s advice to bring in the chickens… and the goat… and the cow!  Will they all go crazy?  It doesn’t hurt that the book won a Caldecott honor for illustrations.  Here’s what I love about this book, for the language classroom:

  • Family members: One dad, one mom, a grandma, six kids, and a Rabbi.  Give them all names and ages.
  • Animals and their sounds: you’ve got chickens, a rooster, goats, and a cow.  Add other animals, if you like.
  • Vocabulary: Take, put, or some other version of “brought in,” whatever’s common in the language you teach.  The dad takes the animals out of their (barn?) and puts them in the house.  Also something with “crazy.”  Also activities from the illustrations: “is sleeping” “is eating” “is yelling,” etc.  House and furniture, with comparisons to the student’s own home if that’s appropriate.
  • Do you have / I have: This is an aspect I love about repetitive books.  Every time he goes to the Rabbi, the father is asked “do you have” and responds “yes, I have.”
  • Thankfulness:   In the beginning, the whole family lives in one room.  In the end, the whole family lives in one room.  What changed?  It was their attitude.  They understood that perhaps their problems weren’t that terrible after all, and perhaps they could find peace in the situation they lived in.  We could all use a dose of that.

If you want one more recommendation, check out Bears on Chairs for concepts in numbers, math, problem-solving, and sharing (and someone please put this adorable poem in Spanish!).

What literature are you using to teach core values along with language?


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October 20, 2014 3 Comments

Next on my PD list: New proficiency videos

COERLL banner snapA new resource has become available to the Spanish teacher community and I really wanted you to know about it.

Last night’s #langchat was about how we can push our students from Novice Mid to Novice High in all three modes (for a summary, keep an eye on the Calico Spanish blog).  Several participants expressed that they wanted to work more on distinguishing the proficiency levels.  What a worthy endeavor!  We’re all so busy – teachers are so busy – and so much is expected of us, but any amount of time at all that you can spend exploring proficiency levels will pay in dividends in your renewed focus in class and your students’ language development.  I’m particularly grateful for resources like this: free, quality, organized, and available on my timetable, since I have not been able to attend an official ACTFL OPI workshop (when they’ve been offered here it’s prohibitive for me to find/pay for that much childcare or I’m presenting at the same time at a conference).

COERLL site snap 2So what’s the resource? It’s a new group of websites from the University of Texas at Austin’s (same people who brought us those great proficiency exercises videos we all love to use) Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning. The Introduction to Oral Proficiency Levels will -quickly!- guide you through specific features of a given proficiency level, and then offers video examples of students performing at that level along with some type of guide, questions to help you figure out why the speaker was rated at that level.

COERLL site snap 1You’ll also want to check out the Spanish proficiency training website and learner corpus, where you can watch videos of students and rate them yourself, then check to see if you’re right.

COERLL snap 5 COERLL snap 3

Snag a few minutes one morning before school, check out one video on one page, and see if you don’t learn a ton in those few minutes about how to evaluate your students’ performance more accurately, a practice which most importantly informs our students and informs our teaching.  Good luck!


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October 17, 2014 2 Comments

What we learned at KWLA: share, think, respect


It’s a wrap!

I was back at my “home conference” in September for the 2014 Kentucky World Language Association annual conference and it felt like I hadn’t missed a beat- in a very good way.  I got to hang out with old friends and make fantastic new ones, help and be helped, take a few minutes away from kids and learn with the best.  For your benefit and mine, here’s an attempt at organizing my takeaways from this conference.


From some sessions I went to:

  • Kentucky is using a new teacher evaluation system called TPGES.  I’ve had some questions about it and went to the session to learn more so I could be more helpful than “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”  So now I have some idea of what you’re talking about.  Summary: keep being effective, resist the temptation to choose what will work for you instead of what’s communicative and focused on your students’ real proficiency, and don’t let administration or other teachers drag you into making this another bureaucratic pile of words on trash paper or disk space that may or may not reflect how you actually teach in your classroom and who cares anyway.
    TPGES outcomes linked to evaluation

    TPGES outcomes linked to evaluation

    Reflect on yourself, and change if you need to, and do it slowly.

  • The new JCPS curriculum documents were still not available (boy that was a downer) at the conference but it seems they’ve quietly gone live since the conference… I think.  In any case, take what works, do what you know, reflect on yourself, and change if you need to.  And do it slowly.

