Taking Back Sunday

I’m convinced that the band “Taking Back Sunday” was talking to a group of ragtag, tired teachers when coming up with their name. In the throes of DEVOLSON, it’s entirely plausible.

Taking Back Sunday is the mindset I adopted exactly five years ago today (thanks, Facebook “On This Day” feature!): to reclaim Sunday, which, at the time, was THE most stressful day for me professionally, no question. Sundays were for grading, planning, and panicking, period. Around, hmmm, 11am or so (right, teachers?), I started to feel and think, “Ohhh no, there goes the day… Monday’s coming…” and the panic would set in. ELEVEN. ELEVEN IN THE MORNING. What? Alas. I would get on my computer and start working, for pretty much the entire day thus taking time away from my family, hobbies, and sanity. On a micro level, my Sundays really stunk. On a macro level, that means I was teaching all week, then attending football games or the like Friday evening, getting Saturday to rest and recharge, only to work all day Sunday, miserably, while others went to church, hiked at the park, brunched, hung out with friends, relaxed, the list of fun Sunday activities goes on (again, thanks, Facebook, grumble grumble…).

One fateful Sunday, 4 DEC 2011, I happened to check my work e-mail (red sirens should be going off right now with a deep science laboratory voice, “Do NOT CHECK E-MAIL ON A SUNDAY, I REPEAT, DO NOT CHECK E-MAIL ON A SUNDAY.”). The e-mail at the top of my inbox was from my administrator, and it said that we needed to meet immediately to discuss a very, very serious issue.


As if the holy-crap-what-are-we-doing-tomorrow-in-class panic wasn’t enough, I then had holy-crap-am-I-getting-fired?! panic, too, having *zero* idea what this e-mail was in reference to. Long story short, it was nothing. Absolutely, ridiculously nothing. If I went into what had actually happened, you may not believe it anyway. The point is, if I read that e-mail on a Sunday today (impossible, since I no longer check it on the weekends), it wouldn’t faze me a bit, thanks to experience, maturity, and a grip on how well I’m doing my job. But at that moment, that school year, it was a fracture in my own personal feeling of competence.

Furthermore, I had just changed schools/districts/states, and one of the things I was lauded for the most was my communication with parents, both in quality and quantity. I really didn’t want to screw that up since it was a big part of how well I saw myself doing my job. Therefore, I felt I needed to be checking e-mail and such all the time, right?

As I typed this, I turned to my husband and asked, “Do you remember when I used to check work e-mail on Sunday and then work all day? Thoughts?” His response: “I don’t know, it made me feel like we didn’t have a weekend together, you know, and you seemed depressed and overwhelmed. I felt bad for you. You didn’t have any time for yourself.” Ouch. Sound familiar?

So, on Taking Back Sunday’s first studio album, here are the 5 top-hit tracks, i.e. what I personally changed:

Every Other Saturday: Every other Saturday, I go in for 3-4 hours and plan and copy for two full weeks, at the very least on a macro level. The micro stuff can come later, specific slides, games, materials, etc. as you adjust for your classes, assess, and so on. But the skeleton and then some is there, period. Talk about mental relief!

Can’t Check This: E-mail on Saturday and Sunday? Off limits! Heck, make that 5pm-7am on weekdays, too, DON’T DO IT. We aren’t missing anything. If something major happened, we’ll get it Monday morning or someone will text/call you, period. Don’t let FOMO bleed into your professional life and worry you into uncertainty. Do. Not. Check. It. And, to be honest, I deleted the work e-mail app off my phone entirely so that I wouldn’t be tempted.

The same goes for Remind.com messages with students, or other correspondence. My students know that if I do not respond to a message they’ve sent asking about something, I will get to it eventually. Sometimes I respond immediately, and sometimes I don’t – but I do not accept snark from them if it’s the latter, period, and I let them know it. It can be tough to not set an unsustainable precedent, but we must be unwavering in actively choosing when to respond and not, for our own personal sanity.

Shift Or Get Off The Pot: Decide if you want to change how you feel, and then shift your mindset. We can’t say we want something to be different if we don’t want to change our approach and how we look at said something. There are plenty of jobs that get paid to be on-call 24/7; teaching is not one of them. It just isn’t. The e-mails can wait, the grading and planning can wait (to a degree), and I didn’t really, REALLY agree with this until I shifted the paradigm that told me if I didn’t do X, Y, and Z, I was an incompetent teacher. That isn’t true, but in my head it was, and it defined whether or not I was giving 100% or not – an impossible personal standard that frequently left me feeling inadequate. Stakeholders deserve teachers with charged batteries, and we deserve that for ourselves, too.

Work S15196101_10106299578585860_972026530733998983_omarter, Not Harder: As I’ve said before, each lesson/day/minute/nanosecond doesn’t have to be flashy and brand-spanking-new every time, it just plain doesn’t. And I love flashy, but I have to get over that sometimes. In fact, students benefit from repetition, we know this – be it the content or the structure of an activity with the content shifted, it doesn’t matter. So, in doing said planning, I started to re-use activities in ways I hadn’t before, because I felt they had to be different every time to be valuable and exciting. Furthermore, to that point, I began using student products to plan forward, for example: last Thursday we created dream and nightmare date scenarios using “have to” and “want”. I didn’t grade them, they were a formative assessment to see how we were doing. I then hung them up in the classroom with pushpins, and Friday, students pulled them down and we rotated them through class reflecting on each (who/what/when/where), 1 min. apiece. Poof, done – I didn’t have to create any materials because THEY already did, and they were compelling because students themselves make amusing and creative materials for each other. Furthermore, it was a thing I could take up, scan, reflect on, hang up, and not have to worry about grading – it doesn’t merit grading, and it’s important to decide what does and doesn’t. (Plus, now it’s an easy, quick display. Win!)

