The Blog

This side of the Year of No Grades: How it changed (me)

Here’s a question for your summer: Can you dare to go YONG?

Time to move on? Finally?

At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, I was finishing a seven-year stint at a particular school.  In a nutshell, the school had a new administrator that year and had swung from what some might call a little too much chaotic familiarity to what some might call an environment where fun was a precious commodity.  Here was the grading environment:

  • 16 “daily” grades required per quarter
  • one to two (recommended) test grades per quarter
  • daily grades count as 50% and the test grades as 50% of quarter grade
  • first quarter counts as 45%, second quarter as 45%, and final exam as 10% of semester grade
  • It was strongly suggested that all subjects give an “academic” final exam (Scantron was mentioned), including art and world language, with a hint that this would be required in future years.

My job, teaching AP Spanish, was phased out at the end of that year due to lack of student interest (drill and kill in Spanish 1 and 2 will do that to a school- the “kill” refers to motivation).  And so I didn’t quit and I didn’t get fired, but the school and I parted ways.  After a teaching break of a year being Mom + Musicuentos, I partnered with a local homeschool cooperative to begin teaching again.

In some ways, it’s a difficult challenge: I have 60 to 90 minutes per week, once a week, with my students.  I teach in a shared space I have to leave exactly how I found it every week, which made me develop some interesting set-up techniques (the shower-curtain word wall, for example). In many other ways, it’s a teacher’s dream that makes my heart happy: motivated learners, small class sizes, involved parents (like a mom or two usually sitting IN CLASS), total freedom in curriculum design, and the final hurdle that was keeping me, in my opinion, from being a truly progressive, future-minded teacher: no grades.

As I reflect on what this change meant, here are three ways the YONG changed our class me.


A whole new language

I mean, a new language besides the one that’s the overt goal.  When you’re in the YONG, it’s stunning the things you don’t ever talk about:

  • Homework is not a word. We talk about out-of-class activities.
    I posted these activities on Edmodo once a week.  They were optional. (Yes, you read that right.)
  • GPA – not an issue. I had a couple of parents bring up the word transcript once, in the context of how many “years” of seat time they could count the class for on transcripts for college applications – you know, because postsecondary institutions have us so well trained to focus on seat time.
  • The concept of due changes completely. Deciding when and how to complete activities becomes a collaborative conversation.
  • The question of “What do I do to get a higher grade?” was never uttered.  Here’s what I heard instead:
    Do you think I’m getting close to Novice High?
    I’m nervous about this assessment but I think I’m ready to show Novice High on it.
  • The biggest change? Silence.  I can’t even tell you much more about what traditional language changed to what proficiency-based language.  The biggest change was that questions about how much to complete, what kind of answer was required, how many uses of X feature, what went wrong on an assessment, simply disappeared.  This was particularly evident in my younger class with children ages 6 to 12.  They just came in every week ready to experience whatever it was we were going to do that day. Ready to explore new real skills, because getting an A is not one of those.

A whole new purpose

On my reading list

Here’s a test of what your purpose and theirs is: when talking about “failing” a class or assessment isn’t an option, you discover that you’re forced to talk about the real purposes for being there, and only those.

Since our out-of-class activities were optional, I’ve been asked how I assessed them or what the purpose of them was.  But I was so committed to the YONG that doing anything else wasn’t part of the conversation.  And so, when there are no grades to hold over kids’ heads, there are no grades to hold over their heads.  They did the activities outside of class if and when they wanted to.  But I did keep track of who was completing them.  So, what were the results?

  • No one student completed every assignment every week.
  • No one student didn’t complete any assignments.
  • The vast majority completed 3-4 of the 5ish assignments most weeks and had an occasional week when they did none at all and several when they did them all.  Sometimes they’d bring it up in class but usually it was a mom who would offer me a reason the child hadn’t done it.  Sometimes I’d bring up an assignment if I had a question.  Once I talked to a mom about her daughter routinely submitting an assignment with a response of “hi” when I’d asked for more explanation or description of the activity.

Summary: Most of my students interacted with Spanish regularly outside of class for two and only two reasons: 1) because they wanted to and 2) sometimes, because the parents required it.

A whole new future

Do you want to share the statistics on how many students you taught 5 or 10 years ago still have measurable proficiency skills?  I do not.  I’m guessing my 5-year record would show somewhere in the 20%-30% range from my best years.  Is that success?  I don’t know.  It sure doesn’t feel like it.

I have a sneaking suspicion that our success can be defined not by our end-of-year assessments nor even by retention into upper levels but by how many of our students still have any measurable proficiency in 5-10 years.  Researchers can debate whether or not acquisition is permanently stored all they want but I don’t care – what we do know is that language attrition happens, and acquisition is not permanently retrievable (as evidenced by speakers who no longer speak their “native” language).  Your brain is efficient, and the old adage may have some touted exceptions but normally proves true: If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Also on my reading list.

