Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reflections on This Past Year

In my last post, I addressed the craziness, emotional exhaustion, and everything else which comes with the end the of the school year. I referenced where I felt that I had "failed" with what I was wanting to accomplish in my classes - here are my reflections on that:

Where I fell short: teaching using a CI novella. Prior to the beginning of the school year, I was really excited about implementing CI novellas in my classes. As I was now at a new school and teaching in a Latin department which had gone "untextbook," I felt free, as I was no longer bound to a textbook. Brando Brown Canem Vult had just been released, and I had been waiting YEARS for a Latin version of this novella to come out (see here for my blog post on its release). When approaching a new reading, I knew that the name of the game was to pre-teach necessary vocabulary and structures prior to reading and not to use the reading itself to teach vocabulary. As a result, for each chapter of Brando Brown Canem Vult, I pre-taught any new vocabulary and structures so that students would already be familiar with (and hopefully have acquired) them before they began reading it (in fact, I have posted a number of those lesson plans/movie talks here on my blog). The problem, however, was that as there were ten chapters in the novella, this process began to drag on for students. As the process took much longer to go through it than I had expected, students began to tire of reading the novella and to a degree, to resent reading itself. 

Conclusion: Interestingly, this year I have heard many other Latin teachers mention the same struggles about their first time implementing Brando Brown Canem Vult. For some, the experience soured them to such a degree that they do not wish to implement CI novellas in the future. Although I can empathize with them, I do not believe that it was the novella itself which was the problem but rather our inexperience in undertaking something like this. In actuality, because no teacher's guide existed for Brando Brown Canem Vult this year (one is being released soon), we teachers who undertook this pursuit were pioneers, considering that we did not know what we were doing or what to expect.

What I wish to do differently: I still feel that novellas have tremendous value in a CI classroom, therefore, I need to change the way in which I implement them. Based on my shortcomings this year, I have a much better idea of how to do things differently next year. I will continue to pre-teach vocabulary and structures necessary to the novella, but I will not take it one chapter at a time like I did this year - that was the major flaw, because it slowed down students' reading experience. Rather, I will have students read through a novella as a whole AFTER the process. If I can get my act together, I would like to give students a choice in which novellas to read and implement reading as a FVR/SSR time.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Home Stretch

I only have less than two weeks left in this semester. I feel like I am in the home stretch; the end is in sight. I am so ready for this school year to be over. 

It has also been a month since my last post. Usually, I will try to post weekly to my blog, but to me, the end of the school year feels like an all-out, last-ditch sprint where I end up having to drag myself across the finish line. For the past few weeks, upon coming home from work, every day I have taken a short nap, because I am so tired. I feel like I have nothing left to give to my classes, because mentally and emotionally, my well has run dry. A teacher-friend of mine aptly calls it "zombie mode." In addition, these past three weeks have been so disruptive in terms of students' schedules due to state standardized assessments and AP exams. I just want a degree of normality again. I have to laugh, because what I am feeling at the moment is exactly what I experience annually at the end of the school year; in fact, i wrote a blog post about this very thing one year ago (see here).

The end of the year is also difficult, because this is the time when I reflect on the past year and see everything which I did wrong, where I fell short, and where I could have done things better. This was my first year at a new school after having been 17 years at another, so it was definitely a year of adjustment. It was also my first year of going completely "un-textbooking" and of teaching using a CI novella. Though I felt like I had a strong foundation from years of doing a hybrid CI/textbook approach, part of me completely feels like I totally failed my students this year, since I did not feel completely comfortable with this new approach. Students began to tire of reading Brando Brown Canem Vult due to my inexperience, and I felt unsure with exactly how to teach a novella. At the end of the year, it is very easy to focus on the negative when I am feeling so physically and emotionally tired of teaching.

In spite of feeling all of this, another feeling stands out: hope. Yes, although I feel like somewhat of a failure for my shortcomings as a teacher this year, I know that I have a fresh start come August. I have the opportunity to have a whole new beginning in a few months. What I did not do right this year, I can correct in the new school year. Yes, it would be easy to throw in the towel and to return to a way of teaching which is more comfortable and safe for me, but if i give up now, then I will never know if I will do better the next time. Now that I have taught a CI novella, I have a MUCH better idea of how to do it, or better yet, what not to do.

This summer, I will be attending IFLT for a second year and serving as a coach again. In addition I will be giving a presentation there and at the American Classical League Summer Institute. These two conferences will refresh my CI batteries and recharge me as a teacher just in time for the school year to begin. I usually begin pre-planning on a CI high!