Gettin’ Picky With It:
So having said that, revisiting formative and summative assessments around this time was also huge for me. (What can I say, 2011-12 was a reflective school year, ha!) We do not have to grade every single thing we collect, period. Nor should we. Feedback comes in many forms, and students value it most when it’s genuine, in any form, which doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a number or letter there. Be it comment, sticker, stamp, whatever, students seek validation for their hard work OR a push if it wasn’t their best (and they know it). Last week I collected those dream and nightmare dates, knowing they were formative and most would go directly into student file folders after I looked at them. I therefore made sure to nonchalantly, but publicly, comment on a couple that particularly tickled me to the creators themselves, for content, language use, or both. Students smiled, the comments were genuine, and I made sure others heard, too, to affirm that I look at everything they turn in (even if it doesn’t get a grade) and that it matters, just like they do, and our jobs do. Shifting to proficiency-based teaching helped with this enormously, and therefore relieved my to-do list, especially on Sundays. It all works hand-in-hand. We get more choosy with what we assess and therefore the quality increases and we can be more intentional with our time.

Teachers, by nature, are typically a generous bunch — but we need to keep ourselves in check, from time to time, that we aren’t being overly generous and giving too much of ourselves away. If you’re in the same boat I was (and I still have to keep myself in check!), I hope these tips help you in Taking Back Sunday. If you have more, please share them in the comments! Happy Sunday! 😊

Perfect is Boring

Perfect is boring.  No one likes the person who is perfect, or thinks he’s perfect, or strives always to be perfect.  It’s exhausting and thankless work to be perfect, and honestly, it is really annoying to the rest of us.  Because at the end of the day, none of us is perfect and in that imperfection, and our daily quest to find our best self, lies the richness of life.

This shift in mindset was hard for me. I am your classic over-achieving, type A, obsessive must make all changes now and they must be the best, new, engaging proficiency-based lessons possible with no downtime during transitions and using all the 12 items on my TEAM evaluation form in every class in 47 minutes every day while maintaining 90/10 language input and having students show progress every day with a perfectly formed response , beautifully pronounced, which attempts to use complex structures, varied time frames and rich vocabulary appropriate to the topic.  WHAT????!!!!!! I was killing myself and my students, as well as our love of learning. We had lost sight of the real reason we were all signed up for this class.  We wanted to speak–let’s face it, that’s the main reason we take a foreign language and the reason we pick the one we pick.  But we, myself included, had gotten so bogged down in the details that we had forgotten why we were there in the first place.  And then I had an epiphany:  Perfect is boring.

The “perfect is boring” mantra has become part of our daily target in my classes.  As we shift our focus to be more proficiency based, the need for “perfection”, in the form of the perfect grammar answer aligned to the most minute grammar detail, ceases to be the ultimate goal.  Communication, real communication, especially in a language new to us, is messy and scary and full of pitfalls.  But the satisfaction that comes when we have communicated our ideas and opinions to others, and they understood us, is unparalleled.

We all struggle to push our students to move forward on the path to proficiency while also keeping their self-consciousness (or affective filter for all you Krashen lovers) from impeding their growth.  I want my students to speak French.  Period.  Full stop.  All the other things (like the grammar, and pronunciation and proper register and rich, varied vocabulary) are the icing on the cake. Yes, that pronunciation was wrong.  Yes, that was more franglais, than français.  Yes, the verb was left in the infinitive.  And yes, I need to correct all that.   And yes, I will correct all that.  But never at the expense of their joy and excitement.  I want them to speak French, with all their messy, ugly imperfection.

How many times do we make mistakes in our native language?  How many times do we forget which word we want to use and have to use circumlocution?  How many times do we mesh two words together because our mouths can’t keep up with our brains?  How many times do we start a sentence and have to stop and reform the idea and how we want to express it?  If our mother tongue is this much trouble, then why are we shocked when a target language poses the same pitfalls?  Perfect is boring.  And unrealistic.

So I tell myself and my students every day:  perfect is boring.  Perfect doesn’t show me our struggles, our perseverance, our hard work, our self-motivation, and determination.  Perfect doesn’t give us that feeling of accomplishment when we know we’ve done something we’ve never done before—we’ve just expressed our own ideas and opinions about a specific topic in another language!

Living the mantra “perfect is boring” isn’t always easy.   If your students are like mine, they want to script it all out and know every word and have the whole 47-min class planned down to the last “t” so as not to make one mistake.  But who plans life?  And who plans conversation?  So, every day, we remind ourselves– perfect is boring.  If we were perfect speakers already, we wouldn’t be in this class.  And then we’d really be missing all the fun!  The growing and evolving, from novice to intermediate to advanced, laughing at our mistakes, learning to enjoy the process, IS the fun.  Realizing that if we let go of perfection and just do it, we achieve so much more.  And really, the imperfect class sounds so much more fun and rewarding to teach.  Perfect is boring.

High Tide, Low Tide: The Ebb and Flow of Professional Development

actfl#ACTFL16 was, again, an exciting, worthwhile experience for me. I find it incredibly energizing to be in setting after setting with like-minded language educators, be it a session, a meal, or a champagne toast, with dear friends or new acquaintances. It is important to sustain the energy that a convention activates and to reflect on what you would change if you left feeling like you missed something (confession: been there!).

As our careers transition and evolve, so does how we consider professional development – we begin to need it in different quantities and qualities, and this really resonated with me this year at ACTFL. Professional development happens in waves, and like any good tide, the timing is purposeful and exact, and we must be expecting it. If not, we’ll either drown unexpectedly or obsess over the lack thereof. We must realize that developing in our profession does not mean that the figurative water is always at the same level – it adjusts and therefore we must adjust according to what we need to receive.