But not now, I hope.  I’ve never been so optimistic about students developing long-term proficiency.  Students and their families are almost without exception asking me what they can do to keep the learning going through the summer!  They want to talk about future travel, jobs, friends, and experiences.  The future is bright and endless.

Think you can’t go YONG? Can it be done in a school? Why not at least start the conversation?  If teachers need further convincing, just think about what you would do with all the time you spend finding or developing, administering, and yes, grading your assessments right now.

And I am not the only one who is suggesting you think about how to “break your classroom’s dependence on the “A-through-F” grading system that does little more than silence student voices.”

I’ll end here by mentioning that for family records and our own information, at our last meeting in each semester I administered one integrated performance assessment.  See an example of my early learners’ work on that here.  You can check out my secondary assessment for the end of the year here.

Have you taken any steps toward a grades revolution? What’s it been like?

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June 13, 2016 0 Comments

Seven things I will (should/would/might) do next year

The internet and the calendar (and Allison, Maris, Wendy, Melanie, Valerie, and Megan) say it’s time to confess and reflect.

Inspired by a summary of an old #langchat, and then having that inspiration reinforced by these reflective teachers sharing their journey, here is a post more for me than for you.  What will – or might – or let’s be realistic, should – I do differently next year?  And if I take a minute now to lay out a plan of what to do to accomplish these goals, will I be more likely to do them?

1. Unify and (or?) motivate my units (again?).

Confession: moving to a once-a-week class with home educated students was a huge practical shift for me, and I had trouble adjusting. I had two 16-week semesters and told myself I was going to do one “unit” a semester but in reality it turned into a progression of Can-Do statements disconnected from any unifying elements, and we felt it…

Process: … until Kara Jacobs and Elena López inspired me to use Canela with my older kids, which in turn inspired me to use a Peppa Pig episode with my younger kids. It wasn’t perfect but was much more unified and gave me some much-needed framework in my curriculum design (without me imposing a textbook on myself, which doesn’t work for me either).

  • Include more student motivation.  We have a lot of choice incorporated already, but I’d like to find out more about my students’ passions and also connect them with people – the motivation that ended up sending me on a lifelong language journey.  What will this look like?
    - Send out a student survey in the summer to see what they liked and what they’d like to see changed.  Also ask about their interests, especially if I have new students coming in.
    - Contact the schools I have already identified in our two Latin American Sister Cities to try to establish a relationship and intercultural exchange there.
    - Browse the very good ideas bouncing around the internet on units and decide whether to select/adapt one of those.  (Some of these unit ideas can easily last me an entire semester!)
  • Decide if we will finish the Peppa Pig episode or turn to something else; El Chavo animado appeals to me because of the authentic culture aspect.
  • Finish the Canela viewing guide. I will continue with the older kids with this, and it may be our entire year’s curriculum, and so this goal may end up being as easy as “With the older class, we will do one unit, and it will be called Canela.”

2. Post activities earlier.

Confession: My students often got their activity ideas (4-6 of them) posted on Edmodo on Tuesday night, “due” Friday morning.

Process: I am now on the other side of the Year of No Grades (post coming!) and we don’t have “assignments,” just activity ideas.  I do track who does them, but students get no grades and frankly almost no feedback on them.  There are two reasons they get done, one intrinsic and one extrinsic: 1) “If I do them, I will improve faster, and if I don’t, I won’t,” and 2) “My mom says I need to do them.” Snapshot: No one learner did them all, and no one learner didn’t do any of them.  Anyway, I’ve got to figure out how to make myself get better at this.  Often the reason they weren’t done was that there simply wasn’t enough time to do them between Tuesday night and Friday morning along with all their other school and family activities.

  • Sketch activity ideas when I lay out my Can-Do statements on the syllabus / calendar.
  • Schedule a time to set these out.  Thursday night has always worked best for me, but our model now is more “flipped” in that the activities are less homework (review of introduced material) and more preview of the next week, so Saturday evening may be a better bet. When it’s not date night.

3. Use class time more wisely.

Confession: I really struggle to stay on task in class.  My students get me off on rabbit trails easily.  We have valuable discussions about culture and critical thinking and mutual respect and intercultural relationships, in English, but it’s especially damaging when I have such a limited amount of time to get enough comprehensible input to my students.  I quite frankly do not even try to hold myself to a 90% target language goal (post coming on my personal policy statement!) but I haven’t figured out yet where my balance is between the life conversations that give me rapport with my students and give them the motivation to continue this journey past me (Jeffrey the Penguin stories simply do not, sorry) and the stories, songs, videos, and variety of activities that keep us interacting with comprehensible target language.


  • We don’t have a stiff schedule. Talk to students a lot when they come in early, and as they help me break down my class setup at the end of the day.
  • Plan more thoughtfully and better before Thursday night at 11:00 and I will feel more comfortable with where each class period is going.
  • Now that my students are getting some proficiency, reinstate a TL-use encourager, like paying to speak English or having an English zone.