I am reminded of something which Rose Williams, a retired Latin teacher but still quite a pistol, once said to me. I was telling her how when I was a first-year teacher years ago, I had no clue what I was doing, how horrible I was, how I felt like I was always just a few pages ahead of my students in the textbook, and that if I had the chance, I would apologize to them for being such a poor teacher. Rose wisely replied to me, "But in spite of that, your students still loved you anyways." Words which I always need to hear.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Know Thyself

On last week's Tea With BVP show (episode 56), Bill Van Patten had a great discussion about explicit grammar. A listener had called in asking if there were advantages in explicit grammar instruction in a language class, as he and his wife felt like they had both greatly benefited from it when they were learning Spanish; knowing endings and grammar charts considerably aided their learning experience. I really liked Bill's answer: while there are explicit learners, there are also implicit learners. There are indeed those for whom explicit grammar lessons are beneficial, but for most, explicit grammar is not effective, but rather affective. In addition, in a research experiment of two groups where one was given explicit grammar instruction but the other was not, there was no difference between the two groups in terms of performance.

Why I enjoyed the discussion so much was because I felt like the caller perfectly described me and my experience of learning language. I LOVE grammar, so for me, when learning Latin (in a grammar-translation setting), the language made perfect sense to me. Visually, I could see the charts in my head, identify the patterns, and isolate words into its various parts. In fact, in my learning of other languages, I cannot help but to see the patterns and to create a working grammar chart in my mind. Grammar just makes sense to me.

About four years ago, though, I came to this realization: the majority of my students are not like me and do not share the same passion for grammar. For my first 16 years of teaching, however, I taught as if they did (and should), and I blamed them for not being like I was. In reality, the issue did not lie in my students, but in my thinking that they should be like me and learn exactly like I do. 

I think that the problem lies at times when our classes are composed of explicit learners. As an explicit learner myself, I LOVE those kinds of classes. Unfortunately soon that becomes the norm, as only explicit learners are the ones who take my class. But essentially all I am doing is replicating myself. If we wish for our language programs to grow, we need to attract all kinds of students in the building. This syndrome is not just limited to explicit grammar instruction, as I have seen teachers who flourish as learners in "incomprehensible" (and I mean that to mean "incomprehensible to me") immersive-language environments replicate the same setting in their classrooms. Soon, unintentionally, it becomes a rather exclusive setting where only certain types of students succeed.

On today's Tea With BVP show (episode 57 - Blaine Ray was his guest!), Bill Van Patten addressed this issue, calling it a situation where we teachers are projecting ourselves onto our students (starting at 38:57 in the episode): "If all students were like language teachers, then they would be teachers of language, and they're not. We're the weirdos." When we transpose ourselves and our natural passions/strengths onto students and expect them to learn in the same manner which we do, then we are only successful in teaching students who are like us. In the episode, Blaine even says that we teachers cannot think like teachers by focusing on the textbook and where we think that learners should be by X, but rather we must think like students and focus on their needs (starting at 37:17 in the episode). Well put, Blaine.

To me, this is the key: know thyself. We need to be aware that whatever attracted us as students ourselves to language learning is not what will attract the average student to our classrooms. We as language teachers sometimes are the biggest obstacles to our own students' learning. When we can get past ourselves, then successful learning can occur.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Support the Statement

On many occasions, I have been asked about ways to assess reading comprehension, outside of the traditional "What is X doing?","Where is X?","Who is X?" because that gets very boring and predictable for students (see previous post regarding why we should assess reading comprehension in L1, instead of L2). An easy way to assess reading comprehension is to give a statement to students, and they must find the sentence(s) from the reading passage which supports that statement.

  1. Using a known-reading, create statements in English about something in the passage. The statements need to be in English so that when a student writes down an incorrect answer in the target language, then you as the teacher know that the student did not understand the target language in the reading. If the statement itself is written in the target language and the student writes down an incorrect answer in the target language, then too many questions exist as to why the student missed it: did the student not understand the target language in the reading? did the student not understand the target language in the statement? If the statement had been written in English, would the student have written down the correct answer in the target language? 
  2. Give students both the reading and the statements. 
  3. The statement should not contain the wording itself of the sentence which you are asking students to find. That makes it too easy; in addition students will look for those exact words instead of reading through the passage.  
  4. The answer to the statement needs to be obvious to students. What may seem obvious to you as the teacher is not always obvious to students. 
  5. It is okay if there are multiple sentences from the reading which support the statement. 
  1. If students are familiar with the reading, this type of assessment should not take long at all.
  2. This is a great way for students to re-read a passage with a purpose. 