Don’t drown: If you left with a lot of ideas and new considerations, that is wonderful! Give them a few days, especially over break, to float around in your brain a little bit. Naturally, your more substantial favorites will float to the top as the rest sink a bit, and that’s OK. They’re at the top or the bottom for a reason. The key is to realize, “Whoa, I have a ton of ideas,” and to reflect and prioritize. If I personally don’t do that, I leave with a whole bunch of ideas, and then suddenly feel inundated and subsequently paralyzed. Read: Weeks go by and I don’t use any of them, which is frustrating.

When I started to consciously prioritize and categorize is when I started to make sense of all the input I was receiving. I began to separate them into categories: management, games, one-time project platforms, daily routine additions/modifications, and so on. That way, it didn’t feel like all the new ideas were 1. Conflicting with what I was already doing, which gets messy, and 2. Equally important (they aren’t). Decide what’s immediate, what’s long-term, and maybe what’s next year. Furthermore, remember that collaborating with colleagues isn’t always about changing our practices; sometimes it’s about deciding what we stop doing altogether, so don’t forget to categorize paradigm shifts, as well.

The important thing in all of it is not to drown in all of the ideas – doggy paddle, then set your sights on manageable, nearby buoys to swim toward. After that, it’s one stroke at a time, no more, no less.

 Don’t dry up: The other side of professional development that is harder to talk about is drought. It can seem like everyone else is swimming in ideas, splashing around in collaboration, and you’re sitting in the Sahara. (Note: remember to temper how much you internalize someone else’s highlight reel) The deep, dark secret no one will tell you is how aggravating that can be after a national convention that can cost a significant amount of money, time, and effort. Before you think to yourself, “Well, that was a bust, not going to that again,” (been there!) first acknowledge your expectations and examine your needs. What was your intention when you decided to attend? What were you hoping to learn that would help you immediately? Long term? If you didn’t get out of ACTFL what you intended, why? Subconscious expectations can be one of life’s biggest frustrations, and if we venture into professional development (again, $$$! Time!) we must consider what we’re looking to get out of it and how we’ll know. Confession: I can think of one regional and one national convention in the last five years that I left in tears because it wasn’t what I expected it to be and I felt I had missed out and therefore wasted my time and my own money. I had to take a long, hard look at what those expectations were, exactly, and where my own communication broke down within myself. What seemed like a depressing drought was actually just me trying to water the wrong plants.

I learned that the other thing that people don’t tell you, necessarily, is that our expectation and need for professional development will evolve over time, that is to be expected. I don’t sit in the same sessions I would have nine years ago, or five, or three, really. I don’t look for them in the program, and I don’t talk about them with friends/colleagues. Similarly, the ideas and presenters I gravitate toward now wouldn’t have served me in the same way nine, five, or three years ago. I wasn’t ready to receive their messages because that isn’t where the evolution of my teaching was. Until I learned that about myself and reflected, I felt the drought and thought it was my fault. Rather, I should’ve thought about how far my teaching had come, and that it was time for me to step up my professional development game, not be sad that I wasn’t getting ideas or inspiration as tangibly as I used to.

At this point in my career, I’m realizing that truth be told, regional and national conventions are more meaningful to me when I focus on the personal connections and attending sessions that develop what I’m already doing, not sparkly, brand-spanking-new ideas, all day every day. That isn’t sustainable because then we can drown – and later on, if that’s still our expectation, we dry up. Rather, I look at whether the tide is in or out for me, that is to say, if I’m going into an event looking to really shake things up or get more info on ____ and ____. That awareness has changed my perception of what it means to leave a convention like ACTFL and consider it a success or failure. Professional development, real professional development, is much more multifaceted than that, and we must take that into consideration before deciding if it was worthwhile, if we’ll go again in the future, etc.

Similarly, I attend more niche events to focus on developing aspects of my teaching that I already have in place (proficiency-based assessment, long-term world language program goals, developing other teachers, collaborating on all of the aforementioned). When I prioritize the way I spend my time and money on self-chosen professional development, then I can be more intentional about what I expect and what I take away (or don’t).

The ebb and flow of our goals, careers, and professional development is a natural process – we therefore must learn to read the tide and know what to expect. After that, we can just enjoy it – come on in, the water’s fine!


Continuing Your Conference Path

Going to a conference, especially one as large as this year’s ACTFL Convention with over 8,500 attendees, can be incredibly invigorating. Meeting so many teachers who seem to understand just how you think, who understand your struggles, and who are trying to figure how to make this “proficiency thing” happen with their students. But even if you went in with a carefully designed conference plan, after three days of attending workshops and sessions there will come a point at which you get to information overload and you might end up feeling like this:


How can you continue on your conference path so that your new ideas don’t become forgotten plans? Last summer, I ran across a wonderful blog post by Pernille Ripp that outlines some steps for implementing change at the beginning of the school year. Since going to a conference, especially one so close to the holidays and the change of the semester is almost like getting a second new beginning of the school year, I thought it would be worthwhile to explore some of Pernille’s advice  in the context of the post-conference information overload. However, before thinking about new ideas and how to implement them, what might be a worthwhile reflection and perhaps an even more difficult task is figuring out what you can STOP doing. It’s no secret that in education, we like to keep adding to the plates of teachers often without ever taking anything away. After being inspired by so many presentations, it’s easy to want to do this and do that and of course also this and that. Before you can think about the new ideas, think about what you can take away based on all the learning at the convention. Can you identify one or two things that you will no longer do? Once you have done that and written it down, come back and use Pernille’s great plan to think about all the new ideas and how you can implement them.

Do things now

Sure, you can’t rewrite your entire curriculum now and change all of your assessments tomorrow and develop a new grading outline, but what is something that you can do NOW before the calendar year ends that will help you get moving on your changes? It could be something really small, but it will get you started.