4. Figure out how (stuff) works in a blended model.

Confession: I ask students to do stuff they’re not ready for at home without me to help and don’t communicate well enough the message that
1) I just want them to try and explore, and
2) they don’t have to have everything “right.”
Also, I had every intention of implementing Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) this year and I SUCK AT THIS.  After a few brief (kind of successful?) forays with SSR this year, we almost never got to it. Okay, like not in the spring semester at all.


  • I don’t have time in class to do my classic vocabulary review consistently.  I’m going to brainstorm how to get kids working with vocabulary outside of class.  One idea: Give a set of words to look up on Google Images, post a favorite on Edmodo, and comment on someone else’s (in TL). Sketch one and come to show and identify/describe to a partner in something like Linguacafé?
  • I have always wanted to have an awesome reading corner like Allison and Carrie.  I love the idea of kids getting comfortable and doing SSR in a corner.  But it took us 14 weeks to get through 18 minutes of Canela.  When are we going to do SSR?  And how can I get learners to reflect and report on their reading?  And how could I possibly have a comfy reading setup when I have to set up and breakdown our learning space every single time we use it?
    I’m going to brainstorm this.  Will they do daily reading at home?  Good news, on this side of the Year of No Grades my students and their families were begging for summer activities to do, and we’re going to virtually read together Brandon Brown vs. Yucatán this summer (attacking Tumba, Robo en la Noche, and Felipe Alou next year) via Edmodo, with the older class, so they’ll be prepped for more reading.  (The younger class is getting a SSV (sustained silent viewing!) calendar for Pocoyó and Peppa Pig episodes.)

5. Improve feedback.

Confession: On this side of the Year of No Grades I confess to you that my students received almost no feedback.  I confess also that I had a student’s fall semester final assessment in my bag for three months before getting it back to him.  Scoring assessments is a HUGE mental block for me.


  • Take advantage of Edmodo.  Realize that the comments I make like “Great choice! Can you pick something you’ve never done before next time?” or “I’m so glad you asked a question here!” can count as valuable feedback bites.
  • You people who have 100-200 students in a day, I throw flowers and coins at you.  I had sixteen students doing one formal assessment per semester this year.  I will preach this to myself.  There is NO REASON ON EARTH I cannot get those assessments back the same DAY even.

6. Figure out a proficiency tracker.

Confession: I’m pretty good at communicating proficiency concepts and strategies to my student.  They know all about the tacos and the poster and could probably tell you exactly what skills they are looking to develop to increase their proficiency.  But giving them an opportunity to track their proficiency over time? HUGE FAIL.

Longtime goal + no plan for execution = always a goal, never a reality.

This year I tried my hand at interactive notebooks (another huge fail) and used a section in them for “I Can” statements on paper for students to glue in.  But I had time to assess students in order to give them these papers exactly one time.  And when I put them out so students could self-reflect and select the ones they thought they could do, none of them cared.  No one bothered to pick up a single paper.  So I don’t know if I’m doing this wrong or if my secret reservations about the value of any kind of badges, digital or paper or otherwise, have been justified here.  On this side of the Year of No Grades I am even more firmly entrenched in Camp Alfie Kohn but I’m open to all perspectives and strategies that might cast a different light on things!


  • The apps and tools and tricks overwhelm me but I can tell myself to find one thing and just try it.  Just one thing.  One way to give students a place to track their progress.  This will involve browsing Laura’s eportfolios category and FreeTech4Teachers’s 10 Tools for Creating Digital Portfolios.
  • I’ll be at ACTFL and the gurus of badging (looking at you, Noah and Laura) will be talking badges.  I gotta go to that.  And/or pajama party this with Laura as we share lodging at Camp Musicuentos Southeast AND ACTFL.

7. Use self-reflection as an exit ticket.

Confession: Even though I took a step toward getting better at student self-reflection by incorporating it into my new rubric, I didn’t even ask my students to take a minute to fill it out.  I was handing back those rubrics at lunch, even through the windows of cars after class the last day (and one still sits in my teacher bag…).  So when will this happen?


  • This mostly involves binging Colleen’s blog.
  • Inspired by Colleen, I’m thinking of self-reflection as an exit ticket.  It’s all about time constraints, people.

What about you?

I post this here now because I don’t want to do this the week before school starts.  You don’t either, so why not now? Share your list via your blog or comment here and let’s make some realistic goals and figure out how to accomplish them.

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May 25, 2016 7 Comments

Did you benefit from the Black Box?

A few years ago, I had a vision to bridge the gap between the overworked, underpaid, sometimes underinformed language teacher and the often out-of-touch, jargon-spouting, ivory-tower-dwelling second language acquisition researcher.  I made an attempt to tackle the problem myself and discovered I didn’t have that kind of time and I’d chosen the wrong medium.  So I took to the blog and asked you what you wanted, and if you could help.  Some amazing educators responded and joined me, and last year we produced ten illustrated videocasts, each about ten minutes long, presenting pertinent second language acquisition research you could understand and use to improve your practices. This year we’ve got more exciting episodes planned, with a “Throwback ThurSLA” episode coming very soon, a collaboration of all five of us to showcase some of the seminal articles that changed the face of language acquisition research, to intriguing research on incorporating high-frequency vocabulary in lists of targets.

