This was originally posted on www.path2proficiency.com last spring, but I wanted to post it here as well for anyone who doesn't read that. I gave a quiz today that was traumatizing for a portion of my class when I didn't think it was going to be, which brought me to reread and share this post here. So...reflections from last spring and today...Surviving EPIC failure...
This post is not shiny or flashy with great pictures of my kids engaged and working on creative, fun, or culturally relevant tasks. This is a reflection on a week that ended with crying and an unhealthy amount of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. This was my week of EPIC failure, and I feel that you should know when it falls apart for me as much as when things are clicking along on this proficiency path. Sometimes, for any number of reasons, we don’t do what we know we should do, and our kids fail. This is what happened in my class this week. Someone once said, “no student has ever died from bad world language instruction”, which I’m sure is true although I haven’t fact-checked that statement, so I would like you to come with me and reflect on the results of my recent experience with my own “bad world language instruction.”
Let me set the scene for you…I am giving a Benchmark exam: the summative assessment of the whole unit. The listening passage plays, the speaker is speaking, and my children are staring at their tests with expressions ranging from slight confusion to horrified awareness that they have no idea what is being said. The passage ends…my students do not even move. You know how normally they get that look of recognition on their face and hurriedly scribble the answer? Yeah, no. Nada. The passage plays again. My one native speaker quickly writes a few answers. Slowly, my kids kind of shrug their shoulders and start to answer the questions. This continues through the rest of the listening passages, and the reading sections as well. I pass out the writing prompt: I had kids just put their heads down and sleep or turn in blank papers. Blank. I have word walls. I have taught them the emergency plan to beat the rubric when they don’t know how to respond to that particular prompt. At this point, I’m panicking thinking “just write SOMETHING in Spanish so I have SOMETHING to grade!!”Nope. Nada. Lots of nada.
The test is over, and my kids leave. I usually score the reading and listening immediately because it’s quick and easy. I didn’t even want to, but I had told them I would have those two pieces in by the end of the day, so I did. The scores start…45. WHAT?!? I checked the key. I checked the scanner. Something has to be wrong. Nope. The next ones were: 60, 45, 50, 75 (yay!), 30 (really, is that even possible?!?!), 65…and so on and so forth. By the end of scoring roughly 60 students, my averages for reading and listening were 69 and 70 respectively. I was freaking out. I’m the department chair! I can’t have these scores! I can’t take these scores to share with my department! Do you have to compare data with your department? Yeah, let’s talk about the long walk to that meeting…When I tell you I was trying to figure out how I could mysteriously get sick on the way and get in my car instead, I am not exaggerating at all. *Please note that my reaction was completely ego-driven and NOT AT ALL about my kids.
So…needless to say, everyone else’s data was WAY higher than mine. Oh, and this was the meeting that the administrator decided to sit in on because we were comparing data and they like that. Let me tell you, my 69/70 looked pathetic next to the 77/79 and 84/85 of my colleagues. They asked me what happened, and I said “Well, it’s not great, but it’s not that bad considering I was out several days before the test for this and that reason, and I had several kids absent who came back and took the test even though they weren’t prepared because they didn’t come to tutoring, and I have changed some things around and am trying to make them more accountable and obviously they’re not doing that…” I can barely type that without feeling ill. Listen to me putting my instructional failure on the backs of these kids and some inconvenient circumstances. I’m making all these excuses for whom? To what end?
Fast forward an hour, and I did finally get in my car. And I cried. A lot. And then I was mad. And then I contemplated quitting. And then I ate ice cream. Please tell me I’m not the only one who has ever felt like this. As I ate my ice cream, I looked back on the weeks leading up to this test. I can tell you honestly that I was just marking time, not really making a focused effort with my planning. I had reasons, but they don’t really matter. My lessons weren’t designed well, my TL speaking in the classroom was nowhere near 90+ on several days, and I was just getting through. I was gone a lot, and I was trying to give them a few more tasks online than I’d done before, and I did have several kids absent for extended periods of time, but mostly it was me not doing my job well. So of course I cried again. I’m pretty dramatic about things.
Fast forward another few days, and I still hadn’t gotten over it. We were moving on to the next unit with this terrible taste of failure in our mouths, and clearly no grasp of last unit’s content. Then the most amazing thing happened: I told that story to a very wise woman and she said “So that’s feedback. Do it again.” I said “Yeah, but…” and she said “It’s ok. Do it again.” No drama. No excuses. Nada. Just do it again.
I kept thinking about her statement, and that Maya Angelou quote “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” So, my problem is, I know better. I know proficiency-based teaching works. I know that I need to use the target language 90% of the time. I know that I need to have daily learning targets and checks for understanding and all of the things. I know that. But this time, I didn’t do it. And my kids failed. Let me rephrase: I failed…and their grades reflected that.
