‘Twas the night before school started

night before school starts

This past week was a whirlwind, but I was thankfully able to leave school Friday night at 7:15pm without returning at all this weekend.  I am so excited for this school year to begin.  I cannot wait to meet my new students and to teach a level I’ve never taught before–Spanish 2 Honors.  I have taught Spanish 1, 2 and 3 on level, but never have I ever taught 2H.  I hear I’m going to love it :).

I am beginning this year differently than I normally do.  I plan to spend an entire week on setting the tone.  Each day we will do an icebreaker (thank you AVID Summer Institute for the many ideas) and a team-building activity.  Together, we will explore what is collaboration and what it’s not (thank you Rebecca Gould) and establish norms–though, I do have veto power.  We are going to have fun together everyday, and of course I will share how the week goes.

Good luck sleeping tonight, fellow teachers!  Cheers to the start of another new year!

Hi, my name is Laura-Jane Barber, & I want my students to like me!


It was my first year of teaching.  The “right” thing to say to stay off the radar was, “I don’t care if my students like me.”  I even said that phrase back then.  But… It was all a lie.  I have always wanted my students to like me because I like them.

Don’t get me wrong, I know respect is more important, but it’s much easier to gain respect from someone who likes you.  We are taught to be mean at first, “don’t smile until Christmas,” and maybe that works for some, but it’s not me.  I’m cheerful, enthusiastic and excited to hangout all day with my high schoolers.

My first year of teaching, I think I got lucky.  I had relatively easy students to manage–which was a blessing as I was a traveling teacher with 2 schools and 6 classrooms while pregnant.  God knew my limits.  My second year was the year that fell apart.  I had disrespectful students, and at first I gave too many warnings that made it impossible to follow-through later.  I got trapped by, “well you let so-and-so have 5 warnings, I only got 1.”  How do you argue with something that is irrefutably unfair?  I learned the value of doing what I say I’m going to do from day 1.

I know there are a lot of new teachers out there and teachers who have had a year of bad classroom management.  I want to offer hope and advice to prevent anyone from having a year like I did my second year.

The reality is, you can be nice, but firm.  I am friendly and laid-back in my classroom, but that should never be mistaken for an attitude of not caring what students do.  Students realize this, when someone decides to test just how flexible my attitude is.  So for starters, be prepared for someone to test you this week.  When it happens, do not show any anger, be very matter of fact.  You did ___, per school policy, I must now give you ___ consequence.  If possible, handle the situation as privately as possible–I go to the student in question and quietly warn him/her, and if the behavior continues, I revisit and ask to speak with him/her after class.  After class, I give him/her a detention form to complete.  Often, students do not know what to write.  For example, “talking” is the number one reason a student writes.  I always act shocked, “Talking!  This is a Spanish class; you have to talk.  I would NEVER give a detention for talking in a Spanish class.”  Eventually, they figure out something along the lines of, “talking at an inappropriate time,” and I sign and date it.  Sometimes, there are tears.  Inside, I want to cry with them.  I want to say, “Oh, it’s okay, I forgive you!!!!  Forget about the detention!” but that will get me nowhere.  Stay firm.  Follow-through.  I promise that they will still like you.  This is not just about liking.  It’s about trust.  By following through, students know they can trust you to mean what you say.  Every single year I have at least one student who tells me at the end of the year, “I thought I was going to hate this class when you gave me that detention the first week, but your class was one of my favorites.”

I’m not gonna lie, my heart strings always make me want to give just one more warning. I feel sad for the students.  However, I cannot give in to those feelings.  It’s like the quote I’ve seen circulating around Pinterest about dieting, “Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now.”  I want a positive, inviting, warm classroom climate most.  I will not give that up for wanting to avoid a student getting mad at me today.

A Target Language Thanksgiving!

Tuesday of Thanksgiving week is always particularly hard to keep high schoolers on task.  For that reason, many teachers give tests–ensuring that students have to stay focused and quiet.

