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Starting my interactive notebook

Last spring we had a #langchat on some topics that kept coming up on the suggestion form and either never garnered quite enough votes to be a chat topic or were judged by the moderators to not have enough substance for an hour-long chat. So we polled for a “quick-snapper” chat. We offered eight of these options and decided to chat on the top four for 15 minutes each. One of the chosen topics was “interactive notebooks.”

Several of my #langchat amigos and I hang our heads in shame that of course we thought this topic referred to some sort of web 2.0 tool for interactive note-taking. Not so. In fact, quite the opposite. It turned out that interactive notebooks are actual paper notebooks. Real paper! And students “interact” with them by creating tabs they flip, gluing in elements, and so on.  I still don’t have my mind totally wrapped around it, but as I do one on pioneers with my budding first-grader at home I’m getting the concept. It’s all about making it stick; interacting with information in different ways strengthens the memory pathways in the brain.

As the #langchat participants who knew what they were doing started talking about this idea of interactive notebooks, I found myself highly interested. A composition notebook has been my story-drawing curation tool of choice for my students for many years, but this interactive aspect looked like a way to really get that organized. It sounded like something that could benefit my new students this year in my very unusual situation: two groups, both novices, group size 7 or 8 students, meeting with me once a week, one group ages 6-10 and the other group ages 11-15. I liked the appeal to younger students, the organization opportunity, the space to review at home. When we did a #langcamp hangout on the topic with more teachers who seemed to be finding success with this idea, I was even more convinced.


My new classroom! It’s got “community” written all over it!

So, here I go. An attempt at interactive notebooks. You should look at interactive notebooks on Pinterest to get a better idea of what they are if you’re not familiar with them, but frankly, most of what I found on Pinterest specifically for Spanish didn’t impress me. It struck me as taking a composition notebook and turning it into a textbook and that didn’t pinterest, (ahem), interest me. But I often find something I want to try even in ideas that don’t thrill me. Here’s my start on the interactive notebook.


On the cover, I took Scotch Washi tape I got at Home Depot and went a little crazy with it. Just did whatever I wanted and then labeled it with my name and what the subject was.


On the first page, I have my table of contents. I’m pretty sure this is the world’s most user-friendly table of contents. I liked suggestions others had made about tables of contents, but my thought was, what page will we be on? Who wants to number all their pages? So I used Washi tape.  I put five strips of tape and wrote on them with permanent marker:

  • Can Do’s
    Students will paste in the ACTFL Can Do statements as they are able to accomplish them.
  • Cuentos
    This is the space for drawing stories.
  • Verbos de victoria
    I like the idea of having a space for notes on the essential, highest-frequency verbs. This won’t be a set of conjugation charts. I’m not sure what it will look like, but I do know it will look like how people communicate with the most-used verbs in Spanish.
  • A conversar
    Students will note/insert tools here for developing and practicing dialogues needed to check off those Can-D0′s.
  • Vocabulario
    I haven’t decided if we’ll glue in flaps or simply fold the page across and cut strips to create flaps (pictures later depending on what we decide) but this will be a place students can draw images to represent vocabulary, with the Spanish word underneath. They can lift the flap if they need to check the word, and as they develop more vocabulary, they won’t need to lift the flap any more.


Then, at various places in the book, I put a strip of tape the same color and approximately the same position on the page as on the table of contents and wrote the same label on it. I folded over the end but left a small amount to create a tab. So now, students can look at the table of contents and immediately get to the section they want to see.

Here’s how I divided them up:

  • I knew I didn’t need a ton of space for the Can Do’s so I counted about 7 pages for them and then put in my Cuentos tab.
  • I knew I wanted about a page apiece for my power verbs but I wanted to divide about 14 verbs across the two semesters, so I opened the remaining section of the notebook (after the Can Do pages) to about halfway, and then counted 4 pages on either side, giving me a divider page and 7 pages for verbs. That gave me a nice long Cuentos section.
  • I divided the rest of the content about equally between A conversar and Vocabulario.

There it is so far! Not a lot, I know.

Have you tried interactive notebooks? What has worked for you?

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July 21, 2015 0 Comments

I can do more with you than I can alone (Black Box)

Here’s a deeply interesting question for us: why is my language ability even in interpersonal skills measured by what I can do alone, when what I can do with you, my conversation partner who can meet me in my “zone of proximal development,” is a lot more?