Latin Example - Dragonboy (based on a Movie Talk)

Puer florem facit. Puer picturam in flore ponit (puts). In picturā sunt puella et puer. Ecce puella in castellō! Puer et puella in fabulā sunt. Puer puellam valde amat. Ecce alius puer! Puer est dux in fabulā.

Puer valde tristis est, quod putat (he thinks) puellam amāre ducem. Puella in castellō ducem non amat, quod dux molestus est. Dux puerum pulsat, quod dux molestus est.

Subito dracō apparet! In fabulā est draco! Puer est dracō in fabulā. Puella in castello fingit sē valde timēre, quod est actor! Puer fingit sē esse draconem, quod est actor! Auditorium laetum est, et plaudit. Puella laeta est - non fingit sē esse laeta!

Subito dux apparet! Puella in castellō fingit sē amāre ducem, quod est actor! Puer valde iratus est, quod dux molestus est. Dux puerum petit. Dux puerum pulsat, et puer ducem pulsat! Puella in castellō valde timet! Quid accidet (will happen)?

1) The first boy is not a real dragon but acts like one in the play.

2) The first boy thinks that the girl does not like him.

3) A fight breaks out in the play.

4) The second boy is a pest and harasses the first boy.

English example - Dragonboy
The boy is making a flower. The boy puts a picture in the flower. In the picture are a boy and a girl. Behold - a girl in a castle. The boy and the girl are in a play. The boy loves the girl very much. Behold - another boy! The boy is a leader in the play.

The boy is very sad, because he thinks that the girl loves the leader. The girl in the castle does not love the leader, because the leader is annoying. The leader hits the boy, because the leader is annoying. 

Suddenly, a dragon appears! In the play is a dragon. The boy is a dragon in the play. The girl pretends that she is very scared, because she is an actor. The boy pretends that he is a dragon, because he is an actor. The audience is happy and applauds. The girl is happy - she does not pretend that she is happy.

Suddenly, the leader appears. The girl in the castle pretends that she loves the leader, because she is an actor. The boy is very angry, because the leader is annoying. The leader heads for the boy. The leader punches the boy, and the boy punches the leader. The girl in the castle is very scared. What will happen?

1) The first boy does not like how the second boy is treating the girl.

2) The audience likes the performance of the boy.

3) The second boy is a bully and harasses the first boy in the beginning.

4) The girl is pleased with the performance of the boy and is not acting.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Three C's of Comprehensible Input

These past few months, I have given a number of CI-related presentations, and in each, I have included a brief explanation of Comprehensible Input theory. If you are remotely familiar with CI, you know that this is no easy task. Luckily, my Latin colleague Rachel Ash has come up with a quick way to give an overview of the topic: she calls it "the Three C's of Comprehensible Input." NOTE - I am assuming that Rachel is the one who devised this. By no means is she trying to oversimplify Krashen's Hypotheses on Comprehensible Input, nor do I believe that the hypotheses can be reduced solely to three words. However, I do like this explanation, because for those unfamiliar with CI, it gives a great, focused, brief, easy-to-remember synopsis. 

I do realize that for ACTFL, there are the 5 C's (Communication, Culture, Connections, Comparisons, Connections), and if you are familiar with Instructional Technology, there are the 4 C's (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking). Hopefully, you will not dismiss the Three C's of CI as just another set of acronyms.

The Three C's of Comprehensible Input - Comprehensible, Compelling, Caring
(I have taken some of this information from a presentation which Bob Patrick has given on the basics of CI and consolidated it here)
  1. Comprehensible - We acquire language subconsciously through the delivery of understandable (and of understood) messages. We only acquire that which we understand; therefore, that which has the most meaning is acquired first. In order to achieve this, we need to implement the establishment of meaning early. It is important that we as teachers constantly facilitate comprehension checks in order to determine the comprehensibility of these messages. We must focus on the message, not on grammatical forms; as a result, a grammar-based syllabus has no value in language acquisition. Progression in language acquisition occurs when messages become one step beyond a learner's language competence (i+1). Output is the natural overflow of receiving comprehensible messages.  
  2. Compelling - We want to hear and to read that which is personally interesting to us. Because a message is understandable does not necessarily mean that it is interesting. When a message becomes interesting, language becomes secondary; learners become "lost in the moment" and are no longer focusing on the language but rather on the message. Grammar is not compelling or interesting to the normal language learner. 
  3. Caring - When one's stress level (affective filter) increases, learning decreases, even if the message is comprehensible and compelling. As a result, it is important that we establish a safety net for learners, whereby they can communicate to the teacher incomprehensibility of messages and their rising stress levels. Being an external monitor (corrector of form) to learners only raises their affective filters. 
I know that these explanations do not fully encompass Krashen's Five Hypotheses, and I am certain that there are folks who will say that I have left out key components in my explanation here. I do hope that Rachel's Three C's helps some folks understand CI better, because it has certainly has helped me to explain it better.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Movie Talk - Changing Batteries

