I was on a podcast once…

I love podcasts. I listen to them on my daily walk, while cutting the lawn or shoveling the snow, or even during my eight minute drive home. I enjoy popular podcasts like Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, Smartless, A Way With Words, The West Wing Weekly, and others and they are my escape. I also listen to some that act as professional development- Inspired Proficiency, Radio Ambulante, and a one I recently came across- An Unconventional Teacher.

After the first episode, I clicked that “Subscribe” button to make sure I get my weekly dose of An Unconventional Teacher. Host John Hinthorne is a Spanish teacher out in California who immediately struck me as a “kindred spirit” of sorts (spoiler alert: we are). Plus, the podcast’s duration is right around 15 minutes. That’s the perfect length for anyone with a busy life (so, I guess…everybody). The stories the teachers tell on that podcast are interesting, thought-provoking and inspiring.

At the end of one of the first episodes I listened to, John asked that if you are or know an unconventional teacher, to contact him. Thinking myself somewhat unconventional, a lover of podcasts, and someone who loves to talk (I think radio could have been another career in another life), I contacted him to say I was interested. He wrote back quickly and arranged for me to be on the podcast which we scheduled to record late December.

Then panic hit me as did a crisis of confidence…I continued listening to the podcast and hearing the inspirational teachers give tight, well-packaged answers that left me in awe. I saw the names of upcoming teachers and their accolades…History Teacher of the Year…World Language Teacher of the Year…what could I, a humble Spanish teacher from southeast lower Michigan somewhere between Detroit and Lansing, add to the conversation? I’ve never been nominated for, let alone won, any accolades. I don’t have a major social media presence. I’m not a featured speaker at a conference. I’m just a guy doing his best for his students every day. Is that enough to warrant me being on a national podcast?

I don’t know if I belong on the podcast, but as I have reflected on this, and I have come to the realization that while accolades and recognition are great (and well-deserved by those who earn them), they are not always a measure of one’s success in his or her or their career. Here’s what I am proud of and what I think makes me unconventional:

  1. I am passionate about using Comprehensible Input in my classroom. Once I learned about CI and began to understand the research, I worked tirelessly to convert our entire department to having CI as the basis for our instruction. Within a few short years, we are now 100% CI and are not a small department. I am hoping we can serve as an example to other schools of how to transition to using CI as the basis for instruction.
  2. There are no desks in my classroom. I know I am not the only teacher in the world to be deskless, but I am very glad to have made the decision. Because there are no desks, I give a lot less worksheets (worksheets, ew, David!) and focus on communication. Plus, sanitizing the room goes much quicker with only chairs. If you ever want advice on moving to a deskless classroom, contact me!
  3. I led the charge to create the Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica in our school and now serve as its advisor. I also led the charge to begin a program for students to earn the Michigan Seal of Biliteracy (we awarded two last year!). If you ever need help getting those programs off the ground, I am here to help!
  4. I am passionate about using brain breaks in my classroom and they have certainly made my classroom a better place in which to learn. I am not the expert on these (I’m looking at you @lamaestraloca !) but I am happy to help you implement these in your classroom.

I think this blog post is really more for me to work out my lack of confidence. I think I’m OK now. If you listened to the episode of An Unconventional Teacher on which I appeared, I hope you enjoyed it. I hope it inspired you. And, I thank John for the opportunity to be on his podcast, especially considering the other names on the list.

Teach with joy.


Balance: Rethinking Grammar in the CI classroom

I love grammar.  I think the way the internal workings of a language reflect history, culture, and the human mind is fascinating.  Grammar is music to me- I see the internal workings of the language system and I smile.

But when I moved my classroom away from traditional teaching, I abandoned the amazing grammatical Power Points I created in order to focus on communication and comprehensible input.  I told myself: “Self, no more grammar!  Focus on the message, focus on the comprehensibility of what you are saying.”  When kids ask about grammar points, I now give the briefest of explanations only to return to the message at hand.  I may have even told a kid or two to “buzz off” with their questions about grammar (OK, yeah, now that I write that I’m not proud of it!).

I based this frame of mind on what I (thought I) knew about how we acquire language.  Based on the hours of Tea with BVP and perusing articles by Krashen, I had a working understanding of the underlying processes that go into acquiring a second language.

I still believe in Krashen’s hypothesis. I still believe the research and science behind BVP’s research and analysis.  But I had the sense that my thinking about the relationship between a CI/Communicative classroom and the role of grammar was incomplete.