From my sessions:

  • Create realistic assessments:
    Session’s “Twitter pitch” (the message in 140 characters or less): When assessments let students see themselves using language in a realistic situation, learning is more fun and lasting.
    Here’s a linoit board with suggestions from participants (and you, my awesome PLN!) of how we’ve actually used our language without traveling abroad.  Because let’s face it, renting an apartment in Madrid or creating your own clothing advertisement – don’t get me started on Picasso dioramas – are not exactly realistic linguistic production for the vast majority of our students.  I’m not saying there’s not something to be said for fun projects that motivate, but for production assessments, let’s keep it real.
    Notice a lot of these are adult uses of language, because, well, my responders were adults.  Can you think of reasons our teenagers (or younger kids?) would actually use language?  In the seminal article in the Language Educator, the queen of the IPA wrote about a sample assessment in which elementary children are encouraged to imagine they’re doing something in their future profession. Um, not something a lot of fourth graders are into right now.  Why would a fourth grader actually use Spanish?  Let me know what you think.
    We used these ideas as a springboard to brainstorm realistic assessment scenarios for common units.  Some participants gave me great ideas which have been added to the Camp Musicuentos wikispace, linked below.
    Here’s the Prezi, if you like.
  • Curriculum planning outside the textbook:
    Session’s “Twitter pitch”: With or without a textbook, you can  pace, plan, and execute engaging, proficiency-based curriculum without being overwhelmed.
    We had a fantastic time in this session.  Those three hours went so fast and we accomplished a lot and not enough!  I can’t wait to see some of them at Camp Musicuentos (speaking of which, come to Camp Musicuentos).  We added two great IPA ideas to the Camp Musicuentos wikispace, on the Level 1 page, including one that would work for any language (and for my family would actually need to be Arabic – loved having a UK Arabic professor in the session!).  Note the link to a document with activities for the novice level familyish unit (listed as Unit 3).
    Here’s the Keynote, if you like.

Random lessonsphoto (2)

  • My PLN colleague Jordan Yeager wasn’t at KWLA (boo) but explored with us via Twitter anyway.  While looking at something he noted, “A crappy textbook curr[iculum] made all pretty w/ nice fonts is still crappy curriculum.”  Yes.  Great if it looks good, but keep it real, too.  It’s worth noting that the opposite is true – I saw some pretty fantastic stuff helping novices interact with authentic resources that didn’t look like it was developed by graphic design specialists because, well, it wasn’t, but it was still fantastic for learning.  We can’t all be Zachary Jones (we all love you, Zachary).
  • We’ve heard it, we’ve said it, but apparently not all of us believe it; in the BYOD (bring your own device) movement we believe that cheating is a heart problem, not an equipment problem, and the same goes for respect.  If we don’t teach students how to use devices respectfully, but instead we use our authority to simply take them away, and we strong-arm them into silence instead of teaching respect for the people speaking, we’ll end up with adults (teachers) who sit in an awards luncheon and completely ignore / talk over recognition of amazing colleagues who are fighting and winning big, important battles.  Next time you’re in a conference session, at an awards luncheon, or in a faculty meeting, remember how much you wish your students would learn to respect you when you’re speaking, even when you’re boring them, even when they don’t care.  And remember that when you’re talking to the person next to you, you’re either making them share in your distraction or forcing them to figure out a polite way to tell you to shut up so they can show some respect. /soapbox
  • If you know you’re going to eat cheesecake, enjoy it more by knowing you’ve earned it; get up at 6 and hit the hotel fitness room.  Better yet, bring along a friend (maybe one day I’ll be able to run as far as you, Jana).
  • When will conference hotels enter the 21st century and offer free in-room wifi like every little Holiday Inn Express does?
  • It’s not all about work.  Go out for dinner with new and old friends and tell stories that don’t have anything to do with school.  Enjoy the festival and dance.  No one’s really looking at you (unless you’re on the stage, and then you just volunteered for the audience!).  But at the festival do not pay $50 for a fantastically attractive Ecuadorian pullover if it scratches your arms like a briar patch.  You know you won’t wear (1)
  • Even while you’re having fun, be a professional the whole time.  Watch your conversation while you’re drinking too much in the hotel bar at night.  If I feel like listening to your casual conversation is a complete waste of time, I probably don’t want to hear your “professional” pitch either.
  • Speaking of respect, regardless of what you’re there for, be quiet in your hotel room at 2 A.M.  Remember that walls are thin and the people in the room next door might have to get up at 6 for work and even if they didn’t they didn’t sign up to listen to you… whatever.  I refuse to elaborate.
  • When a conference is over, go home and relax with your family and/or friends.  You have plenty of time to implement all the great ideas you’ve gotten.  Give yourself some time to let it all soak in.

I hope to see you at a conference this year!

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October 9, 2014 1 Comment

The game-changing authentic resource guide for Spanish 3+: it’s here!

cajas coverIt’s finally here!

To find out all the details about the brand new Musicuentos ebook, Cajas de cartón: a chapter-by-chapter guide to the memoir by Francisco Jiménez, check out the Cajas page.

