Teacher Appreciation

May 2, 2016

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week once again, and while we’re not pandering for pity about the number of hours we teachers work, the hoops we jump through to help students pass, the constant struggle to maintain parental communication, and how standardized testing and legislative restrictions have severely hindered our autonomy in the classroom, I am expressing why we teachers do what we do in spite of it all.  The list of grievances is interminable, but I also think the list of what makes our jobs so ultimately fulfilling should be, too.  I’ve listed just a few below.

The Simple Hellos

Students are a very egocentric bunch, especially high school students.  They are wrapped up in their social media, their extracurriculars, family drama at home, other classes in school, and just life in general.  The fact that they take the time to say hello in the hallway or even stop by speaks volumes.  Many students can and do look the other way when a teacher approaches them, but a simple hello is a refreshing reminder that we matter to them.

The Visits

This goes along the lines of saying hello except the visits last a little longer.  Visits are different from tutorials in that they are not required.  Former students, current students, future students, adopted students all come into your classroom because they want to.  Them taking the time out of their day to stop by for a few moments, even when it’s annoyingly in the middle of a lesson, can potentially brighten any teacher’s day.

The Notes

In the midst of our worst days, a simple positive handwritten note on our boards or left on our desks is like getting a pay raise.  Sometimes we teachers need that encouragement, and to get that validation from our students is invaluable.

The Trust

Let’s face it.  Tutorials are no fun.  They are for those students who need extra time and assistance.  They are for makeup work.  They are not for leisure.  Some of our favorite candid moments with students have occurred during tutorials when they have a chance to let their hair down and be themselves.  And then they unload.  Some of them unload a ton.  And we teachers listen.  We show our human sides to them, and the students respond in kind.  And then we teachers go home.  We lose sleep because we care, but a student’s trust is never to be taken for granted.  And we know that.

The Return Visits

In every teacher’s life, students matriculate.  They graduate on to the next school or into the real world.  We miss them, but we are so very happy to see them go.  Then some of them come back.  They come full circle to us and fill us in on their new and more grown-up lives.  They share their struggles and their victories, but they come back to share them with us because we appreciate them, and as a result, they appreciate us.  And nothing in the world matters to us more than that.

Sure, there are numerous other job benefits that make our cups overflow such as seeing the light bulbs of understanding suddenly illuminate over their heads, celebrating their successes and seeing them through to meet their goals.  None of them reflect any monetary value because money cannot be equated to appreciation.  Not in a school setting.  And if you are a teacher who is reading this who does not received personal or professional fulfillment from anything mentioned in this article, then I implore you to consider working in a different profession.  

“All You Need to Do is Study” — But How?

February 24, 2016

I teach a mixture of age levels in high school, but a majority of my students are freshmen.  They come into high school fresh from middle school where the culture shift both academically and socially is huge.  One of the biggest gripes we teachers have is that our students, primarily freshmen, don’t study.  One of the main reasons for this is that they simply don’t know how.

In learning a foreign language, it can be particularly challenging for some students because how do you study for a speaking assessment?  A reading assessment?  How about a writing assessment?  There is no one size fits all answer.

Our plates as teachers are always full, but if we work in some study and practice methods during classtime that they can take home with them in addition to whatever homework is given then the end result should be better, right?

Here are a few nuggets and strategies that I’ve learned.

Use Technology Whenever Possible

Over the years, I have discovered several websites that are great for practice and drilling that offer immediate feedback.  Among them are Conjuguemos, Quizlet, SpanishSpanish, BKNelson, Duolingo, and 123TeachMe.  The great thing about these sites is that they can be used in class where you have a chance to get the students to practice for a set amount of time, and it is easy for them to practice at home or on the go.  Also, access to these sites offers students a variety of methods that allow them to find out what best helps them.

A Few Notes Go A Long Way

I am a huge fan of comprehensible input because experiencing a word or phrase beyond its translation does wonders for building proficiency.  But when it comes to introducing grammatical concepts, I firmly believe that direct teaching that involves giving notes provides a concrete reference tool.  While many campuses utilize electronic note-taking programs such as Evernote I prefer having my students write down the notes given to them in a binder or composition book.

It’s one thing to take notes and a whole other thing to get the students to use them.  That’s where some in-class activities that encourage use of those notes can be effective.  I often give my students a quick assessment immediately after note-taking to hold them accountable for having paid attention during my direct teach.  I also redirect struggling students to their notes when they have difficulty understanding a lesson.