That was until I came across this article by Carol Gaab [via FluencyMatters.com]. To give a tl;dr* version of the article, Ms. Gaab interviews Dr. Paul Toth about the role of grammar instruction in the L2 classroom.  Dr. Toth’s remarks can be summed up this way:
-Grammar instruction in the L2 classroom is necessary for the complete acquisition of L2;
-Grammar instruction should be like Google Maps: it will show you how to best arrive at your destination while ignoring the extraneous details on the map that have nothing to do with your destination and therefore;
-Grammar instruction should be short, done within the context of the message being transmitted by the teacher (i.e., in real time) and provide the learner with a more complete understanding of the language around them. (read the article for more details!)

*tl;dr: Reddit-speak for too long/didn’t read

I think that this may be good guidance to inform our practice and I’ve been attempting to live this concept out in my classroom.  For example, in my Spanish 4 class, students read profiles of DACA recipients and had to write a paragraph about them.  As I was reviewing what they wrote, I noticed quite a few common errors.  So, I shared with them an invented short story about a possible DACA recipient.  It went something like this:

Pablo nació en México y sus padres emigraron a los EE.UU. cuando Pablo tenía dos años.  Después de graduarse del colegioasistió la universidad porque solicitó para DACA.

My goal was three-fold: A) Avoid vocabulary mistakes, B) Avoid grammar mistakes, and C) Improve academic language.

A) Students were confusing colegio (high school) with universidad (college/university) because colegio sounds so much like “college.” I also showed them that aplicar (to apply as to a surface) does not mean to apply to a university/apply for DACA and that solicitar is the correct term.

B) Students were making the very common error of using some form of the verbs to be (ser, estar) to express age.  Also, I mentioned using this form (the imperfect) was appropriate tense.  I talked about this briefly but made the point clear.  As to nació (s/he was born), I mentioned how this verb acts different than in English.

C) Students were using cheap words like fueron a (they went to) so I emphasized words like emigraron (they emigrated) to improve academic language use.  The same goes for verbs like asistir and solicitar.

I hope this process is what Dr. Toth alludes to.

But still, I’m not sure…

I like Dr. Toth’s ideas in theory and in practice as well.  But my doubts about the short- and long-term gains of any grammar instruction still nag at me.  When I spend time explaining grammar in context, am I only reaching a small percentage of my students?  Will some explicit grammar teaching really lead to long-term acquisition?

Also, BVP has stated repeatedly that acquisition cannot be reached by explicit instruction.  Although masked by the words context, nimble, targeted, etc. isn’t this form of grammar instruction really just explicit teaching which won’t lead to acquisition?

Then I think about my own acquisition of L2.  Didn’t memorizing verb charts and vocabulary list have some role in my acquisition of the language?  How big was that role?  Or was it really just the many, many hours of comprehensible input that led me to where I am today?

Perhaps, as some have suggested, this grammar instruction is best accomplished once a learner has reached a higher level of proficiency of the language.

I don’t think these are easy questions to answer.  So, if I take Dr. Toth’s comments to heart, I’m left with having to find the balance between focusing on CI and communication with a little dose of grammar explanation from time to time when appropriate or requested by a student.  That may be the best way to reach acquisition.  Until then, as always, I will just keep trying my best to get kids to move happily along their journey with the language.


AP Naipes de Conversación

So I’ve been using Señora Share’s outstanding AP starters in my AP Spanish Language and Culture class this year but I’m really having a hard time keeping my Thursday Conversation Circles going. So today, I came up with this game that I haven’t tried but couldn’t wait to share.

Kids sit on the floor in a circle with a deck of cards in the middle. The teacher gives the topic and says “go!” The 10 minute timer begins.

Kids begin with no cards. Every time a kid asks a question, answers a question, or even speaks a sentence within the context of the conversation, he/she draws a card up to 5 cards. Once he/she reaches 5 cards, that person can discard a card and take a new one from the pile.

The goal of the game (other than stimulating quick-paced conversations) is to be the first to make a run of 5 (A-5, 3-7, 8-Q, etc.) or a flush of 5 (i.e., all the same suit). At the end of 10 minutes if nobody has a run or flush of 5, the person who is closest to a run or flush of 5 wins. If one student has a run of 4 and another has a flush of 4, the flush wins. Any other ties can be broken by coin flip or rock/paper/scissors/(lizard/Spock).

Variation: play for the best poker hand. Most kids don’t know poker so this might not work.

Prizes for the winners! Keep a long-term record of winners for a grand champion if you wish.

Have a deck of Mus cards? Even better!

Like I said, I haven’t tried this yet but I feel like it’s going to be a popular game.

Let me know if it works for you, any modifications you can think of, and feel free to share with your colleagues.

