Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Guy Who Insisted On Taking Spanish

Four years ago, I had a 9th grader named Nick in Spanish 1.  He had dishwater-blond hair cut to about ½” all over his head with a perpetual rooster tail sticking up on the crown of his head.  Glasses.  Tall, lanky, a little shy, and polite.  On an IEP, they told me before the first day of class that Fall.  IEP said that due to his learning disabilities, it was not recommended that he take Spanish at the high school level after he finished 8th grade, but that he really wanted to take Spanish anyway, and due to his persistence, they had decided to let him try it, and he was allowed to enroll in my class.  I was asked by his SPED case manager and his mom that if it didn’t seem like he was going to make it in Spanish, to be sure and let them know within the first few weeks of school so they would still have time to put him in a different elective before he got in over his head; they stressed that he was only in Spanish because he had insisted on being given the chance to try it.

As soon as I heard all this information, I made Nick the “presidente” of Costa Rica on my seating chart.  Any kid who insists on being given the chance to take Spanish against all the adults in his life deserves to be presidente.  Other than that, I didn’t treat him differently from anyone else.  He learned like gangbusters in my class.  He participated, did all the written work, and had a big smile on his face every class. 

Nick broke his left wrist riding his bike after the first week of school.  Being left-handed, he had to do all his written work with his right hand.  He did every bit.  I have students not on IEPs with full use of both hands that don’t put half the effort he did into writing stories. 

Nick did awesome in Spanish 1 and went on to succeed just as well in Spanish 2.  Stories like this one that make me so glad I am a teacher.  It is my privilege to give access to and encouragement in learning to kids like Nick, because I believe that a kid who has full access to learning has access to the world.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Moments of Fulfillment Do Come in Teaching, Thank God

I just have to tell somebody what happened yesterday.  I was pushing my cart through Wal-mart, turned the corner and saw two of my students from regular Spanish 3 this year coming toward me.

"Regular" Spanish 3 means the two 40-student classes I had this year that were comprised of students who did not want to enroll in Pre-AP Spanish 3 because, in general, they were only getting a third year of Spanish 3 for college and really had no personal passion for learning it, as many of them frequently informed me loudly throughout the year.

I pushed those classes hard all year, basically at 95% of the level that I pushed my two Pre-AP Spanish 3 classes.  They read a page of Spanish every day, had at least a basic conversation in Spanish about the "Question of the Day," learned a new set of complicated vocab phrases, heard me tell a story, answered questions in Spanish about the story, and went through page after page of grammar worksheets on Preterit, Imperfect, Preterit versus Imperfect, Subjunctive, Future, Conditional, Present Perfect, and Past Perfect.  (That was in the fall.  In the Spring Semester, they went through every single grammar topic again.)

I grilled and drilled those classes, and yes I did have some major whining at times.  In fact, one of the students I ran into yesterday was hands-down my Most Vocal in letting me know she did not like the class, did not want to learn Spanish, was only taking it for college, wasn't learning anything because she didn't feel she was good at it, etc.  Pretty much every day she played on her phone as much as she could before I'd insist she participate, which only worked occasionally, and usually if I did get her to put up her phone, she would put her head down on her desk.  Lots of sighing and eye rolling from this one, too.  (Now let me also say that personally, I have absolutely nothing against this girl, and understand that when you don't like a class's subject matter or workload, you just don't.  And she did let me know a few times her attitude was nothing personal against me as well.)

The other girl was a good student this past year, but also not necessarily the eagerest beaver in love-love-loving Spanish class.  Neither of the two girls loved Spanish 3 enough this past year to continue on to Spanish 4 or AP, let's put it that way.

Okay, so the two of them spotted me in Wal-mart, and immediately brightened and made a bee-line to talk to me.

"We just got back from Nicaragua," they told me.  (I remembered the Vocal Girl telling me several times in class that she was going to Nicaragua for a mission trip or community service type thing in the summer, and she would usually add, "And nothing I'm learning in this class will help me communicate there."  This seemed to be her opinion because my vocab phrases are too "weird" and not "normal speech."  I get that a few times a semester in class, actually.  "When are we ever going to need to say this???"  I tell them, the reason you're learning Le enseñó a saltar con el Pogo Stick all as one phrase, is so you can learn le enseñó a; I just need the Pogo Stick so you'll remember the other part.)

"Oh, Nicaragua--you already went and came back?" I asked, cringing a little waiting for Vocal Girl to let me have it about how little she understood or was able to communicate.

"Yeah, and I spoke way more Spanish than I expected," Vocal Girl told me.

