Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Teaching while Burned Out during the End-of-the-Year

This time of the school is always difficult for teachers and students, because by this point, everyone is burned out. Even though I returned from Spring Break feeling incredibly rested, at the same time, the final 6.5 weeks is always a mess for everyone with standardized state testing, AP testing, senioritis, and just "not feeling it any more." By this point, students are so emotionally and mentally ready for final exams (probably not academically though), because they are simply tired of it all (we teachers feel the same way). It is difficult to lesson plan during this time, because as teachers, "the well has run dry" in terms of motivation. Everything now just seems to take a lot more effort to do, and if you have more than one prep, the burden just seems heavier.

I have two preps (thankfully), so to save my strength and mental bandwidth, my two preps are all doing the same activities on each day. While the readings may be different for each prep, the lessons themselves are the same. If my Latin 2 classes are doing a Read, Draw, and Discuss on Monday, then so are my Latin 3's. If my Latin 3's are doing Whiteboard.fi on Thursday, then so are my Latin 2's. If my Latin 2's are doing a Movie Talk on Friday, then I am going to manipulate that same animated short so that I can do it with my Latin 3's too. This has made it so much easier for me these past few weeks, because then I feel like I am just planning for one prep.  

When I returned from Spring Break on April 11, I remember thinking, "We have 6.5 weeks left until the end of the school year. That is such a long time from now!" I remember telling my senior homeroom on that day, "The senior picnic and Prom are in 3 weeks," but inside saying to myself, "Oh my gosh, that seems so far away. It is going to take forever to get to those days." Fast forward to now - the senior picnic and Prom were last week, and in hindsight, I feel like those 3 weeks passed by very quickly. At the same time, it all happened one day at a time. And quite honestly, I can only be faithful with each day which I am given - worrying about tomorrow and trying to do tomorrow's work today is carrying a larger burden than is necessary. It is now May 3, and the last day of school/graduation is on May 25. Everything is all happening very quickly now, and the end is in sight. However, it will all happen one day at a time.

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Runaway Train Has Begun

Graduation is one month from today in my school district (watch me do a cartwheel out of sheer joy), but the end of the school year is ALWAYS such a weird and stressful time for teachers. This week begins state End of Course tests for students in certain subject areas, and next week will start two weeks of AP testing. The next three weeks become a game of hit/miss to see which students will be in my classes on what days, which makes lesson planning incredibly difficult. Add in senioritis, Prom, burnout in both students and teachers, trying to get in teaching new material which will be on the final exam despite students being out for standardized testing, preparing students for final exams, and just end-of the-year stuff. It can be very overwhelming for everyone.

I have been teaching now for almost 25 years, and although I know from experience that this is how this time of the year will always be, it still does not make it any easier to endure. I always liken the end of the school year to a runaway train - regardless of how I feel, the train is not going to stop whether I like it or not, so the only thing which I can do is to just hold on and to ride it out. Complaining and venting about it will not stop the train. 

However, at the same time, wow - I have almost made it through another rather somewhat-weird year of teaching (nothing like the previous two though!). I can celebrate that! Despite being on this runaway train, I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Embedded Writing

This week, I was cleaning out my files in my Google Drive and came across this activity which I had completely forgotten about and have not used for years. It is a post-reading, writing activity which I learned from a conversation that I had with Bess Hayles at NTPRS a number of years ago and then saw demonstrated by Betsy Paskvan. It is a very low-stress, low affective filter way to get students to write without overwhelming them into a full-blown timed/free write. It is very similar to an embedded reading, but this time, students are supplying the missing information. 