For half a class period during each of my classes, I had to run another teacher’s speaking tests (because she was absent), so I made a deal with my students.  As long as they stayed on task and completed an independent Cloze while the substitute was with them, we’d do something fun for the second half of class.  Needless to say, every class worked hard while I was with the other teacher’s class.

So what did we do?  I stole this idea from my colleague, Rebecca Gould.  She printed out a Turkey coloring page and on each feather, students had to write one thing for which they were thankful in the target language.  There are around 15 feathers on these turkeys.  Then the students colored them if they had time remaining.  Finally, I had my students hang them in the hallway for everyone to see.

Gratitude is a huge determining factor for happiness and happiness is big factor in success.  Hopefully this activity helped our students in more ways than one, besides being fun :).

Jigsaw Fun

My school district was one of the few who had school on Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week.  We teachers dreaded those two days of trying to keep wild and excited teenagers on task. We had to seriously strategize in order to prevent those two days from being a waste.

Looking at what we needed to accomplish, I decided to do a Jigsaw brainstorming activity.  Here’s the set-up:

1. Label each table (or grouping of desks) with a color, shape and number. (I had 5 groups)

2. Assign each color a topic to brainstorm.

3. Group the students (I have sorting pencils that can be bought here).

4. Let the fun begin!

I set up before school and then my students and I headed to one of my school’s newly furnished collaboration spaces.  As they entered, each student received a sorting pencil and sat by color.  Each color group received a different assignment and had 10 minutes to complete it.  After 10 minutes, students regrouped by shape and presented their information to their new groups.  After 15 minutes, they moved to a number group to fill in any gaps by brainstorming or discussing the topics they lacked.  Finally, we returned to the classroom to debrief.

The activity took the entire class period, and many students openly admitted that it was a fun activity :).   While I am a major advocate for the language lab and love doing random groupings on there, it is nice to mix things up and get students moving around.  The sorting pencils made it impossible for people to be grouped together more than once–which made it obvious when students tried to cheat the system.  Fortunately, I only had a few who tried to do that :).

Election Day in High School

This year, election day happened to fall right in the middle of my level 3 classes making environmental recommendations with the subjunctive.  Taking a break from the environment, I had my students write a letter to whomever won the election, giving him advice on how to make everyone happy.  I encouraged students to make as outlandish requests as possible to make it more fun, though as with every writing, they had to give details and elaboration while incorporating transition, sequencing, and flavoring words.

It was a riot!  One student recommended that the president give him a tiger because he likes tigers and does not have one.  Other students recommended that college be free for everyone, that the president should give them cars and houses, a million dollars, etc, etc.

It was a fun break from our thematic unit while practicing much needed skills for their end of semester essay test.  In 4 years, we’ll do it again :).

When the cat returns

Well, I arrived at school today to read the extensive notes from the substitute.  This has been a bit of a stressful week, so seeing it all written up was the straw that broke this camel’s back and I burst into tears.  Thankfully, I did not have on any eye make-up :).

Originally, I planned to use the reflection in each class, but I ended up only using it in 1st, 2nd and 4th period because those classes were the ones that got bad reports.  The other 3 classes got a decent report.  The reflection went over well and opened up good conversations with my classes.  I learned quickly what part I played in this situation and how we all can do things differently next time.

First of all, a colleague of mine, Jane Shea, has the best mantra: You can never be too explicit.  This is where I failed.  While I left a detailed lesson plan, I did not mention anything about my style of teaching nor my classroom procedures for the activities I left–Cloze passages and such.  While this in no way excuses the disrespect some of my students chose to show the substitute, it does explain why some felt threatened and/or scared (though they are high school boys and would never phrase it like that) and why they did not handle themselves as well as I know they can.  As a result, I have now edited my substitute plan template to include the following:

A note about my teaching style:  I have a relaxed style with my students and am aware of the differing learning styles and needs of my individual students.  My students are used to working in pairs/groups as they complete assignments and use their phones to look up unknown words.  Unless otherwise stated, please allow them to work together and talk as long as they are on task.  They may use their phones to assist with their assignment as long as they are not texting or playing games.  They may also listen to music with headphones as long as they are on task.  If it interferes with their ability to work, the privilege may be revoked based on your judgement.

