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Couch conversations from ACTFL: A conference in sound bytes

Your turkey is digested and your shopping is all done.  Now, are you ready for a shocking confession?

Last week at the 2015 ACTFL Convention & Expo in San Diego, California, I was not able to attend a single session other than the ones I collaborated on.  Shocking, I know.  Part of the reason was that I spent some time at the Calico Spanish booth talking about that elementary curriculum with teachers.  Part of the reason was my couch conversations.  I did not attend a session that was listed in the program, but I got to sit for an hour and talk with Donna Clementi (I would have flown all the way to San Diego just to have that talk).  45 minutes around lunch with Linda Egnatz.  A chat and my brand new copy of Languages and Learners (thank you AdvanceLearning!) signed by Helena Curtain.  Learning-packed strolls with my friends Bethanie Carlson-Drew, John Cadena, Amy Lenord, Don Doehla, and too many more to count.  Dinner with the globally-minded crew from VIF International Education.  And some new names and faces to help me on my journey: Bobby Hobgood and Stayc Dubravac, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me.  A shout-out as well to Tana Luptak, Kathryn Haggquist, and Shannon Norquist – you are asking all the best questions and you are going to contribute amazing things to this profession; I’m honored to learn with you and that you would consider me helpful.  Thanks Lourdes (not Ortega) for making the flight into San Diego less terrifying for this phobic woman with a university language program couch conversation, and grazie Marco the bourbon-bottle-filling-machine fixer on his fourth day in the U.S. for teaching me to say “Good evening, I’m Sara, nice to meet you,” in Italian on the last flight home.  And to the woman who came up to me for the express purpose of crying with me over my precious memories of my precious father, bless you as well.

Without further ado, I want to share with you some nuggets of wisdom tucked away in my head from ACTFL participants who inspired, engaged, and transformed me.  As John says, let’s be a family, shall we? #langfamilyvalues!

First from Amy, in a conversation about ending hero worship, and banning the words “groupie” “fan girl” and the like that are so honoring and well-meant but we frankly aren’t comfortable on that pedestal.  I’m just a Spanish teacher who tries some things and they absolutely fall flat and I try other things and they’re absolute home runs and then I write about all that and more on the internet.  But believe me, I have learned as much from many of you as you may have learned from me. “YES!” said Amy, and then…

ACTFL quote AmyL

ACTFL quote Bethanie

ACTFL quote bobby

ACTFL quote Erica

ACTFL quote John

ACTFL quote Linda

And finally, from the Kentucky World Language Association’s Postsecondary Teacher of the Year, Stayc Dubravac, who, when I put him on the spot, commented on an unwillingness among his preservice teachers to participate in professional development, and said…

ACTFL quote Stayc

Thank you, langfamily.

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November 27, 2015 0 Comments
BB EGoodman TBLT Nov 2015

Teach me to say what I need to say: Overview of TBLT (Black Box)

We’ve been talking for a long time about how we should infuse language classes with language that communicates meaning.  We’ve also been talking about how we can make sure the meanings we’re choosing are the ones students actually need and want to communicate in the real world.  When meaningful language meets meaningful purposes, whether you realize it or not, you’re working under a framework known in the language research world as Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT).  In my opinion, several trends in language learning, including the concept of learning and assessment through IPAs as well as Project/Problem-Based Learning/Inquiry all fall under this umbrella known as TBLT.  So what is TBLT, and what is a task?  That’s the topic of this episode of the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast video series.

BB EGoodman TBLT Nov 2015

This episode breaks the Black Box mold a bit, in that it is not based on a particular research article, but I believe you’ll find it a comprehensive, comprehensible overview of an important methodology framework in language teaching.  Also, my next videocast is a specific research study on task choice as an application of TBLT, and so this episode sets us up nicely for that study.

As a side note, in this episode you’ll get to meet Elliott Goodman, whom I am pleased to welcome to the Black Box team.  I’m so grateful for his help and contributions and I look forward to see what else I can learn from him.


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November 24, 2015 0 Comments

See you at ACTFL ’15?