  1. Take a paragraph from a reading which you have been covering in class. 
  2. Type the sentences out on a document as a list but leave a lined space between each sentence. 
  3. The objective of the activity is very simple: Students' task is to write a sentence of their own in the target language in that lined space which makes sense between the two sentences. It can be an expansion of the sentence of previous sentence, be a transition between the two, or explain the need for the next sentence. Did something happen in the story between the two sentences that is missing? 
  1. I like this activity, because although students are writing in the target language, they also have parameters in adding new details and meaning to a story.
  2. For beginning levels, you may want to do this as a guided activity first to familiarize students with writing and with the activity itself. For example, for the sentence between #1 and #2, you could ask students aloud, "What is the boy or girl feeling? Happy? sad? Can you describe the boy or girl? Is the boy or girl doing anything?" This will help give students a number of different ideas and details which they could add. Many times I have found that it is not necessarily a lack of vocabulary knowledge which prevents students from writing but rather a lack of direction or ideas to follow.
  3. This is actually a very good higher-order thinking activity, because students must create a sentence of their own which makes sense between two other existing sentences.
  4. Depending on the level of the class and its familiarity with writing, you may choose to leave two lined spaces between each sentence as a higher-level challenge. Students must then write two sentences between each sentence.
  5. I would scaffold this late in a unit lesson plan, because students do need to be familiar enough with the story that they can add new details of their own.
  6. Variations of this activity could be pairing up students or having students pass their papers to another student after they complete writing a sentence, and the next student must write the next new sentence.
Again, I found this activity tucked away in a Google Drive file - I may need to see what else is in my Google Drive!

Friday, March 18, 2022

Dominoes - Putting the Story in Order #2

This is a great collaborative, tactile post-reading activity for students to apply their learning and knowledge of a particular reading using the target language. I learned this years ago at a Cambridge Latin Course workshop, and it was used in English as a culture review. However, I like doing this with a reading, since it is a twist on the "put the story in order" activity and is similar to dominoes. It requires students to recreate the story in the target language in word-for-word "chunks. NOTE - there is some prep involved prior to the activity.

  1. On a MS Word or Google Docs document, create a table in which the cells are long in height and resemble domino tiles. I usually do a table of 3x6 (18 cells) or 4x6 (24 cells).
  2. Print up the document.
  3. On the top left hand cell, on the side, handwrite "Start Here" 
  4. Now in that cell handwrite the first sentence of your reading but leave the last word blank. This may require you editing your sentence to fit the cell. NOTE - you do not always have to leave the last word blank, but I have found that visually it is easier for students to see than if a word in the middle is left blank.
  5. On the cell below it, at the TOP of that cell, write that missing word.
  6. Then below that word, write the next sentence from the story but leave the last word blank. Again, this may require you editing the sentence to fit the cell.
  7. On the cell below it, at the TOP of that cell, write that missing word.
  8. Continue this pattern.
  9. When you get to the last cell/sentence of the reading, the missing word will be written on the top of the "Start Here" cell.
  10. Make 10 copies of this table for a class of 30 - I usually use colored card stock, because card stock is firm and not flimsy like regular paper.
  11. Cut the cells into "domino tiles," and put each set in a separate plastic Ziploc bag (the snack-sized bags are good).
  1. Group students into 3's (a class of 30 would have 10 groups).
  2. Have students take the cards out of the bag and lay them out on a flat surface.
  3. Have them find the card which says "Start Here." 
  4. Tell them that their job is to recreate the reading by finding the missing word of that sentence. That word is found at the top of another card. 
  5. Like dominoes, students will line up that card underneath the "Start Here" card.
  6. Now students have a new sentence with a missing word, and their job is find that missing word.
  7. Tell students that the final card's missing word will be the one at the top of the "Start Here" card.
  8. As students begin to have less cards remaining, the activity should become easier.
  9. Optional competition - I have a bell at the front of my class that students ring when they think that they are done. I then will check that group's cards to make sure that the cards are correct.
  10. When the activity is done, have students scramble the cards before they return them so that they are out of order for the next class.
  1. I suppose one could create this digitally instead of handwriting the sentences. It would require you creating a fillable, set template where the parameters of the table do not change when typing in the sentences. If you can figure out how to do this, go for it.  
  2. This activity usually lasts around 5-10 minutes.
  3. 18-24 "cards" are a good amount - anything less than that is too quick and anything more can get long for students.
  4. You cannot have duplicate words on the tops of cards, because that would mess up groups' domino orders. Every word on the top of the cards must be distinct.
  5. Students can self-monitor their progress when they do this activity because if they "finish" but there are cards still remaining, then they have made a mistake somewhere.
  6. I have seen this activity adapted on Textivate. Since that is a pay-site, I have not used it.
  7. I have a deskless classroom, so this activity does not really lend itself well to playing on the floor since the cards are small. However, when I did have desks, I did this activity a lot!
  8. I found that students liked the tactile nature of the activity. Plus, it helped students see the story arranged visually.
  9. I like the collaborative nature of the activity, because students really do communicate with each other to find the next "domino" which completes the sentence.
  10. I do not understand why students like ringing the bell when they are finished but they do! Therefore, I have to ensure that even the last group to finish gets the chance to ring the bell.
  11. I would scaffold this activity for later in a reading's lesson plans, because students really need to know the reading well (and vocabulary) to be able to complete the sentence with the missing word.
  12. I do like how this requires students to re-read the story again in a completely different way (and to receive repetitions of understandable messages in their re-reading) but the focus isn't on comprehension anymore but on completing the sentence with the missing words.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Modifying Activities to Make Them Communicative

