Saturday, December 9, 2017

Reducing Decision Fatigue or Embracing the House Dress



Every year...since forever, I start off early fall on a new mission--I'll work less, I'll walk to work every day, I'll take care of myself, manage stress, I'll......screeech--crash! (the sound of my plans spinning at high speed off the road by mid-October)

I was determined to not follow this same habit again this year(no, really!).

At the end of summer, I read this great post by Gerard Dawson at Cult of Pedagogy on decision fatigue in teachers.  It was the first time I'd heard that term, but it named the overwhelm I'd been feeling in my work and home life, and described many behaviors I had unconsciously continued doing as I careened toward burnout each year.  I recommend taking a look at it.  The author made me think about the many distractions and decisions built into my routine, and examine how I could minimize them.

I took the author's suggestions seriously and put some of his ideas into practice and...things are indeed different for me this year.  While I still have many stressful days(hello, I'm still a teacher and single mom), I feel more sane, but it meant some changes in my thinking and habits.
  • In the classroom:
    • I collaborated with colleagues to establish some simple, clear expectations, especially at the middle school level.  We use the CHAMPS model, but I don't think it matters which model we use, as long as expectations are clear, fair and followed consistently. My blood pressure has gone way down, being able to use the simple language built into these expectations to respond to situations instead of trying to always figure it out on the fly.  I'm pretty sure my students would say I'm a lot nicer to be around, too.
    • Work routines: Instead of my old habit of doing something new and different everyday, I have daily routines--different content, same procedures. Practices like FVR Friday, Music Monday in elementary, and individual CI activities for the first few minutes of class as middle school students trickle in(listening to a recording, podcast, short video, read an article--all can be used for interpersonal tasks or for thinking routines during class). My students know what to expect, and so do I.
    • I've put limits on my innovation by choosing some practices, activities, units, technology(you name it) that work and save big changes for summer or other breaks by pinning ideas to Pinterest and archiving ideas for the future when I'm not in the midst of a full teaching schedule.
  • In life:
    • Unless it's really an emergency(really), I don't work from home. It was hard for the first 6 weeks, and sometimes that means staying late or coming in early to make it happen, but it's a firm boundary. I feel more focused and fresh at work as a result, and am a more present mom at home.
    • My morning routine is only about getting ready for school(no work until I actually get to work!), and my daughter and I have enough time most days to walk. 
    • Food: I pretty much eat the same thing everyday for breakfast and lunch, shopping for the week and bringing items to work so I don't pack a lunch everyday. 
    • Finally, let's talk about the house dress.   I couldn't afford to replace my current clothes with a capsule wardrobe, BUT I did downsize my collection(I'm a thrift store hoarder) and treat it like a uniform. When I'm at home, the uniform is off and I put the house dress on.  This practice is a concrete reminder that I'm at home and not working. Plus, it just feels amazing.
My biggest take away from Dawson's post was that it's not about having one way to address the stress and decision fatigue, but finding habits that would work for me.  I feel a little exposed blogging about these new habits, but I'm hoping that by posting this, I'll have to keep holding myself to them.

 So for now, I cling to my house dress.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Building Rapport and Relationships with T.A.L.K. in Middle School

Learning about T.A.L.K. was a great aha! moment in my teaching--one that I've been able to apply with my 6th-8th graders to give more clear and consistent feedback. (I'm still working on how to use it with younger students, but have to consider that conversational output is much less at those levels).

If you're not familiar with T.A.L.K., in brief, it's a framework to encourage interpersonal communication and give feedback on it.  At our school, T.A.L.K. stands for: (T)arget language (A)ccuracy(enough to be understood, using new vocab. structures) (L)istening(being a good, active listener) and (K)eep it going(being a support, active conversation partner).

Before we use it, I have a conversation  with the students where we collaboratively defining what each of those areas look and sound like(ie. "A good listener makes eye contact with their partner, and is focused on what they're saying, rather than using their computer, working on work while their partner is trying to engage them in conversation, a good listener is nodding, or interjecting--"yes, me too, I didn't quite understand").  Then, while we do interpersonal activities, I make my rounds to listen and observe, and over the course of a 5-6 week period aim to give each student at least 1-2 T.A.L.K sheets, depending on the class size and frequency.  Below is the rubric for my upper elementary group(no grades), but for middle school where 7th-8th graders are graded, point values are assigned--4 pts. each area.