Or, to summarize, it’s 59 illustrated pages of proficiency-focused, vocabulary-boosting activities paired with comprehension and critical-thinking questions to accompany the 12 chapters of Francisco Jiménez’s poignant memoir Cajas de cartón.

Just looking for something to go with the short story of the same name, which is chapter 9 in the book?  You can get that too.  Or, if you’re interested in something for students with higher proficiency (think fourth year, intermediate mid or higher, AP, IB, heritage), then you’ll want to check out the first Musicuentos ebook guide for La ciudad de las bestias.

Already know you want the guide?  For the launch week of October 4-11 you can purchase the download to reproduce for all of your students for as long as you teach for 25% off - $29.95.  After October 11 the regular price will be $39.95.

To purchase now, click here:

Or, fax your school’s purchase order to: (815) 346-3401.

Enjoy – and let me know what you think!

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October 3, 2014 0 Comments

Three days and then…

cajas coverIt’s been a rough road this summer for Cajas de cartón: a reader’s guide to the memoir by Francisco Jiménez.  I think I began the guide in April or May, but then June was slammed with workshops and travel.  July I lost my father and traveled some more.  August I finished traveling and went back to work on the guide.  And then September.  I finally finished the guide this month but the editing process took longer than anticipated.  But it’s all over now!

Hear that? It’s a harmonious rendition of the Hallelujah chorus.

Whew! What a labor it has been!

The ebook guide for Cajas de cartón will be released via the blog THIS FRIDAY, October 3.  For one week, the purchase price to download the file will be 25% off, $29.95.  Next Friday it will go to its regular price of $39.95.  And that’s not per student – the cost includes a license for you to copy the file for all your students for as long as you teach.

Just a foretaste- my favorite section is a new feature, new from the Ciudad guide, I mean, called “Investigación,” in which your students research how something that happens in the chapter connects to the way immigrants live in your area.  For example, students may investigate how new immigrants enroll their children in school or find medical care, or they may explore the actual process an immigrant goes through in order to obtain a green card.

Want to take a peek?  Check out the sample of Chapter 3.

Francisco will see you Friday!

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September 30, 2014 0 Comments

The technology that’s making us irrelevant…and more relevant

Moodboard Photography

Moodboard Photography


happy birthday, Musicuentos

Whew, I’ve been blogging a long time.  My blogging birthday passed unnoticed but Musicuentos turned SIX on the first of this month!

A lot has changed in six years.  My teaching scaled back.  My blogging scaled up.  A kid came… and another… and another.

Whenever people talk about all that’s changed, the conversation inevitably turns to technology.  Look at where it’s brought us.  Facebook. Twitter. Prezi.  Flickr.  Drive.  Schoology.  Glogster.  All the ones popping up every day that I don’t have time to try: Kahoot.  Kaizena.  Lucidpress.  Videolicious.  Duolingo.  Even Instagram.  And every language teacher’s favorite tool to hate: Google Translate.

Google Translate stinks… right?

Ever since I started blogging, and #langchat started, and as I went to conferences, and as I got more involved in Twitter, I’ve seen them and you’ve seen them – post after post, tweet after tweet, videos on YouTube, of how bad Google Translate is.  How inaccurate.  How unhelpful.

There’s just one problem, and we’re not talking about it, because we’re afraid.  We’re afraid we’re wrong.  And we are.  Because somewhere along the line, somehow, Google Translate got good.  Like, really good.  Like, you-can-use-it-to-communicate good.

Let me show you what I mean, if you understand Spanish.  Here’s that first paragraph in this section, translated to Spanish by Google translate:

Desde que empecé a bloguear, y #langchat empecé, y cuando fui a conferencias, y como me fui involucrando más en Twitter, los he visto y los he visto – puesto tras puesto, pío pío después, videos en YouTube , de lo mal que Google Translate es. Cómo inexacta. Cómo inútil.

Look at that.  It’s not perfect, but it’s communicative, isn’t it?  The words “post” and “tweet” don’t come across great but the rest of it, wow, it’s there.  Check that idiomatic phrase: me fui involucrando más.  Want to feel even more like we’re being made irrelevant by technology?  Most videos and posts that joke about how “bad” Google Translate is do it by making fun of something run through Google Translate several times and then back into the original language.

Because you know, putting something from English into Chinese, then Macedonian, then Polish, then Creole, then Tamil, and then back into English is something people need to do.
But look what it did when I put that same paragraph back into English:

Since I started blogging, and #langchat started, and when I went to conferences, and as I was involving me on Twitter, I’ve seen and I’ve seen – post after post, tweet later, YouTube videos, how bad Google Translate is. How inaccurate. How useless.

