4-Corners Brainstorm

4-Corners Brainstorm in the collaboration space

4-Corners Brainstorm in the collaboration space

The other day, with only a few minutes to spare in class, I wanted to see what food words my 2H students remember from Spanish 1.  I placed butcher paper in the 4 corners of the room (after 1 class, I relocated to a collaboration space).  Each piece was labeled with “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Dinner,” and “Snack” in the target language.  I gave the students 30 seconds to get to a corner.  Then the groups had 3 minutes to write as many foods as they could that related to the meal.  After 3 minutes, groups rotated.  At the next corner, the students read what had already been brainstormed and added to it.  They cycled through the remaining two corners before we gathered whole group.  At that point, I went through each of the foods and the students yelled out “healthy” or “unhealthy” in the target language.  We got cut off by the bell, which I felt was  perfect timing.  They left Spanish excited and energized and were ready to continue on with the next part of the activity.  To be continued…

A World Cafe Jigsaw

I know, you are probably thinking, “What?!?!” but trust me, this combination of two activities really played out nicely and happened to work in both Spanish 2H and Spanish 3 on the same day.  In Spanish 2H, we were reading one of the Blaine Ray novels (El viaje de su vida) and in Spanish 3, we were reading an article about the Moors in Spain.

1st, we went into one of my school’s furnished collaboration spaces. Students were allowed to create groups of their own choosing; however, in each class (based on size) I limited group sizes.  For example, in my classes of 32-34, I said groups could have no more than 5 students but also no less than 4.

2nd, the groups read a specific section of the text and took notes over pertinent information, including listing out new words they figured out from said text.

3rd, one representative stayed at the table and everyone else shifted over a table.  The representatives shared the information they learned while the new people took notes.  Then the visiting group shared what they learned.  Throughout this part of the activity, students shifted tables 5 more times and learned about all sections of the text.  Representative stayed put and learned as the groups cycled through their table.

This is a useful alternative if the traditional jigsaw is too complicated.  I like to mix things up, so I plan to still use both methods.  Soon I am going to do a true World Cafe activity.  More on that later :).

Intelligence is Irrelevant

This fall I attended an awesome professional learning day led by my coordinator Greta Lundgaard.  This day was spent teaching us about current brain research over mindset.  We took a survey to see where we fell on the spectrum between fixed and growth, and I was not surprised to see I definitely have a growth mindset now.  Google “mindset survey” and you can find documents and online surveys to assess your own mindset.

I spent an entire week setting the tone with my students last fall, and while I do not have that time this semester, I wanted to do something to set us on a positive path.  Thus, entire the mindset survey.

I began the class with my normal Tapa del Día, which randomly related perfectly (I have them all saved on PowerPoints and just change the dates year to year).  Then, I announced my new mantra: “Intelligence is Irrelevant.”  I gave the students time to Think-Pair-Share, and every class had different opinions/insights to this idea.  My 6th period in particular took the discussion to deeper levels than I had even contemplated.

Next, I introduced the idea of mindset and handed out the surveys.  The students took several minutes responding and scoring.  After learning where they fell on the spectrum, we discussed what exactly fixed and growth mindsets are, what research says about mindset and success, and how it is possible to change from a fixed to a growth mindset because mindsets are learned.

I followed up the mindset lesson with a quote about how a teacher answered the question “when will I ever use this?” that I read at my professional learning day.  So how did this guy respond?

* “‘Never.  You will never use this.’  Then he points out that people don’t lift weights so they’ll be prepared should, one day, somebody knock them over on the street and trap them under a barbell.  ‘You lift weights so that you can knock over a defensive lineman, or carry your grandchildren without being sore the next day.  You do math exercises so that you can improve your ability to think logically, so that you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden or parent.  MATH IS MENTAL WEIGHT TRAINING.  It is a means to an end, (for most people), not an end in itself.'”

If I were a math teacher, I would have that hanging in my classroom.  As it is, I am fashioning my own version of this with regards to learning a language.  Stay tuned as I will share it on this blog once it gets done :).

We ended class with an exit card in which students wrote one thing they learned and why it resonated with them.  Here are some of the responses I received:

“I learned that intelligence is irrelevant.  Throughout a lot of my life I thought if I was smarter I would be better at school.  I am smart, I just have to try harder.”

“People with a growth mindset learn more.”

“I learned that we will probably never use what we learn in class, but that is not the point of learning.  The point of learning concepts is to make your brain always be ready to learn new material no matter what it is.”

“Keeping an open mind is good for learning.”

“I understood that what we learn doesn’t have to affect our lives directly to allow our understanding to grow.  It is the way it helps us to think that makes a difference.”

“Growth mindset people do better because they think they can.  Mind over matter.”

“This lesson really struck me. I should stop comparing myself to others and believing that intelligence is innate.  I need to work harder.”

“I learned that math is a means to an end.  It doesn’t matter if it is useless in and of itself; it still helps indirectly.”

So from now on, intelligence is irrelevant in my classroom.  It’s about hard work and never giving up.  There are no excuses, success is in our own hands.


