Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reflection: What's Most Important, Content-Wise?

Teachers were asked today to take 35 minutes out of our prep and reflect on our work as a teacher.  We are ultimately going to be using this information to apply to an individual improvement plan, which I am excited to get started on.  But I must admit- this reflection comes at a bit of a bad time, because I have been over-reflecting lately on what I have been doing in my class.

We rolled over to a new semester in my school building about 4 weeks ago.  With the new semester came new German 3/4 students.  I was ecstatic to see that my numbers for German 3/4 are relatively steady (at 12 students), and something is to be said about working with those students who sign up for your class for enjoyment.  I have lots of fun with those students.

Now for the reflection piece.  The first part of a new course is always spent figuring out where the students are so that we can head in the best direction for improvement.  My students are typically very comfortable with speaking and they do a great job trying out the language without worrying if they are wrong.  However, some students continue to struggle with basic conjugations, pronunciation, and some common vocabulary words hit in German 1.  This is the first group that I am teaching that I have had since their start, and I am being a bit harsh on myself for not reinforcing certain concepts early on so that students developed good habits.  It's not that I don't teach grammar, but I am careful not to overemphasize it, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it's boring to most students.  Second of all, with a few exceptions, native speakers will still understand foreigners if they misuse a form of "the" or something of the like.  Finally, grammar is really, really hard to master.  Overemphasizing it can lead to serious self-efficacy issues and can cause students to give up.  So instead, most of my teaching career has been focused on encouraging students, allowing time for conversation practice, and focusing on the "fun," communicative part of the language.

By offering students multiple exposures to culture and language (through songs, activities, and authentic resources, such as comics), I hope to catch students' interest and motivate them to continue with the language.  It seems to be working; my German 1 numbers this year were well over double what they were last year.  However, like I mentioned, I am purposely leaving some things out.  I recently looked at an example of the National German Exam, just for fun, and realized my students would absolutely bomb it.  They would be able to pick out some things, but they have not been trained to perform in this standardized way.  In this regard, am I also doing them a disservice if they choose to continue to study German in college?  And will they feel foolish making elementary mistakes when talking to a native speaker?  I don't know.  My choices at this point are to remain relatively relaxed with my expectations and hopefully breed confidence, or tighten the reigns a bit and produce better language out of the students.

I have taken this into consideration with German 1 this semester.  I am focusing much more deliberately on the verb "to be" and slowing down on teaching the adjectives to accompany it.  However, I do still feel like the students are having a hard time with it.  Time will tell whether or not they will remember it better than students have before, but it truly is a concept that must transfer, because it is so common. I am worried, though, that I am overdoing it with these students- I don't want to squash their egos early on so that they think the language is inaccessible; on the contrary, I want my students to think that it isn't that hard to communicate in another language as long as you focus on basic skills like conjugating and pronouncing words correctly.

That brings me to my goal for this semester.  I would like students to begin using language more accurately from the get-go, so I will be stressing accuracy a bit more.  More importantly, though, I want students to become self-sufficient spellers.  German is quite literal when it comes to reading, as long as you master a few basic changes (such as the W making a V sound).  The vowels are trickier, but regular.  Students have a hard time remembering that IE is always pronounced eeeeeeeeee, and EI is always pronounced "eye" for instance.  So I would like to develop a plan to ensure that students can at the very least read the language out loud.  There are lots of online resources which I hope to collect as I develop this goal, and I hope that the students will be on board with me as well.

As an over-reflection, I realize that I have room to grow as a teacher.  Sometimes I realize this a bit too much!  I always do what I think is right for the students in the moment, but I also want to begin preparing them for later successes in the language as well.  I hope to report positive results at the end of the semester!

Monday, May 13, 2013

What's Important in a Foreign Language Classroom?

Foreign language teachers... we're our own special breed, aren't we?  Like all teachers, I believe we exude passion.  But we go far beyond that.  Most of us are so passionate about our content areas that we scream "nerd" loudly, clearly, and proudly.  We love the little grammar nuances that make our languages unique, and thrive off of portraying the cultural quirks that make our students squeamish. So how do we bridge the gap between what we find challenging and fun in a foreign language, and what a typical student will find intriguing enough to continue on in the sequence?

Ask a student on the first day of class what they hope to learn in a foreign language, and you will not hear someone say "I want to learn how to conjugate verbs!" Or, "I want to know how to say "the" in all possible ways!" No, students are more likely to say "I want to be able to talk about my (family, hobbies, school, job, interests, etc.).  Are  grammatical aspects of the language going to come into play while introducing those topics?  Absolutely.  Should they be the focus?  I have come to believe that they are less important than books or placement exams portray them to be.