Plan for the change

It doesn’t matter if you are a list person or not, don’t leave your ideas just in your head. Using a template such as the TELL Project’s EPIC Growth Plan allows you to outline how you meet your goals. My favorite part of this process is identifying success measures. It’s one thing to identify a goal and plan for it, it’s another to know before you start what it will look like when you get there. Sure, you won’t know exactly what it looks like, but thinking about the type of evidence you’ll have at the end of any change process will help you get there much faster and the best part you’ll know when you have done it.

Change your environment

Can’t say it any better that Pernille did: “We get stuck in the same routines because our environment doesn’t change.  When we work in a space that looks like it did the year before it feels as if our brain pulls us back in the previous year’s mindset.  So if you want to change things, move some furniture around, change the layout, make a physical change to inspire a curriculum change.” Just do it!


Let’s be honest. Most of us don’t like to throw things out. As teachers, we don’t have much stuff and we get attached to our stuff. However, if you have stuff in your classroom that you haven’t used in four years; if you have stuff in your classroom that isn’t even yours, but still there from the previous teacher; if you have stuff that you know deep down you will never use again, this is a great time to purge.  You’ll be amazed how something so small will help you focus on your new goals.

Tell someone else

Of course, one of my favorite ways to reflect on conference learning is blogging. Several teachers have already started to share their post-convention reflections. It’s not only empowering to see how others process their professional learning but often I get to continue my own learning. So many of us ended up going to the same sessions, but we all heard different things and reading others reflections, allows me to continue my learning because each of us caught something different. This is my chance to see all the things that I missed. Please share your post-ACTFL blog posts in the comments and I’ll update this list:

Telling someone else, of course, doesn’t have to be blogging. Simply find an accountability partner in your school or in your professional circle(s). Someone that you trust will check in with you in a couple of weeks or a couple of months. Someone that cares about your and your professional growth.

Start small

We have the tendency in education to go for wholesale change and after seeing others present at the convention, you might also have a feeling of I’m doing it all wrong! First of all, you don’t. Second, the presenters aren’t doing it all either. So, don’t think you need to change everything. It’s easy to get caught up and wanting to do it all and doing it all right, right away. Don’t fall into that trap, but rather identify no more than two measurable small changes that you can implement for a pre-determined amount of time. If you’ve identified your success measures above, you’ll be able to add and work on additional things once you have completed the first ones. Start small, just like our students’ language proficiency, success builds on success and you’re more likely to be successful if you limit your goals.

So what are you waiting for? Take advantage of that conference boost you got at ACTFL and continue your path. I can’t wait to hear about it!

Beyond Meaning Making – Establishing Language Ownership (Part 1)

As our field grapples with the difference between performance and proficiency, translation and meaning making, fluency and errors, grammar and functional language use, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own language learning experiences. Born and raised in Germany, I was fortunate to be exposed a second language in elementary school by learning Russian starting in 5th grade. It probably was everything we would label a traditional language class, but when I had the chance to go to Russia at the age of 14, about three and a half years into my Russian studies, I jumped on the opportunity and was indeed able to use some of my fairly novice Russian to communicate with my peers in then Leningrad. My second second-language learning experience was English and began in 7th grade. Once again, it was a fairly traditional experience: we following the book (“English for you”), watch the matching video series on TV, and spend most of our time trying to convince our teacher to let us leave class early so that we could beat the line at the newly opened soft-serve ice cream stand close to the school. Remarkably, it worked rather frequently, but of course, I learned very, very little English. Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself as an exchange student living in Southern Kentucky, attending an American high school and learning English all over again. Of course this time it stuck. While I wish that all of our students could have the experience of living and learning abroad, I also know that’s not realistic, but I did want to share a few language learning experiences that might provide some insight into what language teachers are trying to do every day.

As a non-native speaker of English, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t run across a word that I haven’t heard before. I pretty much get used to it and know how to deal with it. But what’s more fascinating is the breath of the vocabulary and language functions that I use in my own speech, both in my personal as well as my professional life. I’ve been trying to pay extra close attention to the frequency of words that I use (we all have our favorite words) as well as how I first encountered the word. Here are three stories of three words that I found incredibly interesting once I noticed them.

One of my favorite English words: is delicious. You could say I find that word delicious. I love hearing other people use it and I just love the way it sounds. To my ears, the sound of the word matches the meaning so perfectly. Every time I use it though, and I use it a lot, I also have an emotional connection to the word that is based on how I first encountered the word. During my first year in the United States, remember I was novice English learner exchange student, I frequently found myself spending time hanging out with a then 3-year-old little girl that was the daughter of a family friend of my host family. Delicious was her favorite word and given the natural food limitations and preferences that young children will express, that word came up a lot and meant a lot to that little girl. The level of excitement, when used the word and tried to express the meaning of the word to its fullest, is something I’ll never forget. I developed an emotional connection that has aided my ownership of the word.

My second story is this word: supposed to. Of course in Kentucky, that gets contracted quite a bit until it sounds more like “sposedtwo”. Being a young teenager in a high school setting there were a lot of things I was “sposedtwo” do. From teachers, host parents and siblings, I heard the expression so frequently, that I remember one day finally asking my host mother what the word meant because I didn’t really understand it. I can still remember sitting on the front porch with her trying to explain to me not only the literal meaning of the word but providing examples for the many possible uses. I developed an intellectual connection to the word that has aided my ownership to this day.

The final word to share is delectable. It’s a rather random word and I could use hundreds of others, but it came up in a conversation recently that made me stop and think. Sure, I know what the word means. I know what it means in English. I know what it means in German. However, I can honestly say I have never used that word in a conversation, written the word or used it any way. I don’t recall when I discovered the word or its meaning, but I have neither an emotional nor an intellectual connection to the word that could aid me in my ownership of the word.

