Thursday, December 13, 2012

El Gran Gatsby: a trailer

My wonderful Independent Spanish Study student made this trailer for The Great Gatsby...but in Spanish. She did all of the translations herself. There was no assignment; she just decided that she wanted to do it and she up and did it!
Nice work, Alex!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

English is changing

This year, I teach Language Arts (English), Life Skills, and the Senior Seminar in addition to Spanish. This has given me an opportunity to see our students writing in English. While it is nice to be able to see a visible change in students work thanks to my efforts, I would rather not have to do this much work. That is to say, these students are not good writers, especially in terms of spelling and punctuation.
But, as a linguist, I can also respect that my students will define the future of our language and that, in the end, many of their habits will become the new norm. Here are a few of my predictions based on their writing.

1. Either periods or capitalization will disappear. Maybe both. I'm leaning towards the demise of periods, though.
2. Speaking of capitalization, "I" isn't going to stay capitalized for very long.
3. "A lot" will become one word.
4. Something drastic is going to happen with our spelling. While I completely agree that the internet and widespread access to technology (and the accompanying auto-correct tools) has standardized language, it also means that kids do not know how to spell for themselves. I see orthographic changes happening in the written informal writing of English, French and Spanish.
5. Contractions are losing their punctuation. I doubt that there will be a written difference between "its" and "it's" or that the contraction of "I am" will keep the apostrophe.
6. The use of commas is changing. I don't quite understand it fully, but I think that it is being used anywhere where there should be a break but the author isn't ready to end the idea.
7. Homophones' spelling will merge. I see "I ate there, two," and "Are you going to?" a good bit. It throws me off guard every time, but the kids read over it without pause.

What do you think, fellow English teachers? What did I miss?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Independent learning in Langauge Arts

I write this as a follow-up to my previous post about our Language Arts class and their goal to change the world through writing.

Right now, they are all working independently.  Here's what they're doing.

-One is reading The Last Child in the Woods on GoogleBooks.
-Another is looking up celebrities that were bullied.
-The animal-lovers are conducting informational interviews over the phone. (They just made a blog -- check it out!)
-A pair is writing a skit to perform for children in local hospitals.
-Several are sending out surveys to their classmates to gauge knowledge and interest.
-The designer is learning how to actually make clothes (instead of just dream about them).
-My language learner is tutoring others on LiveMocha to understand how language is acquired.
-One is making a blog about the human heart.
-Two are engaged in a hot debate about what to do next.
-My peacenik is researching Gandhi.

Man, are they focused! They don't even have instructions. I just asked them to have a specific goal for today and to come back to me in an hour to describe their progress to the class. I am one lucky duck to have kids so dedicated and interested!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why my students call me HollyAnne

Recently I visited another school's campus. This is a very wealthy private school, with incredible facilities.
Although this was not the purpose of our visit, it was a nice reminder to see how other schools work, to observe the formal relationships between the students and the teachers, to see the kids in uniform, to see how traditional private schools are structured. It was sort of a breath of fresh air that put my life on campus in perspective. 

Frankly, it made me more thankful than ever to be at my relaxed, tightly-knit school for low-income students. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I like our system better. (Well, the informal aspect of our system.) Here's why.

My students here call me HollyAnne because that is my name. My friends call me HollyAnne, my family calls me HollyAnne, my coworkers and employers call me HollyAnne. The students know me the same way that everyone else does, because I am the same person in all of these settings. I do not change my personality around the students. That would be a. a lot of work for me and b. unrealistic for them. They do not have to guess how I act during the weekends, or how I would react if I were to get extremely mad. They know the real me; there is no formal facade for them to try to break. (Not only is this less effort for me, but it also means that the students ask me fewer rude questions and spend less time trying to push my buttons.) 

My students come over to my house (I live on campus) because I live there. My friends, my family, and, on rare occasions, my employers come to my house. The students come to my house the same way everyone else does; I invite them over like I would anyone else. They have cooked in my kitchen, worn my sweatshirts on cold days, and cried into my couch cushions. Not only does this help my students understand me better, but it also shows them ways of life or traditions that are different than the ones that they experience in their own homes. In the same way that study abroad and the resulting interaction with cultures is a positive opportunity for growth, so is seeing the everyday lives of other people in their own community. 

My students are treated the same way as my family, friends, coworkers, and employers. I do not classify them according to age in the same way that I do not classify my friends by race or economic status. In my opinion, treating individuals with equal cognitive ability as lesser because of their age qualifies as age discrimination. I do not think that any sort of discrimination is appropriate in a teacher-student relationship (or any relationship, for that matter). Furthermore, by treating the students as equals, I am asserting their inherent value.

We do our students a disservice when we are distant and "adult-ish" because that promotes the idea that adults are somehow different. I've spent my entire life thinking that adults are somehow superior to younger folks, only to realize (at the age of 24 -- since apparently now I'm an adult too) that adults are just as petty, hurtful and self-centered as children are, if not more so. Why do we perpetuate this idea that adults are a different class of being? What is purpose? Have we found there to be positive results in this formalized system that exceed those of informality?

Some might argue that this informal approach doesn't give our students the chance to learn how to interact with respect and deference with their elders. Quite the contrary, I think that our students act with more respect towards their elders because they deeply understand what it is like to be an adult...because of their relationships with their teachers. Adults for them are not far-off, untouchable idols, but real human beings with emotions and needs. 