This leads to a good counterargument: if the book expects teachers to teach grammatical concepts A-N in year 1 in order to prepare students for year 2, isn't it the teacher's responsibility to cover them?  And what about those pesky national exams??  They certainly emphasize grammar.  Yep, all true.  In fact, I am really disappointed at national exams for the extent to which they expect students to know grammar.  It's disheartening.  And unrealistic.  A German student who can rattle off all of the charts associated with definite and indefinite article usage will likely  have wide skill gaps when it comes to actually using the language in context.  And most importantly, Germans will not be fooled into thinking a student is proficient just through his or her superior grammatical mastery, especially if the vocabulary does not back it up.  So what are we to do?  How can we have the best of both worlds?

Like I've stated before in my blogs, I do not consider myself to be an expert in the field.  But I do know that I have shaped my teaching to represent student interest, and since I've done that, the program has grown (more than doubled in one year), students are becoming more confident in speaking, and more students are signing up for advanced German.  In this regard I consider myself to be successful, though there are certainly more measures to take into consideration that I didn't mention above.  So here's how I have changed my approach to teaching foreign language:

Teach Grammar, but Be Real
When I introduce verb conjugations, I tell students that this is the one beast that will follow them through their German career, so listen up.  When I teach accusative case, I say that this is how Germans do it, but if they get it wrong, they will still be understood (so don't beat yourself up about it).  I also tell them point-blank that those students who are interested in learning for mastery will want to work with this especially closely, but if you're going for meaning, write it down and try it but don't worry so much.  Most students will actually do better on this topic when I approach it this way.  Regarding the cases, then, in German 2-4 I give them a flow chart as an FYI and let them use it on quizzes, etc.  I will then do mini-lessons on different elements of the chart, but again de-emphasize the importance of memorization (because it takes years to speak it at a steady pace, anyhow).  See the chart below:

Supply Learning Opportunities Outside of Traditional Resources
In the past year or two I have been consistently playing a "song of the week" daily in class.  We will watch the video on Monday, then try singing along to it throughout the rest of the week.  I use StepIntoGerman for many songs, but supplement some of my own favorites (Nena, Revolverheld, Die Toten Hosen) off of YouTube as well.  At first I only printed the German lyrics, but then caved and provided the English, as well. The result?  Countless times I have found myself teaching vocab, and students will say "Oh, that word was in the song ____, right?"  Students are not only paying attention, but they are supplementing their vocabulary without even knowing it!  The same can be said from the use of stories, comics, and other cultural resources.

Answer Students' Questions
Kids are curious about the cultures that go along with our languages.  Now, when high schoolers in particular are full of questions, they can be disruptive ("Frau, can I ask a completely unrelated question?" "You certainly can, but can I finish with this topic first, then we can discuss it?").  It's our job to know the appropriate time to field questions, and we should do this daily. We can't anticipate everything that students want to know about language and culture, and responding appropriately and giving validity to students' questions keep them interested!

Let Students Have Fun
We language teachers know that learning the language should be its own reward, but not every student shares our sentiment.  It's pivotal for us to promote language learning and the fun that can be had through it.  Seek opportunities for students to play games, talk to one another, explore websites (interactive or not), and otherwise provide a relaxed environment that fosters learning.  Give them voice when planning new units, and offer to create collaborative assessments so that they are interested in the product.  This insures buy-in, and I believe that's the most crucial part to a successful classroom today!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why I Decided To Blog About Teaching

I have toyed with the idea of blogging for a long time, and set up several blogs over the years that were ultimately left to die.  I hadn’t quite embraced the idea, because quite frankly, I am afraid of being received negatively, or worse, accused of shameless self-promotion.  Of course that’s not my intention at all with this blog that I began last month.  I wanted to make a quick post to explain why I chose to blog about teaching.

The “Past Me”
Like most educators say, my first two years teaching were a struggle.  No, that’s not strong enough.  My first two years were awful.  Just about everything that could have gone wrong in the classroom, did.  My priorities just weren’t in the right place, and the results were disastrous.  I felt like I wasn’t going to make it in the profession and was blind as to why.  I had a hard time admitting that it was me causing problems in the class (not the kids) and didn’t know where to turn for help.  So this blog, in part, is written to my former self.

