Monthly Archives: December 2018

Go Easy on Yourself

I want you to know that I’m tired too. I want you to know that I once spent the whole period talking in English about violence and kindness in schools.  Because the students were protesting gun violence and it was on all our minds, and our hearts.  And Monday I had them watch videos of me and other teachers on YouTube. And Tuesday they read the whole period. I want you to know that half the kids were in a field trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on Thursday and Friday so I felt sorry for the poor kiddos who didn’t get to go. And so we watched the new Sr. Wooly videos and played Quizziz in French. And I especially want you to know that yesterday I played Classic Rock Kahoot with them. Boy did we have a good time.

I want you to know that I am not always running after language acquisition. Sometimes I’m running after being there for my kids. And for myself. I’m trying to be gentle on myself.

How many of us work a second shift? As an employee, a business owner, helping our spouses or partners, on our Other True Calling, or as a parent or caregiver or as a volunteer? Let’s allow ourselves to take some breaks. Heck, my kids already know do much more than the other teachers’ kids! No need to rush.

Let’s allow our class to take some breaks too. Kids need those times too. There’s too much stress on them nowadays. I can’t even imagine.

Go easy, people.

Some Good Questions

I received some good questions from a teacher in Kansas.

Q:  When do corrections in writing happen? I know the point is for comprehension and to make meaning. On our state test, the writing rubric consists of only 1-2 points that come off for tense and spelling, so long as a native speaker could understand it, they get credit. My question is, when does spelling and gender become clarified? I would assume at higher levels once they are more proficient in speaking and listening and reading…

A:  Yes, these things start to sort themselves out in the students’ heads as they gain more input and that builds the mental representation of the language in their heads. I do teach these things explicitly in my second year with my kids, in Spring, before sending them off to the high school which is super grammar focused.

Q:  In the meantime, perhaps I could do spelling tests, like kids do in elementary school? Give some key words they already know (or new words) and have them spell them like we did in fourth grade!  I also saw on Ben’s webpage, he had some resources of benchmarks required by his school. In the sample benchmark test, it was testing meaning of vocabulary (multiple choice style) with some grammar included (ex: noirs/noir when asking about the color of les deux chats…or something like that).

A:  Dictée are also good for teaching/correcting spelling. They are very valuable, according to my students.  Yes you can mix in conscious learning at any time. My advice is to wait till Spring though since the kids will have confidence from almost a year of listening, reading etc.


Q:  I know for me, and my students, I always try to get them to memorize if a word is masculine or feminine once the word is learned. I am still teaching the traditional textbook way (for now), and it seems easiest to memorize the gender when you learn the word. I suppose if students hear the word, they will automatically here the le or la….or un or une…but when does the definition of these words come out?

A:  The students should be able to understand the meaning (definition) when they hear and read the words. If they do not know the word you need to establish meaning. That can be done by writing English by the French on the board, or gesturing, pictures, etc.

My students do not just “pick up” on the genders in general. Because I only have them for two years, and I think that the ability to remember m/f is something that takes a LOT of exposures. So, I teach them the concept along (generally during reading time, when I am reading something back o them that we did for Write and Discuss) by just pointing it out in English as we read. “Hey kids notice this is grand and this is grande. That’s because dog is masculine (see how it says LE Chien) and mouse is feminine (See how it says LA souris or UNE souris). In French everything is either masculine or feminine.” Then

in the end of year two we consciously study that since the HS is traditional. If I had them for years and years and did not feed them to the HS I would likely make less of a deal about this.

Q:  Or the difference to listen in sounds? How do you teach masc/fem? I can say I did watch a video of a native speaker doing circling, and she wrote “le forêt” on the board; I had to double check myself, when I knew it was supposed to be “la” (and it is), I realized natives make mistakes too. They aren’t taught masc/fem as we are, but…when/how is genders taught?!?!

This leads to agreement. I just spent a lot of time with my level 2s on adjective agreement and spelling and pronunciation. They have learned to write with agreement, even though in hindsight I realize how difficult that can be, especially since we don’t have gendered nouns in English. How is this taught, as the pronunciation may come from CI and listening activities, but how is grammar like agreement corrected, and when? It seems like it could be frustrating for students, asking, “Why didn’t we learn this the first time?” (I know I’d be upset as a student, but I’m a perfectionist!)

