Reality check: teacher warriors

Sad truth: by Newtown, desensitation for me was setting in; if it happens, these are the steps… Columbine started the process. The tears haven’t stopped but autopilot keeps one functioning. That is the awful reality as an educator. You know the statistics. You know the remedy. The country denies it.


Incredible and Grateful

Well, what a marvelous and draining day. This is a post of gratitude-which might surprise those who know me because this does not come easily for me these days. However, I am most grateful for my colleagues and my students. William Byrd High School launched Globalize 13 and became part of the modern day abolitionist movement. Students and many inspiring teachers, led by history teacher Cristy Spencer,

hcristyeld a school-wide event to begin the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment by drawing attention to current slavery and human trafficking that exists world wide. Students and even some teachers were shocked to learn that over 30 million people are enslaved all over the world, including in our own state and country. This is a heavy topic for teenagers (or anyone for that matter) and one that could have been easily dismissed as over their heads or too depressing or too hopeless. However, we are fortunate to be part of an amazing community of young people and they were fortunate enough to hear an historical and inspiring story from Ken Morris. As a descendent of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, Mr. Morris shied away from an activist’s role until he learned of modern day trafficking and looked at his daughters who were the same age as those he had just read about in National Geographic. His message was powerful and the organization, the Frederick Douglas Family Initiative has a program called Globalize 13, which is designed to inform and empower young people about this relevant topic. Our students took the challenge and created artistic works, contributed to a blog and began to explore the unintended consequences of their consumerism. The topic is too broad to fit into one day, but they compressed as much as possible into every minute. Students greeted visitors; we had a welcome breakfast for those involved. The assembly was respectful and energizing; the exhibits were emotional, practical and informative. Students put their knowledge and talents out there for all to see. Community organizations and businesses brought exhibits to show progress being make for providing shelter and information about trafficking and child labor and fair trade products. This was a holistic approach to learning.

I so wish that people would realize that this is what great schools do. We are not a top testing school. I am one of the first to tell the negative stories because the public doesn’t understand how exhausting, unfair and demeaning the world of education has become and how budget cuts and increased benchmarks have hurt our children. What you also need to know is how incredible our schools, teachers and young people are and how this is our source of hope for the future. Two of our recent graduates came back- one to do an original musical performance and one to encourage students to break down cardboard walls  to help victims of trafficking. Our school and our teachers and our community came out to learn about a difficult topic, and students were inspired to fr2faitesattention make a difference in the world. The excitement and interest continued today as French 2 students made posters that are a call to action: “Buy fair trade.” “Don’t buy…” as they looked into companies’ labor practices. Globalize 13 and William Byrd High School are examples of relevant information and authentic learning for and by our students, and for that I am most grateful.

Hodgepodge Bag of Tricks

I’ve been using this phrase throughout my 31 years of public school teaching. I’ve seen movements and buzzwords and best practices come and go, but the real bottom line is we want students to use the languages we teach. There, again, are strong opinions: language purists, grammarians, communicators, users of only TL, PBL, TPRS; the list is endless. So, do what works for you and your students and consider that students and classes are unique, so you may need a variety from time to be inclusive and to encourage student success and of course language use in conjunction with culture. Rather than go into a lengthy debate, I thought I’d show you a 1st year lesson; I’ll contrast this with an AP lesson in a future post.
Goal-to introduce the idea of different people doing different activities. (grammar point -er verbs).
After evaluation on personal likes and dislikes (previous lesson), we watched lyrics (there are some 8th grades in the classroom) and heard Stromae’s ‘Alors, on danse.‘ Kids tapped their toes, danced in their seats and were generally attentive. [Authentic Resource]. I slowly scrolled through lyrics and asked them to shout out words they could guess. Then I asked, “If we’re talking about dancing and singing, why were there so many words like problèmes, dettes, divorce? They got it-13-15 year olds! “Well, you’re going to have issues, so why not sing and dance to get through them?!”

We did a walking survey: Tu chantes? Tu danses? Je chante/je ne chante pas… Then we added other activities, most were cognates, but we still just used the tu-je combination.

Day 2-Story time. We listened and some sang along to ‘Alors, on danse’ again. Then it was storytime. I usually present picture stories, but this week I’ve added stuffed animals to get across the idea of singular and plural. I added exaggeration and extra details thanks to Nancy Feigenbaum’s FLAVA presentation on TPRS (Se me olvidó)  that I saw last weekend. Here’s the shot of the story-post lesson.

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 5.54.02 AM

They did not see the story while I was telling it; they did answer questions as I was telling and repeating. [TPRS and TL Communication] We spent a long time telling, with them shouting back answers, and the tiger and the zebras being added in. Then I showed them the written story; I read it; they read it and we figured out who was singing or dancing in each sentence; we acted out. I asked them to find the spelling that went along with each person I had listed. Some picked out chanter (the infinitive) for ‘il’ because in one sentence they did see he likes to sing. Students wrote in the spellings and we talked about not hearing differences except with chanter, chantons and chantez.