Muscuentos Black Box Podcast

Has it already been a year?

Yes it has, and once again, we’d appreciate your help.  As always, the Black Box resources will never cost a teacher anything, but they do cost us something: the subscriptions to VideoScribe, the program we use to produce the videos.

Can you help us renew our licenses for VideoScribe?  Check out our project on GoFundMe.  (The amount showed as raised includes all of last year’s funds as I am not able to reset the amount.)  We’re thankful for any help you can provide, and we hope you find the resource very helpful in your journey to be an effective world language teacher.

Wait, you say you don’t know what the Musicuentos Black Box is?  You haven’t seen any of the videos?  You haven’t met these amazing teachers I get to work with?  Well, it’s time for a binge.

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May 13, 2016 0 Comments

Join me on Kifi

Pardon my black garb for a few days: I’ve left Delicious.  I have some pretty strong brand loyalty when it comes to technology and I’ve been a loyal Delicious user through all its ups and downs for around eight years. It’s been my go-to tool for keeping everything on the internet, saving pages and resources in a place where I could share them and find them regardless of what computer or device I was using.  But the usefulness of Delicious died for me when all their Chrome extensions stopped working with no fix in sight (the company has tweeted three times this year – social upkeep is clearly not on their agenda).  No extensions, no bookmarking.  No bookmarking, no Sara-Elizabeth.

So I went on a hunt. I almost tried Pinboard, a paid service (I’m definitely not opposed to paying for something that serves such a key purpose for me).

What about Pinterest?  Pinterest has never been my pet app.  I use it, but only to share things with those of you who love it and might benefit from something I found.  I don’t use it to find anything: I use Google to find things, and Google find things on Pinterest.  Plus, all the

We’re sorry, we can’t find anything pinnable on this really important PDF article on vocabulary you want to be able to find later!

drove me nuts.

My criteria:

  • It had to be social. I need to be able to share stuff.
  • It had to work without images. With only a URL. (Glaring at you, Pinterest.)
  • It had to be taggable in multiple ways.  If it’s an audio resource about family with a communicative activity appropriate for Spanish 1, I want to be able to tag it with all those labels, and at one time, not be restricted to one board.  (Glaring at you, Pinterest, where the solution is either to end up with a “language teaching” board with 5,403 pins, like I can navigate that, or to pin to a board… and then pin to another board in the exact same process… and then do that again…)
  • It had to have a Chrome extension, and if a mobile app, all the better.
  • It had to import my almost 1,000 bookmarks from Delicious that I did not want to have to re-save.

Enter Kifi, which I discovered through a fortuitous complaint comment on the Delicious Chrome extension’s page.  It offers all of the above.

Feels like Google+. Works like a social bookmarking search fairy.

Feels like Google+. Works like a social bookmarking search fairy.

And guess what else. Bonus: It coordinates with Slack (my developer husband cares about this). Save my Twitter favorites?! OH YES. I cannot wait to explore that.  Twitter deepsearch? TELL ME MORE. But here’s the clincher: It integrates with Google Search.

It integrates with GOOGLE SEARCH.

What does that mean?  It means that if I Google “authentic audio activity Spanish 1 family” then Kifi knows I already found something that applies months ago and tells me about it, right there above all my Google search results.  It’s like a little search fairy on my shoulder reminding me not to reinvent the wheel!

If I weren’t so averse to writing with exclamation points I would add twenty of them on that last sentence.

Okay, there is one con.  I don’t seem to be able to view all of a tag at one time by clicking on it; I have to search for it instead.  In Delicious I could view all my tags and click on “family” to see everything I’d tagged with that label.  On Kifi it seems I have to remember what my tag was (on Kifi, it’s a hashtag. A HASHTAG!) and search within my Language Teaching library for it.

Enough talk. I’ve screencasted it for you. (Shout out for Screencastify.)

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May 3, 2016 8 Comments

They couldn’t hear the word “no”

The school year is almost over for my students and me- really, this Friday is our last day.  You may know by now that we’ve been working through the movie Canela as the entire foundation of our curriculum this semester, and it’s been fabulous.  It’s been a gold mine of authentic language and culture for my Novice Mid students. And it’s given them lots of fun -or at least interesting- practice in hearing authentic audio.

Last week we were working with the scene where Jocelyn and her friend Regina are in a salon making plans to go to the restaurant together on Friday.  We did comprehensible input on the parts of a city, places, and making plans; we looked at authentic information about three places in Mexico City and students “made plans” with each other to go to the one of their choice in the activity Color Read2Talk.  And as usual, one of the last things we did with the scene was a listening cloze.  One of the words I dropped was the word no.  Specifically, it was in the phrase

A ver si me acompañas, ¿no?