So how do you get over an EPIC failure? I don’t know if there’s a right way, but here’s what I’m going to do. Are you ready? I’m just going to do it again…and I’m going to do it better. Monday is coming. I have my feedback. The kids are going to get their feedback from me, and we are going to try again. It really is that simple. I’ve got three parts to my plan:
Sometimes things happen and we have EPIC failure in our classrooms, but we don’t need to buy stock in Kleenex or Ben & Jerry’s. It’s going to be ok…it’s not that serious…language teaching and learning is a growth process, and as we all know, no student has ever died from bad world language instruction.
This post was also posted on www.path2proficiency.com in the fall when I was transitioning to a new school, but I wanted to post it here as well for anyone who doesn't read that and is working in a new place, or just struggling with a new semester. Also, I highly recommend Path2Proficiency for blog reading. There are many amazing teachers there blogging awesome things. Ok, so...Change is Hard.
I have been trying to write a post for over a month, and nothing has been working. I’ve been struggling with writing, deleting, thinking “this sounds ridiculous”, etc, so I’ve written nothing. Tweets don’t count, although, I’ve at least been doing that a bit. As I’ve thought about it, I think what the problem is is that I haven’t quite gotten a grip on my brain this school year, so congratulations, we’re going to work through this together. We’re all on the Path, right? Please feel free to quit reading at any point…
So this year I’m at a new school, and I’ve been working really hard to get my life together in this new place. There are challenges with how I manage my time (which I’m terrible at), how to work with new people, new and different challenges with students and curriculum, and how badly I miss some of the people I no longer see on a daily basis. It’s surprising how heartbreaking that last one is. Don’t discount that feeling, if that’s where you are. Change is hard. If you’re in the situation this year of being in a new place and trying to navigate all the things and feeling overwhelmed and at the point of melting down, I can only say I totally get it, and here are the two pieces of advice I can give you that have really helped me: 1) Get to know your new students ASAP 2) Do what you know you do well and add in the new stuff.
So, what does that look like?
Since they don’t know me and I don’t know them, we spent 2 solid weeks on every communicative “get to know you” activity I could think of. We wrote, we chatted, we played games, we drew, we made “Cajas de Mi Corazón” to show how we each have different sides to us and how no person is just 1 thing. We talked about how it takes time and effort to get to know the different sides of a person. I’ll include the activity so you can see it. I used little boxes that I ordered from Oriental Trading Co. online, but you can easily print out a paper cutout cube and do the same thing. Anyway, I know what these kids are interested in now. I know who is musical and who is super-sporty, who has big or small families, who is political (and how), who is religious, and who is absolutely not religious at all. It may not seem like big deal, but those are really important things to know. It’s important because my new school is great, but it’s different. It’s not what I’ve grown accustomed to, the rules are different, the style is different, the people are different...the nice thing I realized after a bit of freaking out at home is: kids are kids. They have different “stuff” they’re dealing with, but it’s all important to them and affects their lives. What I remembered also in spending the time learning about them is I am still the same teacher I was in my other school. I love my kids here like I loved my kids at my last school, and it’s going to be ok.
The other part of this transition that has been freaking me out is that the expectations at this school are different. It’s a 1-1 technology place, and a lot of things are done with iPads that I have never done. I started the year scared that I was going to be some dinosaur of a teacher that didn’t know how to teach. I mean, a whole week and a half of workdays and orientations and I really felt by the end of it that I didn’t know how to do my job at all. Once I collected myself and started to think about it, I decided I was going to do what I knew I did well, and we were going to go with that and add the other stuff in as we went. So we started with writing on paper copies of things and creating our 9x11 interactive notebook physically in a notebook. We made paper cards that we could manipulate and play with for learning vocab, and we made foldables to use for communicative activities. We took yoga breaks in between 13 minute segments of class, played flyswatter and “Rosa Dice”, and spoke Spanish. The things I know how to do, that I know work, were the things that have saved me from drowning in this transition to a new school. The kids like what we’re doing in class and constantly say how much fun it is to do active, fun stuff!
The cool part is, because I know my kids now and they know me, they are super helpful at teaching me how to do the things that are natural to them with the iPads. We created a whole monster project based on a book we read, and did the whole thing, start to finish with drafts in between, on the iPads submitting everything through Google Classroom. It’s actually really nice and a lot of fun playing with the tech. We still do so much on paper, but I am also starting to learn to have them bring the iPad and the notebook as tools for each class.
