Thursday, December 17, 2015

I gave up homework this fall....and we all survived

This summer, I had the good fortune of participating in a 2 1/2 day institute with Laura Terrill, during which I committed to writing a thematically based curriculum for my 4th-6th graders.  Gratifying. Invigorating. Completely overwhelming. Laura gave a clear message to the participants that when taking on something new, we have to give something up, too.

Hmm? What to give up?  It only took me about 5 seconds to figure out that homework had to go, and from then on my mantra has been "Grade less. Plan more." I only have so much time-more learning comes from planning than grading.  Thank you Laura Terrill.   So, why the switch?

  • There is mounting evidence that homework doesn't support academic achievement in elementary(see The Case Against Homework), with little evidence that it does.
  • Thanks to Google Translate and Spanish speaking babysitters and family members, often the homework is not the student's work, and I don't get an accurate picture of what they can do or what they have practiced. 
  • I see over 200 students per week-tracking their progress and giving timely feedback on their in class work. In a day, I usually have eight class meetings.  There simply are not enough hours in the day for me to spend grading homework or giving up precious class time for students to check homework that doesn't support proficiency.   
Fortunately, I teach in a school that is open to change based on evidence, and I was able to let it go. Homework now is for fun projects like occasionally writing pen pal letters; and not every day nor every week.

I'm now three months in and here's how it's going:
  • Utter freedom from the looming pile. While my workload, like all teachers, is still heavy-I now focus my time on planning units, lessons and giving feedback on class work.  I don't feel guilty or overwhelmed by the paperwork or Google Voice assignments waiting in my inbox.
  • No one is losing out.  The children in my program continue to progress and build proficiency without homework, AND our time together is free from nagging about missing homework assignments.
  • I  assess/grade what's important: what students can actually do in the language.  By giving up  homework, I evaluate only assessments(free from GT), which demonstrate what students can do in the language-not how they've managed their time outside of class. 
  • I gained time to focus on the most important work. The last two years, I created my own homework book-which entailed writing performance based tasks for each unit, then have it copied and bound. I now spend more time planning for in-class learning experiences, and have more money in the budget!
  • Flexibility. Even though I created my own workbooks, I then had to stick to them. What if we wanted to spend more time exploring a topic or take it further?  The homework book didn't support that. 
  • I'm happier-which is better for my students.
I know that not all teachers can make this choice due to district/school requirements. But if you can-it feels almost as good as tossing your textbook.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Connecting Globally: The Communities Standard in Elementary

"Bring the world to the child." 
 -Maria Montessori

From the World Readiness Standards, 2015: Learners use the language both within and beyond the classroom to interact and collaborate in their community and the globalized world. 

Communities. This is where the rubber really hits the road-interacting with actual humans that speak the language. For teachers in K-8 programs, this standard can present challenges in terms of opportunity and age appropriateness.  I'm fortunate to work in a Montessori environment where independence is fostered and celebrated, so we are able to travel with the middle schoolers(I'll elaborate on traveling with 13 year olds later), but in elementary, making the community connection is still an interesting challenge. This year I'm experimenting with some ways the children can connect and use Spanish outside of the classroom without, well, going outside of the classroom. 

The Peace Corps has a program to connect volunteers with schools, so my third graders are corresponding with a volunteer in Costa Rica. Thanks to technology, our volunteer has been able to email us photos and letters and we can do the same. Fortunately she's a Spanish speaker and it's given my students a chance to use Spanish for introductions and asking questions, and they've learned a thing or two about life in Costa Rica.  

In upper elementary, I'm using E-pals to connect with children my students' age in Spain and Nicaragua. We're using paper letter writing which has been a fun way for the children to exchange tokens such as coins, school photos and friendship bracelets, but are also exchanging sound recordings using Vocaroo/email.   The ripple effects are being felt in our school community and more classroom teachers are asking about how to participate in  project collaboration and pen pal connections in their classrooms, too! 