Fundamentally, our informal system supports my decision to treat students as valued, albeit less experienced, equals: it gives me the freedom to behave as myself (thus affirming my own value as an individual) and it shows the students the type of respect that I hope they will emulate in the world beyond our campus.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Changing the world through writing

This year, I was assigned to teach 9th grade Language Arts. Exciting, indeed, but completely unknown territory for me. This summer, I decided that the entire course would have one goal: to change the world through writing.

So we started by writing about our personal passions, those things that excite us, that put that feeling in our stomachs or in our minds.
Frankly, I was expecting to hear a lot more about MMA street fighting or shopping, but as always, the students helped the old adage about assumptions come true (except that I was the only donkey).

Our next step was to think about how those passions could help other people. Most of their interests had to do with other people anyway, and so in most cases, the connection wasn't much of a jump. Jose, who came alive after a summer camping experience, immediately decided to create an outdoor education trip of his own. Christian, who is obsessed with all things fashion, began creating his own clothing line that would be modeled after Toms' One for One business approach. Yadi wants to become a missionary surgeon; German is determined to make pacifist decision making an option for everyday Americans; Diego wants to help "normalize" mentally impaired people...for some the connections to other's needs was immediate.
Then there were others, like Elizabeth. Elizabeth loves to perform. She is naturally dramatic. But how does theater help others? I decided to like Elizabeth figure that out for herself, and she came up with some decidedly relevant propositions. First, she said, performance is a cultural activity that brings people together, helps express emotion, and retain and promote socio-cultural identity. Therefore, performance should be accessible for all, not just those who can afford to go to professional performances or who have theater programs at school. I was impressed: that is a very clear link between her interest and the well-being of other people.

We needed more information, so we spent about a week online, researching their topics and finding an "e-mentor" (someone or some organization that writes about their field of interest). We spent a day learning about commenting and they all made comments on their various blogs.
Lo and behold, some of the e-mentor answered. Christian received a reply from Toms. "They think I'm a real adult!" he said, quite triumphantly, but not without an honest dose of surprise.
Diego received a detailed email from his e-mentor, who told him that she was impressed by his ideas.
German received answers back from professionals all over the United States, including university professors, priests and social workers.

At this point I got a bit nervous. Is this ok? Am I crazy to think they can do this? Looking for some outside input and in a bit of a leap of faith, I asked the students to write essays for our school's Board of Trustees. These essays explained why they are passionate about these topics, what they are planning to do and how the Board can help them in their process. I shipped off four sets of essays and one of our school's largest donors wrote back. She said:
"I was most impressed with your thoughtfulness and ideas for improving our community.... While I have spent a great deal of time as an adult trying to make the world a better place, I know that when I was your age this had never entered my mind. I am greatly inspired by you."
Now that was a jubilant day in class.

This is all very exciting, don't get me wrong. But this is also not yet any sort of real change. So I set them free. They could do whatever they wanted as long as it involved writing or reading, it was related to their topic, and it was school appropriate.
Magic happened. Christian started designing dresses and calling fabric stores for donations. Diego invited the entire school to participate in a charity walk for disabled students. Elizabeth made phone calls to local hospitals with children's wards, asking if she can come teach the kids the basics of performance. Jose wrote business letters to the local chapter of Leave No Trace and No Child Left Inside.

Are they getting better about comma splices and sentence fragments? Marginally. Can then parse a sentence? Probably not. But here's what they are getting:
-They know that writing is useful in real life and not just something they'll use in school.
-They know that writing is not boring.
-They know that their dreams are not merely fantasies but instead valuable and actionable plans.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Facilitating group-based discussions

Today we had fantastic group-based discussions. Students presented the ideas contained in an essay that they wrote late last week. This very basic outline produced fruitful, positive conversations. I even asked the class to put their heads down and raise their pinky finger if they felt uncomfortable and no one did. I'm so impressed because they were discussing their personal passions, something that is very touchy for all of us; I think the key was in the listener's responses that I prewrote for them.
Best part: when one of my new students left today she said, "You know, that was actually fun! I'm not used to having fun in school."

Here's the script. I write scripts because it allows me to play out all of the steps of the class before we actually have class; this way, I am much more ready to focus on the students when we do the real thing.

Today, we are going to respectfully discuss each other’s central ideas.
What did we go over for homework?
                -Why does this matter?
                -How is this important?
So this is exactly what each person is going to present to their small group. The listening group members will listen respectfully and silently as the presenter speaks.
Then, one at a time, the listeners will play devil’s advocate. Can someone please elaborate on what that means?
(students respond)
Dictionary definition: “A person who expresses a contentious opinion in order to provoke a debate or test the strength of the opposing arguments.”)
Why would I be asking you to do this for each other’s essays?
(students respond: help make arguments stronger, define why we are interested in these topics)
What larger life skills does this activity foster?
(critical thinking, communication, politely expressing difference)
Mmk so how are the listeners going to act as a devil’s advocate without being a jerk?
(solicit student responses, have them role play specific possible scenarios)
If you are sort of stuck on what to do, here are some phrases you can use to help you get started:

I liked ________ but I don’t understand why __________.
I disagree with your point about _____ because _______.
Have you thought about ______ before?
What if _______ happened?
I see that you’re passionate about _______ but I don’t see how it connects with _______.
Oui, mais _______.

As the presenter, you are then allowed ten seconds of silence to think, if you want it. Be very careful to respond directly to the question. IT IS OK IF YOU DO NOT KNOW THE ANSWER.
If you do not know the answer, you need to write the question down and come back to it after the other listener has asked their question.