Black Box Tharrington 15 Jul 15 Sociocultural

If you’re not familiar with Vygotsky and sociocultural theory, you won’t want to miss the newest Musicuentos Black Box videocast from Karen Tharrington. She says, “What is mediation and ZPD?  How do they help learners acquire languages? This videocast is a presentation of Sociocultural Theory as it relates to SLA.”

The Musicuentos Black Box is a collection of media resources designed to bridge the gap between Second Language Acquisition research and teachers in the classroom. The project is co-sponsored by Musicuentos and Indwelling Language. For more information or to find out how you can keep this resource freely available to teachers, visit the Musicuentos Black Box page.

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July 15, 2015 0 Comments

This is design-based learning: A disaster relief team

What if every task students did in class had a real-world application?

I asked that question during last night’s #langbook chat. This summer we started what we hope will be an annual summer-break chat to encourage language teachers to read quality professional books. For the inaugural #langbook chat, we polled and participants chose the book Make It Stick, subtitled The Science of Successful Learning. It’s a very down-to-earth book packed with (surprising!) research on brain research and how we can remember what we want to learn. Here’s the quote that spurred my question:

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

Here’s one of the latest real-world applications that occurred to me in the context of designing a unit on geography, with a 4-day lesson on geography and natural disasters.

Design-based learning begins with a real-world problem that needs solving.

Real-world problem: Natural disasters happen in areas where Spanish-speaking immigrants live, and there aren’t enough bilingual volunteers.

I’m sure you can see the solution. Students can work on developing the language they would need to help in a natural disaster situation. One way to do this is to explore the Red Cross’s US Spanish resources and the companion sites in Spanish-speaking countries.

There are five positions listed on the American Red Cross’s volunteer list, which creates a great situation in which students work in teams of five. Each one chooses which job they want to “train” for (voice and choice!). They need to develop a plan to become equipped to help in that capacity in a Spanish-speaking area, practice scenarios that might come up, and prove through presentation that they can handle the situation in any way that would be helpful to the Red Cross, depending on their language level. (Do you have a native-speaking friend / colleague who could visit and play the part of the affected person?)

Five positions on the American Red Cross volunteer list. Choose which one. Develop plan to become equipped to help in that capacity in Spanish-speaking area. Five-person team presents on what you’ll do when it’s time.

What would your students do with real-world, design-based learning?


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July 10, 2015 0 Comments

No dog with my iced tea, please

Cultural awareness is an idea, a concept. So how do you perform it?

What is cultural awareness?

In my total overhaul of my old performance assessment rubric, I’ve inserted an entire box with a mesh of the exact wording of ACTFL’s cultural awareness performance descriptors.  One of the several colleagues who are helpfully picking it apart with me asked me about this box:

My biggest question is not about wording or formatting; how do we make students aware of what this stands for and practice this in the classroom? So really, my question is: as a teacher, what do I look for to cite as evidence in that box?

Good question. We’re told we’re supposed to be looking for this, but what exactly does it look like?

To answer this question, let me copy for you these performance descriptors and then give you a couple of pertinent examples having to do with eating habits.

Novice cultural awareness performance

Here’s my adaptation of ACTFL’s descriptions:

I can use culturally appropriate, memorized expressions in contexts I have practiced a lot. I can show I’m aware of some obvious cultural differences, but I usually use my own culture to understand the target culture. I can use basic conventions of written and oral language I have practiced.

Intermediate cultural awareness performance

How do students show intermediate cultural awareness?

I can recognize and use culturally appropriate vocabulary, gestures, and expressions in familiar situations. I can conform to differences in behaviors and perspectives in familiar situations. I show increasing knowledge of target culture in communication, including conventions of language.

Dogs and iced tea

Now let me give you a couple of examples to try to make this clearer.

Cambridge Chilis

American food that is actually rather good. But does not come with iced tea.

When I was 18, I went to England to visit my brother, who was stationed at Mildenhall Air Force Base at the time. He took me to Cambridge one day and, being determined as I was to experience all the British culture I could, you can imagine my delight when I saw that there was a Chili’s restaurant in town. Of course we had to eat there. And being the Georgia girl I was (am), I ordered the drink any proud Georgia girl does.

Me: “Sweet iced tea, please?”

Waitress: “I’m sorry, we don’t have iced tea.”

Me: “But this is Chili’s. It’s an American restaurant.”

Waitress: “Dearie, you’re in England. We don’t put ice in our tea. I can bring you a pot of tea with sugar cubes and a glass of ice, if you like.”

Me: “But it has to be brewed sweet. It’s not the same.”

