Choice in Reading

I am a big believer in student choice and engagement in school. As a student myself, I always craved more choice in my education, but it wasn’t generally available in the eighties when I was in elementary and middle school, nor in the nineties in high school. I was a bright kid who loved learning and reading, yet I was often bored and disliked the texts we were assigned to read. Not till college in the Honors Program at UGA was I able to do independently-designed learning through Honors Option courses.

In graduate school, I learned about Reading and Writing Workshop, and quickly set about learning as much as I could about this literacy program. The basic tenets of student choice and voice were very appealing to me. I began by reading Nancie Atwell’s book In the Middle and began attending the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project‘s Summer Institutes on reading and writing. I used Reading and Writing Workshop for nine years, never teaching a whole-class novel the entire time I taught middle school English Language Arts and Social Studies. Instead, I read mentor texts aloud to my students – poetry, articles, opinion columns, novels, short stories. Most of the time in a workshop class, students are reading in self-selected books. The teacher’s role is to model reading strategies using the mentor text and then confer with readers to help them apply the strategies that work for them, in their independent reading books. This supports students in their choice reading.

Choice reading helps students find their way as readers. It’s inherently differentiated by interest and ability level. It’s motivating and satisfying to be able to try books and abandon them until, perhaps with support, you find a Just-Right book. Having a rich variety of text types – fiction in various genres, nonfiction, shorter texts, graphic novels, etc. – helps the students find their niche as readers.

Now that I have transitioned to full-time World Language teaching, I have been doing a lot of thinking on the whole-class novel in my French and Spanish classes. I used to teach whole-class novels in my World Language classes. It was what I’d been trained to do. It was what I saw others doing with the novels. It seemed like we had to do that because our kids were beginners. So even though in my ELA and SS classes I would have never done a whole-class novel, I taught them in French. We would do SSR a couple times a week in my small library (of books that were way too hard!) and do one or two novels a year.

My students would grow weary of the novels despite the activities we did with them. We generally would get through three or four chapters and the bloom would fade. I would sometimes abandon the novels and sometimes plug on till the end. I thought that because many of my my students’ reading abilities in L1 were low, that it was just to be expected that they wouldn’t like the novels as much as I hoped they would.

Then I moved to full- time language teaching in a low-poverty school. The kids generally love L1 reading. But the first year when we did whole-class novels, they still tired of the novel. I started thinking maybe it was about the nature of whole-class novels, not the kids’ attitude towards reading. The same kids I’m fighting with to put their books away during class would groan quietly when we got out the novel. They would also be heard complaining about their ELA novels (my new school does not implement workshop as widely as my previous school).

So I began to think about whole-class novels in World Language. And I stopped the practice in mid-year three years ago. And then the next year when I began the year with just SSR, I noticed that the kids’ attitudes toward reading in L2 were much brighter. The power of student choice had worked wonders! Even novels that has elicited groans as whole-class books were being read eagerly by engaged students. I like to died when I heard a kid recommending Pauvre Anne to a friend!

The nuts and bolts of implementing SSR are certainly a big consideration, which I hope to write about soon.

Happy reading!


All We Do Is Listen

Yesterday in my French Two class a student who just joined the class this year kept getting out a book and reading. I spoke with her during a Turn and Talk. (Having then turn and talk is a great way to give ourselves a chance to have private talks with kids.)

She said, I get bored cause all we do is listen. I told her that listening is the foundation of language acquisition so we worked all year last year on building our listening stamina. I asked her if she wanted to take notes in English or Spanish during the listening portions. I told her that that could help her focus.

She seemed resistant to that idea. I told her my goal was to help her build her listening stamina and that soon we would be starting our SSR reading program. I was planning to start next week but I think I’ll push it up to start today.

In French Two I have been eagerly piloting content-based instruction. We have been learning about the geography of France. I’m kinda pushing these kids because I wouldn’t really recommend doing this kind of Instruction until third and fourth year. In this class it’s still technically first year since our middle school program awards one year of high school credit for two years of seat time. I’m playing around with the mix of CALP activities (to build Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) and BICS activities (to build Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills). Ideally second year would just still focus on BICS but I’m eager to pilot strategies to build CALP so I’m kinda pushing my kids.

I’m wondering if we need a BICS break. I think today I’ll do a one word image with them and then use it in a story. We can intersperse the geography unit in shorter doses.

It would probably be best to take breaks from the academic language anyway because the brain learns best with processing time between exposures. And the brain craves novelty as Carol Gaab has always said. Though the GLAD Strategies have a good deal of novelty built in, switching gears to more creative, character-driven, narrative work would add another layer of novelty.

I have never done these GLAD Strategies in world language, only in my high-ELL Social Studies classes at my previous school. So playing with the mix, especially with this second-year class of eighth graders, is key.

And helping the four new students learn to value attending to the input is also key. It makes me realize how much training went into the first-year class last year. They built a good deal of listening and reading stamina over the year and also came to see its value as they watched their writing and comprehension skills soar.

Eight Ways to Slow Down, Calm Down on Monday Mornings

On Mondays I have to consciously slow myself down and get back into the groove of SLOW. I tend to feel frazzled on Mondays and also the kids need to ease back into the language after most likely not hearing it for two days.

Slow is the most important skill in CI, I think. Here are eight pieces of advice I am giving myself this morning.

1. Connect with the kids in English before starting the input phase of the lesson. Remind them of the expectations. I will speak so you can understand the messages in class. Your job is to listen with the intent to understand and help maintain the flow of language. There will be times to turn and talk when English is ok and times to listen and keep to Spanish or French. Also remind them that they are being assessed constantly in this class on their communication. (I sent home parent communication last week to reinforce this.)