The presenter will receive and answer two of these questions from the listeners. Then the presenter will return to answer any questions that they could not answer the first time, and all three participants will work to answer the question together. At this point, you will not need to use the “devil’s advocate” format.

I strongly suggest that you take notes during this process, writing down what you learn even if it doesn’t have to do exactly with your project. Especially if you are the presenter, take careful notes of 1. what they ask you, 2. how you answer and 3. how you FEEL. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Keep it up, Profe: Our three-step process to (potential) success

Today, outside the library as everyone rushed to see their electives assignments on the library doors, one of my Spanish II students approached me. He told me that he has learned more Spanish in the past two days of class than he has ever learned before. "I don't really know what you're doing, but keep it up, Profe."

I don't fully believe him because
a. I know his teacher from last year and she teaches them tons of material! ;
b. it's the first week of school and we've forgotten how much work we put in last year;
c. he's one of those really sweet kids who says really nice things to help other people feel good.

That being said, this is an amazing compliment. More importantly, this means my crazy scheme might actually have a shot at some semblance of success. The basic plan is three-fold:

1. Speak only in Spanish (even though they are only in their second year). This quarter is Spanglish, next quarter they get five English words a day, and Spring Semester it's allll español.

2. The students teach themselves the grammatical material, both in and out of class, however they see fit for their personal learning style. I have divided all of the grammar learning standards for this year and divided them up by week and off they go! We do reinforcement activities in class. It is the fundamental concept of a flipped-classroom, except I don't ever explicitly teach them unless they ask specific questions.

3. When we're not studying in class or reinforcing grammar, we will be building an open-source online textbook for other students of Spanish. Not like a normal textbook, though. In addition to compiling all of the resources they find useful (Youtube videos, songs, web sites, news articles, animated GIFs, etc), we'll be using embedded VoiceThreads to facilitate communication and interaction with other learners.This way it is less of a textbook that just happens to be online but an online language forum (perhaps like LiveMocha but less uniform?) that is created entirely by and for students. Students aren't allowed to use technology in the classroom until the week after next, but we're already chomping at the bit.

In summary, I think the reason that he feels he is learning so much is because he is doing all the learning. This sounds rather simplistic, so I will restate: instead of being given the information, he is actively gathering, processing and learning according to his own individual wants and needs, instead of the style and constraint of the teacher.

I think I might just do as he suggests and keep it up.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Today I have happened to find several fantastic videos.

A College Humor video that takes on modern education in a delightfully culturally relevant way:
Here's the original song if you're not familiar with it. Or you could just turn on any pop radio station and wait 30 seconds. 

From Mashable, I found this really interesting interpretation of Pixar's Rules of Writing. Absolutely fabulous for any creative writing class. Actually, for any sort of writing ever.

And then I kept looking on Mashable and found these sweet videos on really touchy topics (warning: yes, I am liberal).
Try this video on fracking:
And finally, an example of how being a parent can be the coolest thing ever:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Trip to Moscow

Thanks to a lot of hard work, plenty of generosity, and a generous heaping of luck, I was able to go to Moscow with a student of mine to accept an award that she won. The award was for a photograph that she submitted through my class. It was a great learning experience for both of us.

See the gorgeous photographs of our trip on Facebook. The page is managed by FotoCh, the Russian organization that hosted us. Given that the images are by two professional photographers and one pretty good teenager, I'd say they're worth the click.

Read the full press release here.
Below are screen shots of the release.

Online textbooks ≠ a textbook online?

UPDATE: I think that I am going to use VoiceThread, maybe VoiceThreads embedded on a website. Also def. using PowToons and thinking about ThreeRing for uploading hard copies.

Dear all,
My Spanish 2 class is going to write an online, open-source textbook this year. That is going to be our year-long project. They're going to learn the grammar and vocab traditionally taught during S2 on their own because, really, they don't need me to learn that. They can find all of that stuff on Google, or ask one of their native-speaker friends (our school is 75% Hispanic). It is important to me that this be more than just a source of information but instead a place where students can discuss linguistic details, analyze sources, and engage with real material. I want it to be an online textbook that is not just a textbook that is online.

Here is my question to you: what platform do you suggest we use?

One person suggested iBooks Author. Don't get me wrong, it looks gorgeous. But I am unhappy with the fact that it requires an iPad, that you have to "publish" it (thus making it harder to perpetually improve), and that it is basically just a textbook, a movie and a notebook mashed together. I need more dialogue and sharing from our platform.

@SECottrell mentioned GoogleApps. Might be nice because our internal email is Google based.

@Petreepie shared her class' Simplebooklet on Chile. Although their book looks great, again I am left wondering how to make a more dynamic, conversation-focused text.

Here's a sweet wiki I've found on making online textbooks. Still working through all the links and I'll update soon.

Please help support our learners as they actively craft their digital footprint, engage in student-centered learning and gather real-life skills, and practice their Spanish!


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Everything I know about education I learned from cooking

SCHOOL IS OUT! Praise be. I have had many visions of what my summer would turn in to, but these past two days student-free has not led to any of the activities that I had planned (ranging from studying to the GRE to watching "Heavy Weights"). In fact, I have spent nearly twelve of the past forty eight hours cooking.

I have long been known for my love of food, but I've generally been interested in the eating, not the making. What happened? Why did I just spend that much money at Kroger on ingredients to things that I could buy pre-made?

Then I realized that I had stumbled upon my own personal metaphor for education at large.