In my 7th-8th grade classes, I use T.A.L.K. frequently, and this fall, I've discovered that this framework provides me with a great opportunity to connect with the students individually, focusing on what they can do, and offering suggestions on how they can 'level up' to make it even better next time.  I used to simply hand back the T.A.L.K. rubrics at the end of class, but this year, I'm taking a moment with each student as they leave class to use it for a conversation and a way to connect.  The response has been very positive--most importantly, it's giving me a chance to connect with the students I don't know very well, or with which I don't have the greatest rapport.  During the course of our first marking period, I've noticed an overall improvement in my relationship with the kids, and deeper engagement on their part(asking questions about their learning and asking for what they need--help with vocabulary development, putting sentences together...).

While I don't think T.A.L.K. is perfect(I don't love the accuracy marker), it has allowed my students and me to use the same vocabulary to talk about their learning and connect personally in our first language.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Teach Better/Work Less: Slow Down on Innovation





I continue to be inspired by Elizabeth Dentlinger and her goal of Teach Better/Work Less, which I've adopted as my own.

While I've got lots of moving parts to the Teach Better/Work Less plan, one area I've had to take a close look at is innovation.  Why do I feel like I must have new and better ways every year, all the time?  There's no doubt that our field is full of learning and innovation right now--making the shift from learning to acquisition, from memorization to proficiency, new ACTFL standards, new research, better ways to spend our class time.....There's a lot of great work to be done.  But I don't have to do it All. At. Once.

After writing a couple of new units for upper elementary and middle school and adding FVR, I started talking about creating stations--after the school year had started.  My good friend and colleague, Siobhan, didn't even look up from her work when I laid out my plan. She simply said, "For next year."

She knows. I'm an innovation junkie. In reflecting more about this penchant for change, it became clear, quickly, that my focus on (rapid) innovation was the cause of a lot of stress and additional pressure on my work load--all brought on by me. I'm now asking myself, "Am I really reflecting on each major innovation? How does it work? How do the children respond? Is the innovation responding to their needs?  Is it too fast for them? How does this change focus on the bigger picture and program goals? Given the time limitations, does it make sense?"

So, I'm committed to what I've started and as far as innovation? I started a Pinterest Board with ideas for stations so when I feel the strong urge to start changing things I can pin ideas to the board and then let it go...for now. Same for unit ideas. I'll take some time to sit with the changes already in place, and respond as needed. 



Saturday, October 14, 2017

Keeping it in the TL: Elementary Version


A couple of years ago, my colleague, Siobhan, and I attended a workshop that emphasized the importance of teaching students transactional phrases and words in the target language to be used during class activities. The presenters stressed that the value of whatever cutting/pasting/coloring project we had going on could be lost because students drop the TL to speak in English, but it's the transactional language that's the real life part. This rang true for both of us and we went back to school, where between us, teach kindergarten through 8th grade, and put some new practices in place to support TL use in our classes.  
As a part of our process, we asked the children what language they needed to get their needs met and express themselves without defaulting to English.  The list of language is ever evolving and is posted on our class white boards, so when a situation arises, we can add it to the list. Now having experience with the kinds of things the children need to say, we can predict some of that language and explicitly teach it and have visual reminders posted in our classrooms.  What we've noticed is that the children, when given these phrases and words, use them. Phrases like ¿Puedo ir al baño? or ¿Me das un lápiz? can be heard from very young children through middle school.  Not only are the children learning necessary transactional language, we're laying the foundation for on-going inquiry and ownership of their language learning. In upper elementary and middle school, rather than dropping to English, students ask "Cómo se dice...?" for something they need to express an opinion or ask a question, and add the language to their personal vocabulary lists for future use.  This stems from their early experiences in lower elementary and being supported in using target language from the start.





Monday, September 25, 2017

Proficiency and Families: Parent Night






I've written on Path2Proficiency about bringing parents in on the path to proficiency, since so many of us learned a language, well, not with a proficiency focus.  Because so many of my students' parents had the experience of "studying a language for four years, but can't speak it,"(we've all heard it), I thought I'd share what I send out to parents on our annual fall parent night, to communicate what working toward proficiency looks like.  