*from Selections from Teaching that Sticks, Heath & Heath

Paper Airplanes & Jigsaw Puzzles

Image I may have mentioned that my school district does not particularly want us to use social media with our students.  The district promotes engaging students with technology, but then severely limits anything that involves communication.  The world language classroom is all about communication, so this attitude can be quite problematic.  So what is a teacher to do?

I recently attended awesome leadership training facilitated by my coordinator, Greta Lundgaard, in which we reflected and commented on each other’s reflections Twitter-style.  We each wrote a short reflection and then passed our papers around the room, mimicking Twitter.  Yesterday, I decided to do a similar activity in my class.

Using one of my Twitter accounts, I posted an opinion on public transportation in Buenos Aires–an opinion with which I accurately felt the students would disagree.  I then took a screen shot and made it into a work sheet.  In class, I told the students to imagine they were perusing twitter and happened upon my tweet.  They wrote a short response.  Then, they made paper airplanes and sent them flying through the room.  Everyone grabbed a new plane, read the conversation thread, and wrote an additional response.  Then we sent the planes flying again.  Students ended up commenting 3 times before receiving their original planes back.  Then, in small groups/pairs, students shared the comments and their personal opinions.


Next, we went into one of my school’s collaboration spaces and participated in a reading jigsaw activity using sorting pencils.  I divided up a challenging authentic article about one aspect of transportation in Buenos Aires into 5 groups.  The 6th group (I have classes of 33 students and did not want humongous groups) had an info graphic on the topic.  Students first were paired by number and read their segment of the article.  They came up with a title for that section and bulleted out important points that supported the title.  They were allowed to use Spanglish because I would rather them take the time to figure out what something meant than simple lift entire phrases from the article without having a clue what they are writing.  After 10 minutes, students regrouped by color and each person shared the information s/he learned.  Some groups did not have every section covered.  When this happened, I would find a representative from another group to come share the necessary information.

Finally, I handed out post-it notes to each student.  This post-it was a ticket to re-enter the class.  The students had to write 2-3 sentences in Spanish about the most important thing they learned today–it had to be new information–and why they felt it was important.

On Monday, we will start class with impromptu speeches about various aspects of transportation in Buenos Aires.  That is, unless we have the ice day all my students are expecting :).

TFLA Conference in Frisco, TX

Friday and Saturday I attended the Texas Foreign Language Association conference in Frisco, TX and had the opportunity to rub shoulders with some absolutely fabulous educators including Clarissa Adams, Amy Lenord and Noah Geisel.  I also got to meet a #Langchat friend, Amber Hawk.

I often take opportunities for optional professional development because I love to learn, but recently, I have felt that other than those offered by my coordinator, there hasn’t been a whole lot that has helped me grow as an educator recently.  I began to wonder if I was becoming someone who thinks I know everything and thinks I have nothing more to learn.  I had been doing a lot of self-reflection when TFLA rolled around.

I was so excited to attend and learn some new ideas to incorporate in my classroom.  I’m a life learner and a perpetual optimist so I had no doubt I would get at least something out of each session I attended–this was a weekend dedicated to world language teachers after all so it had to be a winner.  I went to 4 sessions on Friday and left feeling more or less disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong, I heard about some cool ideas and some interesting brain research information, but overall, I did not get as much out of the day as I had hoped.  Maybe I was becoming someone who thought I knew it all already…  I spoke with some other Plano ISD colleagues, and it seemed to be a general consensus that there was not a whole lot offered that helped us grow.  And then the light bulb went off.  It’s not that we aren’t just as eager to learn, it’s not that I think I know everything.  The reality is, we have come so far with our curriculum development and professional development in the last 9 years that we are ahead of the majority of other world language programs.

So now what?  We need to pay if forward.  Others are going to catch up with us and will be hungry for more like I am now.  It’s now our responsibility to share the wealth of knowledge and experience we have to help others continue to grow and catch up.  I met so many people who want what we have in Plano ISD.  We have a performance-based curriculum that is based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines.  We focus on communication, not grammar.  We grade on rubrics and assess with real-world tasks.  We teach in the target language from day 1 and witness our students in level 1 able to converse for 5+ minutes and write 100 words using transition, sequencing and flavoring words after 1 semester.  We are constantly reflecting, rewriting, and evolving.  Every teacher has a drop down Steven’s Learning language lab system in our classrooms.  We have a coordinator who works everyday to make sure everyone knows that world languages are relevant.  We have had amazing opportunities for professional development.  And now, we need to share.

So I am submitting a proposal to SWCOLT about getting on-level students to willingly participate in communicative activities through the use of various techniques including AVID strategies.  Or something to that effect.  I also plan to present with Shelli Brown on activities that support brain research.

On day 2 of TFLA, I went to 3 wonderful sessions that did not disappoint and reenergized me for the rest of the semester.  I enjoyed what I was able to learn at this conference and was quite participatory in the twitter conversation.  So much that I won a free conference t-shirt on Friday.  Check out the great collegial conversation #TFLA13.

Teacher Memes!

Teacher Memes!

This is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.  Enjoy, teacher friends!

Philosophical Chair Friday!


