Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Adventures in Untextbooking: ACTFL 2014

Myself, Miriam, and Bob during our presentation. Thanks to
Jon Valentine for taking this picture!

This year I was very excited at the chance to present Untextbooking at the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Convention.

The topic is one close to my heart; giving up textbooks is everything I'd hoped (awesome!) and feared (work!) it'd be. There are days, I won't lie, that I walk into my classroom, exhausted by the energy I pour in there and other facets of my life (family and grad school, in particular), and I just wish I could say "Class, turn to page 53, and do what the book says." I will write a post with suggestions for those days within the next couple of months, because I am working on activities that aren't as exhausting for the teacher. We all need breaks and downtime.

But in general, I am really, really happy with untextbooking. My students are more engaged, and learning more, than in any year previous. It's not magic; not every student buys in (though some of the hold outs are beginning to yield!) and even my most enthusiastic students have off days--they're teenagers. However, I have learned after over a decade of teaching that perfection doesn't exist. Instead, I look for improvement. And the improvement is all the sunshine and rainbows I could ask for.

My students can use "advanced" grammatical structures, and have been doing so since week six of Latin I (probably before that point, but that is the week I officially started using subjunctives in their readings). This is not because I'm a genius teacher or they are genius students. It's simply that I don't treat the structures like they're difficult, so my students don't know they aren't supposed to know them. We have focused on a much more limited vocabulary list than in previous years when I've been guided by a textbook, but I am able to make sure that the words are used over and over so that instead of throwing a bunch of spit wads at my students and hoping a few will stick, I can create a permanent vocabulary of useful words that students easily recall. I am excited about the things we read and I have the ability to change focus when my students' interest wanes. I love the flexibility and personalization available to me when I don't let a textbook rule my curriculum.

So, it's exciting to share this with other teachers and hopefully help them create a similar experience in their own classrooms.

This year's ACTFL was really, really good. I loved the sessions I attended, and was even going to put together a Storify report for you, but Laura Sexton (@SraSpanglish--she is most definitely worth following for her tweets over language learning and methodology) already beat me to the punch. You can find her Storifies here. The travel was an adventure (lost luggage and half a day spent blind just amplify the value of the experience, right?), however even so, I have no regrets and really can't emphasize enough how important it is to join professional organizations and attend conferences, whether local or national. You meet other like-minded people, form friendships, and get the chance to learn about some of the newest ideas about pedagogy. Between conferences and my Personal Learning Network, I constantly have ideas running through my head about ways to improve my classes.

When I decided to present about Untextbooking at ACTFL, I invited Miriam (who started this experiment with me last year) and Bob Patrick (@BobPatrick), who joined me in untextbooking this year, to present with me. Both are great presenters and I very much enjoyed teaming up with them to hopefully help other teachers try out authentic material in the classroom.

For the purposes of our presentation, I made a Google Presentation:

Miriam created an amazing resource for teachers looking for examples in Spanish, French, or German (we'd love to add to it in those or other languages--just let us know if you'd like to contribute), with a list of short videos for movietalks and resources/blogs we find useful for this particular topic. We presented the basic ideas, then each of us presented a type of CI activity that we like to use in class.

To be honest, there was not much discussed that is not already in this blog, either thanks to Miriam or myself. If you are new to the blog, I'm including a list of previous untextbooking posts below along with their most basic descriptions. As always, please post any questions or comments or recommendations!

Untextbooking: What Does the Fox Say? My introductory post explaining why I started this journey and my first steps.
Untextbooking: Of Monsters and Men An update post discussing a unit I was creating in what is often considered "advanced" Latin and ways I had approached that for Latin II.
Untextbooking - students' first review Miriam polled and recorded feedback about Untextbooking in her classes.
The Untextbooked Classroom: A Glimpse A recent writeup that describes what I do to create a unit without a textbook for my classes.
Untextbooking: Creating a Vocabulary List without a Textbook The basic process I followed to create my vocabulary list this year for Latin I.

Also, the following posts are about ideas and activities that I feel sort of go hand-in-hand with our new untextbooked classrooms:

Movie Talk/Movie Shorts Miriam describes in detail how to do your own movie talk.
Standards Based Grading (SBG) - Making it Work in a Traditional Gradebook Miriam has done what I'm afraid to do--jumped into SBG. I think however SBG is key to focusing on student mastery, which is part of the point of leaving the textbook, so I will be doing this next year.
Reconsidering Retakes A quick overview of how I offer retakes in my classes this year.
Retakes - The Redux Miriam's approach to retakes. Either one offers students the chance to show mastery of a subject later if he or she did not on the first assessment.
Read Dating - and other ideas from the Reading Toolbox Miriam has collected some awesome activities to help you reteach and reread texts you introduce in class.
Vocabulary Toolbox Miriam collected activities for teaching and introducing vocabulary as well!