A:  Most kids are not such perfectionists as we are. I offer the kids the option of having me point out their errors in their writings if they leave me a note to do so. Most kids do not really care but some do like the feedback.

It’s a mind shift to start to allow them to just “pick up” on the genders. But like I said it CAN be explicitly taught in cases of urgency. But if you have them for years I would lay off the grammar and agreement and such till late in their careers. It is a question of equity and student engagement. Most kids just do not care and for a lot of them it is HARD to conceptualize all the grammar stuff, so it impedes their engagement/enjoyment of the class. So, if we teachers can just realize that the agreement/ conjugation errors are really, in my vide at least, merely SPELLING errors, and do not usually impede comprehensibility of the message, then we can relax some unless there are grammar assessments that we simply MUST administer. In that case, I would say just TEACH the stuff. But if it is a question of us just being antsy and feeling like “they should GET this by now” then that means we need to do some inner work on letting go and trusting the natural process of SLA…which can be hard for some of us, like me, who DO love grammar. 🙂


Q:  Lastly. verb conjugations. UGH! Students, of course, are expected to know what a verb chart looks like and need to know the grammatical structures for upper level courses. Besides the issue of having students feed into grammar based teachers, who will be upset at us CI teachers for not teaching grammar, how or when do you do a verb conjugation chart? I’m sure students would get funny looks if they continue French in college and not know what that is (although their speaking and listening/reading skills will be great!).


A:  I do these at the end of the second year, and the kids still struggle with them! Well, most of them are like, “That makes sense” but she of them still just have such a hard time with it conceptually. Historically I feel that languages have been taught to the élite and therefore the kids who struggle with the traditional grammar approach just did not persist with languages. Teaching with CI and putting grammar and conjugations into a minimal place in our courses really does help to level the playing field, equity- wise. So it is a very important issue to me. I do allow them to do as many re-takes as they need, to finally get the grammar concepts. I feel like that is my duty to the kids.

The teacher added on:

I saw the importance of SLOW in a video! I was watching some YouTube videos, and some other circling/ CI videos came up from other teachers. There was a

Spanish (native) teacher doing it, and she was not going slow enough. You could tell the students were a little lost (but the native speaker didn’t pick up, as what she was saying seemed simple to her), I still learned some things and picked up words, but it was not nearly as good as going SLOW…it takes time for the gears to turn and process everything that is going on up there!!! SLOW is where it’s at!

My comments:  Yes, it is the king, the foundational skill of CI. And yet so hard to do!
Sounds like you are on the right track…just need to separate the “gotta do” in your grammar/spelling instruction from the “this just makes me a little uncomfortable” stuff…and try to work to get yourself comfortable with letting go a little, maybe.

What Are Our Goals?

Many teachers say that they feel a “lack of structure” in a communicative language teaching context.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it all be ok. I wish we had never heard of textbooks that take the language and spread it out like a cadaver on a table to be dissected and discussed. I wish I could make everyone feel comfortable with the FLOW. I don’t know how to do it.

But it is a question of perspective.  It is a question of what are our goals?

Are your kids really “drowning in vocabulary” or could you shift your perspective to “marinating in rich language”? I get so angry at the bill of goods the snake-oil textbook companies have sold us, that language is to “cover” and not “uncover”.  We provide rich, understandable, interesting experiences in the language, and then we step back and think, “What did they get?”  “What stuck?”  “What did they learn?”  The problem in questions of that nature is that every learner in the room will have “gotten” different elements of the language.  If we provided language data that they understood, and that accomplished a real communicative purpose, then we have done our jobs.  We just need to shift our thinking about our goals and objectives.  We need to lighten up on the idea that our daily goals are to “cover” or convey certain pieces of the language.

What if our daily objective were to learn about each other, or create something together, and understand the main ideas of paragraph-length speech (Intermediate performance)? Not “learn colors” or “learn the past tenses?”

Our national standards, and most of our state and local standards, too, do not specify certain words, language, or grammar to cover.  I blame the textbook companies for perpetuating the belief that our students should “be at a certain place at a certain time” which leads to impatience in our classrooms, wanting students to master the unpredictable and uncontrollable process of language acquisition piece by piece.

Rubrics to Assess Typical Proficiency and Performance Levels in Years One through Three

I just wrote this, the first time I have formalized the “system” I had inside my head to assign grades to portfolio assessments.