In what ways are you bringing the world to the children you teach?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Shifting Context

  Averting war is the work of politicians, establishing peace is the work of education.
Maria Montessori

Without context, it's very difficult to learn another language. In order to acquire language, we need to struggle with negotiating context.   Thinking about my own language learning, I faintly remember the many textbooks my teachers used that laid out units that jumped from topic to topic-travel, school, clothing, weather, food-all without much cultural context that ever veered off the beaten path of tacos and tapas. 

 In 6th grade Spanish we are wrapping up a unit on food. Well, not on food exactly.  At the beginning of the unit,  students were asked the question, "Qué come el mundo?" What does the world eat?  We starting by considering the book Hungry Planet which documents families from around the world and a week's worth of groceries.  After describing and comparing photos, it became clear that not all families have access to the same quantities or quality of food.  Later in the unit, we considered the work of the Spanish aid organization  Acción contra el hambre which explores some of the reasons for hunger in our world, and solutions to it.  Finally, the children reflected on their work with Common Pantry, and how they can support the hungry in Chicago.  What resulted was using Spanish language to create a campaign to build support for Common Pantry in our community.  Sure, the children learned food words  during the unit, but the enduring understanding is about increasing justice, peace and equality in our community and world.  It's all about shifting the context.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

LIVE! from ACTFL-3

"If it's not good and not working...I have to ask myself Why am I still teaching it?"
            Thank you, Laura Terrill.

Today was inspiring and empowering.  For starters, ACTFL has launched its Global Engagement Initiative this year that seeks to recognize programs that engage students of all ages globally.  I am proud that my program was honored today for our middle school trip to Costa Rica, but you don't have to travel with your students to get them globally engaged-nor is this a competition-any program that meets ACTFL's requirements can be recognized.  Today's session was inspiring-there were recipients that are engaging in exchanges with other schools, doing service trips, creating communities on their campuses and connecting older students with real life job experiences in which they use their target language.  Visit the Global Engagement Initiative website to read about the programs recognized this year and to nominate your own program!  If you're looking to build a globally connected program, Ben Rifkin of ACTFL suggests using the rubric to get some ideas on getting started.

The afternoon was spent being challenged, and empowered by Laura Terrill and Donna Clementi. (Their book "The Keys for Planning for Learning" is my bible of unit writing and lesson planning)
My takeaways:
  • If it doesn't work, toss it.
  • Don't be held captive by your textbook(in fact, maybe toss it-I've done it, it's great!)
  • Material has to be engaging and interesting to students-use photos of real people with real emotions.
  • Literacy is so so much more than reading(Do your students know how to use Google responsibly?)
Finally, the evening was spent with dear colleagues at a reception for the National Network of Early Language Learning-great to connect with true believers!

There are so many opportunities for elementary and middle school teachers here at ACTFL-if you can, come. So many of us may work in isolation...but we're not alone.

Friday, November 20, 2015

LIVE! from ACTFL-2

So, what's here at ACTFL for K-8 teachers? This weekend there are sessions on staying in the target language in FLES, practical tips on integrating technology, content ideas for elementary, developing deep thematic units, learning stations and dual language programs-plus sessions sponsored by NNELL, who has a presence here, too.  A ton of great sessions for us, K-8 language teachers!

My biggest take away from today was not about pedagogy, writing assessments or tracking proficiency growth.  Today centered around global engagement and justice.  This morning's keynote was presented by well-known travel writer and guide, Rick Steves, who challenged us to keep traveling and to seek building more bridges than walls.  This was followed with a plenary on global engagement with a notable CNN correspondent and an author/teacher and four time Peace Corps volunteer who highlighted the life changing experiences they've had because they ventured beyond our borders...and comfort zones.  These experiences have me reflecting on myself as a person in this world. How do I fit into this global community? What are my responsibilities to help others in this community?  What bridges am I building? 