A good start… Reflecting on 2016-17

This was my first year completely putting CI as the focus of my instruction.  I implemented various techniques gleaned from Twitter, fellow colleagues, the Mitten CI called conference, as well as TPRS methods I learned through various blogs & websites.  At the end of the year, I asked my students to fill out a survey that would give me insight into their reaction to the new way of learning. Here are my reflections on the year as well as on what I learned from the student surveys.  I want to do this publicly so it would give me some accountability as to the changes I plan to make for next year. I learned a lot throughout the school year, the most important lesson which is that I have a lot more to learn, which is a tough pill to swallow after 16 years of teaching. Nevertheless, I know that pulling CI at the center of my classroom instruction will lead to better communication and understanding of Spanish and I am pleased with my first try at it. As one of my students once said, the first pancake is never the best. I had some great successes and some failures along the way. I will learn from both of them and strive to get better.

Classroom Environment

Setting up a safe classroom environment based around strong relationships with the students has always been a strong suit of mine. Survey results seem to reflect this as well. I believe that implementing Capturing Kids’ Hearts training also lead to stronger relationships throughout the classroom. However, it’s tough to maintain this throughout the year. One of the biggest challenges that I have always had teaching is making sure to form relationships with every single student. That can be very daunting, especially when there are 180 students to get to know personally. There aren’t enough hours in the day to get to know every student personally. I want to focus on doing better. I tend to know some kids better than others and that is something that I’ve never been truly happy with. Next year I want to be sure to engage with the students on a personal level more often. 

Also, while we’re on the topic, some students expressed the desire to have one with more one on one conversation with me in Spanish throughout the year as opposed to just midterm and final. That is definitely something I’m going to work on next year. I want to provide more opportunities for the students to have conversations with me, both formally and informally, to both improve their language and improve our relationships.  Students actually like to speak Spanish with the teacher!  I, of course, do too.
One classroom environment area where I failed is my transition to a deskless classroom.  Students especially felt uncomfortable in this city environment, primarily because it was difficult to sir & take notes without a desk. I think this reflects more on my practice then the actual seating arrangement. I believe I try to maintain an more traditional way of teaching in some aspects.  I change the classroom seating without changing the classroom practice. If I did more activities in which the students just simply had to speak or engage with the language as opposed to writing things, I believe I would have been more successful without desks.  So this is one area about which I have a lot of thinking to do.   Is it beneficial to maintain the deskless environment or should I go back to desks so the students will feel more comfortable? This is a question that will cause me to do much thinking since I truly enjoyed having no desks in my classroom.  I believe that I could maybe work on rearranging the classroom to find a happy medium where the students will have places to write when necessary. 

Classroom Activities

It seems that my goal to maintain the use of Spanish for at least 90% of the time was for the most part successful.  I would guesstimate that I probably maintain the use of Spanish 90% or more on about 85% of the days. There were days where the use of the language was less than others. Again, I believe this speaks to the activities that I have the students work on. There were days when the students will be working on individual assignments or SmashDoodles where are use the language a lot less. I don’t know, it’s tough because usually it’s hard to maintain 90% of the language every single day. It can be very tiring, both to the teacher and the student, but that doesn’t seem like an excuse to me. I think those days where I didn’t use the language as much could’ve been filled with more engaging see I activities such as MovieTalks.  

I really don’t know why, but I also did not give as much homework as I had in the past. This was a mistake. I believe that the times that I didn’t use the language as much with the days that the students we’re working on activities that could better have been done at home. Next year, I really think that I am going to make sure that everything we do in class is based around communication and any worksheets or SmashDoodles will be done at home. This may not be a popular idea with the students but if it increases the amount of language used in the classroom and the amount of communication of the students engage with, it will be worth the few extra hours of work at home per week.

At the beginning of the year, while reviewing the syllabus, I told the students at the number one job was to stop me when they did not understand something. I set it at the beginning of the year and left it there. When I asked the students if they felt like I gave them the verbal and nonverbal tools to stop me when they did not understand something, the survey results show that I failed in this area. Next year, I want to give the students a green and red card so they can hold up when they do not understand something. It is also a skill that I will be sure to teach during the first few weeks of the year. Students need to know that when I ask them a question they should be prepared to answer in Spanish. However, if they can’t see the words that they want to say, English is fine. This is another skill that I did not emphasize enough with my students at the beginning of the year. Especially for students that are in the Intermediate Low proficiency, they need to show me that they are understanding no matter what language it is in.

Another area in which I would like to improve next year is spending more of the first few weeks of school teaching and using high-frequency verbs because I felt like the students did not feel as comfortable using those high-frequency verbs in the context. Students do not realize that knowing just a handful of verbs can help them communicate better.