Such cultural awareness I had! But this helps me illustrate for you a basic tenet of novice cultural awareness: I usually use my own culture to understand the target culture. It was Chili’s, for heaven’s sake. An American restaurant ought to have sweet, iced tea, regardless of what country’s land is under its foundation. Right? That was me understanding the culture through the lens of my own.

Rescuing food?

Rescuing food?

Here’s another example. Recently our local television news station ran a story on three dogs that a dog rescue group saved from being featured as culinary treats at a dog meat festival in South Korea. The story was rife with cultural judgments: the dogs were being rescued, their rescue touted as heartwarming, the practice of raising dogs for food labeled devastation and cruelty. The group’s leader is quoted:

These dogs were supposed to be somebody’s dinner…and we were just so enlightened to be able to save these three dogs…. We don’t even begin to touch the devastation that’s going on there with these dogs…. This is three dogs out of thousands….

Can’t you hear her using her own culture to understand the target culture? After all, dogs aren’t food, they’re pets, right?  I mean, that’s just cruelty.

Performing linguistic cultural awareness

I think I’ve made my point. But what does this look like in linguistic performance? I’m not sure how to tell you, exactly, except that I can give you some examples.

Once I had a fourth-year student sit for a summative interpersonal assessment. I don’t remember the task but I remember that he said one way he interacted with the Spanish-speaking cultures here in our city was to order tacos at the store near his house. Not at the restaurant, at the store. If you know the culture you know what we’re talking about. Those little tiendas where you can get all manner of goods and while you’re at it, you can order some tacos de barbacoa and sit and enjoy them with a glass-bottled Coke at a little plastic table.

My student didn’t drop this comment on purpose. He also didn’t do it because he didn’t have a word he needed (of course he knew the word restaurant). He did it because it was perfectly natural for him to casually mention ordering tacos for dinner at a store. He was not using his culture to understand the target culture.

Perhaps another example I can give is music. My students in AP Spanish were always trying to mention something from the target culture so they could get cultural awareness points on the exam. One way was to drop names of famous Latino/a singers. But it’s one thing to mention Jennifer López or Enrique Iglesias (understanding the target culture through my own). It’s another to mention Enrique Iglesias’s duet with Juan Luis Guerra. It’s another to mention it as the winner of the “Perfect Combo” award at the Premios Juventud. It’s another to show you know why Juan Luis Guerra’s music is considered tropical.

Are we getting it? Let’s try a few more (for Spanish).

  • Novices will sometimes list the days of the week without capital letters.
    Intermediates will begin to naturally list the days of the week beginning with Monday.
  • Novices may mention Cinco de Mayo as a popular Mexican celebration.
    Intermediates are not as likely to mention Cinco de Mayo in a discussion of Mexican celebrations.
  • A novice may say she saw a Mexican speaking Spanish in the store.
    An intermediate may try out her Spanish with someone on the bus to find out where the potential new friend is from.
No thanks, or more please?

No thanks, or more please?

A final note: What about advanced learners? Here’s ACTFL’s general description of them:

Shows conscious awareness of significant cultural differences and attempts to adjust accordingly.

To sum up, the novice is confused as to why Chili’s doesn’t have sweet, iced tea. The intermediate orders a pot of tea and pours it over ice. The advanced learner dunks a chocolate bourbon creme into her cuppa with milk.

To put it another way, the novice uses words like “tragedy” and “cruelty” to refer to dogs headed for a meat festival. The intermediate says “I get it, but none for me, thanks.” The advanced learner takes a big breath and says, “I’ll try anything once,” and tries not to think of Princess at home.

This isn’t easy. Is it enough cultural awareness for a First Lady to don long pants and a long jacket but no headscarf? Is it cultural awareness or “treason” when the President bows to Japan’s diminutive emperor? I don’t know. But I hope the examples I’ve given will help you and your students explore what it means to “show conscious awareness of significant cultural differences and attempt to adjust accordingly.”

Gaël ChardonCC BY SA

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July 7, 2015 3 Comments

All they need is accurate input… right? Wrong. (Black Box)

We know that students need comprehensible input in order to acquire language. Is that all we need?

Learn more in this Black Box videocast. Here’s the info.

BlackBox 3 Compelling

It is hard to find a research model that has influenced the direction of language more than Stephen Krashen’s five-pronged hypotheses first published in the late 1970′s.  Still, many language teachers may not be aware of what these hypotheses are, or how they play out in language teaching today.  In the third installment of the Black Box videocast series, Albert Fernandez invites us to consider with Krashen how effective input for language acquisition needs to be not only accurate, not only comprehensible, not only interesting, but compelling. What questions will this 10-minute episode have you asking about the way you teach?

