Sunday, February 5, 2017

La Señora toca el ukulele: PBL and language learning outside the clasroom

If I've learned anything in almost a decade of teaching, it's that I'll never stop learning... and although I don't think I've ever lost track of how to be a language learner, it's still easy to lose hold of what it feels like to be a beginning language learner. As we are deep into conjugation practice in 8th grade, I see novice students and native speakers alike baffled by the mysterious jumbles of pronouns and verbs. After approximately 15 years of pounding those verbs into my head, it's easy to forget how confusing they first were.

One of the things I've been pushing myself to do this year is to learn new things. This is part of my ongoing and often futile quest for work/life balance, but also pretty crucial as an educator. It's harder to empathize with my students and give them the support they need if I forget what it is like to be a learner.

Here's what I'm learning and what I'm re-learning about about being a learner:

Arabic: I began learning Arabic a few years ago. In reality it's been about a decade... but with nothing more consistent than a year or so of (supposedly) weekly language lessons, which were more like monthly or semi-monthly. I tended to switch into Spanish as my default L2 mode. I used the strategies and tricks I taught my Spanish students - I labeled items in my house, made flash cards, came up with mnemonic devices, and drew things on whiteboards. During my year teaching English in Spain, I found a Spanish/English/Arabic exchange in order to rediscover my language-learning self as I was embarking on the new adventure of teaching my native language.

I learned what my students (hopefully) have learned - if you don't put in time to practice and study, you won't be able to use the language. Some words stuck - the word for thank you (because I drew a picture to go with it, and because I could actually use it in the real world) and the word for worm (because of the little worm dude/dood I drew.) (Okay. That is totally a caterpillar. Apparently I have a lot to learn.) By the time I actually traveled to Morocco, the only full sentence I could remember was "She drinks coffee." Not super functional.

Now I'd like to pick Arabic up again, especially in our current country's situation, where I am trying to engage with and fight for those who are oppressed and under-represented. (That's another story.) I know the drill - I need to practice every day. I need to learn phrases I can actually use, and find places to use them. I know how to be a language learner. (Now let's see if I can carve time for being a language learner out of the massive amount of time it takes to be a language teacher.)

Maybe I'll set myself the same monthly homework requirements I give my students, and they can grade me.

I'm also trying to learn the ukulele. A few months ago I somewhat impulsively bought a ukulele. Now I've been muddling my way through learning how to play it, usually on sunny Saturday mornings. I have limited musical experience, and only with melodies on very linear instruments (Celtic harp, mountain dulcimer, piano) so there's a steep learning curve! I am starting by trying to learn Limón y Sal by Julieta Venegas, starting with this tutorial.

I'm learning from a Spanish tutorial, and learning a new skill in my 2nd language is great in the context of project based learning. It's made me realize a few things about a second language + PBL. To learn to play the ukelele, I obviously needed to understand enough of the tutorial to follow along. I needed a basic level of language in order to learn a new skill in that language. That allowed me to follow along, and learn more specific new vocabulary in an authentic way. (Acordes and traste I could understand from the context. Rasgueo I could understand, and looked up to learn the new verb rasguear.) Chord charts are confusing to me because I have trouble conceptualizing spatial information. I watched the beginning of the tutorial several times and drew out charts of the fingering, but couldn't get all the chords to sound right. I re-tuned the ukelele a few times, downloaded a app for chords, watched the video a few times. I eventually realized I was holding the ukulele in the wrong hand. I needed to grab the white-out and start over several times. I needed to be okay with making mistakes and reassessing what I thought I knew in order to keep going. Once I fixed my hold on the ukulele I could correct my diagrams and actually practice the cords correctly, trying to cement those abstract diagrams into muscle memory.

How does this apply to my teaching?

Students need to have some basic language skills before collaborating and using those skills for a project. This is why this year I'm making sure I focus on skills and proficiency and not sacrificing all of our limited class time for projects - as much as I believe in project based learning as the best way for students to learn, students need proficiency. Especially as we develop and increase our K-5 language program, by middle school students will have both the language skills and the confidence needed to complete real-world projects in the language classroom. Focusing on authentic, engaging language tasks is a way to incorporate the concepts and values of PBL without sacrificing proficiency.