1. If you enjoy doing it, doing whatever "it" is isn't a horrible chore. I'm cooking because I enjoy it and I'm learning more about it left and right because I want to learn about it. I realized that I don't procrastinate cooking because I want to cook (duh!).

2. Even if you do enjoy it, some of it is still going to be a bit tedious. I still don't like doing dishes... but that doesn't mean that I don't cook just to avoid doing the dishes. Learning is always involve at least some grunt work.

Repins and likes
from my Pinterest
food page. 
My food Pinterest board
3. Sharing is the bee's-knees. Everyone loves a cook that shares.
My neighbors are especially fond of my new hobby. I've also started Pinning recipes and ideas that I like on my own food board and the sense of community and feedback is gratifying and affirming.

4. Learn from some one who knows better than you. I would never have been able to cook anything without first having learned from my mom, and later my roommate, and later the many food wizards to be found on the internet. I watched them do it a couple of times, and then I was ready to do it myself.

5. Recipes are not the only way. Yes, it's nice to have a general concept of how to make something, but for the vast majority of dishes, precision is not absolutely required to end up with a good result. A bit of culinary off-roading can lead to any number of delicious and unexpected discoveries. We don't have to stick to the cook/text books.

6. It doesn't always work the first time. Maybe you can fix it by adding more salt. Maybe it will make good dog food. Maybe you call it lentil porridge instead of lentil loaf. Maybe it was a complete and total failure. Bet it will taste better next time you try it, though.
Did you know that this is what
brussels sprouts look like!?
I didn't. 

7. Try everything. Preferably more than once. I remember throwing Brussels sprouts down the toilet as a child.  I gave them a shot again in high school and managed to keep them down. Then I fell in love with them my last year of college and have recently converted my father (which everyone thought was impossible).

8. Not everyone has the same tastes. On several occasions my boyfriend was about to throw some food out and I would swoop in vulture-style and eat it. My friends will scarf down seafood and I'll try to keep from gagging at the smell. As long as you give it a shot, it's ok if it's not your jam.

9. Some things need to be eaten right away. Some things taste better after they sit for a while. This is the one thing that I have learned that I think may require some explanation in its conversion to education. Some projects need to be done in a hurry, some learning needs to happen slowly. Some times you need to learn something right this second, but sometimes it is better if it simmers on the backburner of your mind for a long spell in order to reach its full potential.
My Granny was a
cookie queen. Gosh
they were good.

10. It tastes better when we make it by hand. Learners and teachers, I think that we have a lot to gain from large companies that can provide us with a variety of resources. That being said, I think that education is best served like Granny's cookies: individualized, homemade with the accompanying sense of attachment and pride.

I didn't always love cooking, but now, unexpectedly, I do. It is my sincere hope that we can guide our students to a new (or renewed) love of learning. I don't think that snacks will hurt, either.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The concept of self, part 2: Autorretratos

A while back, I promised to post examples of the student work that they created after analyzing Spanish-speaking artists' images. (See Part 1.)
Work by Eduardo Garcia
Work by Santos Euceda

Erik has the following to say about his piece: "Everything that we live every day is like a videogame. Everything we do has a consequence. In everything we do, something good can happen or something bad can happen. The eyes represent the soul, like the eyes are a direct line."

Work by Carmen Garcia

Monday, May 7, 2012

Teacher-centered = learner-centered

I think that our learning institutions need to be teacher-centered.

Don't freak out. I don't mean that they need to be this kind of teacher-centered:

I just think that, in order for teachers to be able to successfully give the students the reins, in order to be on their A-game every day, in order to be the sort of facilitators that we strive to be, we're going to need a little more support and a heckuva lot less work. 

If we were in an ideal world, we could scrap the traditional school model all together and this might become a non-issue, but that's not going to happen any time soon. So while there is still the traditional role of teacher in a classroom of (way too many) learners, we could use a little help. Because we are burnt out and stretched thin. Please. The kids deserve it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Poetry for People

My Spanish III students needed something a little different. When I found, I knew that I'd found an answer.

So the kids took pictures with our cameras (loaned to us via Literacy Through Photography) and submitted them to Ben Rimes' cooperative poetry blog,

Then we wrote poems based on other people's photography. Ben was gracious enough to allow us to submit our work in Spanish. It's true, the Spanish isn't perfect but they were creative and required some serious manipulation of the TL.

Here is Michael's haiku about a photograph of buildings and Destiny's haiku about a photograph of blueberries:

To our great surprise, Ben chose to post three of our photographs, two noted here with red stars, on to the main page of the blog! Now other people are writing about our photography. So exciting!

I am very appreciative for this unique opportunity. Head on over to and get your students writing, too!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Grades just don't make the grade

I've been fighting a lot with grades recently. I find it unlikely that a student is able to separate him/herself from her work and say "That paper received a D, but that is a reflection of my effort on the paper and not me as a person." In actuality, my students see the D, flip out, and give up. I've had a redo policy since the very first day of class and still, they throw in the towel instead of working harder.

Fixed versus growth mindset
I've come up with just three theoretical solutions:

1. We MUST help our students (and ourselves!) change from the fixed mindset to a growth mindset. We're not going to get anywhere in relationships, jobs, personal goals, etc unless we learn to accept setbacks as an opportunity instead of an insuperable restraint. 

2. We've got to give our kids something that THEY want to work on. It's true, we all have to do things in life that we don't particularly enjoy but that's not a good enough reason to make students suffer through years of unpleasant activities. The point is to teach them to learn and help them like it. Let's be real, they're not going to remember the year that Tariq ibn-Ziyad conquered Spain (711 AD) and frankly, they don't need to. If some one wants to know when the Moors conquered the Iberian peninsula, they'll just go to Wikipedia anyway. 