I’m sure, we all have these stories of emotional and intellectual connections to words in both our native and second or third languages, and language teachers have the incredible opportunity to be part of these stories for their learners. When new language, be it vocabulary, language chunks or functions, is treated just as language, and language learning experiences are limited to establishing meaning, learners don’t have the opportunity to build true ownership in the language and will forever be left trying to match meaning in the first and new language. They may know what a particular word means. They may even be able to use it successfully within the context of the language learning classroom or on an assessment. However, if you have ever uttered the words: “these level 3 kids don’t even know what ___ means”, then you also know that you are working with learners that did not develop ownership in the language and likely will never be able to use is outside and beyond their time in the classroom.

Of course, there are many more factors that impact ownership, but it’s pretty clear to me that providing emotional or intellectual connections to learners will help them become owners and most importantly users of language. It’s been well over 20 years since my first interactions with “delicious” and “supposed to” and I use them both frequently without ever even thinking about the meaning of the words. I have developed ownership of the words and they are just as much a part of me as ……. How do you provide opportunities for your students to develop emotional or intellectual connections so that they may build ownership in new language?

What I Wish I Knew as a New Teacher

When I was observed as a new teacher by administrators and other people, they noted that I had a good rapport with the students, that I knew my content, that I stayed in the target language a good portion of the time, but that I needed to work on my classroom management. Our post-observation conference would go something like this:

Them: You just need to work on your classroom management.

Me: How do I do that?

Them: Oh, you’ll figure that out.

Me: ???

Fast forward several years, moves and schools later, and I’m a department leader and a school mentor who has not only interviewed new teachers in my own department, but I’m also mentoring a good friend, who decided to become a Spanish teacher in Brooklyn. I have plenty to learn myself, but what do I say to new teachers when they ask me about how they can improve their classroom management? Or what about developing rapport with their students? Or how can they adjust their lesson plan to help students without sacrificing the lesson pacing?

Here are four things I’ve learned over the years that I wish I’d known during my first year of teaching.

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  • Ask. Ask how someone more experienced handles a particular situation in order to help you manage your classroom. Soon, you’ll have a tackle box of ways to help you manage your class. Ask about workshops and conferences that you could attend in order to in order to see how the theory you’ve learned can be applied in the classroom you’re now in charge of, then ask those presenters and practitioners questions about how they arrived at their process because quite often it’s been a process from when they started to what they presented. I often  say, “It’s a whole lot different being in front of the desks than in them.”
  • Experiment. The reason you were hired is because you have an energy and a willingness to try something new, so remember to experiment in your classroom even when the going gets tough. Even when others in your department say “We’ve never done it that way; this is the way you should do it,” keep experimenting based on the needs of your students and what you know will help your students according to what you’ve learned about proficiency-based instruction. If something doesn’t work, then tweak it or toss it. Since new teachers are often given one or two levels to teach at most, there’s time during the school day to tweak the delivery or pacing often before tossing an entire activity, so that’s a benefit. Plus the results from your class might convince others in your department to try something different and reinvigorate their teaching. If the focus is truly on the students and their learning, then the methods won’t matter as much as the students’ results.
  • Roll with the punches. There will be days when you need to set aside the lesson plan and let your students know they are in a safe space to process what is going on in their world. I had a wise teacher in high school say that she does not distinguish after graduation as being “the real world” because what we’re experiencing as students is “the real world” because it is real to us. Sometimes our students’ fears of their home situation or that final exam may impede their concentration in our class, and they just need an adult who cares for them and will listen to them for a few minutes in order to get that weight off their shoulders. Sometimes it’s taking an entire class period to remember a beloved former teacher who passed away unexpectedly and setting up an impromptu tribute on your door because he used to teach in your classroom. Sometimes rolling with the punches involves letting your students process their emotions after a hotly contested election and how they feel about the future of their nation–whether their preferred candidate won or lost. However you roll with the punches, it is important for your students to feel loved and safe in your class because your class period may be the only time they have anyone in their life who tells them they’re doing a good job, or who may be a positive role model of their same ethnicity or gender. Your class period may be the only time during the day where they feel like themselves because you allow them the time and space during your lesson, but also the trust that they can approach you with a question about the topic or about something else.
  • You have more impact than you know. There may be times when students flat-out disobey you, challenge your authority, fight in your classroom, tear up an assignment, leave class without your permission, threaten to sue you for harassment, draw X-rated graffiti of you on the wall outside your classroom, slander you, or even call into question your sexual identity in front of the entire class. And those are just a few of the things that have happened to me in my teaching career. But those instances don’t define me. When those things happen, I have to remember the “power of the pause,” as my friend Meredith White (and fellow Path 2 Proficiency blogger) says and remember that the impact of my being a teacher is more than teaching my students merely how to say some words in another language, but rather to engage with someone different. I love those moments when I have students come in the next morning and say they helped some Spanish-speaking customers at their job the night before. The feeling of hearing a student tell you he wants to transfer out of your class then later in the semester tell you he wants to minor in Spanish is indescribable. Nor can I describe the feeling when I have students say they want to go on a study abroad program so they can travel and engage with Spanish-speakers; they are so proud of how they communicated–and that the other person didn’t need to slow down for them!


I don’t know that I’ve ever met a teacher who wasn’t a perfectionist or total enthusiast for their topic, so we want to make sure that we have all of our ducks in a row for our classes, and we take it so personally when we have students in our classes who don’t share our same gut-wrenching passion for language learning. The truth is, no matter how many years we have under our belt, there’s always something new to learn, so there’s always someplace to grow. Let’s not lose sight, though, of the fact that as we improve in our craft of teaching year after year, our students are kids, and they want to know that we care about them as individuals.