Teaching students a growth mindset and not to be afraid of making mistakes is crucial. Building a safe, supportive environment where students feel safe making mistakes allows them to show up and actually begin the hard work of language learning. For me, a big part of letting kids be vulnerable is letting them see me as a learner as well. From the perspective of a Spanish learner now teaching Spanish, I'm able to share with students my own struggles with the language, and strategies I used to study and remember. As a gringa guiri language learner turned teacher, acknowledging my status as a learner is important - especially in a community that includes native speakers. I often ask native speakers for regional variations or obscure words, and we look up words together frequently. Taking a descriptive rather than prescriptive view of language (lo siento, Real Academia) is also important, since I want students to recognize and respect regional variations as it is used - not just language from a book or the variations I happened to encounter in Spain. Finding the best way to support and challenge my native speakers is an ongoing area of growth for me, but the importance of beginning with a respectful and supportive relationship is one thing I'm already sure of.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Un Año Nuevo

Today was our first day back at school after our holiday break.

On New Year's Day, a friend asked me 3 questions that she uses for reflection on her birthday.
  1. What are you proud of in the past year?
  2. What do you want to leave behind you?
  3. What do you want to do in the coming year?
I liked these as an end-of-the-year reflection. Rather than just listing accomplishments, I drew some little trophies to go along with them... because I'm a big nerd.

Today I brought that reflection into my middle school Spanish classes. (Here is the google doc I used, with a word bank. Feel free to use as it is helpful. Clip art is just free clip art from online.)

We put a lot of things into our ¡Fuera, 2016! boxes. 

Amigos Falsos
Trucos con botellas de agua**

Many students put the name of a certain president elect in their box of things to leave behind in 2016. Putting politics aside, standing together against hatred and bigotry felt pretty important. 

Students had the option to share what they wrote, or to keep things to themselves. They also had the option to rip up their papers covered with the things we want to leave behind. 

It was good to give learners at all levels a chance to use Spanish, especially for self reflection.
It was good to talk to students who had trouble thinking of things to be proud of.
It was good see all those little goals shuffled into small stockpiles of hope.
It was good to tear up hatred and racism together.

It was a good way to start our year.

*An eighth grader included this one and told me about's designation as word of the year. Hmmm. 

**Water bottle flipping? Soooo last year. Tell your friends. Please? (I can try, right?)

Edit: I created an interactive bulletin board so other students/staff/families can add their own contributions. Materials are included at the end of the doc I shared (including some fun word clouds I made with Tagul.)

P.S. - Sorry, the dab might no longer be cool.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Soy Yo

At this year's most recent middle school dance, I asked the DJ to play this song. When it came on, the kids screamed and started flailing around. (As much or even more so than for the previous Whip/Nae Nae, if I might say with a fair amount of pride.) Seeing the kids dance and sing along in Spanish was one of my high points as a middle school teacher. 

Here are some resources I have used with this song:
  • Reading Activity (adapted from this article about Sarai, the girl in the video)
  • Lyrics Training activity using Soy Yo (to sing karaoke or do a listening activity)
  • Lyrics activity from Zachary Jones from his ebook, Cancionero 2015 - I use many of his activities (both free and purchased) and any of his ebooks have been well worth the money.
  • Speaking of Zachary Jones, he has a great series of interviews called ¿Cómo eres? None with little Sarai yet, but one can hope. I used these as a somewhat independent listening activity and students liked them so much that I added it as an option to our monthly homework options.
  • Another related song was Como soy by Manu Manzo, who does have a ¿Cómo eres? interview.
7th grade in particular has been a little obsessed with this song (I've caught kids singing it in the halls, and heard rumors that kids brought it up during some recent restorative circles in morning meetings.) I'm using some of that energy to kick off our 2nd trimester project about language & identity, connected with a skills unit on descriptions. More to come on that, hopefully.