Not bad, eh? Bottom line?
Google Translate got good.

don’t despair: why they still need us

I wonder if we’ve been so adamant that technology can’t teach language because we’re afraid of being out of a job.  Language teachers are the world’s most outspoken critics of Rosetta Stone, but I’ll have to tell you, going through half a level of Rosetta Stone Russian gave me enough language skills that people on my travel team were asking me to translate (“What? You get that I DON’T ACTUALLY SPEAK RUSSIAN, right? I can order you a green chocolate bar.  I CAN’T MAKE YOU AN APPOINTMENT.”)  Honestly?  The tech can teach them.  People who want to learn can use technology to learn.  And people who don’t want to learn can now use technology like Google Translate in more and better ways to speak for them.

So Sara-Elizabeth, what are you saying?  The tech has replaced us?  We really are getting tech-ed out of a job?

No, I’m not saying that at all.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Technology has made our job both easier and more necessary.  I felt this was true, and then I caught this article via Twitter that expressed exactly what I mean.  The title says it all: I need real people to help me learn a language.

Here are some of my favorite points from the article and I think you’ll see right away where I’m going with this:

I’ve found that my initial fondness for using the app – a sort of “hooray, shiny new toy!” enthusiasm – has waned.

It doesn’t really affect anyone whether I review old lessons or press on to new ones in the app. There’s no teacher to admonish me or (perhaps more importantly) peer group to keep up with.

Language learning, much like language itself, might be an inherently social pursuit.

Languages require speaking to other people, which is completely absent from how Duolingo works.

Without any real community of Mandarin learners to stay on pace with, I didn’t really feel motivated to practice before the next lesson.

I’m a little sceptical that any person can really learn a language without other people playing a part.

I feel this issue with Russian.  When I came back from Russia in 2008, I decided I was going to be proficient in Russian by the Sochi 2014 Olympics.  Not a huge feat, right?  I had no kids.  I had 6 years.  I wanted to go to the games as an interpreter.  I thought hey, with English, Russian, and Spanish, I’d have what, a third of the globe covered?  Guess how much Russian I speak?  Right.  A whole lot less than I did in 2008.  I can say horse, green, hi, and bye.  That’s it.  That’s what we call no measurable proficiency. Why?  Same reason the guy who wrote the article gave: I had no community to give me a reason to learn it.  Or to help me learn it.  Sitting down at the computer to learn Russian didn’t do what language always ought to do: connect us with people.

I suppose I could use Google Translate to try to make friends in French on Facebook.  I suppose I could put in what I want to say and copy and paste it into Twitter.  I suppose if I had a smartphone I could even use it to order food in Chinese at a restaurant or tell the Japanese guy at the koi show which fish is my favorite and why.  But somehow, in the act of running communication through a machine, even that connection with people loses its luster.  It’s just not the same.

Insofar as technology connects language learners with language speakers, it’s invaluable, particularly for students who will not travel much.  But even to do that, students need our help.  Where is the community?  How can I connect with them?  How do I talk to them?  And before they even ask those questions, go back to the original author of that article.  Why did he need a teacher and people?  Often they need us to help them find something that’s there but hiding: the key to it all, motivation.

That is why people who want or need to learn a language will always need people.

They will always need us.

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September 16, 2014 5 Comments

Thank you, reflective teachers

Kirk Teetzel

Kirk Teetzel


I thought about trying to tweet this but I couldn’t do it in 140 characters.

Many of you are in the middle of the 30-day #reflectiveteacher challenge.  You’re blogging and reflecting on what makes you a teacher, what you’ve accomplished and where you can improve.  By subscribing to your blogs, I’ve been able to follow your journey, and I have you tell you I’m loving it!  And I’m hating it.

There are several reasons I’m not doing the #reflectiveteacher challenge.  One is that I’m buried in the final stages of the Cajas ebook (drowning is the word that comes to mind when you add family, homeschooling, curriculum work, three upcoming conferences – five separate sessions/workshops).  But the main reason is I simply can’t.  Because I’m not a teacher.

Did I just write that?  I take it back.  I most certainly am a teacher, it’s just that I’m not teaching at the moment.  Well, Spanish, in a school, anyway.  So I can’t reflect on my classroom because I don’t have one.  I can’t reflect on my desk because I don’t have one.  I’m not going to have any teacher evaluations.  That’s why it’s sad for me.  I’m watching all of you go back to school and do such amazing things and for the first time since… well, since I was three years old, I’m not in a classroom.

And then you reflected about, of all things, me.  Allison wrote about me on her day 7 reflection and then Andrea wrote about me on her day 9 reflection.  Chalk it up to a whole lot of sleep deprivation huddled over Cajas de cartón or whatever, but your thank-yous brought tears to my eyes, because in a year when I’m not teaching, you made me feel what I know, that I am still a teacher.

September 10, 2014 2 Comments