Model, Model, Model!  Repeat!

One of the most effective ways to get your students to study is to model how and repeat.  A one off demonstration wears off after a short while.  Repetition is key.

Of the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) that are essential to foreign language acquisition, it is possible for students to study all four of them outside of class.

Here’s how.

Writing

Using a prompt, some sentence starters, and graphic organizers, students can practice at home.  In practicing for a test or a project, prompts that mirror exactly what you expect them to produce give students less apprehension as to what will be expected of them.  Also, make sure they have access to the rubric and some exemplars.

Reading

To be a better writer you must write more.  To be a better reader you must read more.  In helping students study this skill, I like asking them to document a few things as they are reading various pieces of material.

  • Words I know
  • Words I didn’t know and looked up
  • Cognates
  • Main idea
  • Answers to comprehension questions

Listening

As with reading, having a few sample recordings for students to review along with the following questions to answer is effective.

  • Words I understand
  • Cognates
  • Main idea
  • Answers to comprehension questions

Speaking

This is perhaps the most difficult skill to study.  Start with giving students a sample speaking prompt and examples of answers based on your rubric.  Then ask them to record themselves more than once and self-assess based on the rubric.  Though they will strongly dislike hearing recordings of themselves, learning to self-assess is very valuable.

In the end, the students have to learn different methods of studying in order for them to find out what works best, but most importantly, evolve with your students, and keep those resources ever accessible to them!

You will NOT use Google Translate (but you will use an online dictionary)

February 15, 2016

Recently, our students were to complete a project that revolved around a Latin American dish of their choice, its recipe, cultural significance, with the objective being that students could successfully give affirmative informal commands.  Ultimately, the recipe had to be taken from English and translated into a relatable manner that showed that it was their work and not the work of a copy paste skewering through Google Translate.  They were also responsible for videoing a demonstration of their recipe and saying the commands once they’d written their translation and scripts.

I will not argue that Google Translate serves a purpose, but its purpose is not in the foreign language classroom.  So, the challenge was how could my colleagues and I come up with a way that would allow them to branch out and use new vocabulary while being held accountable for doing the work and not overwhelming them?

Here are a few ways that we were able to overcome it.

Break it down piece by piece

I started off by letting them choose a recipe.

They then had to break it down into four different charts with the English word in one column and the Spanish word in the other for the following components:

  1. the ingredients – name only such as “tomato”
  2. portions – 1/2, 1/4, etc.
  3. cooking utensils – knife, bowl, frying pan
  4. verbs/commands – add, fry, bake, cut

My students already had a broad set of vocabulary words that had been given to them.  The words that appeared in their recipe were ones they could look up either on SpanishDict.com or Word Reference.  All other verbiage in their recipes wasn’t addressed at this point.

Once they had just their ingredients listed, I walked them through a review of adjectives and gave them a very informal lesson on present participles (canned, diced, fried, etc.) to allow them to successfully and completely describe their ingredients.

They got a lesson in learning how to use an English-Spanish dictionary

Using a dictionary is a lost art among high schoolers, and using an English-Spanish dictionary is no exception.  Through this exercise where they were allowed to use the above websites, they still struggled as they wanted to select the very first word that popped up regardless of whether or not the part of speech or denotation was correct.

For example, when using ground cinnamon, I got a few “canela del suelo” translations, which means cinnamon from the  floor/ground instead of pulverized cinnamon.  This provided a valuable opportunity to get the students to look into the meaning they were actually trying to convey from the words.

They learned how to simplify

For a second year student, translating a recipe beyond “add onion” and “stir for 5 minutes” can be a recipe for disaster.  Many recipes go into some superfluous detail that goes way beyond the expected proficiency level of a non Pre-AP student.  There is a lot of subjunctive that occurs, and that isn’t even taught until the third year.

I gave kids instruction on how to greatly pare down their recipe with a constant reminder to keep it to what they know.  There is a tendency to want to translate word-for-word, which is impossible from one language to another.  They give up, give in, and then the exercise loses its efficacy.  Simplification is key, and teaching them to simplify is valuable in and of itself.