3. In the majority of cases, grades are hierarchical, demeaning and ineffective. They are also quite possibly the single largest motivator in our students everyday lives. Even if it is the student's parent that is pushing them, the parent sees their growth in terms of numbers (or letters, as the case may be). They are not inspired to gain knowledge or skills for the joy of learning, but instead they do so with the hopes of being placed favorably in a scale that generally values output over effort. 

So I think that it's clear that I don't find grades a favorable way to rate student improvement. How, then, can I function in a system that lives by them? I'm not allowed to give all my students 100% and I don't really think that that would be the most effective (mis)use of grades, anyway. 
What ways have you found to use grades to your students' learning advantage?

Author's postscript:

After I wrote this I wanted to do a wee bit more reading on alternative perspectives of grading. Moral of the story is I am writing nothing new, so why aren't we doing something about it? Anyways, more resources here:

-- The Free Child project is all about students advocating for alternative assessment. Here is their post "The End of Grades" containing many interesting links and examples of grade-free schools.

-- You might also consider Joe Bower's website or twitter which is alllll about changing assessment.

-- This Freakonomics entry lays out the problematic nuances of the question "Do grades determine success?"

-- Alfie Kohn talks about this a good bit. Here's an interview with him that focuses on the effects of grades on learning.

I found this entry by Nathan Gilmour on the Christian Humanist blog to be an interesting philosophical view of grading. This specific passage is looking at the ethics of cheating in the traditional grading system through the lens of Plato's definition of democracy. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Grammar is not gross

I have come to a rather large obstacle with my heritage Spanish speakers. We respect each other, we enjoy our time together, they are open to new experiences in the classroom. However I cannot figure out how to successfully reinforce proper advanced grammar, good spelling and accent use for the life of me. This is an especially painful point for me for two reasons.
1. I LOVE GRAMMAR. All those rules are just so cool and make sense and Spanish is so lovely in that way.
2.  Their poor spelling and continual anglicisms make them look far less fluent than they are. In spoken speech, they can run circles around me. But put a book in their hands or ask them to write a formal letter and their comprehension and writing is years below their grade.

What do I do?
First and foremost, I ask your advice. Anything you might have to offer would be so very appreciated. Please add any ideas in this Google Doc. It doesn't just have to be for Spanish learners. Any technique is welcome, although I do prefer not to go the drill and kill route.

Here is a basic list of things that I have tried. I'll be honest, it seems like their spelling and accentuation are getting worse.
1. We read a lot. Things like The Hunger Games, People magazine in Spanish, the news, etc.
2. We have free journaling daily.
3. There is a list of approximately 30 words that are our "It words," things like "he hablado" instead of "e avlado" and "más" instead of "mas." We've had it since the third week of school. They still don't know it despite repeated testing, grade consequences, textual reinforcement, competitive memorizing activities, etc.
4. I have taught "traditional" grammar lessons.
5. They have taught each other grammar lessons.
6. We have repeated and reinforced old grammar lessons.
7. I've taught them college-level phonetics and dialectology in order to help them better understand the use of various letters.
8. I've gotten angry.
9. I've let it slide.
10. I've graded meticulously to show each potential improvement.
11. Everything in my class can be redone. Everything. So if they receive a poor grade for bad spelling, they can rewrite it for full credit.

Clearly, I'm at wit's end. I very much look forward to reading your advice and I cannot wait to convince my students that good grammar is not gross.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Slam Poetry Resources

The following is an email regarding the implementation of slam poetry from dear friend (and fellow teacher) Stephanie Nudleman. I am so appreciative that she was willing to share her resources and knowledge.

Here are a bunch of attached resources, including an amazing document from the Young Chicago Writers.  Read it, love it, take stuff from it.  Every other document is something I made myself, so steal those and modify them for your own kids.

Poems I've used for high school slamxamples:

Blue Blanket - Andrea Gibson
Bi-Racial Hair - Zora 
POW - Alicia Keys
Pretty - Katie Makkai
Grandmother - Mayda del Valle (Article from Washington Post w. review and poem)
Awkward Scars - Robbie Q Telfer
Totally Like Whatever You Know - Taylor Mali

And my goodness use all of these, because I know these amazing people:
Listen to "Egypt" and cry your face off.

There are a ton more.  Those are just the ones I thought of off the top of my head.

Specific directions:

I started class every day with a quick speech exercise.  It was usually a tongue twister on the board that the students had to say three times fast (correctly!) to be marked present.  Then, one day I wrote "blah" ten times on the white board, passed out a different tone notecard for each student, put all of the options for the tone words on the board, and had the students say "blah" ten times and had the other students guess which tone the student was portraying.  To make it easier, you can use the sentence "i notice people staring at me everywhere i go" one day and then do the Blah exercise a few days later.  We eventually did the same exercise -- with the tone notecards -- for expression through body language and facial expression.  Some of those exercises, and a bunch I didn't use but considered using, are gathered in this "hodgepodge of speech exercises" document.

Also, the day we opened with "what is slam poetry," I had them start class by writing a response to a prompt on the board that said, "if you could say one sentence to the entire world, what would you say?"  This was before we discussed what slam is and does and watched a few videos.  I very much entwined both viewing and writing slam poetry throughout the unit.  I think I had them watch a slam poem every other day.


Other documents written by Stephanie. I apologize that Google Docs has messed up her formatting.