For the 6-9 year olds:


¡Español! 
 septiembre 2017
Teachers: Siobhan(Ext Day/6-9)       Valerie Shull (9-12/middle school, Program Director) class blog: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

¡ Muy bienvenido al nuevo año escolar! When it comes to language acquisition, long term thinking is required. Starting in Extended Day and 6-9, we envision what the 8th grade graduate will look like, and beyond that- the young adult speaker of Spanish. So, let’s start with that vision and program goals:
What are the goals?
Language development happens over time-much longer than just one or two school years. By
the time the children graduate 8th grade, the goal is for them to function at the Novice High-Intermediate Low speaking levels in class. What does that mean?
  • ○  Intermediate speakers of a language are know as survivors-they can survive in the target culture.
  • ○  The Intermediate level is characterized by the ability to combine learned elements of language creatively, though primarily in a reactive mode.
  • ○  The Intermediate level speaker can initiate, minimally sustain, and close basic communicative tasks.
  • ○  The speaker can ask and answer questions and can speak in discrete sentences and strings of sentences on topics that are either autobiographical or related primarily to his or her immediate environment.
  • ○  Novice High speakers are on the cusp of being able to perform Intermediate tasks in a sustained and consistent manner.
    Remember- Novice High/Intermediate Low is the goal of our graduates . What that means is that in 6-9, the children are interacting and having fun using the language to explore different topics. While the priority is interpersonal communication, we start some reading during the second and third years and introduce writing-all of which support oral communication. The children in 6-9 navigate real life situations encountered in childhood using Spanish-play, asking questions, grace and courtesy, talking about themselves and exploring culture through the language.
    We hope that you will sign up to follow the Spanish class blog where we post information on language learning, news on what’s happening in class and practical ways you can support Spanish language learning outside of school. Please contact us with any questions you have. We love talking world languages! 

    And for the 9-12 year old families:
    septiembre 2017

    Teacher:  Valerie Shull(9-12/middle school, Program Director)    
       

        class blog:xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
            ¡Muy bienvenido al nuevo año escolar!  I am so happy to welcome you back.

    In 9-12 we use a  teacher created Spanish curriculum developed based on current research and best practices in the field. This curriculum has been under development over the several years and supports  further Spanish language acquisition, aligns to the ACTFL World Readiness Standards,  and encourages critical thinking by our young global citizens.  

    About the program:
  • The program is centered around themes that both support the children in acquiring Spanish language and encourage critical thinking about the world and the perspectives of its cultures. Some example units include:
    • Global Challenges in the Natural World(biodiversity and the environment)
    • Belonging: What Makes A family?
    • Identity: Who Am I?
    • Well-being: A healthy lifestyle
    • Exploring: Where  I live and my Place in the World
    • Challenges: What the World Eats

  • This way of learning is very different than the way most of us experienced a language class in middle school or high school. You will not see textbook conjugation charts or workbook pages with grammar drills.  The children are learning language in context of authentic texts, audio and video and activities in which they use the language as the vehicle for communication. Communication and global competency are the focus; this approach to language teaching is based on the most current acquisition and teaching research.

What are the goals?
  • Language development happens over time-much longer than just one or two school years.  By the time the children graduate 8th grade, the goal is for them to function at the Novice High-Intermediate Low speaking levels in class. What does that mean?  

    • Intermediate speakers of a language are know as survivors-they can survive in the target culture.  
    • The Intermediate level is characterized by the ability to combine learned elements of language creatively, though primarily in a reactive mode.
    • The Intermediate level speaker can initiate, minimally sustain, and close basic communicative tasks.
    • The speaker can ask and answer questions and can speak in discrete sentences and strings of sentences on topics that are either autobiographical or related primarily to his or her immediate environment.
    • Novice High speakers are on the cusp of being able to perform Intermediate tasks in a sustained and consistent manner.

Remember-Novice High/Intermediate Low is the goal of our graduates. Children in 9-12 operate at the novice level-living primarily in the world of the concrete and predictable,  answering in words, utterances and sentence fragments. That’s right on track.

I hope that you will sign up to follow the Spanish class blog, where I post information on language learning, news on what’s happening in class and samples of the children’s work.  Please contact me with any questions you have. I love talking world language!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

FVR: Hallelujah!