I read this addendum to each class and got their input and approval (it was tweaked throughout the day).

Next, in each class–even the ones not required to reflect–I clearly redefined and clarified my expectations for when there’s a sub.  I then opened up a conversation about coping with people who are not like their normal teachers–going beyond just my classroom but how to handle a sub in any class.  This included quoting from the AVID syllabus (by our awesome AVID department chair, Clarissa Moreno) about how to cope when a student feels threatened–count to 10 silently, take a deep breath and write your teacher a note about the situation to give to her when she returns.  I explained that I know them, I trust them.  I would believe them if they did that.  BUT, I explained that when we act inappropriately or rudely, we automatically lose our argument even if our initial feelings were valid to begin with.

While it’s never fun to have to deal with these types of issues, they happen from time to time, and I appreciate the learning opportunity that comes with every challenge I meet in life.  I made sure that today was a learning moment for all of my students and myself.  True, I will be a little nervous the next time I have a sub, but I know my students will want to impress me by doing the right thing.  And they are not a bad group, they just had a bad day.

When the cat’s away, the mice will play…

Today, I was off-campus for a great collaboration day among LOTE (World Language is another name) department chairs and team leaders across my district.  While I was away, students in all of my classes misbehaved for my substitute.  I’ve already had to be absent for various reasons and multiple times this year.  I’ve had 4 other subs in my classroom this year and EVERY single one has given my students a great report, including last Friday.  I am holding onto this knowledge as I prepare for how to handle my students tomorrow.  Why?  Because A. it makes me feel like less of a failure and B. It reminds me that my students can behave for other teachers if they choose to do so.

Before having a sub, I always give the same speech: “I don’t care if you think the substitute is certifiably crazy, that they forgot to take their meds, whatever, do not get your name written down.  When in doubt, just don’t talk.  It is not worth your trouble to cause problems with a sub because then you will have to deal with me.”  I also leave a nice note about my students for the subs, typically something along the lines of, “I love my classes this year, I hope you enjoy them today as much as I do everyday.”  Typically, I get a great report because both the students and the substitutes know I have high expecations.  Today is not the case.  Thankfully, the substitute is going to be on my campus again tomorrow and plans to visit with me to tell me what all happen.  I will not be able to see her until after I have seen my students, and I don’t want to ignore the issue tomorrow.  Naturally, I’ve been strategizing.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. When students enter the room, I will great them at the door with a reflection to complete in English–sorry, we are going to have to take some English time tomorrow, it just can’t be avoided in this situation.  As they enter, I will tell them to immediately sit down and complete the assignment without talking.

2. I will give the students up to 10 minutes to explicitly complete the reflection before we begin our discussion.

3. When we begin the discussion, I will start by reminding them of the speech I always give them when I’m going to be away.  I will tell them that as such, I do not want to hear any disrespectful comments made about the substitute or anyone in the class.  I want to know what happened but in a respectful and honest way.

4.  We will then go through all of the questions together and debrief.

Here are my questions:

  • Describe your class period yesterday with the sub.  Give facts only.  Do not include feelings or opinions.  Be sure to explicitly state anything you specifically did during the class period.
  • What could you have done to improve the situation that you did not do?  Again, facts only, no opinion statements.
  • Do you feel that your and/or your classmates’ actions were justifiable?  Explain.  Here is an appropriate place to include your opinion.
  • What are Mrs. Barber’s expectations when there is a substitute teacher?
  • Do you feel you and/or all of your classmates adequately met Mrs. Barber’s expectations for when a substitute is present.  Explain giving as many details as possible. 
  • How do you think Mrs. Barber feels today after seeing the report from the substitute?  Explain.
  • What advice do you have for how Mrs. Barber should handle this situation? You must give a minimum of 1 course of action she should take.