If you speak Spanish and say this out loud, the s on acompañas will run into the no, and it does in the movie as well.  It’s the only word I dropped from the phrase and after listening five times, guess how many of my students understood the word no?

None of them.

Throw up your hands, you say.  Might as well give up, you say. Why aren’t you concentrating on comprehensible input before frustrating authentic resources, you say.

Wait a minute.  For one thing, in my classroom we carefully craft a culture where not understanding is a challenge to be overcome with many strategies, not a reason to get frustrated or give up or do what’s easier.  My students laughed when they figured out (cough, I told them) that she was saying no, and then all but one of them could hear it.  (Creating this culture is easier in our no-grades environment, but that’s a whole other post.)

For another thing, I spent years teaching “advanced” Spanish classes where the kids still couldn’t understand this type of thing. It wasn’t that they couldn’t understand a native speaker describing climate change.  They couldn’t understand a native speaker introducing herself.  The longer I’m the only one they hear saying no, the longer it will be before they can hear that Jocelyn is saying no.  And that’s why we do it.

And so at this point, I want to re-post with some modifications a post I wrote four and a half years ago in the midst of my frustration with inheriting students in level 4 with intermediate vocabulary and intermediate presentational writing skills and novice mid listening proficiency.  It’s called

Dear novice learner teacher – love, an AP teacher.

Originally posted November 2011 – now I am a novice learner teacher, and not an AP teacher, and it rings truer still.

dear novice learner teacherTwice for #langchat we’ve polled the following question:

What activities prepare students for AP from the very beginning?

I confess, I probably wrote this question, maybe with some help from something similar being suggested as a topic. Certainly I’ve voted for it twice. But for whatever reason–perhaps teachers of lower levels don’t think much about AP or the question was polled with others deemed more relevant–this topic has lost both times. So as usual, I’ll take my opinion to the blog. Because I can.

I’m currently in my fourth year teaching AP. I know I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’ve gotten better at it, but my students are also improving considerably, mostly, I think, from what they get before my class, not from what they get from it.  

Now, in all seriousness, I hate the AP. I hate the test, and I hate the College Board, and I hate the idea. I can’t stand that one three-hour exam thinks it can predict how proficient my students are and will be in college in Spanish. That student my first year that scored a 2, he was conversationally fluent, at least an Advanced Low speaker, after 3 years (he’d skipped Spanish 3) and the most motivated learner I have ever met. Of the two students who scored 1′s last year, one is majoring in Middle School Spanish Education and the other is minoring in Spanish.

Really, that’s how I feel about all standardized exams (thank you, Alfie Kohn). But the fact is, most of my students care about it. It is our only fourth-year option, and last year they voted on whether to keep it AP (in which they are required to take the exam) or to call it Spanish 4 (in which they’d have the option to take the test). But all but one voted for AP. They want the weighted grade points, and the AP Advantage study hall, and yes, they want the extra focused preparation for the exam. They want the bragging rights, and they want the college credit. So, I’m about pleasing the students, and here we are again.

After four years of watching students struggle and succeed in their fourth-year AP class, here are my requests for you, the elementary teachers (which I also am) through middle school, Spanish 1, 2, and 3 teachers.

1. Please, PLEASE interact with ALL KINDS of authentic audio.

This is my #1 because it’s my #1 problem with my students. They get to me (in Spanish 3) and can’t understand anything but learner language. The majority of audio on the AP is not learner language. It’s stuff like BBC Mundo and Radio ONU (which I couldn’t understand until, say, 10 years into my journey). More importantly, the majority of audio in life is not learner language.
The common mistake is to think that novices cannot understand authentic media. The truth is that the difficulty is in the question and not in the source. If you’re asking them to hear the word cinco that’s a different question than if you’re asking them to hear the word aprovechándonos.

2. Interact with vocabulary in real contexts.

Almost completely ineffective for language acquisition:

What is the word for black? Good! Red? Great!

Trust me, from day one a novice learner can understand this question:

¿De qué colores es un oso panda? (2)

Context is everything. My current AP students have not had a vocab quiz in four years and their vocabulary is incredible. Yesterday in our novel they were accurately identifying words like solía and lechuza.  One of my Spanish 3 students actually asked for vocab quizzes the other day and we had to have a talk about how cramming does not create long-term memory.  This is connected with the issue of authentic media – get students listening to and reading real materials and the vocabulary will just be there. I promise.

3. Ask questions that require critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a life skill. Prepare your students for life by asking them real questions that make a difference. Stop asking ‘what’ and start asking ‘why’ and ‘how.’ To me, the true test of a critical thinking question is if there’s no clear-cut answer. Instead of stopping with “what foods do you like?” ask “is a guinea pig food? why or why not? would you try it?” (In Ecuador, guinea pig – cuy or as my dad liked to call it, ‘barbecuy’ – is a delicacy.)