Related resources bumping around in my files:
  • Eres by Café Tacvba is another song I've used to introduce or review the conjugation of ser. Not quite as catchy as this one, but the kids still mention "that creepy black and white song.") 
  • A few years ago (in my first dabblings in PBL) I had students find a song of their choice and use the lyrics to search for targeted grammatical structures. Here's my first attempt at that mini-project, which I may revisit.
Big Picture: Grammar & music

I'm still struggling to balance PBL and proficiency, especially when it comes to grammar & conjugation, but using music is one thing that has been consistent through my evolution as a teacher. Songs were what kept our heads above water during my early years of treading water in Detroit, as I gathered a collection of songs that drove my K-2 curriculum and used music (including the only alphabet song I can stomach) to engage some of my most challenging middle school classes. As I learn more about project based learning and how to let students learn by doing, music has been a great resource for experiencing verbs in their natural habitat. If a song is catchy enough the grammar structures will stick in students' heads, and if it is repetitive enough it can allow for some "DIY" grammar rules based on observations of repeated patterns in a song.

Finally, anything that makes students spontaneously yell things in Spanish I'll count as a success in the complicated, often-grumpy land of middle school language teaching.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Zines: ¿Por Qué Aprender Idiomas?

I haven't kept up with blogging this year. Even though my schedule is a lot more reasonable (I'm only teaching 5th-8th!) somehow there still isn't time for much other than just teaching. However, we just began our 2 week holiday break, and before jetting off to the Midwest I took some time today to gather some student zines to donate to a local zine library. That was a reminder of a project I've been meaning to share here - our zine project in September!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why educate? Why innovate?

What do you see as the purpose of education?  Why might innovation be crucial in education?

Asking myself why at the beginning of the school year feels pretty important. To begin the school year this year, our new administrative team asked us to share some #whyiteach moments. The why question has been an underlying thread in these first few weeks of school, as I establish routines and big-picture plans with my students. I'm asking students why, too - middle school students are starting the year by creating zines to answer the question "Why Learn Languages?" Before we can learn we need to know why we are doing this, and before I can teach I need to know why it is important.

There are so many reasons education is important, and why I've decided to make a career out if it. Today it's hard to ignore the reasons looming in the headlines and my newsfeed. It's easy to feel powerless in the face of the violence, hatred, and injustice both far away and uncomfortably close to home. At its worst, education can prop up and strengthen structures of injustice, but at its best it can dismantle them. Education is a way to help fix what's broken in the world, and to create a better future. It is not the only way to fight injustice and heal wounds, but for me personally education is the way I can be invested and involved in a better future. I have the next generation in my classroom, and the skills, ideas, and the abilities for empathy and critical thinking that they learn with me can help shape their future.

Innovation in education is a relatively new concept to me. As a foreign language teacher, my focus has been on proficiency and how to get students to use language authentically. This is my 3rd year at a project based school, and I've had to shift my mindset a bit. Innovation is a huge part of PBL. I think innovation is critical because it innovation empowers students. Education is my key to improve the future, and the key to successful education is students who are empowered to take control of their own learning. If students are engaged and involved and have a voice, they will learn and they will make amazing things. I feel so grateful to be working in an environment where innovation and student curiosity is valued and prioritized. I love passing by classrooms every day where students are excited and curious and can't wait to show me what they are making. In my own classes, one big success marker is if I see that light kindled in my students' eyes. I've seen that a few times this year, while students are making zines and preparing to share them with an authentic audience.

For me, the big question I'm still wrestling with is how to encourage innovation and authentic exploration without losing sight of proficiency - or rather, how to create situations for that innovation and exploration to happen when students are not yet at an adequate level of proficiency in Spanish. I am optimistic, especially working with 5th graders this year who I have had since 3rd grade - we can do more things in Spanish, so we can talk about more things in Spanish, so hopefully we can explore stuff and make stuff in Spanish. I'm hoping that this exploration of innovation can help me find ways to make that happen.

This is the first blog prompt for #IMMOOC, a professional book club I'm taking part in with George Couros' "The Innovator's Mindset." 