It’s about time for me to hop on a plane (eventually) bound for San Diego! Will I see you there?  If so, you can find me at these places and on Twitter via #actfl15.  If not, connect with me virtually anytime, and stay tuned for my ACTFL resources and reflections next week.


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November 19, 2015 0 Comments

A checklist: Adapt, Incorporate, or Ditch a textbook activity?

Love the textbook or hate it?
Convinced you can’t teach well unless you pitch that textbook in the trash?
Convinced you can’t teach without it or you’ll lose your sanity?
Wherever you fall, if a textbook is a tool in your classroom, this post is for you.


Wrong tool. Not gonna work.

Note that I believe a textbook is just that, a tool.  It’s a tool like most others.  Whether or not it’s effective is all in how you use it.  Using a hammer to pound in a screw is going to be tough.  Using a textbook’s discrete verb drill to get learners narrating a story is going to be tough.  But not all textbooks or their activities are created equal.  If you’re incorporating a textbook (or forced to adopt and use one like these teachers), keep reading!

Recently at the Texas Foreign Language Association I met with a small group of teachers for a 3-hour workshop called “Textbook as an AID: Adapt, Incorporate, Ditch.”  In it, I advocated a three-prong approach to textbook use:

  1. Many textbook activities could be useful in your classroom with your students with a few simple tweaks.  Choosing to adapt an activity slightly to make it more effective could save you a lot of time when the alternative might be to create your own.
  2. Sometimes the textbook authors simply get it right and ask learners to describe a sequence of pictures or put events from a story in order or another communicative interaction with comprehensible language.  Just incorporate it. It’s not a sin.  (If you insist, I won’t tell anyone you did.)
  3. Many textbook activities get it completely wrong.  They’re catering to politicians who are spending the money or whatever, but if the activity is abysmal, ditch it.  I kid you not: what you see here is an actual “Can-Do” statement from a nationally popular Spanish textbook. DITCH IT.

Descubre goal conjugate

I asked the teachers at my workshop to help me develop a checklist for you.  When we look at a textbook activity, how can we know what to do with it?  Here’s the result of our brainstorming; I hope it helps you.


Did you catch that part at the bottom?  We started a public wikispace where teachers using any language learning textbook anywhere can post their recommendations to either adapt, incorporate, or ditch an activity.  We added at least one example of each kind for you to see as an example.  Will you join the conversation there?  Just click the image below.


If my email and Twitter feed mean anything, a lot of teachers are struggling with this issue, and so I’ll be proposing this topic for ACTFL ’16.  I hope you talk with you about it next year in Boston!

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November 16, 2015 1 Comment

7 Brain Breaks for World Language Teachers

You know that glassed-over look that your students get about halfway (a quarter of the way?) through your lesson? The same one you get about 15 minutes into the faculty meeting?  Here’s how to fight it.

compound words

First, realize it’s not your students’ fault.  Their brains are designed to filter and process information and the brain simply can’t sustain a particularly high level of that processing and filing for a long period of time.  For one thing, in short, it’s why you sleep.  Your brain needs you to stop receiving information so it can process and file all the stuff it experienced that day.

Next, determine you’ll institute a brain break.  For more reasoning behind brain breaks, see this post on making sure your lesson plan isn’t out of whack, and for my ongoing collection of brain breaks, follow my Pinterest board on the topic.  It could be something as simple as showing a funny, comprehensible TL meme or comic.

You really only need a collection of 8 or 9 of these to rotate through, throwing in a new one every so often to change things up.  (Could your students research and propose a new one for the class?)  Here are five that my students and conference participants (they need ‘em too!) have enjoyed recently.  You’ll see quickly how you can put these in the target language depending on your students’ level, but the point isn’t to do anything in the target language – it’s to reset the brain’s attention level to get high brain power working again.

Double, Double, This, That

For a demonstration of this simple hand game, see this video.  In my class we’ve changed it to:

vale, vale, sí, sí,
vale, vale, no, no
vale, sí, vale, no
vale, vale, sí, no

Can I bring a…?