I emphasized that the chart might be helpful when they were writing and that some people even liked the purple chart with only the last letters to help them remember spellings. We talked about the difference in j’aime chanter et danser vs. je chante and je danse [grammar]. We’ll spend a month on the activities that people do-mostly talking, but also writing and adding to their pen-pal letters they’re getting ready to send to students in GhanaScreen Shot 2014-10-04 at 7.00.35 AM who are also studying French [authentic written interpersonal communication]. Then in two weeks, they’ll tell me about themselves and family and friends if they want [mopi and pals evaluation]. That speaking will be the basis  of my growth evidence, my Smart Goals, for my professional evaluation. Even more exciting, I script as they talk and then show them at the end of the year how much more they’ve said and how they’ve grown as French speakers.

Yes, it’s a hodgepodge, but it seems to work.

Grading and Variations of Teacher Perspective

As I was participating in a #langchat discussion, I realized just how passionate teachers are about classroom procedures and grading. I also came away feeling that we must be respectful as we share ideas. A repeated theme in my classroom this year is: Not only talk to talk, but talk to listen. Teachers, including myself, should also work to put this into practice.

New buzzwords in education include NO HW and Skill Based Assessment and Grading. Looking at these concepts individually allow for teachers to consider their practices and how they best serve student learning. In the NO HW camp we have teachers who say, “Students don’t do it anyway.” or “It’s not fair.” or “It’s just busywork.” There are partial truths in these statements; however, assignments that take place outside of class are not necessarily anti-student. Flipped classrooms, student choice, community applications, further research, practice to promote ease of learning or comfort with a current topic are all worthy out of class assignments. These practices promote life-long learning and opportunities that extend interest and application for those that feel led. An alternative for students who don’t have out of school access to technology or who don’t have school work support at home would be to use study hall time and/or visiting the teacher’s classroom even if another class is in session. Another option is to provide a window of acceptable completion, like a colleague does with her classes. She allows full credit for assignments in a two-week window. She explains to students that after that window, there will be a zero and that it’s better to practice during the learning phase rather than after the fact, but it’s their choice. This policy does not work for me because I have too many preps (5) to keep up with windows for all of them, but it works well for her and her students, so I respect this format. Another colleague accepts work through the end of the grading period with partial credit. I accept work until a certain date provided at midpoint and then again at the end of the grading period. Out of class assignments can also be called Active Study; in lower levels in my classes, this counts as extra credit-with limitations so that it doesn’t skew a grade beyond actual achievement. Another teacher doesn’t assign any out of class work and another uses flipped classrooms with great success. We are all professionals who use different policies and different strategies and we accept this although we all feel strongly about the choices we make as educators.

Which brings us to grading and variations thereof. In the #langchat discussion, some wanted to count many steps in language learning while others said, “Participation is just expected, not graded.” In both situations, one has to consider the class makeup and motivation level. I fall into the credit for participation camp because I believe students need the encouragement to use languages, especially in the lower levels. It’s a challenge for many of them to reach a comfort level of language use rather than what they see as performance perfection. If we’re evaluating their growth, use of language is a key component. I attended a presentation on grades that suggested we need to consider what students can do as a key component and that leads me to include participation. I do agree that there should be no place in grading for behavior such as bringing writing utensils and notebooks. If it’s an expectation and you have consequences, that’s fine but it can’t legally affect their grade in our district. Other teachers feel that the newest grade for a particular skill can simply replace the previous one and that is their method of showing student effort, growth and achievement. Again, there are a wide variety of methods but the question needs to be, “Are the grades a proper reflection of student achievement throughout the grading period?”

As we consider these issues and continue our discussions, we should reflect, share  and allow for teacher variations in the same way we value student diversity.

Review at the Beginning of the Year?

Teachers and students are excited and afraid at the approach of a new school year, especially with a new level and new teacher for language instruction. What if I can’t reach them? What if I don’t remember everything from last year?

Just as we have turned our lessons upside down with backward design, authentic resources, infographics and reading as a starting point, we need to turn the idea of review upside down.
-Greetings, age and activities: 1st conversation (level varies quantity and quality)
Picture story [text + illustrated words]: Pick out cognates, ask simple questions
-Picture of current events [Tour de France, World Cup, Vacations]
Song […]

These are samples for day 1 or week 1. So the students won’t remember everything and might be nervous – especially if they prefer the concrete review that a ‘packet’ or ‘chapter’ might imply.

But here’s the trick: ASK them what they remembered and need help remembering.

Don’t plan a review that might not be needed or might put them (and you) to sleep.

What defines a teacher in 2014?

So, what a loaded question! Among the social and political turmoil, teachers appear damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Are you a test giver, a test criticizer, a challenger of students, a compassionate caregiver, a voice for the quiet, a healthcare advisor, a coach, a snack giver, a listener, an imparter of discipline, a scheduler, a multi-tasker, a clothes provider, a furnisher of school supplies, an academic counselor, a recommendation writer, a job creator, a community member, a technology specialist, a writer, a planner, a musician, an athlete, an artist, a portfolio creator, an evaluator of data, a reader, a professional, an expert in the field, a life-long learner, a drinker of coffee or tea, tired, energized, intelligent, certified, diligent, multilingual, prepared? Yes! How many more nouns, verbs and adjectives come to mind? And what does it matter if no one appreciates educators anyway?!