I've been doing a lot of exciting things so far this school year, and I'll try to share more of them here soon! I've been a lot more active on twitter recently, so feel free to follow me @kennedyspanish

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Lunes de Lectura: El Día de los Niños

I've been buried in projects so haven't been sharing much here. Recently with my 7th and 8th graders I've been trying to fit in some skill-based mini-lessons and practice alongside some of our longer projects, so each week as a warm up we've been doing Lunes de lectura and Jueves de Juegos. (Well, for half of my classes. For the others it is Martes de Lectura / Viernes de Diversión - not quite as catchy.) I've been pulling readings from Newsela (they now have articles in Spanish, adjustable by lexile!) and shorter thematic reading exercises using Zachary Jones' Twiccionario.

For tomorrow we will be reading this short article about El Día de los Niños. I thought I'd share my modified and annotated version, along with comprehension questions.

(I'm going to introduce this with watching Irene, a fantastic short by Alejandro Hiraldo. I happened upon lots more resources from Aprendemos Juntos and definitely want to expand on this later!)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Proyecto: Mi Lotería Personal

We just started a project in 6th grade that has already been a lot of fun, using La Lotería Mexicana. I already knew I wanted to use it as a way to reinforce articles and the gender of nouns in a fun and hands on way, but while muddling through the PBL project design process and trying to connect that to the expensive curriculum that was just bought for me this year I realized this could be a good way to wrap up some of the curriculum objectives from Avancemos 1 into a project - specifically, Unit 1 objectives from Avancemos 1. After beginning this project, I already know I need to connect Lotería to more lessons and projects. It's been great to see the student engagement, from both my native speakers and others who have played this game with their families. (Here in San Diego, there's even a local brewery that has Lotería nights instead of Bingo nights.)

Here's our project so far. You can also see my project overview here:
  1. We played La Lotería in class using this bilingual student version: Bilingual Bingo / Lotería Bilingue. It's nice for my mixed level class because we can read the rhyme out loud, and anyone who can understand it (usually my native speakers) can call out the word in Spanish. (¡La luna! ¡El sol!)

  2. We looked at a selection of creative Lotería sets in class to glean examples of different types of words. Most of my students were sorting nouns by gender and by type of word (person, animal, etc.) but my native speakers were categorizing words by their stressed syllables. (We've been looking at sílabas tónicas in order to help with correct accents. It's the first time this year I've heard these kids whining that the work is too hard, so I think I've finally manged to find a task at their level!) Here are the Loterías we looked at - albeit selectively. Your use of these Loterías may depend on how comfortable you and your students are with the human body, alcohol use, and racial commentary.)

    1. A traditional set of Don Clemente Lotería cards from a local Mexican supermarket
    2. Lotería Clemente Jacques, 1930s (México)
    3. Lotería Clemente Jacques, 1960s  (México)
    4. Lotería de Posada (Arte de José Guadalupe Posada, 1852-1913) 
    5. Lotería Moderna de Teresa Villegas (This project was a great excuse to buy her gorgeous Loteria book.)
    6. Lotería los Compadres (Moderno de México)
    7. Lotería 50 nombres para la muerte (Erik de Luna, México)
    8. Lotería Huasteca (Art of the Huastec people, Alec Dempster & Arturo Castillo Tristan)
    9. Lotería Star Wars (Chepo Peña)
    10. Lotería de Fotografías de México (Jill Hartley)
  3. We'll also be reading this book, which is a sweet bilingual story. I would start the project with this book normally, but I ordered it right after beginning the project.

  4. We will be creating our own Lotería cards that share something about ourselves. Students will choose objects that represent something about themselves, and the "hints" on the back will be sentences about themselves, using the language skills we have been practicing. I've created some examples, like this card that features a baby teacher with her baby cat.

I can't wait to see what my students come up with! 

(Disclaimer: Links to Amazon products are provided via Amazon's Associates program. I receive some money if you end up buying these products through the ads on this page. I'm grateful for this opportunity through Amazon, but also through their Prime shipping which allowed me to come up with this project and pretty immediately get the books and games I needed  to start it right away with my students!)