They were impressed by their final product and how “easy” it was

By the end of the assignment, the students had done all the legwork.  All they had to do was piece it together, much like a puzzle.  Their recipes and scripts came together nicely, especially after being provided with a few sentence starters.   After working through all the steps, they had the following components already done:

  • the ingredient names with their adjectives and/or present participles
  • the amount of each ingredient
  • the list of their cooking utensils
  • all of their verbs in informal command form listed in sequential order of use within the steps of the recipe

Their final translations were impressive and didn’t reek of extraneous vocabulary or grammar tenses that are foreign to a majority of my students.

Necessity is the Mother of Self Re-Invention

February 12, 2011

The last 9 or so months have been a bit of a carnival ride for me.  No, that time period didn’t revolve around pregnancy.  At least, not in a literal sense.  It has revolved around a pregnancy of a metaphorical sorts after which I would birth a new me.  I was thrust from a comfortable status quo of stay-at-home motherhood into an uncertain period in which my husband was laid off without another job immediately lined up for the first time in our 10-year marriage.  During those dark and depressing days, we made the decision that I would return to work as it was the only way to keep our rainy day funds from completely drying up.

I was fraught with anxiety over the prospect of returning to the working world.  It wasn’t so much in that I would have to send my son with whom I’d spent the first three years of his life as his devoted caretaker while my husband worked to daycare, but it was because I would have to re-enter a world where I had no career path or direction.  It had only ever been a job path.   I feared winding up in another dead end job where my professional and personal growth would be limited.  So it was decided that I would finally implement my college degree in Spanish and enter the world of education.

I will have to admit that I did have some reservations about pursuing this career track.  It’s completely different from a traditional corporate setting where you are placed at your desk all day only to get up for a break or an occasional meeting.  This involves helping to mold young minds while balancing and fostering parent, child, peer, and superior relationships.  Not to mention, I’d be attempting to do this in another language that is not my native language.  It is a bit overwhelming when I try to imagine the big picture, but little by little, I’ve managed to whittle away at the lengthy “to do” list while being surrounded by a huge supportive network of family, friends, and possible future colleagues.

To make it especially challenging, the local news median outlets have been filled with headlines focusing on a massive budget shortfall and educational cuts in all area districts.  To say it’s discouraging doesn’t even begin to touch on the amount of doom and gloom that I feel in going forward with this process.   It looks bleak.  Really bleak.

Currently, I’m just two content-specific exams away from completing all of my pre-employment requirements.  What that means is that once I’ve passed those exams, I can make no further progress towards my teaching certificate until I’ve been hired.   Competition for positions will be fierce in the upcoming school year as a result of all of the cutbacks and layoffs, and even in a higher need area such as bilingual education, there is no guarantee that I’d be hired on by any of the districts in which I’d be willing to work.

I wish the timing of my rebirth wouldn’t have occurred during such a difficult time for education, but this is one pursuit I do not plan to abandon.  In the meantime, I’ll keep my chin up in the face of such adverse circumstances and enjoy and appreciate any and all experiences I can get while being in a classroom.

Storytelling

February 23, 2010

One of the skills I have always wanted to master is the art of verbal storytelling. I would love to be able to draw people in with just a few words or sentences to listen to my every word before I arrive at the climax or punchline and leave them wanting more.  Unfortunately, my mind jumps around too much as I’m talking, and I often utter details too far in advance or omit them altogether stammering along the way.  And when I try to drive home the point of my story, it winds up dangling in thin air with me staring at my audience as I shrug and give them a “I guess you had to be there” look.

I’ve been in the company of a few skilled storytellers.  Grandparents, including mine, were some of the best.  They have a huge mental library of personal history, wisdom and anecdotes from which to draw.  They can embellish and hyperbolize details suspending your disbelief and while entertaining and informing you at the same time.  Other storytellers I’ve heard are the ones who work for the National Park Service and lead the campfire sessions giving facts about the beauty of the land while throwing in bits of legend and folklore.  And then there are the skilled conversationalists like one particular friend of our family.  He is capable of turning a simple dinner discussion into an incredibly amusing dining experience.  I cannot tell you how much we enjoy his company.

As a mom, I have many interests and aspirations.  One of my interests is writing, but since I am a mom, I have limited time to devote to that, and my sparks of inspiration tend to be infrequent.  Hopefully I can find my voice and feel comfortable expressing it to a broad audience.