Last month, I worked as a coach for Martina Bex and Elicia Cardenas' online Acquisition Boot Camp course (ABC). An early lesson in the course addressed "Making Activities Purposeful and Communicative." According to Bill Van Patten, "Communication is the interpretation, expression, and/or negotiation of meaning for a purpose, in a given context." In a nutshell, we want to ensure that the activities which we implement in our classrooms have a true communicative purpose in the context of a classroom, meaning:

  • We should ensure that there is a interpretation, expression or negotiation of meaning. Our purpose should be that we wish to discover and learn information about each other, ourselves, and the world around us through communication and input. So having students interact with you as the teacher through processing questions and PQA's, TPRS, doing a Movie Talk or calendar talk, and having students read and interact with a text are some examples of activities which are purposefully communicative. In each of those examples, an interpretation, expression, or negotiation of meaning is occurring. However, grammar-related activities (such as conjugating in context, parsing) are not communicative in nature.
  • At the same time, this communication needs to occur in a realistic context and setting. Therefore, since we as teachers are communicating in a classroom, our communication needs to reflect what would occur in a classroom. The traditional textbook dialogues/role plays of "a trip to the doctor's office," "ordering a train ticket," and "maneuvering through the airport" are not truly communicative, because they are artificially set and delivered in a classroom context (and not in a doctor's office, train station, airport). If you wish to do those dialogues, then students need to be in those actual environments for these activities to have a true setting.
One of my roles as a coach was to respond to/interact with participant comments on the daily lesson discussion boards, and this particular topic always sparks much discussion from participants. For many this was a very eye-opening and somewhat pedagogical-challenging lesson. However, for the most part, participants were in agreement with the concept of implementing purposeful-communicative classroom activities, but the major questions were "What does this look like?" "What about activities like Kahoot and GimKit?" and "Does this mean that I have to create new classroom activities?"