Monday, November 17, 2014

My letter to the governor

I am 27 years old and have never missed an election. I consider the "right" to vote a responsibility and it is one that I take very seriously. This past election was no exception. I have decided to write both the newly reelected governor, Mr. Nathan Deal, and Georgia's new senator, Mr. David Perdue. While my letter is typed here, I hand wrote it and mailed it (as evidenced by my picture). I decided to write it and mail it because, in the past, when I have emailed senators or representatives, I have only once ever gotten a response and it was from an aid who never followed up after I responded a second time.

I want to ultimately let the letter speak for itself, but my reasoning behind these letters was based on a few things:

  • What I've experienced as a teacher under Governor Deal
  • What I've experienced as a teacher under the new testing and evaluation systems
  • What I've experienced as a foreign language teacher in a world of common core and athletics
  • Mr. Perdue's most recent statement regarding the "clear message" he feels that Georgia has sent to Washington

Dear Governor Deal,

My name is Miriam Patrick. I am 27 years old and I have never missed an election. While I did not vote for you, I feel that it is important that I make my voice clear because you represent all of us in Georgia. I come from a family of teachers. Both of my parents teach in the state of Georgia and have taught for many years along with other family members in other states, so today I write to you as a teacher, in a family of teachers, and as a citizen who is very concerned when it comes to matters of education. Please also allow me to say that I am writing to you as an individual citizen, who is also a teacher, and not a representative of my school or school system.

Mr. Perdue recently said that Georgia has sent Washington a "clear message". I find this statement alarming because a 52% majority is not a clear victory and, if anything, should be a message to you as well as him that the state of Georgia is changing. As our elected governor, I would hope that you could best represent and make decisions regarding all of the people living in this state and not just those who agree with and voted for you. It is in light of this that I am writing to you today. 

I have been a public school teacher for five years. I teach in Gwinnett County where 20% of the population speaks something other than English at home and 15.9% of families live at or below the poverty line for a family of four in Georgia. In my county, 55.46% of students receive free or reduced lunch plans. 

When I look around my classroom, I see that my students do not fit neatly into one category or another. I have students of every race and ethnicity, and economic station; I wouldn't have it any other way. Given all this, I think it is clear where my concerns play a role in regards to your views on education as well as your track record. 

While you have increased the amount of money the state spends on each student by $400 since 2012, the enrollment has increased, along with class sizes, and teachers are not being relieved of cuts made in 2003 while other areas of government are receiving major increases, like the 186 million dollars the department of corrections has seen. What I wonder is why you are willing to increase the budget to deal with offenders, but are not providing adequate opportunities that help prevent incarceration. Education plays a direct role, as you state on the governor's website, in making sure Georgia has a stable future, and you state that your goals are to make sure students are prepared for college, life, and the job market. In order for this to happen, shouldn't we be investing in our students and their future rather than the consequences of budget cuts, economic inequality, and lack of support?

On this same note, you recommended not only, initially, cutting the pre-k program in Georgia to half days, but you then recommended cutting the program to 160 days and also cutting over 300 classes and programs as well. While you did also bring back the 180 day program, the cuts on teacher salaries, program cuts, and increases on class size remained, forcing pre-k teachers into the same situation k-12 teachers face every day. We know that class size makes a difference in regards to teacher and student relations, individual instruction, and individual needs of students (whether they are placed in gifted programs or special needs programs). Why would you continue to increase the demands on teachers while not supporting them to ensure that our students can do the best they can? You say that you want to increase the percentage of students who are on level by the third grade. How can this be done, at any grade, when neither teachers nor students are supported in these areas?

Much of your focus on schools has been to increase science, math, and technology, as well as to increase spending on charter schools. As a foreign language teacher in a public school, I have a strong reaction to this. Based on the cuts and changes you've made, foreign language has taken a back seat and must now fight to keep their programs alive and student numbers up. Given the fact that 1/5 of my county speaks something other than English at home (and that this does not include people who simply speak another language), how can you not include foreign language in this vital set of skills students should be exposed to? You have discussed the importance of math and science, as well as language arts, but you have forgotten how important it is to be able to work with, communicate with, and understand the people we live with and around. 