We use an ACTFL-Aligned Rubric (provided at the end of this Manual) to provide feedback to the students on their level of performance on the task. Generally, first-year students score an Intermediate High or Advanced Low on reading and listening performance tasks. This is because they are able to derive “substantial meaning” from narration in paragraph-length discourse with which they have personal experience and some developed background knowledge. In the lower levels of proficiency, the students are able to “derive partial” meaning from sentence-length discourse. Clearly, the students are able to handle longer discourse than sentence-level discourse, because they have heard and read full sentences and paragraph-length discourse since their first day of school.

See this research publication from CASLS at the University of Oregon:…/tenqu…/TBQProficiencyResults.pdf

Excerpted from the study:

Question: What level of foreign language proficiency does the typical student achieve in a high school program?

Answer: The majority of students studying a foreign language in a traditional high school program reach benchmark level 3 or 4 by end of the fourth year of study, regardless of the language studied. These levels are similar to the ACTFL levels Novice-High and Intermediate-Low.

I get back to my own writing here:

Because students who receive high doses of comprehensible messages in the language and opportunities to interact in L2 generally meet or exceed the expected perfoemance/proficiency targets, either these research findings or the district/state expectations, most students make As on the summative assessment. I set a “moving, achievable target” for an A. For example, Portland Public Schools expects students at the end of the first year of language study to demonstrate a Novice High to Intermediate Low proficiency level in Group One languages (cognate-rich languages such as Spanish, French, and German) and Novice Mid to N0vice High in less-closely-related languages sich as Mandarin Chinese and Arabic. Therefore, I backwards plan my grading from that expectation by the end of Assessment Cycle Six, and set my grades at the following levels throughout the year. Note that at first, the level is based on performance and later it is based on proficiency (facility with an unfamiliar text). You can choose to make the Proficiency Tasks Optional or Required, depending on your students’ social-emotional needs.

Most students will score As and Bs on these summative assessments. This can raise eyebrows in some school populations. This is why it is important to keep portfolios and align our assessment to the standards, using an ACTFL-aligned rubric (such as the one provided in this Manual). In my opinion, we should be celebrating the well-informed educator who can, through using best practices that align to the national standards, guide almost all of their students to achieve the performance/proficiency targets. A mark of truly effective teaching is the educator’s ability to guide all students to achieve the standards of their subject matter.

The chart below is based upon the expectation that by the end of the first year, students will have a proficiency level in the range of Novice High to Intermediate Low (PPS’ expectation) and may need to be modified to fit your individual situation.


Year Two



Year Three



Lesson Planning Tips

These lesson planning tips are for teachers wanting to make a change in how class is going, or for folks who are starting a new approach, beginning to introduce more of a focus on using the language in class to communicate.

You might well want to meet your students in the hall at the beginning of the mini-unit and tell them that you need to change up the routines for this “Listening Comprehension” unit.  Maybe new seats or even a new room arrangement.  

1.  Have an opening routine.

Some teachers need to get their pencils on paper right away.  In that case, you will want to institute a routine of their coming in and getting started with some writing right away.  Maybe give them a weekly packet so they have something to get going on.  It should be something very easy.  Choosing the words that match up with a selection of pictures for instance.  If they do not enter the classroom like you want them to and get to work and work with focus, then I might re-teach and re-do till they execute the opening routine as you want it to be done.  It is a little awkward to do this because there might be one kid that is messing it up for everyone, but you want the kids’ peers to be helping you to motivate the kid, by their frustration.  Eventually they will do what you want them to do, and then you probably will not have to re-do it again and again the net day (except that with some classes, you DO, ha ha)

Myself, I have the opening routine of letting them settle in and talk in English for a minute or so (sometimes more) and then having a clear signal to begin class.  I go over what we are going to do that day and the grades that they will get, and the objectives in student-friendly terms, for example:  We will have a class discussion in French about TV shows we like and do not like and then we will take a listening assessment about what we discussed.  At the end of class, we will turn these in for a grade.  We will also practice speaking in pairs.  Then I set them up (usually in English) with the materials they need and then I have a kid give a signal to start the French portion of class.  I let each class choose the signal.  For instance, some classes say a “catch phrase” and others sing a song etc.  Then we start the French portion and during that time I ruthlessly enforce the “no talking over” rule.  I literally STOP EVERYTHING every single time anyone interrupts me as I am talking.

2.  Provide input in small doses mixed with writing and speaking.

That means going super-slow in your speech and also taking breaks.