First off, let me say/echo what Martina and Elicia say in this lesson: This is not to say that EVERY lesson and activity must be communicative in purpose. Believe me, there are days when you as the teacher and students both need a break so you play Vocabulary BINGO. And I love a good GimKit! However, so many of our existing "non-communicative" classroom activities can become communicative in nature through some modifications. Here are some examples:
  • Textbook dialogues and culture topics - instead of having students do a role play/dialogue of going to the doctors' office (which quite honestly, students are simply memorizing and parroting those dialogues), embed these dialogues into a reading (such as Anna must go to the doctor, because her mother is sick), where the dialogue has been inserted as part of something bigger. Because the dialogue is now in a reading which you are teaching, the dialogue has been contextualized into your classroom setting. So for those of you who must cover a camping unit in your curriculum (why is camping considered a necessary cultural topic to cover??), create a reading about characters who go camping - perhaps a character writes a diary entry about going camping!
  • GimKit/Kahoot/Blooket - I love using these web app tools for vocabulary review, but so often we present the vocabulary as isolated terms. A simple modification would be to present these vocabulary words in the context of sentences from a reading. For example, instead of a GimKit question being asked as "gemma," rewrite the question as a sentence from a reading, e.g., "Latrones non GEMMAS habebant." Now negotiation and interpretation of meaning are occurring due to the context of a sentence, and it is no longer presented as an isolated term (because vocabulary rarely occurs isolated in communication). Also, consider asking comprehension questions in the target language and character description questions such as "who would say this?" "Whom does this sentence describe?" "What sentence best describes Character X?", "Where is Character X in this reading?" in a GimKit/Kahoot/Blooket to make the activity more communicative. 
  • BINGO - Students love BINGO, so I am not opposed to having students play it when I need a break. However, I do like Martina Bex's extension use of BINGO as a precursor for a timed write.
So take a look at your activities and consider making some modifications to make them more communicative in nature!

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Easy Ways to Begin Giving Students Choice and Differentiation

One of the current buzzwords and phrases in education is student choice, or more commonly known as differentiated instruction. To a degree as language teachers, we are probably already addressing differentiated instruction, since language encompasses so many different modalities of input/output such as listening, reading, writing, and speaking. How can we allow students to learn and to demonstrate mastery in a way which best suits them and their interests?

Let me say that the topic of student choice/differentiated instruction is HUGE and cannot be fully addressed in a single blog post, nor do I want to oversimplify the topic. However, here are some initial ways/baby steps in which you can modify some of your current activities/assessments to begin implementing student choice:

  • On any type of written assessment (outside of final exams and other standardized assessments), give students choice of the minimum number of questions which they must answer to demonstrate mastery; anything which they answer beyond that correctly can count towards backup credit. For example, if you give 10 questions, students only have to answer 8 of them but may answer more as backup credit. On a recent sight reading comprehension assessment which I gave, there were three sections which students had to address. However, these were the directions for each section:

    • 1) Main Idea - pick TWO of the details below to answer in English. You may answer all three as backup credit:
    • 2) Details: Marcus experiences a number of different emotions in this reading. Pick TWO of them to answer in English and explain why he feels that way according to the story. You may answer all three as backup credit.
    • 3) Drawing Conclusions: Answer ONE of the following questions in English. You may answer both as backup credit.

  • For formative listening comprehension assessments such as a dictation, give students the option to either draw a picture of what they hear or to write out a translation of what you are dictating. Do not mark errors in a translation unless it does not demonstrate comprehension.
  • Culture Choice - when addressing a cultural topic, give students a choice of aspects of the topic to address. Last week in my Latin 2 classes, since we are reading Emma Vanderpool's Incitatus (a horse whom the Roman emperor Caligula made a senator - yes, most likely this did happen in history!), I wanted students to learn about Caligula (not an easy topic to address if you know anything about him). It turned into a 2-day in-class assignment where on day 1, they took notes on an article called "Caligula - The Embodiment of Cruelty." However, on Day 2, students then had a choice of topics about which to read which focused on "the other side of Caligula". Students then had a Google Form to complete where they used their notes from the Day1 article combined with whichever Day 2 topic they chose in order to "reconcile both sides" of Caligula: 

  1. I have found that when it comes to assessment questions, students are VERY appreciative of having the choice of which questions to answer. While I have found that most students will indeed answer all of them, there are those who like that they do not have to answer every question, especially if they do not know the answers to those questions! In giving students a choice of which questions to answer, they are able to demonstrate mastery to me in those areas where they feel successful. 
  2. In a drawing dictation, I love giving students the choice of drawing or translating what they hear me dictate. In either choice, students are demonstrating comprehension in the way which feels best for them at that moment. Plus, I have students who HATE drawing!
  3. The Caligula Choice Board went very well, and I was very pleased at what students had to say about this emperor based on the Day 1 article and their Day 2 topic choice. No one topic was chosen over the others, so students apparently were able to pick something which interested them.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Write and Discuss