So, don’t be afraid to experiment with something different as you roll with the punches or ask your colleagues how they did something because that’s how we all learn and collaborate. The impact will be greater–so much greater–when we do.

Comparison: Challenging Tool or Thief of Joy?

Have you ever had someone say something so startling that, in an instant, their words seem to smack you in the face with a reality check? I recently had one of those moments: an abrupt and much-needed a-ha! moment, that reminded me to be my best teacher self, I need to give myself grace and keep it all in perspective.

My former student, Teresa, was on a break from Georgetown University and we arranged for her to visit my classroom to catch up before she headed back to DC. She met my current students, and during my planning period afterward we chatted. At one point she asked, “So, how are things going? Are you liking your new school?” (I’ve recently moved.)  I said, “Yes, definitely, but I have really got to get it together, I’m a little behind,” and gestured toward my computer and planner. Teresa smiled wryly and without missing a beat asked, “Like, actually behind? Or behind for you?” In that moment, I felt a pang of relief and a surge of reflection, as if her words had come out of her mouth, grabbed my shoulders, and shaken me. WOW. Teresa, knowing my love for teaching and desire to serve my students well, to teach them to the best of my ability, to give 100% each day in curating and executing engaging, relevant lessons, had hit the nail on the head. Was I actually behind? Nope. Sure, I could’ve been planned even further ahead, I suppose, but was there anything dire that I was neglecting and therefore my students’ education was suffering? Absolutely not. A few seconds passed, I blinked, and repeated her words, adding, “Wow…” after. She had a knowing smile and cocked her head to the side as if to say, “Told you so.” I haven’t taught Teresa in a few years, and yet she in that moment read me like a book and was able to communicate, “Calm down, lady, and give yourself a break,” which I didn’t know that I needed to hear, but I did. When someone else sees what’s really going on, beyond your own insecurities, it’s really startling.

That became a turning point for me, and a now-often reflection in my mind when I feel inadequate or overwhelmed, i.e. often. I read others’ blogs and see their great ideas on Twitter and at conferences, and I forget to, as my county supervisor Jon V. tells his teachers, give myself grace. Those are the times, like the aforementioned professional development arenas, for people to intentionally push play on their highlight reel, because that’s the point. BUT, we must be mindful to NOT assume that is their day-to-day. The highlight reel does not necessarily highlight real, nor should it. We all share the best parts of ourselves because they’ve been effective, and we work to make our bad good and our good better.

It’s a slippery slope to seeing a few great ideas come from a dynamic colleague and suddenly feel terrible – all we can think about is s/he doesn’t have that darn fifth period that is too noisy, or a recent failed project with technology, or snarky student comments/feedback. Truth: yes, s/he does. Truth: we all do. Truth: the deep, dark secret of teaching toward proficiency is that the absolute worst day using proficiency-based teaching STILL knocks the socks off of any strictly grammar-, text- or grade-based teaching. Yep, I said it. Give yourself grace; to experiment, to try, to brag, to vent, to love your students, to teach joyfully, and to teach toward proficiency the best way that YOU can.

Confession: proficiency-based teaching can be a LOT to take on. For me, it can sometimes be tiring to continue upping the engagement ante — please know that it’s absolutely worth it, while keeping it in perspective. For me, though I am an energetic teacher a person, I’m still exactly that, a human person, and there are days when I ‘can’t even’. THAT IS OK. It is OK if you don’t hit 90/10, or for students to do a practice sheet, or play a game for probably too long (if they’re enjoying it). Because I’ve ventured into student blogs this year (idea credit: Paul Jennemann!), we make Mondays blog/folder/catch-up days. I reserve the computer lab far in advance, and there’s a blog post sample on my sample blog (for students). They access our class homepage calendar, click the links, and rock and roll, independently. This is my chance to file any new papers to their portfolio folders, double-check zeroes and tell my students their goal for the week; we check in w/ each other. It’s also their chance to do their blog, and the weekly EdPuzzle.com homework if we have one assigned (we usually do), as well as complete missed blog posts or other missing work. To start the week with productivity, goal-setting, and learning that is very student-centered and no teacher ‘stage’ time, has worked wonders. I no longer feel like I’m skidding into Monday, plus we’ve done some electronic performance writing, and they now have an archive of their work as we all learn in the process. Pretty cool! (If you want the link: http://prhsspanish.weebly.com)

At the end of the day, we want to teach joyfully – so, if comparing ourselves to others is inevitable, we must decide whether or not we use its powers for good or evil. Good fuels our classroom practices and makes us better; evil makes us feel lesser and question our worth. I choose the former – and ultimately I am less stressed and can focus on what’s really important: my students and their language-learning experience.

Conversation on the fly

So lots of people have asked me about this post I made on Twitter about speaking circles, and I can explain it better here than in Tweets.

I need to start by admitting that this activity was completely on the fly, unplanned, and a change from what I was going to do in this particular class.  This is my rundown of what I did and how it went, and I welcome any feedback of how it could be improved. To set the scene, this was Friday of a 3-day weekend, the day of the Homecoming game AND the last period before the Pep Rally…let’s go TEACHING & LEARNING! My class is Spanish IV, not honors-AP track, full of exclusively juniors and seniors.  Most of them are athletes or band people, so they were going to be in the pep rally in 40 minutes and they were hyped up! They rolled into my class loud, excited, covered in blue and white everything (t-shirts, pom poms, beads, etc) and I decided “OK, new plan!”