This is a game we play on trips. My 6-year-old loves it and I thought, as long as you keep it simple, why not a brain break as well?  It’s even easily doable in the target language.

The premise is that you (the class) is going on a trip and you can bring everything except the things that fit into a certain category: things that are square, things that are edible, etc.  Students don’t know the category but ask questions to figure it out:

Can I bring an airplane? Yes.
Can I bring a jacket? Yes.
Can I bring a pizza? No.
Can I bring a cookie? No.
Can I bring a frisbee? No.
Answer: Things that are round.

When we did this at a recent conference, participants really enjoyed it but were new to the format and so even the relatively easy category of “things that are round” took longer than expected and longer than is ideal for a brain break.  If you keep the categories simple (think: colors, shapes, starts with letter __) and do this one every 8-10 class periods, kids will know the format well and guess quickly.

Look & Go

This is super simple, gets kids moving, is easy to do in TL for those who can handle it, and lasts only as long as you want it to.  Choose a descriptor and call it out: Brown. Boring. Awesome. Students go and stand by something that, in their opinion, fits that category.

How many students can fit in three chairs?

This is self-explanatory.  My students love it – and they can fit a lot in three chairs – but you may want to skip it if that much physical contact is out-of-bounds for your class.

rock-paper-scissors-156171_1280Human rock, paper, scissors

I’m stealing this one from Thomas Sauer.  Students find a partner and stand up but look down.  On the count of three, they move to be a rock (hunched over), scissors (arms out), or paper (standing straight, arms at side).  The winner finds another winner to compete with, and the loser becomes the winner’s cheerleader.  Within moments there are only two left, with the rest of the class cheering for one or the other.  Class trophy for the one who wins!

Animals in a row

The students in a row or at a table have to decide to be a certain animal, but they can only make the sound that the animal makes; they cannot tell each other or the class what animal they are.  Then, based on the sounds only, they put themselves in order from smallest to largest.  At the end, choose only one group to show off their skills to the class.  In a recent conference presentation, the row of participants I asked to “sound off” for us made us laugh: when I got to the next-to-last person, she chirped like a cricket.  What is smaller than a cricket, I thought.  The final man simply stood there staring ahead.  After a moment of confused silence he looked at everyone and said, “I’m an amoeba.”  Great brain break!  Thank you, whoever you are!


What brain breaks have been a hit in your classes?

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October 27, 2015 8 Comments

Give & take #authres activities: Let’s collaborate!

Attention, attention! Finding authentic resources can take FOREVER!

Attention, attention!
Finding authentic resources can take FOREVER!

Does this sound familiar to you?  Via Facebook, Twitter, Edmodo, Google search, or a two-hour plummet down the rabbit hole known as Pinterest, you found exactly the right authentic resource for your upcoming lesson on members of the family.  You spent 72 minutes designing a scaffolding activity that would help make it more comprehensible and focus your students’ attention on the portions that would engage their interest and foster their proficiency and acquisition.  You printed/posted it, set up for class, and they were finished in three and a half minutes.

It’s happened to you, right?  This is the scenario that teachers told me was all too common last week at the conference for the Texas Foreign Language Association, where I presented a session called Goldilocks and the Three Authentic Resources: Too Hard, Too Dull, Just Right.  (I’ll be presenting this again with Meriwynn Mansori of VIF International next month at ACTFL ’15.)  You can view my slides below, but what I really want to offer, and ask your help with, is a collaborative project I proposed through this session: a spreadsheet to curate those just-right authentic resources and the activities we work so hard designing to go along with them, so that we can share our hard work, benefit from the hard work of others, and mostly save those two-hour rabbit-hole trips on Pinterest for finding the most awesome tips for home-made Halloween costumes.

authres spreadsheet curate

Just think: what if all of you added one resource and activity per month?  How much time would you save not looking for resources and creating activities someone else has already done?