4. Do speaking assessments. GET THEM TALKING.

My current Spanish 3 students tell me that last year they had exactly 1 speaking assessment.  Now, kids like to complain about teachers, but if it’s anywhere close to the truth, it’s far too few.  They’re now facing two speaking assessments each in every unit for sixteen in all and they’re dying.  They hate it, except for my one whose aptitude leans toward speaking and away from writing.

The AP has a wicked guided conversation activity in which someone says something, then there’s a beep, and the student has 20 seconds to think up and say what the test says they need to do.  That’s repeated about five times and that’s the interpersonal speaking section.  It’s stressful and intense and unrealistic but there you have it.  My current AP students are so used to talking back and forth in class that this year they were able to do this for practice without much anxiety much sooner than the students I had last year.  Keep students talking -for the AP and for life.

5. Teach and require idiomatic expressions.

It’s a sad fact about general proficiency guidelines and about the AP that the difference between one level and the next can come down to one single phrase – an idiomatic one.  Three years ago the one student who passed said she went in determined to use the phrase “vale la pena.”  Honestly, she was the most proficient student in the class but I wouldn’t be surprised if it made the difference between 2 and 3 for her.  Keep an idiomatic expression on the wall, once a week or every two weeks.  Reward students when they use them.  Do an activity that requires a particular one.  Point them out in authentic texts.  Realize, and help students realize, that language is idiomatic.

6. Ask students to identify and synthesize main points from multiple sources.

This is how I assess interpretive skills in my rubric: can you use it to communicate something?

A couple of years ago I did a KWLA presentation called Prompts with Power. It was about finding authentic sources and asking students to answer a question, orally or written, based on the sources.  Teach students to draw their own conclusions after comparing and contrasting two other opinions.  Or three.  Similar or different, it doesn’t matter, but it’s a life skill -and an important one on the AP- to be able to look critically at what other people think and use those opinions to develop an informed personal one.

More than four years later,

I still stand by everything I wrote in this post.  I’ll boil it down to this: if you’re the only one they ever hear say no, when they get to level 3 or 4, or real life, they’ll owe it to you that they can’t understand native speakers saying no.

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April 26, 2016 1 Comment

Scaffolded reading: Novice Mid #authres “Places to Plans”

Have you seen the movie Canela? This semester I’ve been so grateful that Kara Jacobs and Elena López introduced me – FINALLY – to an authentic Mexican family film that’s appropriate for any classroom and any student anywhere (a rare find in Spanish-language cinema available in the U.S., as I’m sure you know). So grateful, in fact, that the movie has framed our entire semester as I’ve taken the opportunity to mine the film for authentic language and culture that has actually become our curriculum.  I mean MINE like in the depths of the earth’s core: in fourteen 90-minute classes together we have made it through an astounding 21 minutes of the film.

You see, my students are Novice Mid at most and aren’t ready to sit through an authentic film and experience the comprehensible input they need in order to improve their proficiency.  They need some serious scaffolding.  In that process, I typically develop a 4-to-6-page guide to a segment of the film from one to three minutes long.  You can see how I’ve been adapting Kara and Elena’s resource for early novices here.  It’s a bit of a messy work in progress but it’ll give you an idea, and if you like, you can take it and make it your own.

Between aural input and oral output: Color Read2Talk

CR2T Canela1

Click for PDF.

In the process of working through the film with my students, making it comprehensible, mining it for that authentic language and culture they can start using, I have thought and worked long on a variety of ways to interact with both.  I’m calling this most recent strategy Color Read2Talk.  It is a bridge between the aural input and the oral output, a middle piece in that continuum where on one end they’re passively listening to comprehensible input and on the other end they’re accomplishing a performance task in the target language.  Here are the details on this particular piece:

  • Target: I can make plans with someone to go somewhere.
  • Previous knowledge: Activity words, place words, “I’m going to…”, time and day references
  • Vocabulary: Parts of the city
  • Structures:
    A: Voy a (activity) el (day) a las (hour). ¿Me acompañas?
    B: Claro / obvio.
  • Step 1 CI: story in which Jeffrey the Penguin wants to go somewhere (downtown, in a neighborhood, in a suburb) with (X student) at such time on such day but the student doesn’t like to do the things until the third activity. (Side note: this previews our next target: “he/she likes to…”.)
  • Canela clip: In the beauty salon, Jocelyn asks her best friend Regina to accompany her to a restaurant on Friday.

Now I know that I want students to use Jocelyn and Regina’s exact phrases (mining for authentic language!) to make plans, but what to do in between?  How can I expose them to more language and culture and at the same time gauge their comprehension and readiness for our performance objective?  Enter Color Read2Write.  I found three places in D.F. and mined their websites and/or online review sites for authentic language referring to 1) where they are, 2) what they are / what they are like, and 3) their hours.  I copied these into a grid, and I unapologetically “changed” the text by removing irrelevant pieces and copying what I wanted students to focus on.  (I did not actually change any words. Maybe a capital letter.)  Then, I ask students to use different colors and no reference materials to show me what they get:

  • Blue: I get this part 100%.
  • Red: I have a good guess about this.
  • Yellow: This looks familiar but I can’t quite get this.
  • Green: I have no idea, but I think I really need to understand this part in order to get the main idea.

