Category Archives: Beginning the Year

September, the Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Image result for september

Ahh, September.  I used to go 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.

Parents’ Night

Show Don’t Tell

With parents, or anyone really, the best argument for comprehension-based teaching is to let them experience the process.  So less talking about our practices and more demonstration is always good.  Plus we only have 10 minutes so you can’t be long-winded!

This year for Parents’ Night I first told the parents this:

My name is Tina Hargaden and I am a big old nerd about language acquisition.  You guys know all about language acquisition – your children all acquired their first language from you, in most cases.  So in this class we are going to approach language acquisition the natural way, the way your children have already acquired their L1.  We are going to put the horse (understanding the language and using it in a real way) before the horse (grammar) and not the other way around, which is how most of us were taught.

I want to show you how I teach your kids, a glimpse into the classroom.  We are going to work together to use our imaginations to create an image right here on the carpet.  I need an artist to draw the object as we discover facts about it.  (Adults are so much less apt to volunteer for this, but I did get a kindly soul to help me out in every class!)

This worked well and then at the very end of class I told them that there is no homework, that kids have enough to do for other classes, that their grade is based on the communication that happens in class, and that for them at this beginning level, the communication is mostly listening and demonstrating comprehension.

Pics or it didn’t happen…here are the parents’ images:  a tiny white dog, a small green cap, a large happy blue hat, and a small red guitar.


September 9, 2016

Creativity in Community

It’s amazing how much training students need to be able to participate respectfully in the class community.  Sometimes kids are “just joking around” and disrespecting each other, and they have to be reminded that what is OK amongst friends outside the classroom is not OK to bring into class.

My eighth grade French class was reviewing the calendar when a student suggested the “cute” answer that instead of Friday (which it was), today was Monday (Oh no oh no oh me oh my!)  Whereas I make a big deal of hating Mondays, I was nonetheless happy to see the creativity of this student in suggesting a cute answer.  However, his classmates were not as willing to roll with his creativity.  Some even went as far as to call him out with some funny yet insulting language.  It was time for a class intervention in L1.  Speaking in English is, to me, like putting savings away.  You can’t put your WHOLE paycheck in savings, but if you put aside a little, especially if you do that early in your career, over time it will grow and bear fruit.  I see L1 in the language classroom the same way.  More L1 use in the early months pays off with better-trained kids who are ready to be creative as a group.

Building group creativity is not for the faint of heart.  Facilitating true human connection, community, and creativity, especially in the upper grades, especially in today’s schools, is a tall order.  Doing it without ever using L1 just might be too much.  Give a little to get a lot.  It’s like saving for a rainy day.

In this French 2 class, we reviewed the calendar, then worked on a One Word Image of a teeny-tiny rainbow colored pig who is magic, but is sad because he only speaks English and does not speak Pig.  You will see me using L1 to discipline the class as well as to praise them for letting me know if I am not being clear.  Both uses of L1 are setting the foundations for important work this year – being a respectful community and making sure that Hargaden is clear when she speaks French.

In this Spanish 1 class, the OWI illustrates the important concept that Ben Slavic was so into this summer in all his workshops – the teacher needs to LIKE what she is talking about.  I LOVE THIS TINY EWOK!  He is small even for an Ewok!  So cute!  I am discovering that if you can get your kids to give you things to talk about that you genuinely love, the period will come to an end far quicker than you want it to.

September 7, 2016

Making Something out of Nothing at All

This was day three of class and our CI ship has now officially left the harbor and is chugging merrily into the Sea of Imagination and Art.

I originally thought that I would do a One Word Image (Thanks to Ben Slavic, I have had a lot of coaching and practice on this powerful strategy he invented) with just my second-year French class who had CI all last year with me.  I didn’t think the others were ready.  I had loosely planned in my mind to continue a sort of “Extended Class Discussion” with the other classes, like I did yesterday (and recorded in sixth period), because I was not sure that the others were ready to take the leap.  But it was so much fun in French 2 that I could not resist taking the other classes’ ships out of the harbor as well.  And you know what?  I thought it was lots of fun and totally worth the trip.  In French 2, we created a tiny béret, in French 1, a big hot pink nose, and in my three Spanish classes, a giant rainbow-colored spork, a very large pair of rainbow-colored glasses, and a huge purple burrito.

Over the summer, watching Ben and working with so many OWIs in so many different contexts, I came to understand the sense of physicality that needs to accompany a One Word Image.  As the teacher, my job is to channel imagination into the physical realm.  The first step in getting imaginations to fire can be telling the class in English (our L1) that we are going to create something with our imaginations, and show them the physical space that the object will occupy.  Then, once the object is placed there, I committed to it, looking at it with admiration, astonishment, stepping around it, talking and pointing at it as if I could see it in front of me.  I was trying to bring this object, that was created by the community, INTO the community’s space.