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October 21, 2015 7 Comments

Collaborating via Google Drive step-by-step

Here at TFLA, as I do at many workshops and sessions, I’ll be asking participants to share their ideas, creativity, and lessons learned with those who aren’t able to be here.  Most frequently I invite them to do that via Google Drive.  I have discovered, however, that not everyone is familiar with how to share and collaborate via Google Drive, and so I created a document to walk them through making their documents public for viewing and then linking them to a single, curating document such as a spreadsheet.

Drive collab vis1 Drive collab vis2

Are you ready to share with us?  Take these steps and share with us an idea for how you’ve adapted a textbook activity to make it more proficiency-focused or an idea for an activity you’ve created for an authentic resource?

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October 16, 2015 0 Comments

Correcting all those errors? Step away from the red pen. (BlackBox)

Disclaimer: No red pens were harmed in the making of this episode.

Here we confront a continual dilemma in language teaching.  As language teachers who are good at the languages we teach, every error grates on our ears and eyes.  We want to correct.  We want to cross out the masculine ending and write the feminine one.  We want to insert the missing article.  We want to shout, “WHEN HAVE YOU EVER HEARD ME SAY ME LLAMO ES AND ACCURATE INPUT IS ALL IT IS SUPPOSED TO TAKE AND YOU ARE STILL SAYING ME LLAMO ES!?!”

Karen BB8 WCF

Watch Karen’s informative review of this article on one researcher’s study.  Exactly how effective is written corrective feedback? Don’t expect a hard and fast answer.  It’s a muddy issue!

For more information about the Musicuentos Black Box collection of resources, including how to help keep this resource available for teachers everywhere, visit the Black Box page.

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October 15, 2015 1 Comment

Twitter Lingo for World Language Teachers

Here begins a flurry of posts related to my presentations and workshops at the Texas Foreign Language Association’s conference this weekend.

First, our workshop (by our I mean I’m doing this with Amy Lenord, John Cadena, Melissa Vargas) on Thursday night is called Twitter 101 and is about how and why to get involved with a professional learning network on Twitter.  In light of a post I saw and some related questions, I put together this handout on understanding some of the lingo that gets thrown around on Twitter.


If you haven’t checked out #langchat, be careful. A few simple steps could change your life.

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October 13, 2015 2 Comments

More resources for very early circumlocution

arrow-812000_1920In the last year and a half, I have read a research article, recorded a Black Box Podcast, presented a conference session selected as a Central States All-Star session, and blogged – all on the topic of why we should teach the skill of circumlocution early and often.

Aside: Circumlocution is the skill of talking around something you don’t know how to say to get your listener to help you come up with the word.

Other aside: Basically, we should teach it because comprehensible input is the way language is acquired, but the world is full of incomprehensible input, and circumlocution is the tool learners use to change incomprehensible input into comprehensible input.

I’m back in the classroom with novice learners this year, and it was time to practice what I preach.

For my seventh weekly meeting with my novices last week, we began to work on the skill of circumlocution, and in this post, I offer you the resources I used in the lesson.  I used all of these with very early novices -like I said, it was their seventh class with me- ages 6 to 14.


Of course, the lesson was designed around our Can Do statement:

I can identify something as a person, place, or thing.


Our major targets were person, place, and thing as well as I (don’t) know.  We’d already worked on es.  We also targeted a few basic adjectives: grandepequeño, and bonito.  Students already had some familiarity with color words and lindo.  We ended up adding animal because it was so easy.  My older group also wanted to add edificioplanta, and aparato.


I gotta tell you, I had such writer’s block with this story (something I am struggling with in many areas right now).  So I hope what I came up with helps you.  I started thinking I needed a situation in which someone is trying to guess what something is.  Perhaps a mom has a gift and the child is guessing – is it a person, a place, or a thing?  A friend sees something and the other is trying to guess – is it a person, a place, or a thing?  But I couldn’t make it make sense.  Why would a gift be a person or place?  I could contrive it, but a six-year-old would not follow in the TL.  I finally gave up around 1:30 in the morning and went to bed… where I kept thinking about it and finally, before I drifted off to sleep, came up with the answer: a game show.