Then, in the box on the left with the name of the place, I ask for students to tell me on a scale from 1 to 5 how much they comprehend.  (They are used to this because we do a “fist-to-five” comprehension check on every presentation slide for Canela.)

Without further ado, I offer you the first Color Read2Write activity in Spanish: “Places to Plans: D.F.”  I did not include our speaking target so that you could use it as a bridge to anything that fits your class.  I hope you find it helpful.

Where can I get more?

For starters, subscribe to the blog in the top right to get posts like this delivered to your email, and check out my Resources page.  Also, subscribe to my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Be a #BraveLittleTailor with us in DFW in July!

Here’s an outro: The work I’ve done on Canela will hopefully be an ebook guide available for purchase by the end of the summer and will provide curriculum for Novice Mid students for up to an entire semester.  If you’d like to be notified in email when this is available, let me know through the contact form.

I hope to present what I’ve learned in this process at the Central States Conference in Chicago next year and the annual conference of the Kentucky World Language Association.  One session is titled “Mining for Gold: Leveraging Authentic Film for Real Language and Culture.”  I hope to also present “Mining for [Elementary] Gold” about a similar process I’ve gone through to use a particularly novice-content episode of Peppa Pig for my younger students.

If the Dallas/Fort Worth area is doable for you this July, and you’d like to explore ideas like this to make your own set of tailor-made comprehensible input strategies that fit you and your classroom, be a #BraveLittleTailor with us.  Everyone at the Brave Little Tailor workshop will receive a free copy of the Canela guide (when it is available).

Also, don’t forget that strategies like this will make up a big part of the third day of my three-day curriculum planning workshop, Camp Musicuentos, in Louisville and Chapel Hill this summer, as well as part of our one-day Camp Musicuentos overview in Rhode Island.

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April 19, 2016 2 Comments

NEW Summer PD: Brave Little Tailor CI strategies workshop

Have you ever felt like as much as you know your students need more comprehensible input than they’ve been getting, the strategies you’ve tried have fallen flat in your classroom? How about we explore what’s up with that together this summer?
Kim Earley and the administration and world languages department at Liberty Christian School in Argyle, Texas (DFW area) want to explore this topic, too. Let’s meet up this July and walk through what effective comprehensible input might look like in your classroom with your students.

Be a Brave Little Tailor

I’m calling this all-new workshop “The Brave Little Tailor,” because sometimes, to get a set of strategies that work for you, you need to see a bunch of them, and then tweak them – that is, tailor them, to fit you and your class.

Click for PDF.

Click for PDF.

There are only 17 spots open for teachers outside LCS at this workshop, so visit their website to register and I’ll see you there!

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April 14, 2016 1 Comment

Dear Everychild: Learn a language

Dear Everyboy,

The other day I saw you at your new cashier job in Kroger – congratulations!  The two women in front of me- wow, that was a situation, wasn’t it?  Buying all those chips and Diet Coke with their food stamp card.  Except their card only had $1.28 left on it.  And their English was just about nonexistent.  ”Yes, please” doesn’t get one very far in understanding that you have to pay cash or give back almost everything you’ve just tried to buy.

money-256319_1920And you, almost finished with Spanish 3 at the Catholic high school.  You were trying!  A word here and there but really, your Spanish 1 and 2 classes were a mess and you’re pretty sure the teacher was fired; it wasn’t that she “needed a change” like she said.

So there everyone was and you know what I found odd?  No one pulled out a cell phone.  There was no Google Translate to be found.  I’m not sure if it didn’t occur to anyone or they’d never tried it before but no communication was happening and there wasn’t a solution in sight.

And there I was.  I must confess to you, young Everyboy, that I was still reeling from finding out what self-employment does to your taxes.  I had started a chat with myself there in my head, about how much I was paying in taxes so these women who couldn’t communicate with the cashier could buy a dozen bags of chips and 72 cans of Diet Coke.

Stop it, I told myself.  You know there’s always more to this story than meets the eye.  Listen to what they’re saying and be the solution.  And I realized what was happening.  They don’t understand they still owe $38.  They think you just need a couple of dollars from them.  I’m sometimes reluctant to jump in like that because I’m not sure if it’s going to be welcome; I know some people are very proud of the English they’ve worked for and want to figure it out themselves.  But someone needed to start communicating and the people behind me were getting antsy.  So I stepped in.

Puedo ayudar si necesitan ayuda.

Do you remember how quiet everything got all of a sudden?  It was 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and every line was getting longer and we had a dozen pairs of eyes on us from every side.  And then, the smiles.

Oh, she speak Spanish! Ay, pues mira, que ella habla español, muy amable, muy amable.