So, for what it’s worth, if you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed in a new school, give yourself a break...you’re a good teacher, you’re just in a new place. In the transition I had to admit to myself that change is hard and I was struggling mentally. After that, I had to get to know my new kids for the cool and complicated creatures that they are, and I had to trust that what I know I do well would still work in my new situation...and it does! I am having a blast! Have fun, thanks for listening, and hope this helps!
Imagine with me..it's Day 1.
You're ready to meet a new group of kids and get them started on their journey. You're prepared. The environment is perfect: the music inside the classroom is on (for me it's usually Maná on the first day) and kids are coming down the hall en masse. Even with all that positive energy, there is still 1 thing that all language teachers worry about on Day 1...
The BIG Question
How do I get them to not freak out completely when they realize I speak in Spanish...all the time...?
Comprehensible Input with Instant Gratification:
Make something together in the target language.
My colleague Michele introduced me to the Name Card years ago...and I am forever grateful...
1. The initial shock
I greet my new students at the door with “Hola. Buenos días. Lee la pizarra.” I get dumbfounded looks and sometimes an “Hola” back but “Lee la pizarra”? Really? Yes. Point and make sure that your whiteboard has the word “LA PIZARRA” labeled on it. The Daily Slide on said "pizarra" says “Necesitas: una tarjeta y unos marcadores”. The supply station has those items on it and labeled so they know what they need to pick up.
The Daily Slide and Supply Station are critical for this to work because it challenges them to think in Spanish, but gives them all the support they need to be successful.
They ask me in English what to do and I repeat in Spanish “Lee la pizarra, agarra los materials y siéntate." I don’t break into English, just gesture and repeat. The trick is, if 1 of them gets it, which 1 always will, then the others follow like little lemmings.
Now they're sitting down with materials they heard about and read about in the Target Language...let's see how it plays out...
2. Levanta la tarjeta
“Levanta la tarjeta” (I raise up the card and wave it...) Then I repeat the phrase and the action…”Levanta la tarjeta”(Action again) The light flickers in their minds and they recover from the shock of hearing Spanish…a few cards go up….then a few more…the Wave breaks out in my classroom with index cards.
Then I switch it up: “Baja la tarjeta” My card goes down, and 1 kid’s card goes down. The rest of them are still waving. I repeat “Baja la tarjeta” and drop the card down further and more dramatically.
Almost all the cards drop, except that one kid…can you see him still blithely waving his card in the air because he spaced out after having accomplished the first task? The other kids fix that with an excessively loud “Bro, she said put your card down!”
Ok, all of them are on the same page now, game on. “Levanta la tarjeta…Baja la tarjeta…Levanta la tarjeta…Baja la tarjeta…DOBLA la tarjeta”
3. Dobla la tarjeta
WHAT?! DOBLA?!? Yes.
I do the action, and follow with “Dobla la tarjeta” You’re gonna fold this card many times, my friend, but they’re gonna get it.
Then one kid asks “Hamburger or hotdog?” and you know you’ve won.
“Dobla la tarjeta cómo una salchicha. NOOOO cómo una hamburguesa. Dobla cómo una salchicha.” and you are folding while you speak...over and over while you speak. When everyone’s card is folded, you start in on the markers.
4. Levanta un marcador y escribe tu nombre
“Levanta un marcador” (Act it out just like you did the cards) “Levanta un marcador…baja un marcador…levanta un marcador.”
When you have them moving with you, add “con un marcador, ESCRIBE tu nombre” and you use your marker to write your name on the card.
Then point at them and repeat “ESCRIBE tu nombre muy GRANDE”. They’ll get it.
You have modeled it, and you’ve made an artifact all in the Target Language!
5. Pon la tarjeta en el pupitre
Last step, putting their new name card on their desk.
“Levanta la tarjeta…Baja la tarjeta…Levanta la tarjeta…Baja la tarjeta y PON la tarjeta en el pupitre” Gesture, tap, demonstrate. Show them what you want them to do, and speak in Spanish.
They’ll get it. It’s comprehensible input. Even when they swear they don’t get it, or act confused or give you blank stares…they will get it. Don’t break.
When everyone has their name cards on their desks, there's only 1 thing left to do...
6. Celebrate like crazy!!!
They just did an Interpretive Task! They're amazing and brilliant and don't "suck at Spanish" like they've always thought. They just understood SPANISH within the first 10 minutes of Day 1 and you know they understood because they have a thing to show for it!!
Now they know that your class is going to be in Spanish, but that your Spanish is going to be something that they understand! They’ll get used to it and learn SOOO much more than you’ve ever thought possible.
Then you can switch your English/Spanish signal to the English side and do your first day housekeeping. See how easy it is now to take attendance with big bold name cards on desks?
Everything you do sets the tone. Everything you do gets them moving on their language journey. Keep it up! You’re amazing!!