I could hardly believe my ears.  "Did you understand them, too?"

"Yeah.  I would understand a lot for awhile, and then all of a sudden someone would talk way too fast."

"I was pretty much fluent by the end of the week," the other girl chimed in.  "I was conjugating verbs in my head at night in bed, and they all made sense.  And then the next day, I would use them on people, and they understood me, and I was like, 'YES!'"

Vocal Girl had a lot more to tell me, too.  "At night, when we would get back to the Quinta, I'd still be speaking Spanish.  Then I would go, 'Oh, I guess we can speak English now.'"

The other girl said that all the verb conjugating that was so hard and didn't make sense in class, suddenly made total sense to her.  "And I don't know why!"

I was beaming by then.  "Because you're using it in real life.  I wish I could take the whole class to a Spanish-speaking country for a week, because then they would really get it."

So they held me there for a few more minutes, telling me all about how well they did in Spanish in Nicaragua, until I told them for the third or fourth time how proud I was of them and how they'd better come by my room next year to say hi.  They promised they would, I wished them a great summer, and we parted ways to finish shopping.

And I still have this huge grin on my face.

Lesson learned?  NEVER give up, on any student, ever.  Never give up teaching the best I can, every day, knowing that even when it looks like a total waste of time, it isn't.  I'm just telling you that if THAT kid, that particular Vocal Girl, learned usable Spanish and felt proud of herself in a real-world scenario, then all my hard-fought teaching was worth it because it DID accomplish something.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Transitioning to Past Tense with Stories

Had another couple of questions from my friend Jeanette in Iowa, about teaching past tense.  I've had these questions from others so I'll go ahead and answer them for all interested.

Transitioning to past tense - here is how it works in my books (more or less following Exprésate's curriculum sequence:)

Past tense is first introduced in the last five lessons of Spanish 1B 2009 Version, in the readings only.  I still tell the story in class in present tense, then have students read a version of it in past tense aloud with a partner (reading for me in class = translating it out loud into English so I know if they know what it says.)  This is pretty much no big deal for the students; they can easily recognize and read "miró" in context after seeing "mira" a few million times in the course of my Spanish 1A & B 2009 Version.  I might have to explain that "fue" means went, but that's about it.  

I don't prepare for these past tense readings in Spanish 1B 2009 with any kind of preterit/imperfect lesson; they just get the page of reading, I tell them it's in past tense Spanish and I want to hear them read it in past tense English please, and they read.  No big deal.  My goal here is that they simply start seeing and recognizing past tense Spanish verbs in context.

As they are getting these past tense readings at the tail end of 1B, I might do a grammar lesson on preterit and/or imperfect if I have time, but not until they've already read a few stories in past tense and had time to notice the change in endings on their own.  (I really think I'm wasting my time teaching explicit grammar when they have had no contact with that particular grammar structure already via comprehensible input, but that is just my own opinion.)  I haven't taught Spanish 1 in a couple of years, but I know my colleague Alexis didn't quite get to the final 5 lessons and that's fine.  We plan for her to pick up where she left off in 1B at the beginning of Spanish 2, which will work just as well for my purposes, which is for them to truly acquire Spanish proficiency in speaking, reading, writing, and listening and not just rush through the material trying to memorize for tests.

Past tense continues of course in Spanish 2A and 2B 2009.  The first couple of chapters of Exprésate 2 are a huge review of Spanish 1 (and there are long, long lists of new vocab,) so I wrote the scripts to tell in class as well as the readings in present tense in order to hopefully give students more time to nail down present tense more fully before heading into past tense.  Starting after the midterm, the scripts in 2A are in present and the readings are in past, through to the end of the first semester, much like the last few lessons of 1B.

My Spanish 2B 2009 is all in past tense, scripts as well as readings, with the vocab list shortened and simplified so we could focus 100% on getting preterit and imperfect down pat.  My 2A stories are actually pretty hard to understand and read vocab-wise, so in 2B I took it down a notch like I said to try to make past tense verbs more of the focus than complicated, endless vocab lists.

My Spanish 3A & B 2012 is all in past tense, scripts and readings, with present tense popping back up mostly in the conversation and class discussion topics and journal writing prompts.  I find my students still need plenty of practice in present tense in order to prepare for the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam, and this fall I intend to step that up quite a bit.  You can't make a lot of errors in present tense and make a 3 on the AP Spanish exam, because that's considered "frequent errors in elementary structures" (and a 2) on the AP grading rubric.  So I say you really can't overteach or overpractice present tense, and I'm happy with how much I kept it going through the end of 2A.

Anyway, that's my method for now!