Within a few minutes we had it straightened out.  We found out they were refugees from Cuba who had been here for three months, and we both know that’s not long enough to figure out the difference between you only have $1.28 left on the card and you owe another $1.28.

Every experience like that enriches all of us who were involved.  Keep learning, okay?  You’re well on your way, even if it does take you a minute to remember how to say “bread.”  Because regardless of the path you take in life, one day you’ll be Everyman in the grocery checkout line and the women in front of you have only been here three months and will need you because Google Translate can never be muy amable.


Dear Everygirl,

I came back to Kroger for eggs today and went through your line, the one right next to Everyboy’s.  Interesting story, right, what happened to me and Everyboy the other day?  You’ve been in that situation a few times even in the short time you’ve been doing this job, I can tell; you’ve felt lost trying to help someone find their way in a new place and a new language.


In fact, you told us how it happened just the other day.  There was a Mexican, you said, who couldn’t find what he needed and didn’t speak a word of English.  You heard the call for everyone, anyone, please someone speak Spanish.  Send him to me, you said, because I’ve got the magic: Google voice-to-text.  But it failed you.  You had no idea what it was spinning out but it wasn’t what either of you needed to make communication happen.  So he ended up finally finding what he needed by himself.

Next time, Everygirl, ask Everyboy for help, because I think he might be a little more motivated to keep going in Spanish class now.  And can I ask you to approach the situation knowing that there’s always more to this story than meets the eye?  As I walked out to my car today, can I tell you what thought was running through my mind?

Oh young Everygirl, if you didn’t understand a word he said, how did you know he was Mexican?

Learn a language, Everychild. At least enough to find out if he’s Mexican, enough to find out what she has run from only three months ago, because at worst Google Translate will utterly fail you, but certainly it can never be muy amable.

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April 12, 2016 4 Comments

I am (Shakespeare): A practical, fun TL transition/brain break

In our journey to stay in target language and start to use more phrases, my students and I have stumbled onto a target-language activity we use to transition from one activity to the next.  I share it with you here, and as I knew I couldn’t just put it into words, my kids graciously demonstrated for you as well.  They find it fun (as you may or may not see in the videos!) and it keeps very high-frequency speaking targets continual in our classroom.

"I want..."

“I want…”

Here is the list of the gestures with the “I…” verbs and optional endings:

  • Gesture both hands from side of head straight down: I am (identity / characteristics).
  • Gesture open hands on either side of face: I am (feeling).
  • Snap hands closed close to chest: I have (something).
  • One hand on chest, other hand outstretched up: I want (something / to do some activity).

We are also about to add:

  • Show muscles: I can (activity).

Other options you could add:

  • Thumbs up: I like (thing, activity).
  • Gesture with hands straight ahead: I’m going to (place, do activity).

When we’re moving from one activity to the next or whenever I see their eyes start to glass over, I pull a popsicle stick from a cup full of sticks with their names on them, gesture to that student to stand, and quickly do the gestures myself with just the beginning words: “Soy, estoy, tengo, quiero.”

Ready to see my kids demonstrate? (NOTE: These videos are unlisted. Please do not share privately or embed in any location, but feel free to direct teachers to this blog post. Thanks to the parents and kids who gave me permission to show you our activity this way.)

Here is an unedited version of one student doing the whole sequence. It’s hard to hear what she says at the end, but you’ll notice she “accidentally” uses quiere and then the word she says is libro.

Some logistics info: The younger students you see have class 60 minutes once a week. The older ones have class 90 minutes once a week. All have enrichment activities I post on Edmodo that they may or may not complete (we do not grade “assignments”). The little blonde with the turquoise socks is mine and she’s bilingual at about an Intermediate Low proficiency, if I had to guess, so she doesn’t count, LOL. All the rest began this program in August with no measurable proficiency.

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April 8, 2016 9 Comments

Extra, extra! Special guest at (Base)Camp Musicuentos

Twenty-plus teachers will be getting together in Louisville, Kentucky this June to walk a continuum of curriculum planning, from unit selection and design, to setting daily goals with the long-term in mind, to lesson planning that incorporates comprehensible input that fits you and your students and helps them reach their goals.

IMG_2495I was and am quite excited to team up with Laura Sexton and Bethanie Carlson-Drew for the all-new Camp Musicuentos Southeast this year, and now I’m equally excited to announce a special contributor to the Louisville location: friend, colleague, blogger, and fantastic French teacher Wendy Farabaugh!

You can always catch up with Wendy’s growth mindset on her blog, and now, you can work with her and me in Louisville this summer, too.  As an added benefit, this partnership means we can likely accommodate one or two more teachers than our original 20-participant limit.

For all the information about the Camp Musicuentos workshops in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Rhode Island this year, visit the Camp Musicuentos page. (Base)Camp is already 3/4 full, so register soon.  We’ll see you there!

CM publicity flyer

Click for PDF

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April 7, 2016 4 Comments