Isn't this what we want to cultivate in our students?  From an early age, children can start to form stereotypes and assumptions- I am reminded today that as a world language teacher, it's my work to challenge and debunk these stereotypes, to cultivate interculturality and encourage respectful investigation of this world.  Yes, TL use and performance benchmarks are important, but if I only focus on the language, I'm missing the heart of the matter. We can do this..from the very start.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

LIVE! From ACTFL 2015

As an elementary and middle school teacher, I used to feel intimidated by the ACTFL convention-I often assumed that there was nothing there for me-that it's for high school and university professionals only. Not so!

I'm going to to write a few posts from ACTFL in San Diego highlighting what's here for us K-8 folks.
So, Today: 

Words and Actions Teaching Language Through the Lens of Social Justice with Cassandra Glynn, Pamela Wesely and Beth Wassell.

If you haven't already done so-I highly recommend reading it. The authors/presenters are sure to include ideas and resources for elementary through advanced university students.  I think this is an important theme for us to explore as K-8 teachers, as we know that beliefs and stereotypes are formed early. As a language teacher, I believe strongly that it's my job first and foremost to combat stereotypes and help foment an open, global mindset in my students. We can do this starting early by choosing carefully the kinds of images that are displayed in our classrooms, the vocabulary we choose and the materials we use during lessons.   

 Seriously. Get this book. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Do you celebrate Día de Muertos with your elementary or middle school students?

The children in my Spanish program range from age 5 to 14, most of them functioning at novice-mid language level.   How do I help them to understand and experience in a meaningful way Día de Muertos while maintaining 90% plus target language?  My approach is multi-faceted and relies on our school community:
  1. Partner with other specialists: art, music and library teachers.  These colleagues have been a treasure because not only can they explore different disciplines on the topic,  they can help provide the holiday's context and meaning in English.  Combing art projects for the ofrenda, singing traditional Mexican songs, and reading books in English about holiday, make the work in Spanish class so much sweeter.  
  2. Link Día de Muertos to the current thematic unit in some way. In order to build connection and meaning, we explore the holiday through the lense of the current thematic unit. For example-easy connection to a unit that ties to family, but a unit that ties to food helps to give focus to our celebration-even our thematic unit on biodiversity and conservation has a connection. I found a great authentic resource on celebrating Día de Muertos in a sustainable way-using recycled materials, etc.
  3. Give lots of visual support. I love and use Spanish Playground's unit that provides a great resource for introducing the holiday in the TL. I use lots of photos and drawings to help stay in the TL during class presentations and discussions.
  4. Give scaffolded support for presentational speaking. The children talk about their families-I know that is not the culture in all schools, but in ours it is an important part of the school culture.  My students have the option to remember and celebrate a loved one by placing items and photos on the ofrenda and/or talking to the class about them(every child has the option to pass-and many do). Since ground rules about respecting each child in the community, students' choices to share or not are respected-as are any emotions that come up.  At the early levels, children are provided with a form to fill in..."Recuerdo a....Se llamaba....era...." They can then use that support to help them to share, using Spanish. At upper elementary and middle school levels, students have more language experience and are able to create more on their own with more detailed descriptions of their loved ones.
  5. Communicate with parents.  Communicating the plan with parents also provides children with an opportunity to discuss and explore the holiday with their families at home, which enriches the in class experience.  
  6. A School Tradition Because celebrating Día de Muertos is part of our school's annual traditions, children are able to participate many times over the course of their time at the school-giving them lots of practice and opportunity to see it from different perspectives and ages.  Messages and language chunks are reinforced over a period of years. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Best Free PD:#Langchat

If you're looking for a free, time-friendly way to explore a proficiency topic with meaty dialogue-you should join #langchat on Thursday evenings or Saturday mornings. As elementary language teachers-we're often the only language teacher in our building-this is a great way to connect with other teachers at all levels in a great professional learning community!  See you there!  Thursday at 6 pm CST, 9 am  CST Saturdays.