The “Present Me”
Eventually I was able to turn my career around.  I can’t say I remember a magical time that I walked into the classroom and things started to work, but I did purposely start implementing classroom management and teaching strategies, one thing at a time.  I was careful to get a good handle on a new technique before moving on to the next thing, which gave me confidence.  Now, finishing my 6th year teaching, I feel comfortable in the classroom but know that I still have areas I can improve.  In that regard, this blog is serving as a reminder for areas I can still grow and a journal for what’s worked.

The “Future Me”
I want to be the best teacher I can be.  I don’t want to say I want to be the best in my school, district, or state; I don’t think teaching is about competition.  But I do want to reach my students as well as I can (content wise or otherwise).  I constantly contemplate what this means; what should I do next to improve?  Well, Twitter and Pinterest are great places to start, but this blog helps me keep a good record of just what I would like to do to become better.

The “Others”
If anybody out there can benefit from what I write, I will be ecstatic.  I certainly don’t intend to assert myself as any kind of expert on teaching, but I do like to learn from others and hope most teachers out there do the same.  It would be fun to see all sorts of teachers blogging about what we do so that we can learn from one another easily.  The internet helps us connect with people we wouldn’t have otherwise met, and what an opportunity that is!

Teaching for Learning

As Statewide Testing approaches, teachers are beginning to bite their nails and fret about how well their students will perform.  After all- the results are a direct reflection on them, right?  Well, that can certainly be debated.  We do know, though, that two hot issues in schools lately are teaching for understanding and assessing appropriately.  Teachers constantly feel pressured to teach so that students' standardized test scores thrive.  For many, this means making use of the materials created at the state or national level to cover standards.  This could also mean attempting to “get through” an entire textbook in a short period of time to be sure students have been exposed to everything necessary for the next course in the sequence.  But is this really the best practice?  Can students really learn through mere exposure?  Well, that depends.

Studies have found that students who connect with material in a deeper manner perform better on tests and need less review time.  It isn’t about “cramming” for them; instead, it’s about transferring connections made in class (or life)  to the materials on the standardized tests.  This can even be applied to subjects which do not undergo mandated testing.  If the district/state doesn’t evaluate us, we should evaluate ourselves.  We are in this profession for the students, not for personal gain.  So, how can we be sure to be the best for them?  

Give ample opportunities for students to learn
Do you spend a lot of time designing engaging lessons?  Or are you more comfortable sticking with one tried-and-true teaching method?  Unfortunately, our comfort usually leads to student discomfort.  Our kids crave excitement and new opportunities.  If they feel stuck and bored, it is unlikely that they will truly learn the material.  Sure, they may be able to complete a worksheet for a grade and even fill in a few correct bubbles on a test, but they will not walk away from our classes with real knowledge or interest in our subjects if we fail to engage them.

Teach students how they want to be taught
Know your students.  Most are great with technology, and should be given chances to use it when they learn.  Listen to them if they suggest or reject a teaching method or learning opportunity- sometimes we like to be the boss, but sometimes going overboard causes them to retreat from us and the content.  Keep an open mind!

Ask yourself: Can students recall what you taught them yesterday?  Last week?  Last quarter?  ...etc.
If the answer is no, they are not learning the material.  Perhaps our scope and sequence isn’t aligned, or perhaps we weren’t invested in what we taught.  Maybe we taught something too fast and didn’t allow for enough practice time.  But if you are seeing a pattern of classwide amnesia, it’s not necessarily the students’ fault.  Start asking real questions, seeking real answers, and designing real assessments, and they will remember!

Listen to student questions
Hearing “I don’t understand” can be a momentum killer in a class.  Hearing follow-up questions that the students are using to gain deeper understanding can be momentum builders.  But both cases require the teacher to respond appropriately.  Saying “we just covered that” doesn’t help the struggling student; instead, it pushes them into a shell that is difficult to escape.  Redirecting content to meet the needs of our students ensures that the material is flowing the way that it needs to for them to truly understand.

Inspire engagement outside of class
Most of us can agree that the subjects we best understand are the ones we’re interested in.  Our jobs as educators do not end when the bell rings or when school lets out for the summer.  If the kids are motivated to continue working on our content areas for fun, they will shine.  Simply handing out another worksheet or asking students to go to a performance for extra credit isn’t enough.  “A” students will take advantage of these every time, but the others will not.  We know if we are really reaching our kids when they come to class and inform us of something they learned about our subject that we did not ask them to; and this is where the real learning begins!