I don’t know how effective this will be, but I will report back.  I am open to ideas from other people if you read this before tomorrow at 7am (I will definitely check for comments).  I also plan to discuss and establish norms for when substitutes are present with all of my classes.  Not all absences can be announced when dealing with sick children, so I would like to know that in the future there are even clearer expectations for behavior with substitutes.

Extreme Makeover: Worksheet Edition

Fridays should be fun.  On Fridays, when I see what I have planned, if it’s not fun, I feel especially inspired to change it and make it better.

Yesterday, I was planning for us to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different jobs, followed by a timed writing.  It was a lovely worksheet, one that I excitedly and proudly created during our summer curriculum writing in June.  Well, while the purpose and intention are in the right place, I just knew I could make it better.  And inspiration struck!  Naturally, it struck at about 8:30 while I was dealing with 2 detention kids, with 30 minutes left until my 1st period class began.  Isn’t that how it always happens?

Well, I wasn’t going to let something like time get in the way of turning an okay activity into something awesome!!!!  I ran around like crazy, managed to reserve the collaboration space, winged the instructions in first period–the experimental class–and managed to pull it off, working out a few kinks along the way.

So what was this genius idea?  Well, rather than do it as a worksheet, I divided the students into groups, assigning each group the task to come up with either the advantages or the disadvantages to a specific job.  After discovering that 15 minutes messed up the flow of the other two parts of the activity, I shortened it to 10 minutes in 3rd period.  True, some groups had difficulty compiling an extensive list of 10 advantages or disadvantages in that amount of time, but most had at least 6-7.

After the 10 minutes, the students moved to one of my school’s collaboration spaces to hang up their posters.  We then had a gallery walk (something I learned about at the AVID Summer Institute).  They quietly walked from poster to poster, reading the information provided.  The students could add to the posters if they had a good idea and were required to write down the top 2-3 advantages and disadvantages of the jobs they would consider for themselves.  I allowed 15 minutes for this process.

We then returned to our classroom and had our 15-minute timed writing (that we will peer edit on Monday).

Sure, the original plan would have taken maybe a total of 25 minutes, leaving time for other activities, but would it have been as meaningful?  Would we have gone into as much depth?  Would it have been as personal?  Would it have been as fun?  No.  I was so impressed with how many useful words and phrases my students figured out were important just by trying to come up with the advantages and disadvantages to 8 different jobs.

We often feel overwhelmed by the breadth of what we or the students must do.  Yesterday was all about the depth, and I’ve never seen my students dig that deep into this topic in 5 years of teaching it.  It was AMAZING.  And… It was fun :).

Musical Partners

I am trying to think outside the box with partner work this school year.  I have a FABULOUS language lab in my classroom that my students feel I overuse.  While I will never give up opportunities to use the amazing tool, I have decided to mix it up from time to time and get students up and moving (and picking their own partners).

Today, my students completed an independent activity about their summer.  Normally, I would pair them on the lab and have them ask and answer questions with each other.  Then, I would mix up the partners a few times so they got an opportunity to learn about other people.  When sharing activities like this, I try to spend as much time as it took them to do it so they see that it was in fact worth their time.

Today, I decided to utilize that collaboration space around the corner by playing Musical Partners.  That is my name for the activity that I stole from an icebreaker at the AVID Summer Institute.  We went into the space (with their worksheet), and I played music on my iPad.  While the music played, students walked around and/0r danced around.  When the music stopped, they paired up,  asked questions of each other and shared information related to the activity.  I gave them about 2-3 minutes to speak before starting up the music again.  They walked/danced until the music stopped and found a new partner.  We did this 3 or 4 times (depending on the class) before returning to our room.  It was a lot of fun :).

In case you were wondering, my song choice was Shakira’s Estoy Aquí, a classic from when I was in Spanish 2 oh so long ago :).

Setting the Tone for the Year

I know, I know… It’s been 11 months to the day since I last posted, but I feel inspired tonight.  Today marked the first day of my 8th year of teaching, and I’m feeling quite reflective and pumped!