One area in which I had much success was using acting, body language, and nonverbal cues to read to and communicate with students students.  This is a skill that I can build upon next year. If this is something that I am good at, I can exploit that to help students understand the language that there are hearing and reading.


Spanish 3

La llorona legend, La llorona de Mazatlán, holiday culture & vocab including the Justino video were successful ways to keep comprehensible input at the center of our instruction. I feel like two novels plus some other activities at the beginning of the year who are sufficient bases from which to operate. I know that my colleague and I have discussed more directly connecting the activities that we do from these novels and ancillary resources to the ACTFL Can-Do statements to focus on real world skills. While it was nice to learn about culture and read the stories, some of the students expressed that they didn’t feel that what we learned was useful in the real world. Language should be useful in the real world so by connecting to can-do statements we should be able to achieve more real world application. This will help the students see those connections as well.  It will also be helpful to have clear learning targets.  It was a great start and with a little bit of extra work we should make this curriculum better.

Spanish 4

I will continue to use El Internado next year as this was definitely a favorite of most of the students. What I will do better with the show is make it more comprehensible to the students. Even though the students just want to keep watching the show without doing any pre-viewing activities, I will be sure that we slow down and do the activities necessary ahead of viewing.

I also plan to use novels next year in Spanish 4. One of the aspects that the students did mention in the surveys, however, is that they did not feel that they have enough exposure to grammar.  Despite the numerous times that I expressed to them that grammar will not help them learn a language, I will provide opportunities for students to study and learn grammar outside of the classroom. This will allow students to feel better about the grammar but not take up any time in the classroom where we can be using the language to communicate. This idea of “flipping” grammar came from the CI Liftoff Facebook group so thanks to them for their support.

Spanish 4 will look different than it has the past few years- the benefit of being the only level 4 teacher!  This is the class in which I plan to make the biggest changes since Spanish 3 should require less planning next year than it did this year. Time management definitely was a challenge for me this year. Hopefully next year it will be easier. I know it won’t.


I will most definitely be spending more time on the conversation part of the test throughout the year.  I also plan to use more podcasts and continue watching El Internado next year.  Next year’s group will be much different than this year’s group. However, I will be thinking about ways to encourage the students to read the selections outside of class. One idea that I have had is to assign the reading 2 to 3 days ahead of the day that we will actually be discussing it in class. This will allow students who are very busy to have more opportunities to do the reading. Also, I plan to give more pop quizzes about the reading next year to encourage the students to read. I don’t want to make reading a negative experience, however it is absolutely necessary to spend a few days in the text. Perhaps I have been giving the students to little time to actually complete the very difficult readings. Even short readings that I feel should be easy for them can be very challenging and if they don’t have enough time the students most likely will not do it or not read in-depth.   Also, I would like to spend more time doing pre-teaching activities related to the vocabulary. This can easily be accomplished through TPRS methods that have been successful thus far. The biggest challenge for AP students is vocabulary and I want to focus more on vocabulary next year. They will want grammar and that will be accomplished outside of the classroom at home.

Final Thoughts 

It was a successful year with many small victories throughout. However, making such a radical change to my teaching style will take time to sharpen hone my skills. I am the kind of person who expects great results immediately and I did not get them. I know that I probably am being overly critical of myself.  Nevertheless, the students spoke a lot of Spanish and can produce a lot more than they could with the traditional style of teaching. Grammar and vocabulary lists are a thing of my past and I do not plan to return to that style of teaching ever. With communication is the center of my classroom, I don’t think I can really go wrong. I feel like this is a lot like learning the game of chess.  It’s easy to learn the basic moves but becoming an expert at it will take years. All I can do is try to continue to grow, reflect, and grow again. I plan to move forward with this next year and make it a great experience for both the students and myself. We had a lot of fun throughout the year and accomplish quite a bit. It will only get better.

PS: I used the diction function on the iPad keyboard to write most of this.  I did edit it but if there are some funky areas, I am sorry!

Brain Break #3: Números

With thanks to my Capturing Kids’ Hearts training…

With a partner, face to face, students count to three, alternating.

P1: uno 

P2: dos

P1: tres 

P2: uno, etc.

After 15 seconds, leader says “aplauso” and a clap replaces one.

P1: *clap*

P2: dos

P1: tres 

P2: *clap*, etc.

After 15 seconds or so, the leader says “¡brinca!” and a toe raise replaces “dos”. The only number said is “tres.”

Then, after 15 seconds or so, the leader says “¡pie!” and “tres” is replaced by lifting the left leg behind the right and slapping the bottom of the shoe with the right hand. 

So in the end it’s:

P1: *clap*

P2: *bounce*

P1: *slap foot with hand*

P2: *clap*, etc.