fullsizerender-1I had them set up their 16 desks in a circle, and I pulled a desk in as well.  I made a sign on a piece of paper that said “No Ingles” and counted off the kids in Spanish “Ok, you captain team 1, and 2,3,4, team 1. You captain team 2, and 2,3,4 team 2. You captain team 3, and 2,3,4 team 3. You captain team 4, and 2,3,4 team 4.” and I divided the class into teams around the circle that they had made just by where they happened to sit. This was not grouping by any category or reason at all.  I striped off a grid on the back of the “No Ingles” sign and wrote the names of the captain and remaining students in each square of the grid.  Please know that this was as far as I had gotten in my plan of this activity. At the time, I didn’t even know why I had made the teams. 🙂  So, I repeated the teams and the captains, and then said in Spanish still, “We’re going to play a speaking circle game…the captain of team 1 is going to start with the speaking object….oh hold on!  I have a monster!”

fullsizerenderCan you see me jumping up and going to a cabinet and getting out a stress ball monster as the speaking object? I bought a set of 12 monsters for 12 bucks at Oriental trading company and have used them almost every day for one thing or another.  I HIGHLY recommend them for a thing to have in class. Anyway, I will give you the topic, the captain of team 1 starts the conversation, and then anyone who wants to speak and raise their hand to speak.  Each person gets 1 point for themselves and their team per time they speak, you can ask questions or make statements, but it must be relevant to the topic.  Everyone MUST SPEAK and NO INGLES!  Use of English AT ALL will lose you a point, regardless of if you have the monster or not.  I’ll keep track of points.  Ok?  Let’s go!  The topic is SPORTS!” and I tossed the ball to Team Captain 1 and he looked shocked and then started speaking.


img_8363It was amazing!  It started off slow at first, with a few pretty simple “Me gusta fútbol” type statements, but after a while, it got rolling, the kids got the hang of raising hands and tossing the monster around, and it really started to flow.  The benefit of using sports as the first topic is that it was the mini-unit we had just finished, so they were pretty confident early on with the set of questions we had created.

What was the most fun when they started trying to argue back and forth about what was the best, who was the best player in what sport, what team etc, and they started trying to really create arguments and even insults as the conversation got more spirited.  At one point there was a very heated minute or two where the discussion had been about baseball, and one of the students got the monster and said “Baseball is not a sport” and the reaction was immediate!  Six hands went up in the air, waving to contest his claim, and a great back and forth ensued.  

fullsizerender-2Language-wise, I had fun watching each of them wrestle with what they were trying to say and how to say it in the target language.  When anyone used English I just marked a -1 on the sheet, and wasn’t expecting it to be a big deal.  This was not a sophisticated method, as you can see below, but it worked at the moment.  What I hadn’t counted on was the pointing of fingers and the “NO Inglés!!!!” that was yelled at each kid by his or her peers every time anyone slipped up.  I couldn’t believe it.  It wasn’t negative, and it was very much a total group policing and no one’s feelings seemed to be hurt.  

img_8199Ten minutes went by and I figured I should change topics, so I hit the bell on my desk and said “Capitan 2: El Arte” and they groaned and said “Señora!!! DEPORTES!!!!” and I said, “NO…el arte” and we moved on to art.  That was our first mini-unit, so they had a bunch of info to have that conversation too.  They did any amazing art gallery opening speaking activity that I need to write about too, at some point.  So, armed with the info they knew already, they rolled their eyes and they just went with it.  

About 2 minutes in, the kid who said “Baseball is not a sport” got the ball and said “Sabías qué el golf es arte” and magically brought the conversation back to sports!  It took a couple of turns, but finally someone got it back to actual art and the remaining time elapsed on Art.  I had set the timer for 8 minutes at that point, so we moved on to food for 8 minutes and then finally vacations and travel for 8 minutes.  Those things weren’t anything we had studied previously, but they’ve had 4 years of Spanish, so I was banking on them having enough knowledge to be able to go with it.  I was not wrong, and we finished out the rest of the period with conversations about favorite vacation spots around the world.

I have never seen that class have so much fun in one period.  We all laughed so hard at the arguments and the acting and the random strings of conversation that went off and found their way back to the topic.  I was so happy and so proud of them!  Looking at the grid of who talked a ton and who barely talked, there was definitely a divide.  I will have to think about how to make that work a little more evenly, but in the end, everyone DID speak, and as I watched them, they were all avidly listening and following the conversation.  No one was spaced out or doing their own thing.  

We’re going to do this again, and I’m going to think about it between now and then so I can make it better.  I was thinking that maybe I’ll give point values for types of speaking to make them work a little harder at complex sentences or better questions.   Also I’m going to make a better sheet to keep track that’s not a yellow piece of paper with marker scribbles. 🙂  Anyway, I hope this helps!  Please feel free to send me any feedback, and I hope very much that you can try this with your classes.  I had a blast!  Have fun!

When Too Much is…Too Much (Stay on the Path!)

Boy did I need Alyssa Villarreal’s recent post last fall–I was great about setting goals, but they were too many and too big! I spent the school year spinning, working non-stop and on the verge of burnout.   What followed was a summer spent recovering from my near burnout crash–with no work, no PD (I’m happy to report that I am a refreshed and ready to go teacher this fall!).

Last summer I spent a few days with Laura Terrill focused on writing curriculum–she made it clear that writing curriculum for the number of levels I teach is a multi-year process.  Multi-year. Process.  Although this was clear to her, everyone else in the room, colleagues from other programs…I was swirling in excitement about creating a proficiency focused, tailor made program after teaching in a curriculum void. This was the culmination of years of processing Helena Curtain’s work, following the cutting edge teachers on #langchat, and finally working with Laura. But my capacity did not match my enthusiasm.  Once I had written a few units, I became an addict–I thought, “Well, if I write enough units for 4th-6th, why can’t I just get some new ones ready for 7th and 8th, too?  Hmm, now that I’m on a roll, let’s look at 1st-3rd.”   And what about technology integration and using TALK scores and those Spanish pen-pals…and…and…and.

It was too much. I was trying to innovate and change too much in one school year.  In the end, my students didn’t get enough of what they needed–me. A sane, present, happy me.