How to write a SLAM poem 

A hint to Stephanie/SLAM vocab taken from the Speed, emphasis, facial expression and tone activity :

·       Speed:  How quickly should your poem be read?
·       Emphasis:  Which words should be said louder or softer?
·       Facial Expression:  What emotion should your face show?
·       Tone:  What tone should you use when performing?
Student assessment rubric and self-evaluation worksheet. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The power of social media and our students

A student of mine asked me to share this with you.

This video describes the horrible actions of Josephy Kony. It is a very important issue, without question, and I am proud that she has decided to take it upon herself to help spread the word.

The fact that she came upon this information also reiterates the power of social media, especially in the lives of our youth. When I asked her how she found it, she said, " I got home today logged onto tumblr and it was all over the place."

The student can be contacted at

The concept of self, Part 1: analyzing Spanish-speaking artists and self-portraits

I am lucky enough to teach Spanish to 8th/9th grade heritage Spanish speakers. While it does mean that most textbooks are absolutely worthless to us, it also means that we get to study any material that strikes our fancy... as long as we do it in Spanish. 

This time, my goal with was to define the idea of "self" and work towards describing ourselves through word and image. Given that students this age find themselves to be an important issue, it had special resonance with our class.

We started by asking the following question: Does the image of the person have to be in his/her portrait in order for it to be a self-portrait? Most students felt that, yes, the image of the portrait-ee must be in the portrait.

Then we started looking at portraits by famous Spanish-speaking artists.

In Velazquez's "Las Meninas" there are clearly multiple subjects and a story. However, it also contains the artist... so is it a self-portrait or not?

(We fought about it for a few minutes and then moved on.)

Then we moved on to Goya. I was curious what he was trying to tell us through this picture. We also talked about the role of the viewer -- what is the viewer doing here? Where are we in the scene? Does Goya know we're there? What does his face tell us?
And, of course, we talked about if the purpose of this work was to be a self-portrait, or if the author had some other intention.

(They didn't think that it was meant to be a self-portrait, by the way. Do you?)

I decided that we were ready to go a little farther.

 When I showed them this Dali, there were a lot of titters at first. And then they were just plain curious. Kids got up and gathered around the projection, questioning what the symbols meant, why the dog was there, is he underwater?, I swear that's la Virgen, Profe!, etc.

This time, we went in deep, questioning the goal of a self-portrait. The students decided that:
- the purpose of a self-portrait is to express the individual that the portrait is about.
- a self-portrait expresses things that are important, emotions, or ideas that represent the person
- a self-portrait includes the person itself in the image.

This is all happening in rapid-fire Spanglish. I'll be honest, we didn't know all the technical words that we needed, in either English or Spanish. But everyone had something to say, and the vast majority was taking place -- without second thought -- in beautiful Spanish.

Botero's "First Communion"

At this point, I just changed the slide and let them discuss amongst themselves. The majority of the discussion revolved around religion and the winged creatures above the subject's shoulder. They also made it clear that they could not decide if it was a self-portrait or not until they knew if the artist's intention was to paint himself. I decided not to tell them that the title of the painting is "Self-Portrait on the Day of My First Communion."

The turning point in our discussion came with this image, provided through the London Telegraph, of Gabriel Orozco's "Yielding Stone."
After much conversation, some students decided that this work was in fact a self-portrait, given that it had traveled and documented the artist's actions, because Orozco lives in New York City, and because it weighs as much as he did. Other students, however, felt that it was not a self-portrait. Orozco did not title it a self-portrait and he is not in the ball and we do not know what he looks like after seeing this piece.

I was happy for the divergence in opinion. I decided that they would be ready to write after one last piece.

Although they were intrigued, I think that they had reached their saturation point. After a set of jumping-jacks, we all sat down to answer our original question: Does a person's own image have to be in his/her self-portrait in order for it to be considered a self-portrait?

The responses that I received were truly exceptional. (I did this activity in early October, not even two full months into school).

This student had never spoken to me before.

"...the definition of a portrait is something that represents you. So, a self-portrait is something that the person drew that represents him/her self. ... If the person believes that this work of art represents them then it is a self-portrait. It doesn't matter if others don't think it is..."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

¡Qué difícil es hablar el español!

Hilarious video about learning Spanish. ¡Qué rico el idioma!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Notes from Will Richardson

A slide from Mr. Richardson's presentation. Amazing quotation!
Thanks to Houston A+ Challenge, I had the opportunity to attend a talk that Will Richardson gave titled "Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education." The following are my notes from the event, most of which are attributed to Mr. Richardson's presentation. Please note that these are NOT my ideas, they are Mr. Richardson's ideas, occasionally in his direct words, sometimes written in my words. You can find his blog at or follow him on Twitter at @willrich45. A copy of the visual portion of presentation I attended can be found at

- How do we student center the use of tech?
- The importance of making connections between classroom material and the outside world.
- It is important to make students think about the audience for their projects and, for that matter, help them find an audience that isn't only their teacher.
- How do we tap into our children's passions?
A slide from Mr. Richardson's presentation
- Who is going to decide what our schools turn in to? Will it be a money-driven business decision? It's starting to look like it...

- In the past, the purpose of school was to deliver as much education as possible to as large an audience as possible. Information was scarce, known by an minority and held in expensive, heavy books. Thus, it made sense to have a large(r) number of students pared with a few adults that could thus share the knowledge across the largest possible population.
This concept works a world where information is scarce. Now, however, we live in a world where information is everywhere and very easily accessible. The content that schools, books, and teachers hold is no longer restricted. The paradigm of learning has changed, but the structure of schools has not. 