Many of your administrators want to see more student-to-student interaction.  It is easy to put that into the lesson.

All you have to do is, after a few minutes of providing input, maybe 5-6, have them jot down some things that they heard.  You can even do this together.  Then have them turn and talk and give them a sentence stem to use.  Give the instruction in English and the sentence stem two times in the target language.  It sounds like this:  “Turn and tell a partner a detail about X.  Say, “Aujourd’hui il fait…/Hoy hace…” “Aujourd’hui fait…” OK!”  

Then you can follow up with some whole-class questioning.  

Then I would suggest reviewing what was discussed so far, just simply repeating it while referring to a visual aid, such as pausing and pointing to the H-chart we talked about, with “Likes” “Does Not Like” and “Hates” at the top, and then giving them a written Quick Quiz on five questions.  I repeat the question three times during the Quick Quiz.  I generally tell the kids they can write in English or French.  But if your admin wants to see more output, I would tell them to try their hand at writing the answer in a French sentence.  (I mean, I would NEVER grade the sentences for accuracy so it is fine to ask them to give that a try, no harm no foul there!)

3.  Then give more input (about the same topic or a different topic) and repeat the whole process I gave above in #2.

You might put up a picture or two of a related topic, such as pictures of people watching a movie or pictures of movie ads in the culture or an infographic about TV/movie viewing habits or such.  Talk and discuss it for 5-6 min, and then do the turn and talk and quick quiz on five questions.

Then repeat the whole process again if time permits:  short 506 min of discussion/input, and then turn and talk and a quick quiz.

4.  At the end some closure is good.

Write and Discuss is like the BEST closure.  You can have them copy.  Even if all you do is write two or three sentences to summarize what you talked about, and they copy into their notebooks/packets, they have a feeling of closure.

Write and Discuss from my French class last year:

Write and Discuss with a Paragraph Frame from my Sheltered Social Studies class this year (starts about 34 min. in):

Or you can end with a final Quick Quiz.

Lockdown at Madison High School

I am a teacher. I truly love instructional films, and books, and kids, and construction paper, and scissors, and glue, and markers, and pens, and imagination and fun and learning and games and creativity and words and growing stronger people. I’m a lover, not a fighter.

And when I decided, age 5, in 1981, that I wanted to do what my kindergarten teachers were doing, make a world where kids could be happy and creative and play, school shootings were not a Thing.

I never practiced a lockdown drill as a child. So it is not like I ever thought, “Despite the danger, I want to work in a school building.” I never, ever considered that being a schoolmarm could be more dangerous than, maybe, getting ink from the overhead projector pens up and down my wrist and arm.

Things have changed since then.

Now, pretty much every day that I walk into the schoolhouse, I think about how this could be the place I die by murder. I spent the tense hours of the Reynolds High School shooting in 2014 getting texts from my best friend who was locked down with her Graphics class three miles down the street from my school where I was in class with a student of mine who was the child of a teacher who was wounded. And then yesterday it got a lot more real.

We had a real honest-to-God shooter-on-campus lockdown yesterday at school for like 30 minutes of real soul-searching, sitting-in-the-dark-on-the-floor-with-17-scared-teenagers, It Just Got Really, Really Real realness. At first, I was sitting there, facing my kids, and whispering to them, “This is really real, I know it. I know it because the principal sent out an email this morning saying that we were having a fire drill on Friday, and never in any school ever have I seen two drills in one month, much less one week.”

So, it got really, really real, really fast. I felt like hugging them all. And I realized how little I know them, really, and yet how much I love them, and how teachers take strangers, year after year, and make them family, and fast. Because I realized that I would literally die for them, and I knew it viscerally, and it only took like 30 seconds for that to sink in. And I knew deep down that I would die trying to save them, if it came to that. I just knew it. I felt it. Like some primal thing.

I thought about how some of them have seen so much trauma already. Almost every single one of my students is from another country. Or, in a few cases, their parents are. And many of their families came here to be SAFER and to have a better life. And I thought about my life, and how sheltered it has been, and how this was literally the closest to looking death in the eye I had ever come. I hope it is the closest I ever, ever come. But I do work in a school building in the United States of America, and I do plan to go back to work, so one never knows if it is the last time. Not nowadays.

After sitting there like looking at the kids for a few minutes, it occurred to me that looking at the kids was not going to be much help if someone really did bust through the classroom door with the intent to harm us. A training we had in Gresham from two police officers came to mind: First option, flee. Second-best option: fight. Fleeing from a second-floor classroom with teensy-tinsey windows did not look like much of an option. So, fight.