2. Write on the board to support their comprehension. Walk calmly to the word, touch it, say it, and let it sink in before saying something else. Count the seconds of silence. One, two, three. Then move on. Even if I’m saying a kid’s name I pause and point to the kid. Better still is to walk over to the kid. The more steps I can put between me and the next word, the slower I end up going.

3. Between words, in that silence, scan the room for people getting lost or looking like they’re about to get off-task. Make as much eye contact as possible in those few seconds. This lets them know I’m looking out for them. That I care about their understanding.

4. Take gesture breaks to cycle back through previously-used gestures. This slows me down, gives us all a mental break, and builds confidence. We’re learning so much!

5. Breathe. Breathe between every word. Breathe like it’s a yoga practice. Calms my nerves and slows me down. Anna Gilcher does a breathing break where she has the whole class breathe deeply a couple times. I would like to try that if I can remember. But at the least, I can breathe. It helps me maintain a calm presence that influences the emotional tone of the entire group.

6. React to what they say as if they’re the most fascinating kids in the world. Take a moment to be genuinely astonished or amused or interested by their responses. Make the reaction physical and visible. This slows me down too.

7. With good humor and calm and a smile, walk to the rules each and every time a student breaks a rule. Take a deep calming breath over there. There is nothing more important than teaching the rules and that I am unshakable in my application of them.

8. Pause and let the Who and Where and Today etc kids say their thing and then smile and acknowledge them with a thumbs up. This builds in more silence.

Above all I must remember that my goal is for the classroom to have a calm, slow, quiet, focused, workmanlike feeling. This feeling is CI gold. It’s the only way we can create the optimum conditions for slow, focused, deliberate speech. If the kids don’t expect this slow flow, they amp up the energy. They start amping it up and in turn I get frazzled. It’s my primary concern to lay the groundwork for a calm, slow, steady year.

September, the Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Image result for september

Ahh, September.  Back in my drinking days, I used to go through a bottle of wine a night in September.  I would go to Costco and load up on wine, joking with the cashier that it was my September teacher medicine.  Nowadays I am more inclined to go to acupuncture or get a massage to cope with the stresses of teaching, but I am not sure if I would make it through the month without SOMETHING to help me!

September is golden in some ways and then again it is utterly exhausting as well.

It is golden because the kids are so amazed that they can understand a new language so easily.  They are very motivated by this and see themselves growing quickly.  They are falling in love with class, and the language.  We are talking about them an their interests and their uniqueness.  People are getting their classroom jobs, and we are developing inside jokes (I am constantly on the lookout for a good inside joke and firmly believe that you can judge the quality of a class community by the number of inside jokes that the class shares.  I am looking for cute names (as I learned from Ben Slavic so long ago) I can call them and we are settling in and getting to know each other.  I am chatting them up at the beginning of class, laughing with them, observing them, assigning and managing student jobs.  Some days we talk for four minutes, and others we talk for 25…especially when setting up jobs and suchlike.  (The average, I would say, is more like 4-6 though.)

It is utterly exhausting because I am constantly training the class in my expectations.  I am constantly walking over to the rules, investing those seconds of deep breathing and smiling calmly into future smooth-running classes.  I am explaining over and over how they are graded each and every minute in class.  I am updating their Interpersonal Communication grade twice a week, and sending home emails and making in-class phone calls on Fridays to let the class know that I am serious about focusing up when it is time to focus up.  The third week of school, right about, oh, NOW, is the most exhausting part.  The kids are getting comfortable and are testing to see what is allowable in this new kind of class.  Because they have never seen anything like it, the ones who will test, test intensely.  Because I have prioritized having a good time and laughing with them in English before the input part of class starts, the ones who want to keep up the free-for-all the entire class will try to.

It is also exhausting because in addition to training the kids, I also do not yet have the relief of reading time to relax and recharge for ten minutes at the beginning of each class period.  The day when we begin SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) is a beautiful day indeed for me, because i am about to teach a LOT of language without lifting a FINGER…my little friends the BOOKS are going to do that for me!  We will not start that till October, so C’MON OCTOBER!!!

Personally, I find it is worth the struggles that come with having to establish those boundaries, to have the blessing of the “slow start” to class.  I LIKE having those minutes to connect with the kids, build community, pass along as much power as I can to them in the way of student jobs, and build our class culture.  I learn so much from the kids during those first few minutes of shooting the breeze in English.   It is time well-spent to me, even though it does require a strong, firm hand when we switch gears into the input part of the lesson.  It’s like we go from Hanging Out and Relaxing to Full-Steam Ahead when I give that signal that it is time for the language class part to begin.

December 12, 2016

We had some snow days.  I also have a student teacher.  Result?  A lack of videos.

In French Two I had the “brilliant” idea to do nonfiction Story Listening with an article I wrote about the schedule in a French daycare.  I am attaching it in case you think you might have better luck with it than I did.  My students thought that it was a little snoozy.  I forgot it was PJ day.  Should have gone with my gut and just talked about les pyjamas.

Oh well you live and learn!  At least they got some input.  Just not the easiest day for the teacher.  Goes to show that compelling trumps all.

French Two:
Part One
Part Two

French One 




December 6, 2016

La Personne Spéciale

Today in French Two we began student interviews, the Special Person activity invented by Judy Noble and adapted by many due to its genius of personalization.  We interviewed three students and then took a written quiz on the students.

We will not do this activity every day, but will sprinkle it into the instruction from time to time.  I might not interview everyone as some students hate being the center of attention, but we will try to get to all those who want to share, by the end of the year.

The quizzes are cumulative and we always include a few questions about previous kids.  It is  great way to build community, and help students learn interesting things about each other.

Part One
Part Two