- There are approximately two billion people on this planet with internet access. That means that we have two billion potential teachers at our fingertips.
Online, learning is...

I found Mr. Richardson's talk very interesting; although it did not light any new fires, it certainly fanned an ever-growing flame. I do have a few questions/conversation starters for him, however:

-I agree, the internet is an AMAZING place to learn. That being said, we are not "born" into an internet family or have a local internet community that is where everyone else in your neighborhood went to look for information. Basically every online learner starts from scratch, finds sites and blogs that suit their needs, and  builds their own online community. I think that learners (especially young learners) would very very much benefit from having a more experienced online user guide them towards a base community. Heck, I'm in my mid-20s and I didn't know that Twitter was an education resource until my school mentor pushed me in the right direction.

-This whole situation is still pretty strongly tilted in favor of those who a. have had easy access to internet since they were young and b. have the money to have long-term wireless internet and/or a smart mobile device. These two qualifiers rule out practically all of my students.

-Mr. Richardson noted that actuating this change is quite easy in schools that are built from the ground-up with this premise of learning. It is much harder, however, to change schools that are already established in the older system. How do we make this change?

So much food for thought!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Blogging on motivation

One of my most thoughtful students is researching motivation and then writing about its presence (or lack thereof) at our school. Please check out his blog and support this young scholar's growth!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

I regret to inform you that I acted like an adult.

Tonight I am very disappointed to say that I did a very adult thing.

After a long day at school, I called three of my theater students for practice after study hall. We set up for their one act (we're doing David Ives!) and, after three minutes it was clear that they did not know their lines despite the fact that they've been "off-book" for a month now.

I waited as they dragged a fifteen minute scene into forty-five, constantly diving for their scripts. When they finished, I said "I'm so disappointed. I don't really know what to do here. What do you think I should do?"

They said that it had been their responsibility to learn the lines, so it was up to them. I agreed and left them to continue practicing if they pleased.

I'm not thrilled with how I reacted. What if I had been kind, more supportive? Do I cancel the one-act performance in front of the school on Friday? I don't want to embarrass them in front of the entire community, that wouldn't be healthy at all. At the same time, will just canceling the show be enough to understand the consequences of their choices? And does it even matter?  I feel like this is a very adult reaction, making something bigger than what it is, when really it should be focused on the kids' learning.

Help, please. How do I focus it on the students in this case?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mi llamo es...

A classic gringo phrase that cuts any Spanish teacher to the core. I think that this little guy just might be the solution, however.
I just wish it either had two llamas or it said "se."
Pretty wonderful, regardless.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why do we lesson plan?

(Special thanks to Thomas Sauer and Pam Wesely for their interesting conversation that inspired this post.)

While wandering the wonders of Twitter, I came upon this conversation:
Pam's last tweet says: "usually used shorthand for day-to-day practice."

This lead to me an important question: why do we lesson plan in the first place? A good friend (Stephen Vrla at said that it helps us make sure that we as teachers fully understand the material before we share it with the students and that written planning helps us organize what we know in the most effective, student-focused way possible.

And Mr. Sauer is completely correct: through lesson planning is time consuming and requires a good bit of mental energy. Plus, in my experience, it is somewhat boring, especially when you're doing it by yourself.

A few initial thoughts on why we lesson plan, beyond Stephen's original idea:
1. It gives us something to look back to, reflect upon and revise later.
2. It helps provide clear evidence when teachers need to explain themselves to others.
3. It provides a sense of stability and safety for the teachers (always having something to fall back on).

But is lesson-planning student-centered? My middle and high schoolers are completely capable of making a game-plan by themselves. Furthermore, it makes class theirs and not mine. It allows them to be more excited about the material because they own it.

I'll be honest. Some times I worry that when I let the students plan a lesson, that they won't get as much out of it. It's hard for non-heritage Spanish speakers to plan how to learn Spanish. How can they plan for things that they do not even know exist?

Then I remind myself that
a. I need to let go: this is about their learning not about passing a test. I came to a private school exactly so that they wouldn't have a test to pass.
b. I am still there to provide guidance. My Spanish abilities and the dictionaries and the internet does not magically disappear when the students design the class.
c. This is not "lazy" teaching. It's just different.
d. students can gain so many more skills, such as time management and collaboration, if they do the leg-work by themselves. If I teach the lesson, I do all the work. If they plan and execute the project, then they do all the work. Work (one hopes) = learning.

I've had some success with the student planning method (see the post on extinguishers below for an example) although it can lead to an uncomfortable level of instability and unpredictability during class.

In the end, I do not know which is better, teacher lesson planning or student lesson planning. I lean towards the students doing the planning.

Thus I pose two questions: why do we lesson plan? and Which is better for the students, that they plan or that we plan?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

¿Dónde está el estinguidor? Authentic language learning

In my Spanish II class, we are learning what I call the "accidental" tense (se me olvidó el nombre). For all you non-Spanish speakers, it is basically a specific use of object pronouns in the preterit (past) tense that lets you say  the equivalent of "my book was forgotten!" instead of "I forgot my book". We just finished up a unit reviewing imperatives as well.
I happen to also be on our school's Safety Committee. We are currently in the process of making sure that everything in our dear (and very old) school is up to code. Things like adding lamps to paths, checking for asbestos and upgrading alarm systems. I thought, hey, maybe my students could help with some of this. The "accidental" tense and commands totally go with safety. So I asked our coordinator and lo and behold! she had a few ideas up her sleeve.
I offered them to the students and they jumped on it. Instead of wanting to do one of her ideas, my kids decided that they were going to do all three options...and they quickly added some more details to make it up to par.
One of her requests was to make a database of all of the fire extinguishers on campus. Earlier this week, on one of our rare rainless days we went on a scavenger hunt. The students wrote up the phrases  they would need to know and then scoured the campus asking and answering the following questions both out load and on a spreadsheet:

¿Dónde está el extinguidor? (Where is the extinguisher?)
¿Qué es la fecha de inspección? (What is the inspection date?)
¿Cuál tipo de extinguidor es? (Which type of extinguisher is it?)