Ready to watch?

The Musicuentos Black Box Podcast is a collection of media resources developed to make relevant research in language learning more accessible and understandable for teachers.  The project is cosponsored by Musicuentos and Indwelling Language.  For more information on the team behind this project and to help us keep the resources freely available for all teachers, visit the Black Box resource page.

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July 1, 2015 0 Comments

The new required school supply: Find your own audience

After a year “off,” this fall I’ll be back to teaching, in a unique opportunity (homeschool co-op) that I’m really excited about. And apprehensive about.

Things that worry me:

  • Mostly, time. I’ll be seeing my students only once a week (60 minutes for elementary, 90 minutes for upper grades). I’ll be finding something for them to do every day, though, so if you have taught a blended class and have recommendations, please send them along!

Things that I’m excited about:

  • They’re all novices. I haven’t taught novice (above kindergarten) in years and I’m SO EXCITED.
  • NO ADMINISTRATION. I’m totally in charge. Can you imagine? No red tape. No evaluation systems.  No tech bans.  No attendance records. No announcements.  NO GRADING REQUIREMENTS. I can NEVER GIVE A LETTER/NUMBER GRADE until a parent asks for something for a transcript.

Even before I contemplated this opportunity, I’d already determined one of the big changes I would make when I went back to teaching, and it was to my required supplies.  From now on, students will be required to find their own audience.


A few things I have learned in ten years of teaching:

  • Whether or not students are able to use any language for a lifetime is not primarily linked to the language skills they acquire in my class.
  • Students who do not want to learn language will not use it in their adult life, no matter what I do.
  • The amount of time we have in the majority of school classes is not enough to foster true bilingualism.
  • The students who end up with a lifelong skill in a second language are the ones who want to

Do it through Facebook, Twitter, email, Skype, a family down the street, someone in another class.  A relative, an epal, a blogger or Xbox.  Two or five is fine, but at least one.  Students have to make a community connection with someone who is truly bilingual – not another Spanish learner.

Some considerations we should ask:

  • Does the connection have to be a native speaker?
  • How will the student report to me who the person is and that they are willing to interact with him/her in the TL?
  • How will the student report interaction? I’m envisioning a requirement on this for every assessment, perhaps a weekly thing.
  • What are the security issues involved? What will parents worry about, and how can I keep them informed?

For the document above, find the PDF here, and a document you can download and open in Word here.  To my knowledge all images are copyright free.

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June 22, 2015 4 Comments

Grammar drills aren’t all in your head… or in your head at all (BlackBox)

Did you know grammar is not a skill you can practice? Read on. And watch this.

It’s already time for the second videocast of the Musicuentos Black Box.  Here’s the info.

Justin BB2 info


Ready to watch? This eight minutes (+) will help you understand what it really means to know a language and remind you in a powerful way what it is we should be practicing in the classroom.

The Musicuentos Black Box Podcast is a collection of media resources developed to make relevant research in language learning more accessible and understandable for teachers.  The project is cosponsored by Musicuentos and Indwelling Language.  For more information on the team behind this project and to help us keep the resources freely available for all teachers, visit the Black Box resource page.

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June 15, 2015 5 Comments

Product Launch: Calico Home Learning Series Level B

Home LevelBCan children learn Spanish at home without someone in the home knowing the language?  That was the question Erica Fischer of Calico Spanish asked me two years (ish) ago, and I said,

In the 21st century, there’s very little limit to what people can do at home if they really want to. Let’s do it.

And Calico Spanish Home Learning Series was born.

About a year ago, Calico released Level A, in which María the yellow monkey and Pepe the blue fish teach kids how to use simple language in the context of talking about themselves. Now we’ve -finally!- pushed out Level B (really, it was like a birth… okay not really but sort of) last week.

I love Level B even more than Level A! Watching the characters go from my head to these Video Stories was incredibly fun.  Level B is about the family and in the story-based content, Pepe the dog, Goyo the cat (he’s my favorite!), and Camilo the rabbit (^^ right up there) teach children how to talk about their families (including concepts like months of the year, what people like to do, and describing people).

I’m thankful to Erica and Calico for the opportunity to work on this project that is dear to my heart, and I’m honored to be the primary author on something I think will contribute so much to families wanting to explore Spanish on their own, but not knowing where to start.