Assess appropriately
Memorizing is only temporary.  Those of us who were required to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution or Shakespeare can attest to this- you learn it for a week, prove that you’ve got it, then throw it out the window.  If there is no real use for an assessment, why would we do it?  If we are tempted to say “to see who was paying attention,” we are doing a disservice to our students (besides- look to see how many of us are fully engaged when sitting at staff development workshops, etc.).  Now, if students are asked to make connections with what they’ve learned, they are forced to think their way through it in a way that makes sense to them.  They will remember real learning opportunities, but they will forget every question on every multiple-choice test they are ever given.

Keep learning=keep changing
Good teachers never consider their jobs to be done.  They look for and implement new ways to teach.  They may draw from previously taught units and lessons, but generally are not happy simply copy-pasting from old lesson plans.  Ask yourself each Friday: what did I try this week that I’ve never tried before?  If you say “nothing,” beware!  We can only improve if we keep trying, and even (or especially) if something doesn’t work, try, try again!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Technology for Students and Teachers

It is fun to be a teacher today.  So many new gadgets and tools are introduced to our culture on a practically daily basis, and our schools are doing their best to bring these new toys to our students.  Instead of "same old, same old..." teachers today constantly have the opportunity to reinvent themselves in the classroom.  Our jobs are becoming dynamic.  So are our resources.  And so are our students.

The change is happening so fast that it is hard to keep up with.  I feel fortunate to be of the age that began growing up with technology; it comes easy to me, and I consider it fun to play with the "next big thing".  But like our students, we teachers all come from different backgrounds.  And unlike our students, our age differential spans decades, not months.  So when districts like ours vote to pursue 1:1 (or 1:!, as we like to call it), a little ripple of panic pulses through the staff.  Even those of us who use technology frequently take pause, because how will this look when every teacher has access to the same stuff, and students are constantly connected?  Is it even possible for it to work?  Well, I think that depends on just how we see ourselves changing in the classroom to make use of the new chances given to us.  It is most important to understand that this change will benefit the students as long as they are given the chance to learn in the ways they feel most comfortable.  After all, the initiative is for them, not us.

So how will this work?  How can we be expected to change everything we have ever done just because students will be toting around a fancy new machine?  Here are some idealistic guidelines to help make the transition smooth:

  1. Play around with your machine.  Get to know it.  And don't just pick it up while wearing an "educator" name tag.  Find apps or programs that you, as a person, like.  If students love these things, they must have some sort of endearing quality.  Once you get used to the idea of the machine, the educational benefits will follow.
  2. Let your students show you what it can do.  They are rock stars when it comes to technology.  Our students have likely never read an instruction manual to any of the gadgets they own, but they can navigate complex features as if the things are an extension of their own bodies.  Don't be afraid to give them an "exploration" day.  Give them an assignment, and say the best, most creative use of technology (maybe in a group) to fulfill the requirements will win some sort of reward.  Then, have them present their assignment to the class.  This generation is great at tinkering; let them show you!
  3. Start by simply taking an old lesson and moving it online, but don't end there.  Have you thought about having students type journals rather than hand-write?  Or take a quiz using a Google Form rather than pencil-and-paper?  Great ideas.  If this concept of technology is new to you, that is a great way to start.  But please, don't end there.  These devices are capable of so much more.  At some point, you will become comfortable enough to start exploring.  When you do, start to venture out from what you already know.  Seek new, meaningful tools for expression to supplement the traditional.
  4. Ask your peers for good resources that work.  Teachers at your school, colleagues from other districts, friends who love technology... so many people are on board with this stuff, you are apt to find someone who would love to help you get started.  Start with a simple "How have you used this in your class" or "Do you know of any websites that..."  Those of us who use technology frequently are embarrassingly excited about some of the resources we've found, and would be more than happy to get you going!
  5. Face it: You've got to embrace it!  Technology is not a fad, it's a revolution.  Our students' world as adults will look nothing like ours.  Our job is to prepare them for the future.  Well, since we don't know what it will look like exactly, we've got to use the tools available to us today to give them a leg up.  They will be the ones shaping the world in a matter of a few years.  Chances are, they will be shaping it with the aid of devices like the ones you will be using in your classroom.  So give them the skills they need to do so the right way!  We're still the teachers, they're still the students.  But they as students are different than we were, and we have to meet them where they are to get them to the places they will be going.
  6. Remember: You are still you.  Keep doing what you do best.  No technology can replace good teaching; it can merely supplement it.  Choir students will still sing, art students will still create, science students will still explore through labs, foreign language students will still speak.  The activities that you love to use in your classroom still have plenty of merit, and the presence of technology does not have to take away from the positive things you bring to the classroom just by being you.  Take a breath, reflect, and look forward.  See this as an opportunity to become the best you possible!