So before I left for the summer, I created an idea board for this year–one that I could leave and revisit when it came to time for set-up.  This board represents goals that are reasonable, and do not require lots of innovation for me–simpIy a path on which to focus.  I continue to reference it–so that I stay focused and don’t lose my way when I start back in with attending conferences and participating in #langchat—all great resources, but as a innovation addict, can become overwhelming, if I don’t check myself.

The papers are inspiration from a variety of resources including TELL, Edutopia,Martina Bex, Laura Terrill and Donna Clementi and of course, Pinterest.

What I’m focusing on (not in order of importance):

[lists style=”style6″]

  • Encouraging student independence and engagement–group work, vocabulary self-selection, ownership of language
  • Focus on Comprehensible Input and Reading
  • Proficiency Focus as the foundation-and inclusion of some more grammar instruction in middle school through PACE, and in context (more exploration of my kids’ high school transition in a future post)
  • Deep culture: Products, Practices, Perspectives–going beyond holidays
  • Art and Photography as Comprehensible Input(a la Project Zero)

While feedback, IPAs and target language use continue to be a part of my practice, these are the areas coming into focus for me this year.  I’ll report back in future blog posts–to keep me accountable–on how these look in class. I am taking in Alyssa’s advice–I will be gracious with myself, and am inspired by Colleen Hayes’s recent post on being enough.  What my students are gaining is a sane, present, happy me.


Change is Hard

I have been trying to write a post for over a month, and nothing has been working.  I’ve been struggling with writing, deleting, thinking “this sounds ridiculous”, etc, so I’ve written nothing.  Tweets don’t count, although, I’ve at least been doing that a bit.  As I’ve thought about it, I think what the problem is is that I haven’t quite gotten a grip on my brain this school year, so congratulations, we’re going to work through this together.  We’re all on the Path, right?  Please feel free to quit reading at any point…

So this year I’m at a new school, and I’ve been working really hard to get my life together in this new place.  Let me start by saying, I love it!  I am incredibly happy, but there are challenges with how I manage my time (which I’m terrible at), how to work with new people, new and different challenges with students and curriculum, and how badly I miss some of the people I no longer see on a daily basis.  It’s surprising how heartbreaking that last one is.  Don’t discount that feeling, if that’s where you are. Change is hard.  If you’re in the situation this year of being in a new place and trying to navigate all the things and feeling overwhelmed and at the point of melting down, I can only say I totally get it, and here are the two pieces of advice I can give you that have really helped me: 1) Get to know your new students ASAP 2) Do what you know you do well and add in the new stuff.  

So, what does that look like?

Since they don’t know me and I don’t know them, we spent 2 solid weeks on every communicative “get to know you” activity I could think of.  I have heard teachers say “I don’t waste time with ice breakers”, but I strongly disagree.  I think that even if you’re teaching the exact same kids you taught last year, everyone had experiences that changed them since June, and it’s worthwhile to get a gauge on where they are this year in a no stress environment.  

With that in mind, we wrote, we chatted, we played games, we drew, we made “Cajas de Mi Corazón” to show how we each have different sides to us and how no person is just 1 thing.  We talked about how it takes time and effort to get to know the different sides of a person.  I used little boxes that I ordered from Oriental Trading Co. online, but you can easily print out a paper cutout cube and do the same thing.  Anyway, I know what these kids are interested in now.  I know who is musical and who is super-sporty, who has big or small families, who is political (and how), who is religious, and who is absolutely not religious at all.  It may not seem like big deal, but those are really important things to know.

It’s important because my new school is great, but it’s different.  It’s not what I’ve grown accustomed to, the rules are different, the style is different, the people are different…the nice thing I realized after a bit of freaking out at home is: kids are kids.  They have different “stuff” they’re dealing with, but it’s all important to them and affects their lives.  What I remembered also in spending the time learning about them is  I am still the same teacher I was in my other school.  I love my kids here like I loved my kids at my last school, and it’s going to be ok.

The other part of this transition that has been freaking me out is that the expectations at this school are different.  It’s a 1-1 technology place, and a lot of things are done with iPads that I have never done.  I started the year scared that I was going to be some dinosaur of a teacher that didn’t know how to teach.  I mean, a whole week and a half of workdays and orientations and I really felt by the end of it that I didn’t know how to do my job at all.  Once I collected myself and started to think about it, I decided I was going to do what I knew I did well, and we were going to go with that and add the other stuff in as we went.  

So we started with writing on paper copies of things and creating our 9×11 interactive notebook physically in a notebook.  We made paper cards that we could manipulate and play with for learning vocabulary, and we made foldables to use for communicative activities.  We took yoga breaks in between 13 minute segments of class, played flyswatter and “Rosa Dice”, and spoke Spanish.  The things I know how to do, that I know work, were the things that have saved me from drowning in this transition to a new school.  The kids like what we’re doing in class and constantly say how much fun it is to do active, fun stuff!

The cool part is, because I know my kids now and they know me, they are super helpful at teaching me how to do the things that are natural to them with the iPads.  We created a whole monster project based on a book we read, and did the whole thing, start to finish with drafts in between, on the iPads submitting everything through Google Classroom. When they were done, we printed the final projects and backed them on pretty paper for parent’s night!  It’s actually really nice and a lot of fun playing with the tech.  We still do so much on paper, but I am also starting to learn to have them bring the iPad and the notebook as tools for each class.

So, for what it’s worth, if you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed in a new school, give yourself a break…you’re a good teacher, you’re just in a new place.  In the transition I had to admit to myself that change is hard and I was struggling mentally.  After that, I had to get to know my new kids for the cool and complicated creatures that they are, and I had to trust that what I know I do well would still work in my new situation…and it does!  I am having a blast!  Have fun, thanks for listening, and hope this helps!