After seeing so many inspiring posts from teachers using FVR(free and voluntary reading) in their classrooms, my interest was piqued and I really wanted to give it a try. I mentioned recently that I'm over working when it comes to comprehensible input(CI) and I know that reading is important to language development--both reasons to speed up the FVR project in my class.

One (perceived) roadblock for me was the length of my classes--we're a FLES program with 30 minute class meetings, three times per week. I was thinking that the 30 minute meeting time was too short for FVR, and so I'd put it off. However, during summer set up, I started looking through our collection of books in Spanish--it's pretty substantial with a wide range of levels and genres, so why not use them?

What I did:

I set up this little area in my classroom, putting out books that range from three words on the page to novels like Esperanza Renace and short graphic novels for my heritage speakers. Topics include content they're learning in class--biomes, animals, etc(in #earlylang, animals and their babies are king) to story book biographies and short fiction.

I'm in the process of creating booklets of short news articles from Newsela and elementary appropriate articles from Martina Bex's El mundo en tus manos to add to the shelf, and plan to add a basket to include books on loan from Chicago Public Library, as I get to know the children's interests better.

Part of my teaching better, working less project involved creating class opening routines AND sticking to them. (Monday/Tues: Music, Wed/Thur Writing prompts and Fridays start with FVR. So this Friday, I greeted each group, 4th-6th graders, at the door speaking very quietly,  using postcards a la A.C. Quintero 's suggestion for seat assignments. There was quiet music playing inside the room and the children entered and sat down calmly and peacefully listening to the music(I wanted to set a very chill tone in what is usually a very energetic environment).

After turning off the music, I quietly explained that we would be doing FVR(referencing D.E.A.R.-Drop Everything And Read) with which they're already familiar.  Then, thanks to the suggestion of my colleague Siobhan, gave some guidance on how to approach reading in Spanish, highlighting:
  • Choosing material that feels like a right fit and is interesting to them
  • seeking cognates to help make meaning
  • using pictures and illustrations 
  • changing books if it doesn't feel quite right 
Then, children chose their books, I set the timer for five minutes and away we went.

How did it go?

Day one was a huge success.
  • It was a solid block of quiet, engaged reading across the board.
  • Almost all of the children asked for more time.
  • I asked the students to reflect and give me some feedback on FVR--the overall theme was empowerment and BEING ABLE to read in Spanish(they can understand more than I thought).  The children also overwhelmingly enjoyed being able to choose their own reading material. 
  • I felt at ease and enjoyed sitting and reading with the children--it was a nice change that allowed me to simply BE with, and observe and learn from them .
Here are some highlights of the feedback:
 Going forward:

  • For older students, allow/encourage the children to use their notebooks to add to their personal vocabulary lists(a few made the request).
  • Build in some time for the children to share what they were reading with their classmates(maybe this will lead to a commercial for their book, in Spanish)--after observing them in action, I could see there's a strong desire.
In the end, I think this is a high impact, low prep activity that's allowing me to teach better and work less. 

Friday, September 15, 2017




As I began my first week of a regular teaching schedule, I found myself landing in a familiar place-- utter face-plant worthy exhaustion. While yes, I have a full day-beginning with community time for 1-3 graders and teaching 4th through 8th classes, reflecting on the week, I've come to a pretty quick conclusion: I'm over working.

Not over working as in too much paperwork or grading. Overworking in that this week I was doing almost all of the work during class time, with the children along for the ride.  One of my goals last year and this centers on building my comprehensible input(CI) tool box--using as my guide this very helpful poster from Elizabeth Dentlinger. 


After my first few days of classes, which can only be described as performance art all day, Elizabeth sent me some words of support and her personal goal: Teach better, work less.

Teach better, work less.

CI doesn't mean me doing all of the work--talking, acting/gesturing--or always being the source of input. In fact, the students need to hear multiple voices. So, here I go--focusing on teaching better, working less.  Some things I have in mind to use as class opening activities(as students enter and get settled):

  • Free and Voluntary Reading
  • Listening apps, podcasts and short videos 
  • Using children's magazines and age appropriate news sources in the TL(like Newsela)
  • Kid friendly info graphics 
I've started using some of these the last two days and am looking to expand the opening activities list.  From there, I'll be using the Comprehensible Input Umbrella to help me form my class lessons.  

I'll be posting progress.  In the mean time, how have you worked toward teaching better and working less?  Words of experience most welcome!