P1: *bounce*

P2: *slap foot with hand”

Takes about 1:30, takes minds off of a difficult task, gets the blood flowing, then back to work!

Brain Break #2: Enano/gigante 

Ripped this off from Misael again…great for a 1 minute activity to get the blood moving…

Like Simon Says, the kids get up and leader says “enano” and the kids “get short” by squatting or “gigante” and the kids get big by standing up as tall as they can.  The leader tries to trick the kids by saying enano twice or by saying the commands fast.  Kid messes up, kid is out.

After a minute or so, back to work!

Brain Break #1: Chocolate

I totally ripped this off from my tico friend Misael who is a chef in Costa Rica.  Start off in a big circle (4+ people) and have the kids stand with their palms up.  


Choco choco la la

Choco choco te te

Choco la

Choco te

Choco  la  te

The first to go takes his/her right hand, reaches across his/her body and says the first part of the lyric, choco, while slapping the hand of the person to their left.  That second person then says the next word, choco, and slaps the hand of the person to his/her left.  Play continues until the last “te.”  

If the penultimate person says “te” and slaps the last person’s hand, the last person is out.  If the last person moves his/her hand out of the way causing the penultimate person to miss, the penultimate person is out.

Continue play until there are 3.  Then the three form a triangle and play like this:

Hands up (like a high five)

Open palms for choco

Back of palms for la

Fists for te 

(Like: http://bit.ly/2cqdmTO)

First person to mess up is out.  With two, play the same way with two hands.

Variation: when a word (choco, la, or te) is doubled, the person meant to say it must double slap the person to his/her left.

Either way, the whole group can say the lyrics or the individuals can say only their word.

Sounds complicated but it moves fast once you get going.  High school sophomores through seniors love this!

Professional development success!


It has been awhile since I’ve posted to the blog primarily due to the fact that I’ve been grading AP exams, started the process of getting graduation on track (I’m the commencement coordinator for our school), and preparing for our final professional development day.

Our school and district often allows us some autonomy with PD topics. I requested time to run a workshop with our high school World Language teachers about moving to a Comprehensible Input / communicative-focused classroom.  (Link to Google Slide presentation…it’s pretty bare bones. Here is the agenda which has some good resources at the bottom.)

The workshop was a success!  The only teachers in attendance (as this PD day was not required) were an ASL teacher and the other HS Spanish teachers.  That was fine, the small group worked well even though I had prepared to present to a larger group.

After watching (part of…lots of pauses for discussion!) the Bill Van Patten MiWLA presentation from 2013, my colleagues seemed to be coming to a solid understanding of the theory behind CI and communication in the classroom.  Of course, as many teachers are, this group is one of doers so they were fired up to start seeing concrete examples of what CI and communication look like in practice as well as start in on making changes to our curriculum.

Here’s what I learned from them:

1) Most teachers already do some form of communication and CI so this change won’t be as shocking as they thought.  They were happy to know that they won’t have to toss all of their good ideas from the past in favor of a new way of teaching.  Now it’s time for us to focus on making communication and CI the heart and soul of our curriculum.

2)  One teacher shared how she was introducing clothing in a very communicative way while being observed by an administrator.  While she was doing a vocabulary introduction giving the kids good input using props and engaging the kids in conversation, the administrator marked her down as she thought the activity might be confusing to kids.  To me this was very important because it shows the need to educate the administration about the role of input in SLA as well as what they should expect to see when visiting our classrooms.  The point has been made that WL teachers are not teachers in the traditional sense and that language cannot be taught how other subjects are taught.  I am hoping to meet with our admin (maybe over the summer?) to educate them on the research.

3)  The culture of department is ripe for collaboration and we  will be going about this work with joy!  There are reasons not worth mentioning here about why this is but moving toward CI and communication is going to bring our department together in a positive way.

4) I’ve learned a lot by reading research and following great teachers on Twitter, there’s a lot I don’t know!  I guess that means that there is more to learn!

Next Steps

1) We are going to request district-sponsored curriculum days to work on this change during the upcoming summer break;

2) Between now and then we will be starting to develop a curriculum guide via a Google Docs template I have to make;

3) Personally, I will spend some of this summer developing materials and searching through the countless resources available on-line.  I’m certain my colleagues will be doing the same for the classes they will be teaching…ahem…guiding.

My goal has been for our WL department (in particular the Spanish division of the department) to become a world-class program.  These first steps put us on the path for that dream to become a reality.

Nevertheless, my mantra is and will continue to be:

Vista larga, pasos cortos

(Long view, short steps…Pitbull said this in the HBO documentary Latin Explosion and it has stuck with me.)