Here is a Movie Talk which Bob Patrick and I did this week in our Latin 1 classes. I have known about this particular movie short for a long time but debated on whether or not to ever use it, because it is SO SAD! However, Katya Paukova always says that the best movie shorts are those which will engage students emotionally, so I finally decided to use this one. Two of my target words were sick and doctor, and the only other movie short which I could find involving these words was one about the Berenstein Bears going to the doctor's office. For high school students, I thought that they would not like it, so I decided to hit them with an emotionally-packed Movie Talk!

This particular movie short is called Changing Batteries. Be prepared to have a few tears shed during this Movie Talk!

English script

Latin script

  1. On the day after I formally did this Movie Talk, as a warm up I re-showed the movie short and narrated it again in Latin this time without pausing. In one of the periods, an administrator came to do my formal observation, and she was very impressed, because of the fact that a) I was narrating this short movie in Latin and that students were understanding it (if she had come the day before, she would have seen an actual Movie Talk and its process) and b) the movie short was so good - she even reacted emotionally to it!
  2. Pay attention to the date July 5, 2011 in the very beginning of the movie short, because it will help explain how much time passes later on. I originally thought that this movie short took place over a few days, but my students pointed out the calendar to me while viewing this. 
  3. After viewing this, a few of my classes told me that I am never allowed to show this again to them, because it was so sad. For the record, these are the same classes which told me that I could never show Bear Story again too.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

You Are Where You Are When It Comes to CI

It is finally the end of conference season for me. In the past seven weeks, I have attended four different state/regional conferences, delivered eight presentations related to Comprehensible Input, and co-facilitated a full-day CI in-service for a world language department at a high school in my district. 

As much as I truly enjoy presenting on CI, there is a part of me at times which feels like a complete fraud when speaking on the topic. I feel like my knowledge of CI is very surfacy, i.e., if you wish to have a high-level discussion on second language acquisition (SLA), I am NOT the person with whom to talk, because I possess an intermediate level of knowledge on the topic (in my defense, though, SLA research does not interest me at all, because much of it goes over my head - is there a way someone could create some embedded readings of SLA research?). I wish I were one who could naturally wield NON-targeted comprehensible input in my classroom so that i+1 would naturally occur. I wish that I were better at implementing PQA (Personalized Questions and Answers) in a compelling and natural way, because I absolutely stink at it. I wish that I were better at making language much more compelling with CI for students, because I can tell that they are getting burned out and bored with it.   

Maybe you are like me in that whatever manner/extent you are implementing Comprehensible Input, you are not where you would like to be. Here is what I have learned in my 3 1/2 years of CI usage: When it comes to CI implementation, you are where you are with it, and that is perfectly okay. Understanding CI does not happen overnight, and learning how to facilitate it in your classroom definitely takes time. It is a constant series of taking two steps forward with CI but then taking one-two steps of retreating back into what you know and were doing before, because CI feels uncomfortable. 

The goal, however, is to continue moving forward by learning more about Comprehensible Input. Here are some suggestions:
  1. Attend a weeklong CI conference like IFLT or NTPRS. Although one can certainly definitely learn about CI through attending individual sessions at state/regional world language conferences, there is something about attending a conference which is completely devoted to CI that one cannot learn elsewhere. I remember how much my mind expanded in CI knowledge/practice from attending my first NTPRS in 2014. Being in a supportive, yet more importantly, immersive CI environment was essential to my CI growth. I point to that first NTPRS conference as where my I truly established my CI roots and grew. I will be at IFLT this summer as a coach, so I hope to see many of you there. 
  2. Find digital resources, such as blogs and social media groups. Believe me, there are A LOT out there - so many that it can seem overwhelming. If you look at the sidebar of this blog, you will find a list of blogs which I try to follow. There are a number of Facebook groups dedicated to CI, but as my life is Facebook-free, I do not know which ones are out there. On Twitter (my sole use of social media), use the hashtags #tci, #tprs, #ntprs17, or #iflt17 to find current tweets related to CI. 
  3. Find other CI teachers either in your area or online with whom you can dialogue and collaborate. Do not undergo this journey alone.
Yes, I am not at all where I would like to be in my CI implementation, but gosh, I am so much further along in both my CI understanding and facilitation than where I was three years ago. I really do feel like I possess a strong foundation of CI after these 3 1/2 years. In other words, I am exactly where I need to be when it comes to CI. This self-realization is what will allow me to grow.