It matters because there is a lot of misinformation circulating about our schools: about educators, leaders and students. We are bad; we are devoid of morality; we are lazy; we earn too much money; we are never fired for poor performance; we have all kinds of vacation; we don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance; we give too many bad grades; we give too many good grades; we don’t ever do our work; we are always disrespectful; our parents are always antagonistic.

So if the emerging question is-what is a teacher, really? If it is all or most of the first paragraph, isn’t that a great list and can’t we just do our jobs? How many times do folks say, “If I could only just teach?!” So we don’t and we can’t but how do we show what we do, what we’re proud of and what we’d like to do to transform schools? Is money the answer? Yes, and no. Research shows that money is not the end all; however, textbooks or computers, safe buildings and salaries are necessary and so as we are suffering multiple years with budget cuts and no raises, money would help, but what else is needed? Targeted goals are great but test scores are not proper educational goals and have no impact on educational readiness in the first place. If reading matters, we must all read. Teaching parents to read with their children, having library activities, staffing reading specialists that have time to talk with classroom teachers, parents and students is key. Fostering a combination of reading for pleasure and for information is vital. Do we want students to be ready for a global economy? Then we need teams-of language, history, math, science and elective teachers who don’t feel like they have to compete for students and jobs. This requires insight-not top down, latest fad, write a grant and then use the money for other purposes kind of insight. No, just ask a teacher. Just ask some students. This is such a simplistic response, yet it can be so profound. Look how a student responded when he was asked to look at community maps and data ( from around the U.S. and create a community public service announcement.
Watch how the same student responded when he was asked to speak at graduation. This is only one of many intelligent, creative students we’ve worked with in just one school year; this is not an isolated case of achievement. Think how his teachers must have inspired him and others and how we should take time to talk.

If people at the federal, state and community level would really listen to teachers and students (i.e. listen, then honestly discuss and implement some of the proposals-regarding budget, school climate and academic structure) after posing certain questions:
How can we improve this school?
How can we improve the profession?
How can we improve our community?,
I believe we would be astounded at the real changes that could occur. We would not be perfect, but we would be better. It’s starting (CTQ and but we must consistently and loudly raise our voices above the din, and when the extraneous noise threatens to overwhelm and destroy a spirit, we must think of the good we know and push for these new teacher and student-centered models. And then we will have to come back and continue to tell our stories: loud and clear so that the world would know what schools, educators and students are really all about. And yes, this takes time, so give teachers time -for their students, their schools and their communities -not just for their tests.

Reflections from EdmodoCon

35 million Edmodo users worldwide!

Snapshot feature for formative assessment; adding Va SOLs soon. Questions preprepared and then next group of Q comes up based on students prior performance.

Get Edmodo App for Android and new app for Iphone Includes creating, viewing polls in very near future

Edmodo avatars

Will continue to be free for teachers, students, districts but can upgrade to premium for snapshot, see reference above

Edmodo apps in apps store

Edmodo connect directly links to apps so yet another password is not required

Testpolicy or Classpolicy from Microsoft to lock down computers to keep from opening other browsers

@nathangarvin middle school teacher in Texas

top 3 apps from him: Edmodo googledrive

writing/reading revising editing

Garvin Cup-lasts 4-6 weeks teams of 5 w/ name 3-4 competitions w/leader board-all teams get pts. 2-12 per content evaluations ; last year Writing Olympics; did whole 7th grade 73 teams; did medals (5 rather than 3) ; kept counts on google doc; and then ninja board for individual competition during diff 9 weeks; move up chart w/ achievements, can use badges from Edmodo as well; to move up as they revise

Prompt: do on google doc ; some class time ea. week; make list of common mistakes on a google doc; see most recent version; schedule live google doc appointments via google calendar; use badges labeled by skill [intro, thesis, support, grammar, punctuation, conclusion] Can be earned in any order; can be taken away

Me: Brainstorm language badges: communication of idea, accurate vocabulary, sva, rich description, accurate aa
Just added and planning to use in coming year.
Use local pics to add intro questions to begin lesson. Remember during exchange visits and Local Colors. Voicethread w local pics as well.

Add ‘famous students’ to your class for students to communicate w/. I.e. Marie Curie

Students find one image that represents topic of study; post and and explain link.

Language teachers might like to know about a community on G+ that coordinate Language hangouts,, your class can get your language hangout posted and you can talk with Native Speakers & Classrooms around the World

@PowToon Cartoon App No Red Ink… 2 to check out Watch for prompts for writing or discussion or creative response, but be sure to preview

Educreations (for iPad) and SKitch evernote/skitch for drawing annotating w/ arrows and then students speak story. Used 3rd grade to teach younger grade levels