I recently became a member of my campus’s AVID Site Team.  This summer, I had the honor of attending the AVID Summer Institute and attended an amazing session–developed by an elementary school friend’s husband!

One of my big goals this year is to incorporate as much AVID in my classroom as possible.  Why?  Well, first of all, I believe in it.  Second of all, so many activities and strategies fit right into the performance-based curriculum that I teach.  As a member of my school’s site team, I have the duty to encourage teachers to incorporate AVID in their classrooms, and what better way can I but by sharing what I have tried successfully?

Right now, my level 3 students are discussing their strengths and weaknesses.  It has become very apparent that the majority believe you should work on your weaknesses in order to make them strengths.  Interestingly, research does not support this.  Before watching a video about the topic, I saw an amazing opportunity to try the AVID activity Philosophical Chairs.

Basically, I posed a statement (in the target language, Spanish) and students had 10 minutes to think about it, plan out argument points for either or both sides.  I encouraged them to argue both sides during their planning time in case they changed their mind upon hearing others’ points.

After 10 minutes, we went into one of my school’s collaboration spaces.  Those in agreement with the statement stood on one side of the room, those opposed, stood on the other side.  The wall that ran perpendicular to the two sides was for undecided.  I acted as mediator, and began by calling on someone from the “defense.”  Next, a student from the opposing side posed a statement, responding to the previous comment.  This went back and forth for the duration of the activity.  As students heard a good argument, they could switch sides and speak on behalf of their new opinion.  Each student had to speak 2 times to get full credit for the activity.  If they spoke once, they got partial credit.  If they did not speak but completed the written activities, they received minimal credit.

At the end of the activity, we returned to class and did some reflecting about how their opinions changed/didn’t change, how openminded they were, what was frustrating and what was successful.  I found that in my smaller classes, the activity went more smoothly (imagine that!!!), but even my larger classes had a lot of fun.  After reflecting, we watched the video and the students were overwhelmingly surprised that research supports focusing on strengths more than on weaknesses.  We will continue with our video activities and reflections next week.

I had so much fun yesterday!  Throughout the day, I heard kids commented to each other as they left how much fun Spanish was and how fast the class went (something that seems to be vitally important to high schoolers).

I can’t wait to try more AVID activities!

All about ME!

Let’s be honest.  When learning a new language, it is way more fun to talk about ourselves than the what we are suppose to talk about.  Students LOVE any and every opportunity to run the show and talk about whatever they want.  With that in mind, at the end of each week, we end class [say, the last 5 minutes] by sharing our weekend plans.  I take volunteers or victims if no one volunteers and give participation points for sharing their weekend plans in the target language.  Little do the students know, they are practicing a structure they learned in level 1, but often mess up when they haven’t used it in awhile [ir + a + the infinitive].  Guess what else… They learn so much self-selective vocabulary related to their lives that they are able to use in other contexts–like essay and speaking tests.  AND, incidentally. they pick up words from each other instead of from me, the guide on the side [stole that one from Patrick Briggs].  Oh and they are not allowed to repeat, meaning they must give details and elaboration to demonstrate how their brief story is unique.

Fast forward to Monday [or Tuesday or whenever the school week begins] and we talk about what we did over the weekend.  We take about 5 minutes [occasionally longer if I notice in first period that my activities aren’t going to take as long as I anticipated] and the same rules apply.  Students practice preterit and imperfect every single week while having an opportunity to do what they want [talk about themselves].  This activity, entitled “Qué hiciste?” was adapted from what the former Srta. Wall across the hall did each Monday in her Spanish 2/2H classes.

I sometimes mix both activities up by having them share with a partner and then take volunteers to share what they heard their partner say.  While a bit tougher, it’s good for them to have to think about what the person said [in first person] and make it make sense for retelling [in 3rd person] in the target language.

Day 2… What do you do?

Well, I used to do all the policies and procedures on day 2, but this year I decided to push that to day 3 and instead spend more time using the language (reviewing or recalling previous knowledge) without the students even realizing that’s what we are doing.  I also want to continue to draw them in with fun since the majority of my classes are an optional course (though most of the students at my school take level 3, they don’t have to to graduate).

We began with our Tapa and then moved on to our snowball fight!  Students receive a small piece of paper and are instructed to write down a random fact about themselves in the target language.  They do NOT write their names on the paper.  We then crumple it up and literally have a “snowball” fight with the paper.  At my school, we have some new collaboration spaces so we invaded one of those for our fight.  At the end of the fight, everyone grabs a paper and we return to class, taking turns reading the slip we have and guessing who wrote it.  After the person is guessed (or has to tell us because we were sooooo wrong) they then introduce themselves and share a little bit more info in the target language before reading the paper they have.  Some students end up with their own paper, so I set it up to where they don’t tell us and pretend they are reading someone else’s.  I participate too and yesterday ended up with my paper in 3 class periods.

This activity can be tweaked to adjust to different topics in any language.  One of my favorite ways to use it is with if-clauses.  I have the students write one half of the if-clause, have the fight, then when they read the slip they ended up with, they must complete the sentence.  It’s tricky but more fun than completing a worksheet I’d create :).

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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