Georgia is losing teachers. Georgia is gaining students. This system cannot maintain itself at the rate it is going. Having shared with you my thoughts and concerns, I'd like to invite you to spend a day with me in my classroom. I want to extend this invitation to you so that you can see what a day is like for a teacher like me and so many others in the fields of arts, languages, and other specialties, including technology and engineering teachers. I would like this conversation, which I view as one of the most important, to continue, and not end with my letter to you. 

Thank you for your time and I look forward to your reply,
Miriam Patrick

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Vocabulary Toolbox

One of the things that can quickly weigh me and my kids down and easily puts us into a rut from which we might never return is vocabulary acquisition. Sometimes I struggle with coming up with new ways to teach and work with vocabulary that the kids find interesting. Here are some of my favourites:

Circling/TPRS/Asking a Story
Rachel did a post a while back on asking a story and while I am not the best at coming up with stories, I do this activity often enough when an opportunity presents itself while circling. I really like taking 4-5 words that I need to teach, putting them on the board, and just asking questions. There is one time in particular that comes to mind where my Latin I class took the vocabulary and ran with it. We ended up having a nice story that is still referenced whenever we come across the vocabulary. I was teaching words like "comedere" (eat), "placere" (to please), "ferox" (ferocious), and "timere" (fear/be afraid). I went around asking students for animals and whether they were ferocious or, if not, what they were afraid of and whether these kinds of animals were pleasing to the students. I'd then ask if the ferocious animals wanted to eat the non ferocious animals. I got to one student who told me his "feles ferocissimus est" (cat is very ferocious), but, as I discovered, his cat did not want to eat any of the other animals. I asked him why not and my student said, "volo comedere animalia" (I want to eat the animals). To this day, any time the word comedere comes up, someone asks him if he wants to eat whatever is in our story. 

It is simply for this reason that I enjoy circling so much. Unlike asking a story, I don't need a shell or an ending in mind, I just need words and basic questions. The more we do it, the more comfortable I and my students become and the more willing they are to play the game. Some of my best stories have come this way and my students love telling them. 

Circling with Stuffed Animals AND Practice Stories
Another way that I love circling and telling stories is with stuffed animals. This is essentially the same as above except instead of asking students about their animals or interests, we build on a stuffed animal I already have. I usually do this when I know for sure I want a story to come from it or have a story in mind. I can lead students and give them a chance to visualise it with the stuffed animals. This is by far one of my students' favourite ways of practicing vocabulary. The next day, I'll have typed up the story as a "practice story". You can do this just as a reading activity or as a cloze passage. By day 2, the story will be easily comprehensible and a good review for students. Here's an example practice story I wrote for my Latin I students. Allow me a moment to also point out:

I know that we often don't collaborate across languages and tend to stick with those who speak our language and teach our curriculum. I've already stated that I am not very good at coming up with story shells for my students. This practice story I've shared and many of the other ones I've written are based off of a Spanish teacher's stories. He is much better at this, especially the ending part, and I know enough Spanish to easily change it into Latin. I strongly encourage us all to reach out across languages and, even if you don't know the other language, ask for ideas and stories. 

Embedded Readings
You can read about specific reading activities here and learn all about embedded readings here. I tend to introduce 3-4 words/phrases on embedded readings. A lot of times I may be reintroducing ones that I think we need more practice with. I like to use read and discuss activities and circling to practice vocabulary and then read dating or a close passage to practice and review. 

Movie Shorts and Dictationes
I will be following up with a post on dictations specifically, but they are a great way to introduce new vocabulary and you can introduce around 8 new words or constructions. I will update with a link to that post when it is ready. 

You can read my original post on movie shorts here. I love this activity and use it at least once a unit. My students also love the videos and find them as a great discussion tool. You can use them in any level and I usually try to limit vocabulary to 5-6 for these. If I cut a video in half and only introduce one half a day, you can introduce 8-10 (4-5 each day). I will do circling, Q and A, and story telling all with this on differing days. 

Picture Descriptions
This is an activity that Rachel, I admit, is much better at creating than me. I love doing them with my kids and my kids absolutely adore this activity, I just can't, for the life of me, think to write these when I am making lessons. In this activity, you can review and teach (a select few) words using short descriptions that you write and pictures students draw. 
  1. Create simple descriptions of pictures that contain the words you want to review. The weirder they are, the more interesting they are to the kids. For example, if I wanted to review "cat", "woman", "big", and "small", I might write this:
    In my picture there is a woman. The woman is small. In my picture there is a cat. The cat is big. The big cat sits on a chair. The small woman eats the chair. 
  2. Tell students you will read the description three times. The first time, they are to listen and nothing else. The second and third times, they may draw their picture. Read the description slowly three times while students draw.
  3. Reveal your own picture. 
  4. You might circle the words some more, ask questions to see who understands what, or just let them enjoy your artistic talent. 

