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?