I put three chairs in front of the class.  Two students sat in two of them and one had a picture of our class mascot, Jeffrey the Penguin.  He was contestant number 3.

The story sequence went like this: The host (I) described something and the contestant had to guess what it was.  I provided the answers.  Contestants raised their hands and said “I know! I know!” and then gave either a crazy answer (Paris) or the right answer (Disney).  I got more repetitions of the targets after the answers: Is Paris a place? Yes.  Is it a big place? Yes.  Is it a place in Florida? No! Sorry! (Everyone makes a BOOOOONK sound.)  In the end, Jeffrey won, 3 to 2 to 1.

Contest questions:

It’s a place. It’s a big place.  It’s a hot place.  It’s a place in Florida. (Disney World)
It’s a person.  It’s a big person.  It’s a cold person.  He has an animal named Sven. (Kristoff)
It’s a place.  It’s a small place.  It’s a cold place.  It’s a place in Disney.  (Arendelle)
It’s a thing.  It’s a cold thing.  It has an orange nose (TPR). (Olaf/snowman)
It’s a person. It’s a small person.  It’s a pretty person.  It’s a person who sings “Do you want to build a snowman?” (in TL) (Anna)
It’s a thing. It’s a cold thing.  It’s small.  It’s water, it falls when it’s cold (TPR). (snow)

My students were pretty engaged by this.  Six questions was the max – any longer and I definitely would have lost them.  Four or five questions would be fine too.

Brain Break

For our brain break, we tried to see how many students we could fit in 3 chairs.  Lots of physical contact but in my situation it was great.  My younger ones are doing the story Bears in Chairs, which gave me the idea.  This took about 90 seconds, and they had no idea why we did it, but it totally restarted their focus.

More input/ Practice

I showed this slideshow.  We talked about who the people were or what the products and places were (in the TL), which helped us also work on a cultural awareness Can Do we have for this semester: I can identify a person, landmark, or product from a TL country.  The kids could already identify many of them and they enjoyed that.  On the slides with one image, they had to call out whether it was a person, place or thing.
The photos in the slideshow are, in my opinion, part of the fair use of copyrighted material.  This is for brief educational use only.

In my older class, because we have more time, we also watched this movie short with no sound, pausing for me to ask them to identify various things in the video as person, place, or thing; we also used it to practice answering the question “How is he/she?”  Then, I put on the Spanish version of this Target back-to-school commercial and paused it at various places.  Students walked around, found a partner, and had 1 minute to describe something on the screen for their partner to identify.  When my 1-minute timer went off, they found a different partner.

Person, place, or thing?

Person, place, or thing?


For each table of students, I had one whole printout of these cards and one set of the same cards cut up.  The uncut sheets were face up on their table and the cards were face down in a stack.  Tables competed against each other (I had two teams).  On team one’s turn, one member drew a card from their stack and used any Spanish they knew to explain what it was.  Their teammates pointed to which one they thought it was.  I was surprised and impressed with many of my students and how many extraneous words they added.  It was definitely word-level – novice low – but they got it across.  They lost the point very few times.  If the teammates guessed wrong, the other team could “steal” the point.  Everyone was 100% in TL and this activity went over very well.
These images are copyright-free.


Before students left, I showed each an example from the same cards, one of each category: person, place, thing.  They had to tell me which it was in the TL.  One student struggled with cosa – she said casa.  Fortunately one of the objects actually was a casa so I pointed to it and asked, “¿Casa?”  She fixed her error.


Since I only see my students once a week, I give them several activities they need to complete while they’re not with me.  Both groups were to develop a list of five of each category (person, place, thing, animal) that they see every week and use Word Reference to find the Spanish words.  My younger group was to listen to this song twice and categorize each of their selected items as grande or pequeño.  My older group was to listen to  this video and identify at which two time points Andy García uses the word persona, find out what the adjective genial means and identify a person they think also fits that description.

They’re supposed to bring all this information to the next class and we’ll work with it more.

Have you thought about teaching circumlocution to your students, early and often?

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October 12, 2015 4 Comments