Are you using Calico Spanish Home Learning Series? I’d love to know what you think, and get your suggestions for future levels.  Before you know it, you’ll be seeing Level C, where Rita the green frog (she’s fabulous!) and Raúl the gray mouse (he’s that adorable annoying neighbor kid always coming over!) help kids learn to talk about their homes (and including concepts like telling time, daily activities, and talking about where something is located).  The characters play Pañuelito, Rita makes up a duck song to the tune of “Caballito blanco” – it’s going to be a blast.

And to further honor the reason homeschooling and Spanish bring joy to my life, I must include an image of the dedication page.


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June 11, 2015 0 Comments

The one-word key to teaching culture


What is the point of teaching culture, anyway? Is it to get kids to realize that people are different? (They already do.)  Is it to get them to try a new food? (Lengua, eww, gross. Does that have peanuts in it?)

No, cultural awareness is more about perspective-taking.  According to the research, children who show empathy will be more successful in life.  And what is empathy?  It’s “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  It’s perspective-taking.

As I hear teachers ask this question a lot,

How can we teach culture?

I think I always felt we were asking the wrong question, but not until my recent interest in 1) empathy research and 2) design-based learning did I identify why I felt this way.  Asking how I can teach culture is asking how I can transfer some knowledge I supposedly have to a learner, and that’s just not it.  So as I worked my way through how I felt about teaching culture, I identified the one word I believe is the answer to “teaching” cultural awareness in the classroom.


Inquiry-based learning models are following the research that says that children who investigate the big questions are more successful in just about every way.  So let’s start asking questions.  Better yet, let’s get learners asking questions, present the sources of some answers, and let them have at it.

Not: “Mexicans eat different foods than I do.”
But: “Why do Mexican families eat parts of the animal that my mom throws in the trash? Do they think it’s delicious? How do they cook it?  I wonder if I’d like it if I tried it the way they make it?”

Not: “Nicaragua grows a lot of coffee.”
But: “Why don’t Nicaraguans drink the coffee they grow? What are the expenses involved in brewing and drinking coffee? How much do I spend on coffee, and how much of that ends up with the coffee farmer?”

Not: “Avocados are an important export in Mexico.”
But: “Why is the drug trade affecting avocado production in Mexico? Who may have picked the avocado in my kitchen, and what is his life like? What would I do in his shoes?”

You can see how these questions reach the beliefs in the culture – why do the Indians mistrust third parties who want to market their cultural goods?

I can sense your question: how do we approach these issues while staying in the TL?  Jury’s still out on that one, but I do have a few preliminary answers.  One is that it’s a good use of the English time you may be allowing in your classroom (10% or less on ACTFL’s recommendations).  Another is to put it in an at-home portion of your class (a flipped model).  One more – focus on authentic resources at all levels, and make them comprehensible for novices.  Whenever I meet a teacher who is struggling to teach culture, some probing questions reveal that the class is heavily focused on language explanations and use and there’s little interpretive work with authentic resources.  The people themselves will expose students to culture if we let them.

Ready for some more questions?  From a curriculum design perspective, here are some of what I think are better questions to ask when contemplating cultural content in the classroom.

How to answer these questions is a great topic to address at the Camp Musicuentos curriculum design workshop.  Louisville’s on a wait list right now, but there are several spots open if you can get to Rhode Island in July.  If you’d like this information as a PDF to print and post for your department, download it here.

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June 8, 2015 0 Comments

Why your method doesn’t matter: Black Box videocast

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the world language teaching profession recently, it’s that we’re plagued with arguments about why one method trumps another.  As it turns out, we’re wasting our time on that argument, and we should be asking a different question altogether.

BB Videocast 1 infoI know, I’ve dropped off the internet a bit lately and that’s going to be the case for June at least, it seems.  I’m excited for all of you getting a break at last and traveling near and far.  I’m facing some pretty daunting deadlines and Camp Musicuentos and that’s pushing off my work on the next reading guide (Esperanza renace) and the blog redesign planned for this summer too.  And so, it’s four days off schedule, but I did wrap up the first videocast of the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast.  Give me 12 minutes to introduce you to Michael Long, who wants you to realize that it’s not so much your methods that will make a difference in your students’ success, but rather the methodological principles that form the basis for everything you do in the classroom.

To help make the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast resources available for teachers everywhere, please visit our GoFundMe project.

The Musicuentos Black Box Podcast collection of resources are co-sponsored by Musicuentos and Indwelling Language.  Justin over at Indwelling Language is up to bat for the next installment. I can’t wait!

WebIndwelling Language Logo with text lighter orange 576

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June 4, 2015 3 Comments