One Word Pictures
This is becoming one of my go to ways of teaching and informally evaluating vocabulary with my students. It is incredibly low prep and low intensity for the teacher and it can open the door to so many other activities. Keith Toda describes his version of the activity here.
  1. Put up a picture that clearly demonstrates the word you are teaching. Define the word for students and write it down so they can see it. 
  2. Choose a student drawer. You can do this yourself as well, but I find it easier to continue circling and asking questions if a student draws. 
  3. Start slowly circling the vocabulary. I ask simple questions which paint the background and, if necessary, give us characters. Where is the picture? Who is in the picture? What is in the picture? You can expand this to include adjectives and feelings if you want. What sort of man is in the picture? What is he doing? 
  4. Once I get a clear picture, I like to expand on the why (mostly with my upper levels) and get into less concrete ideas. I enjoy seeing how kids demonstrate this in the drawing. What I've found is that if kids disagree with the drawing, they will speak up. Usually this opens the discussion up for more discussion and, sometimes, an all together changing of the picture or some great additions. 
  5. You can go a few different ways with this. You can turn this into a story as a class and, if you have a writer, it can become a reading for the next day. You can also turn it into a timed write where the students make up their own ending (and you can read those the next day). 

I would love to add to this collection of vocabulary resources. I've shared a few more below, but please leave in the comments any experiences you have with these or any new ones you know!

Other Resources

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Untextbooking: Creating a Vocabulary List without a Textbook

Vocabulary is one of the main reasons I left the textbook behind. I have been frustrated both by the size of vocabulary lists in textbooks and by the choices of words for these lists.

I wanted control. I wanted to choose the best vocabulary for my classes.

As I know very well, however, control is a burden. Now it's my own task to choose what vocabulary I should teach my students, what words are the most important, most useful words for my students to know. How many I need to teach and at what rate. What words I want my students to have at their disposal by the end of the school year.

I'm not completely at leisure in terms of vocabulary. We have a county-wide pre- and post-test that is universal, based off of the adopted textbook, and contains a lot of vocabulary that I find extraneous. I think it is important to recognize that many of us are facing a culture of testing that may require compromise in order for our students to succeed in the testing as well as according to our own means of checking comprehension and knowledge. So I am making sure my students learn vocabulary that will help them with this test, but all vocabulary outside of that is based on frequency and necessity.

I have the good fortune to know several really talented and intelligent Latin teachers, both in person and online, and to have access to their ideas and input really allows me to experiment in my classes and become a better teacher. One such group has joined together to create Latin Best Practices, and in particular, a list of the fifty most important verbs in Latin.

Why the 50 most important verbs? Because verbs run a language, to a great extent. Because often there are certain words that are simply repeated in almost all writing. They aren't the first to do this. You can find Spanish and French verb lists based on word frequency with a simple Google search.

So how did I make a vocabulary list? I started with the 50 most important verbs. If my students learn all of those verbs in their first year of Latin, they will have a great foundation for any readings I decide to bring into class. I added in the sometimes arbitrary vocabulary I know my students will face on the post test and that created my preliminary vocabulary list. Now as I continue through the school year I choose words based on frequency and usefulness to my class.

When my students learned the word "vir," meaning "man," a high-frequency word for the very patriarchal Romans, I knew my students would want a word for "woman" to be paired with it. There are several words for "woman" in Latin, with various connotations, but the most frequent is "mulier" (with "femina" coming in about half as frequently).

This really sounds unexciting, and I know that. However, somehow, having the power to teach students only the most useful words, words that will be used repeatedly and I can make sure are recycled into our review stories and the new Latin that I bring to my students, is really awesome. I never have to ask myself "Why am I teaching this?"--something I had done repeatedly when teaching from a textbook.

I am hoping to finish teaching my list as new vocabulary at around a month before school is out for the year. At that point, I plan to spend the last month choosing readings and activities that are focused on reinforcing the 200-250 words we've visited over the year. If my students can start next year with only a little vocabulary loss, then they will be significantly better off than any Latin II students I have previously taught.

I have the power to do that, I think. It's exciting. Of course, it's also a burden--if I'm not satisfied with their learning and instruction in any way, I'll only have myself to blame.