The kids typed up the spreadsheet that night and, technically, they had finished what our Safety Director had asked for. The students, however, thought it was silly if only the Safety Director had the extinguisher information. So yesterday in class we took a map of the school and marked the location of every extinguisher on campus. Then, they put red "You are here" dots on each map and write a location-specific note on each map, stating the location of the nearest Spanish and in English. 
X marks the spot (of the fire extinguishers, that is).
Everything in Spanish and English. All generated by Span II students.
I was worried about how much Spanish we would be covering. However, it turns out that we are not only learning all of the safety related vocabulary -- the kids jokingly told me they will never forget the word "el extinguidor" -- but we are also reviewing prepositions of location and the different uses of ser and estar. 

Furthermore, we are all so pumped up by the project that I'm ok if it isn't the most intense Spanish activity they'll ever have. They're working as a unit, sharing information, brainstorming and executing ideas and (!!) enjoying it. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Promethean board is just a blackboard : How do we use tech tools?

I was recently lucky enough to spend a day observing a very wealthy school. I was disheartened to see that, despite all their resources, amazing technology, dedicated students and well-educated teachers, they were still teaching the same material using the same ways that I had been taught when I was a student...except that they were using a Promethean board instead of a blackboard.

This sentiment was rediscovered last night during a #langchat meeting. The topic was using tech tools to further communication skills in language learners. Many teachers suggested many interesting sites, ranging from Photopeach to Edmodo. I couldn't help but feel that these were simply toys to recreate the same processes that we used/use in a "traditional" classroom. Something like Edmodo is merely a notebook with internet access, gathering the day's lesson, assignments and homework in one convenient location. I want to know how we can use tech tools to CHANGE or FURTHER education. 

I certainly think that even the most basic tech tools can enhance learning by providing a larger audience outside the school. It can also provide more authentic feedback; I'm thinking specifically of linking students with native speakers via things like Skype or GoogleVoice. 

Other, tools such as SoapBox, can help shy students participate more fully in class, or make activities such as watching a movie or listening to a lecture more interactive and student-focused.

But none of these work without the intrinsic motivation of the student. If a kid doesn't want to blog and never checks the site, what good does it do if other people are looking at it? And even if he/she does join in the blogging, is it just because they enjoy the fame? 

Thus, my question to you: how do we use tech as a genuine tool of enthusiastic learning?

Editor's update: an interesting blog post by Mark Gleeson that talks about how iPads can be used to facilitate writing, but not improve writing 

Classroom "management"? or How I almost lost my cool

Yesterday, my 8/9th graders were working on a photography project that was several weeks in the making. They had learned to analyze photos, taken photographs of their families, they had interviewed their families and written biographical stories (quite touching), and practiced writing from photos. Yesterday, they were analyzing their own photos and writing from them. We had modeled the activity the day before with photographs from my personal collection and it had gone impressively well: the students had been engaged, curious and eager to share with their groups.
So they are working along on their own photographs with their groups when I heard an impressive "bang" noise coming from the hall outside. Given that it's an old building, I honestly thought part of the roof had collapsed due to recent rains. I stepped outside to find a certain level of chaos.
When I returned to my classroom, I found that the activity was over and social hour had ensued. Students were checking their email, chatting about other things, packing up to leave (there were still 20 minutes left). I was furious.
I stood silently, straight-faced. I reminded myself that I was trying to be a revolutionary teacher. That the instructions hadn't been clear enough. That the activity hadn't been student-centered enough. That talking is a good thing. That they can check their email and still be working on the project.
The students noticed. They went silent and then started asking me and each other
"What's wrong with Profe?"
"She's mad."
"No, she's just chill."
"What happened outside?"
"She just wants us to work."

"I'm very angry." I said quietly. Only a few students heard. Then I quickly gathered the class and went back to the old style: teacher gives instructions, students follow. Teacher talks, students work silently.

This to me begs two questions : why was I so angry? and then, how DO you "manage" a classroom?

I was angry because
1. I thought it was an interesting project that they would enjoy. Other teachers had had success with a similar project with our (very unique) student body. It hurt my feelings that they weren't engaged.
2. I had given them technology without clearly defining boundaries. Instead of printing out the photographs, I had asked them to pull them up on our class blog. I had put the means of distraction in their hands.
3. They were not comfortable enough with the activity to run it by themselves (even though they had done it successfully the day before) and it was my fault. I had been the one reminding the students to move to the next step of the activity, circulating to help build the answers, etc. When I left, there was a vacuum because I had created a clear power structure.

So then, how DO you manage a classroom?
I do not want to have a classroom where talking is forbidden and teacher is god. I just want the students to be excited about learning and keep the classroom a positive working space.

Therefore my question to you: how can we build a successful, functional working space in our classrooms without resorting to the old hierarchy of traditional teacher-student relationships?