My first few years of teaching, I made sooooooo many mistakes and over the years learned the value of setting the tone in the classroom.  The last few years I have paid particular attention to what I do in the beginning that makes things run smoothly the rest of year.

While I am a Spanish teacher, I have never felt that teaching Spanish was my only responsibility to my students.  I feel it is my duty to help them learn to be good people.  I try to incorporate life lessons and model appropriate ways to deal with various situations.  Last week during in-service, I had the pleasure of hearing Patrick Briggs speak, and one thing that stood out to me was the importance of relationships with students.  It has always bothered me when teachers say, “I don’t care if my students like me.”  I’ll be honest, I’ve even said that in the hopes of convincing myself that I really meant it when it seemed like that was what you were supposed to say to stay off the radar.  But it’s just not true.  I care so much more than that and a wonderful mentor administrator (who by the way, came off as a SCARY, GRUFF person–Ed are you reading this?) made me realize that perhaps my true feelings would lead me to success with my students.  I thought he was scary, but he cared more about his staff and students than any administrator I’ve ever met while being able to keep us all in line so to speak.

I 100% admit it, I want my students to like me, I want them to like my class.  That being said, my number one priority as their teacher is for them to learn Spanish.  I felt like over the years I had to learn to balance.  At first, I sacrificed the relationship aspect, then at times the learning.  While I’m no where near perfect, I feel like I have had quite a few consecutive years of success in this area.

So what do I do?

Well, to be honest, there’s a lot of work that goes into this.  First of all, the number one idea is not new.  It’s not revolutionary, but it’s very important: consistency.  I follow-through on everything from the beginning.  It’s not a threat, it’s a promise.  While the inevitable tears of the poor, sweet girl who has never gotten a detention in her life (or better yet, the boy who cries) REALLY tugs at my heartstrings, I do what I say I’m going to do.  If I tell a student that I need him/her to stop talking or detention, I follow through if s/he doesn’t stop.  Yes, my initial reaction is to give them a second chance, but years of experience has taught me that in the end they will like and respect me more when they realize they can trust me.  Consistency is really all about trust.  They learn that when I speak, I speak the truth.  When we as teachers do not follow through, they learn to doubt us and to not trust us.  Let’s not forget something else that goes along with consistency–fairness.  I do not let one kid off and punish another.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a student I had last year and who feels more at ease with my class the second time around.  You got the warning, you ignored it, now you get the consequence.

Another thing that I feel is CRUCIAL to my success: I handle issues with the individual.  When I ask a student to be quiet, I go up and say it to where s/he can barely hear it; if s/he is sitting, I get down to his/her eye level.  When I need to issue a detention, I quietly ask the student to see me at the end of class.  I do not embarrass or humiliate the kid.  I do not show anger.  I make it clear that one action caused a reaction–a reaction of which the student was forewarned.

When I discuss the detention with the student, I have him/her write out the explanation on the detention.  If I am dissatisfied with his/her rationale, s/he redoes it.  (I got this idea from an amazing colleague, Edith).  I want them to take as much ownership for their actions and resulting consequences as possible.

When we have the detention, we talk.  We process what happened–I feel like a shrink trying to get the answers sometimes–and I help guide the student to figure out why the behavior was problematic and how to proceed.  I also make it clear that I don’t hold grudges, and that I plan to move forward.

Most importantly, I work the room for weeks on end.  Whenever the students are working in groups/partners/independently I am EVERYWHERE.  I am visible and make it clear that I am going to be all up in their business so their business better be Spanish.  It is tiring at times, but I put in all this effort up front so that when I’m really tired in May, I can sit down for awhile if I need to and be able to trust my students to stay on task.

Finally, I show my quirks.  I ramble on and digress in Spanish (yes they get a little lost, heck, I get a little lost in my own thoughts too), but I am me. I share tidbits about my kids, my hobbies.  They get to know a piece of my life which shows them that I trust them enough to be myself.

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