September 6, 2016

Small Talk as Curriculum

Today in class I was able to take a YouTube video of sixth period.  This is a class of 35 kids, seventh graders, at a public middle school, on day two of instruction.  We are still working a lot on getting to know each other and establishing the expectations for behavior.  I am still on the absolute lookout for kids not doing their job.  It is a gift, as I have an opportunity to exert leadership each time a kid is whispering or slouching in their seat.  Calmly, and smiling (thinking to myself, “This is a gift, this is a gift, this is a gift.”) I try to walk to the rules each and every time and point, smile, and put some tiny little teeth into the smile, to show that I am not ALL peppermints and unicorns inside, then resume instruction.

At the beginning of class, we spent eight and a half minutes in L1, which is, admittedly, a large percentage of the class period of 54 minutes.  Over the years I have actually incorporated MORE L1 into the classroom.  I started my CI journey committed to using L2 as much as possible.  I have come to see that a little L1 use is time well spent, though.  I feel it is important at the beginning of the year to establish a solid foundation of community and connection, with the kids feeling like I am on their side and an approachable, real human being.  So we talked a bit about the grading this year (I am using 100% Interpersonal Skills Rubric and this was the first time I had broached that topic with this class – that their actual minute-by-minute behavior in class was the basis of their grade), and we talked about getting back into the routine on this, the second week of school.  Then at minute 8:30, we start the input in Spanish.  As the year progresses, we will do a quick check-in and then jump into L2.  But here on day two I am investing in them in L1.

We are working on assigning student jobs and so we started the L2 discussing the people who have jobs already.  I do not have a big Day of Assigning Jobs, I just distribute them as the need arises.  It is easier on me and, maybe most importantly, it allows kids to feel truly needed, because the job was needed in the moment that they emerged as the “Hoy Kid” or whatever.

The “Hoy Kid” was getting a workout today, because we spent the rest of the period on the calendar.  You will notice on the board there is a schedule with nothing on it, because I do not know day to day what activities will be used in class.  Today, we were still talking about the sixth of August by the  end of the period.  It is all good to me.  The kids’ energy was there, we were communicating in L2 for extended pieces of time, and we are building their word bank.

You can see the emergent word wall below me.  It will continue to grow as we add more words daily, based on the actual communication needs of the kids in class.  This is entirely new to me, as this idea popped up in a workshop this summer – I think in Portland – and seemed to fit in well with the practice of basing instruction on emergent language needed at the moment in class.  Because this is so new, I will be interested to see how this plays out this year.

Tomorrow in class, we will be creating a class text based on the discussion from today.  Then we will do some reading work with it.  A job that is likely to be needed is the Reader Leader.  This important job helps save my voice, but most importantly, it helps – like all the jobs – distribute power in the classroom.

In comprehension-based teaching, the teacher is often the center of attention.  This is normal, as the teacher is the one providing the input.  Taking the teacher away and using another means (internet, film, song) is an option, but it reduces personalization and human communication.  So in my opinion we should sparingly do this, and still guide the class’ interaction with these resources.  So, most every day we are there providing input for extended periods of time.  Therefore, for me, it is of the utmost importance that we share power with the kids.  Ben Slavic’s student jobs are so key for me in this.  I cannot imagine teaching without my student jobs.

September 2, 2016

With Nothing But My Training

One goal I have for the year is to explore what can happen if I get out of the way of the language-acquisition machine that is the human brain and let comprehensible language emerge the natural way.  Part of this focus on emergent language, for me, is to not plan classes and simply rest myself in my training and trust that I can simply show up and speak comprehensibly in a safe community, that this is all my students need from me – comprehensible input and emotional safety, as Ben has ben saying to me all summer.

Friday was the first day of school.  Not for the kids, but for me. They were at school since Tuesday working on their Circling with Balls cards, doing a Hargaden Website Scavenger Hunt, and drawing “imaginary pets”.  (Shhhhh…the drawings are actually potential Invisibles to use later when we are ready to launch into stories…but I just told the sub to tell the kids that we would be doing a lot of artwork in class this year and using our imaginations, and I wanted to get to know what kinds of artists and imaginations they had.)

I was down at Mike Peto‘s workshop in Southern California for the first three days of school.  My plane arrived back in Portland on Thursday night around midnight and I did not actually go to sleep till about 1:30 AM.  So, after all the traveling this summer and this last late night, I was feeling super-fried and tired and pretty much just “Do I really have to do this?” on the ride to school Friday morning.

The chairs in my classroom still needed to be arranged and I had nothing on the lesson plan.  But, riding along on this cool, cloudy September morning, I was strangely at peace – more than I have ever been on the first day in sixteen years of teaching – because I have committed to working with completely emergent language and no pre-planning.  I actually had the thought, “This is the perfect start to the year, because I am simply too fried to plan.”  I met Rhea, who will be student teaching with me this year, for coffee, and we did not even talk about school!  We talked about our friends, our summers, our lives, and an epic night at the Bye and Bye we had enjoyed in August.  We enjoyed each other’s company and connected as friends and colleagues.