Writing in the target language is a skill which we want our students to develop, but so often we give students a topic and say, "Go ahead - write!" Students struggle to put down words, and even as sympathetic readers (an ACTFL term) who are focusing on "Am I able to understand what students are communicating errors and all?", as teachers many times we see that it can be difficult for students to "produce language." I am a firm believer that students cannot output unless they have enough comprehensible input and that students will write when they are ready to write. Personally, I feel like students can never have too much comprehensible input - we want to bathe our students in it to such a degree that as a result, students will naturally overflow with output. So if we are providing students with input, why do they struggle with writing and putting down ideas as output?

A few weeks ago, I gave my Latin 2 students a timed write where the topic was about Incitatus, a novella by Emma Vanderpool which we are reading. We had been back for second semester for 3 1/2 weeks, and I had spent the first week previewing the target vocabulary and structures through a movie talk and a subsequent reading. The following 1 1/2 weeks we read (and re-read!) through the first chapter of Incitatus, and in my opinion, I felt strongly like we had covered it to such a degree that students should be able to write about it, right? I was wrong! Now it wasn't that students could not write, but I could tell that many students were really struggling. My question was why? Was it that students were not ready for it yet? Had I not given them enough input for them to be able to output? Was I pushing them into something which was above their current capabilities? Was I at fault for possibly projecting too high of an expectation on them?

In many ways, there are other factors involved, so I cannot oversimplify the situation and say that comprehensible input is a panacea for all of this. I know that if I were to ask students to write paragraphs in L1, many would struggle even with that. So what are some ways I can assist students in helping them to write in the target language?

In looking over their post-writing reflections, a number of students wrote that we had not done a timed write since Thanksgiving (December was dedicated to exam stuff), so they felt very rusty when it came to an extended write. Other felt that they did not feel like they knew "enough" Latin from the story to answer the prompt. This feedback was very helpful.

This week, we did another timed write, but this time, I did a pre-writing activity the day before to help prepare students for the write. As a class we previewed the writing by doing a Write and Discuss, which is exactly what it sounds like: as a class, you corporately review a story together by asking students to help you retell the story by writing it on the board in the target language, and then you discuss it. We are currently finishing up a Movie Talk reading on The Smoke Seller, so since it was a Movie Talk, I projected screenshots from the animated short as prompts. Each time, I asked students to volunteer responses in Latin for what was happening. I wrote their responses (and edited their grammar when I wrote it but did not call attention to it), and students copied down what I wrote on the board. Many times, I would guide students by asking in both English and in the target language "Who is in the screenshot? What is that person doing? Where is that person? What is emotion of that person?" 

On the next day, we did the actual timed write and used the screenshots as prompts.


  1. Wow, in their post-writing reflections, students told me that they felt MUCH better about this timed write than the one they did in January. In their post-writing reflections, here is what some students had to say about the Write and Discuss activity: 
    • "Working on how to write and practice really helped." 
    • "The activity yesterday really helped immensely with giving me ideas about what to write." 
    • "Going over the story yesterday helped vocabulary stick to me more." 
    • "I was able to remember details in Latin about the story better."
    • "I felt much more confident in writing this time than before."
  2. This was a great way to review a story corporately together for the purpose of preparing students to write.
  3. Having students write down the sentences as I wrote them down definitely kept students focused and also helped prepare them for the timed write.
  4. Reviewing the story in this manner definitely gave them more understandable input!
  5. Due to the hybrid teaching situation last year, these Latin 2 students are probably more like "Latin 1.5" in terms of their foundational knowledge of the language. This Write and Discuss pre-writing activity truly did give them a lot of support for their actual timed write.