So, I turned around and sort of crouched in a Ready to Spring Up position, and watched the door like a hunter. But I felt like the hunted. And then, I began to think, what can I do, with my bare hands? If someone puts an assault weapon through the glass of the door, and a hand comes in to turn the doorknob, what could I do? And then I began to look around the schoolroom. It was a sobering moment, looking around the schoolroom through the lens of What Can I Use in the Way of School Supplies to Defend Myself and My Students?

That’s NOT why I love school supplies. I love them cause they are fun. But it’s school, and what we have around us is school supplies. School supplies and people. That’s pretty much what school is made of. School supplies, people, time, and love.

I silently extracted a pair of scissors from the cup they live in. A student caught my eye. He reached for a stapler. You would not think that in a moment like that, we would find anything funny. But it was so very pathetic, so laughable, that we sort of cracked up a little bit, him with his stapler open and ready to fire, and me with my plastic-handled Wal-Mart scissors. I passed him a pair of scissors. I figured they were slightly more lethal in a fight than a stapler.

We sat and sat, and I breathed deeply and thought, if it my time to go, if it is our time to go, then thank you for this opportunity to have been alive. I had the absurd thought, “At least they died doing what they loved — learning English.” Absurd because (a) why joke about my own potential murder and (b) most of them actually do not like English class.

At least now I know that you can be terrified and your mind will still do its best to amuse you. That is a small comfort.

What also surprised me was how we were not getting any updates. I managed to text my best friend, the one who survived the Reynolds High School shooting, and asked her to look into it for me. She called District Office. No one was there to answer her call. I would have thought that there was a red phone down there, some kind of Information Central to send teachers updates as we cower with our students, wondering if the sirens we hear are coming to our school. (They were.)

After the lockdown lifted, we spent a few minutes just sitting. Processing. I was afraid to talk to the class. I did not know what to say. I wanted to say, “I love you all, so much.” I wanted to say, “I am sorry that the adults have not fixed this problem of you not feeling safe.” I wanted to say to them, “I know life feels a little fake most of the time, and I know that there is not a lot in school that feels real, and meaningful, and true, and important. But we are here, and we are here for a reason, and let’s find that reason, not in worksheets and video clips and books, but in each other’s faces, in our hearts and in what is possible in a group that knows that they are together for a reason.” I wanted to say a bunch of things. But I knew I would cry too much. So, I just said, “I was so scared, you guys. Weren’t you? Let’s take a few, to calm back down.” And then after a few minutes, mostly spent staring into their phones, I told them that I had once heard that the best thing to do after a shakeup was to get back to business, so we just picked up our reading on Bob Marley and kept on keepin’ on.

Then, after school, I went home and I cried for a couple hours. I wondered, as I blew and re-blew my nose, as the waves of tears came and went, I wondered if any of the students were also processing their fear and their feelings at their homes.

I thought, for the first time ever, that this culture of fear in schools, this epidemic of school shootings, has more victims than just the people – the far, far too many people – who are murdered or commit suicide in America’s schoolhouses, or survive active shooter situations. Kids all over, every single day I bet, all around us, go home after having had to hunker down with their class, as a precautionary measure, not knowing what was happening outside their locked classroom door, wondering how, with just school supplies and time and people and love to protect us, what would happen if that door opened. Straining their ears to hear: Is someone screaming down the hall? Are those sirens for us? Are they police…or ambulance?

I do not know what to do with all these feelings and new thoughts. But I do know now, in a much more real way than before, that it is deeply traumatizing to this entire generation to grow up experiencing lockdown drills, lockdowns, shootings, massacres, and this culture of fear, this pervasive feeling of threat. Not many grownups KNOW. But school employees do. Teachers know. So, what ARE we going to do about it, Grownups Who Know? Maybe the first step is telling our stories, and helping our kids tell theirs. Can you imagine seeing something as commonplace as a lockdown drill through the eyes of a five-year-old who does not speak English? Maybe that is the first step.

I am a teacher. I love books. I love writing and I love creating things. And I love kids. And I am not so naive as to think that we can write our way out of this mess. But I do believe that there is a healing power in writing, and that sharing our stories can change the world. In fact, stories might just be the only thing that do change the world.

Hang in there, everyone. And hold on tight to each other.