And you know what?  We got to school, we arranged the chairs (Mike, I used your four groups of nine arrangement, and it is a great setup!), and then classes started.  And it went great.  Better than great.  It was joyful.  With just my intuition in the moment to guide us, very joyful and successful classes emerged.

What helped me to teach successful classes with literally NO IDEA what I was going to do, talk about, or accomplish (other than providing comprehensible input)?

  1.  Speak slowly and clearly and with good humor and love.  Speak so slowly it is painful for me.  If it is not painful for me, it is painful for the students.
  2. Pause and point, like, EVERY. TIME.  Embrace the time it takes to slowly walk to the board and point.  And then, with your hand on the L2 word, scan the room to make sure that their faces show comprehension.  I once heard that we should treat each word like a golden coin dropping into a deep well, and wait till we hear the thunk at the bottom.
  3. Write L1 and L2 on the board whenever anything new is said.  Even things you would assume they know.  Even “gracias”.  Even “moment” – in French one would think kids can get “moment” with no L1 translation – but it sounds so different.  Kids literally gasped in amazement seeing that what sounds like “mamuh” is “moment”.  Cognates really aren’t.  And if kids stop trusting that you will make it comprehensible, you have lost their hearts.  It is much easier to keep trust than to regain it.  Support them with L1 and they will quickly learn to trust you.
  4. Enjoy and embrace kids’ breaking the classroom rules.  With patience, good humor, and smile, point silently to the rule and make it clear with a sweeping look around the room that you expect this rule to be followed.  I walked over to that poster at least eighteen times per period.  It makes me happy to do so.  Because soon, in a few weeks, I will be enjoying a well-trained class that knows how to listen.
  5. Acknowledge kids.  A lot.  Make them “the best, smartest, most talented, most famous, most amazing people in the world.”  Applaud them, literally.  We applauded the kid who got the first class job (hall pass kid), the second class job (person who takes the picture of the board between classes and erases the language that emerged in the previous class), kids who spoke in L2 (yes, there were a couple even on Day One), we applauded ourselves as a group for listening so well, it was like the Emmys up in there today, so much applausing
  6. Train kids to be patient as you write on the board.  I literally have them applaud themselves for waiting silently as I turn my back and write on the board.  (This is hella important since I will be spending many a minute writing on the board throughout the course of the year.)  The FIRST TIME I need to write something on the board in L1 and L2, I stop halfway through, and, as if I am blown away with surprise that they are listening silently, I write “Silencio” (or “Silence”) on the board, tell them “¡El silencio es MAGNIFICO!” and have them applaud themselves.  Then for the next week or so we will frequently applaud the class’ silence.  (Sometimes we give “un aplause silencioso para el silencio” and clap without touching palms…cause it is funny.) This positive reinforcement will pay off throughout the year as I write peacefully on the board and do not feel rushed by the fear that I will lose them while I write.
  7. Do not fear L1.  You have to invest in kids at the beginning of the year.  And the middle of the year.  And the end too.  You have to give some time in L1 to build those relationships that make kids want to be there and want to listen.  You need to be a community first and a language community second.  Unscripted, unplanned L1 interaction shows kids you care about them as people.  As the year goes on, I will be talking more and more in L2 and less and less in L1, but right now I do not fear L1 as long as we can get a nice flow of L2 going from time to time, so we know how it feels as we ease our way into the year as a group.  So, I shared about the conference and I asked kids about their summers, and I talked about the rules a bit, and we assigned a few student jobs, and we talked logistics (like how to put materials under your seat.  In one class, a student invented a new job, of policing kids’ materials and taking away house points from their group if their materials are in the way!  I love this – emergent class jobs!  What if I had been more invested in “covering” a lesson plan?  This student’s idea – a great one – would have likely been lost.  Because I had the attitude of “Let’s see what emerges”, the space was there for her to offer this brilliant suggestion and now she has a cool new role in class, and the cookie part is I won’t have to trip over kids’ binders and such!)
  8. Give mini-brain breaks.  After about fifteen to twenty minutes, kids need to process.  Probably in L1.  That is OK.  A minute of L1 to “talk about what we have learned so far” is time well spent.  Even if they are not talking 100% on task, who cares?  They will come back to you refreshed.  Listening and understanding is rigorous, hard work.

I noticed that this training has little to do with what is in my brain and a lot to do with the body and heart.  This training is more a mental stance, an attitude, a disposition, based on a mindset that all I need to do is provide understandable messages that people will pay attention to.  I rest myself in Krashen’s and Chomsky’s elegant findings on the simplicity and beauty of the human brain, and what we need to give it to let it do what it is designed to do.  I rest myself in the years of training I have gotten from my incredible mentor,Ben Slavic, a true educator and a pure soul.  I rest myself in the community of support and love that has grown up around Ben, and nurtured me and so many others.  Thanks, fellow human beings!