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Training Matters!

March 12, 2015

Phew! I've had quite the 48 hours! I arrived in Minneapolis in the wee hours of the morning today after our flight shaved 75 minutes off its scheduled flight time from Anchorage (who knew that was possible!), and with the exception of a 60-minute nap at around 9am, I am running on pura café. Ay ay ay!

I spent today with Susan Block Johnson, the Spanish teacher at Twin Cities German Immersion School. Susan and I had never met, but many of you in the TCI world know her from NTPRS or other trainings. Can I just say that I love our community!? Every time that I get off a plane to be greeted by an unknown colleague from halfway across the continent, I am amazed at how we can pick up like old friends. When we share a passion, it is so easy to connect!

Today, I had the opportunity to observe Susan's Spanish I and Spanish IV classes and to do a couple MovieTalks before giving a QAR Workshop for the TCGIS staff after school. I have a lot of little takeaways, but my BIG takeaway is that TRAINING MATTERS. I didn't realize how much training Susan has attended. After her Spanish I classes, I pulled her aside and asked, "Wait, so tell me about aaaaall of your TPRS®/CI training...?" Wow. It's extensive. And it is effective. Susan is such a masterful teacher! She moved seamlessly from activity to activity, pumping her students full of comprehensible input without making any of it feel contrived or forced or unnatural. It is possible to use TPRS® and other Comprehensible Input strategies without any training--I did it for quite some time--but man, making the effort and investment in training will pay huge dividends. She warned me that her Spanish I's were kind of a mess because they only meet every other day, and less than that really because of a list of things. Let's just say that if I had not been warned, I would have thought that I were in a Level 2 or Level 3 classroom. The kids could understand, and the kids could talk. And they chose to talk. A lot. In Spanish!! Wow. I am so impressed.

While I can't take all of Susan's training and impart it to you virtually via this blog post, I can tell you what I observed. Hopefully, you will be inspired by something!


Susan used the same routine in each of her classes. Each class began with the ding of a bell, pressed by one of her students. When the rest of the class hears the bell, they hold up one hand in a fist and wait for Susan to move them forward. She then said (in the TL), "Good afternoon class", and they responded, "Good afternoon, Mrs. Johnson". Then she asked a series of questions, quickly, to the students, and individuals responded: What is the date? What day (of the week) is today? What is the weather like outside? Then came the coolest part....

Susan used a Hoberman Sphere for a breathing exercise at the beginning of class


One student (which is apparently the same student all week for one week) grabbed the Hoberman Sphere and sat in a chair at the front of the room to lead the class in a breathing exercise. Susan asked for a volunteer to count breaths, and the student with the sphere then slowly expanded and contracted the sphere five times while the counter counted repetitions. The class breathed in as the sphere expanded and out while it contracted. This very simple technique was very effective in calming students--audibly, anyway--and I felt my body relax as well. We were ready to receive whatever Susan had for us that day!  Check out the Yoga Calm website to learn more about the organization that did a training for the TCGIS staff earlier this year.


Today, I was the subject of the Personalized Questions and Answers session. Before I was introduced or spoke a word, Susan motioned to me and asked (in the TL), "What do we know about our visitor?" Their responses to this question were quite entertaining. Her youngest group of Spanish Is, 5th and 6th graders, were the most creative in answering this question. They quickly generated a long list of things that they knew about me--that I have legs/eyes/arms/etc, I'm a woman, I have blonde hair, I am in the Spanish class, etc. The older group of Spanish 1 students and the Spanish IV's really struggled with this question because they didn't know anything about me--at least in the traditional way that the expression is used. After the students had shared everything that they could think of, Susan asked them (in the TL), "What do you WANT to know about our visitor?" This was a fun question, especially with middle schoolers. One girl wanted to know why I'm not a knife. (I told her that it was because my parents are not knives.) Another kid said that I was really short, but he didn't realize that I was sitting down at the time. Oh, kids! They crack me up. Finally, Susan pulled me up to the front of the room and asked me all of the questions that her students had come up with. It was a fun activity, and it was so easy to get in repetitions of her target structures (knows/wants to know) and "getting to know you" vocab. Why not schedule a mystery guest that speaks your TL just so that you can talk to them with your students?!


MovieTalk is one of the most simple strategies for providing comprehensible input, and it is a great starting place for teachers that are just beginning their TCI journey. I did the Wildebeest MovieTalk with the Spanish I classes, and I used the Mr. Bean Packs a Suitcase video with the Spanish IVs to get in repetitions of the word "fits", upon the suggestion from Zachary Bryant (thank you!!!!). To get more repetitions of the structure, "knows", I modified the script that I used and said (in the TL), "The Wildebeest says, "I know that it is a crocodile/log"". When you target high frequency structures with your curriculum, it is so easy to fit them into the instruction of any resource that you come across! After each MovieTalk, Susan asked the simple question, "What did you see?" As always, her question and the students' responses were in the target language.

90 percent target language? Psh. She and her students easily hit 95. Probably higher. I can't even recall any English that was spoken today...

One strategy that she used was just a simple question: "What did you see?" (¿Qué viste?). Students in one of the classes just volunteered answers at random, and in another class she used a "Pégame" (Hit me!) strategy: all students stood up, and they were allowed to sit down after "hitting" Susan with any phrase or sentence about the video. This was great, because it gave students the freedom to say something that was at their individual level of proficiency. Some were very basic, and others were very descriptive. Everyone had a chance to speak, and Susan was able to ask follow-up questions and circle target structures and unfamiliar vocabulary because she was guiding the conversation. By asking, "What did you see?", she worked in many repetitions of past tense forms of the verb "to see" (I saw, you saw, s/he saw). After doing just a few MovieTalks, her students will have a good command of that verb. Comprehensible Input makes language acquisition so easy!!!


I saw the students do several different kinds of reading between the three classes that I observed. In one class, the students had done a TPRS® story in a previous lesson, and Susan provided them with a typed version of the class story. It was about 1.5 pages long, double spaced (if memory serves me well). For this activity, she had students pair up and read and translate the story with a partner. As they read and translated, they helped each other when one partner got stuck, and Susan circulated to formatively assess the students' comprehension and clarify meaning when needed. One common concern that teachers have when considering making the switch to TPRS®/CI instruction is that it is very teacher-centered and therefore exhausting and taxing on the instructor. This very simple activity is a great example of one of the many ways that you can plan for "teacher down-time" in your instruction. Just let your kids read!! Here are some other reading activities that I've used in the past.

The other reading activity that I observed was...wait for it...reading. As in Free Reading. Sustained Silent Reading. Free Voluntary Reading. Whatever you want to call it. Susan told the students to go grab their books, and they went to the classroom library, each pulled out whichever novel they had been reading most recently (I saw 5-6 different novels in students' hands), and 10 minutes or so just reading. Now, if that isn't teacher down time, I don't know what is! I never had a great Free Reading program set up in my classes, but I know that Bryce Hedstrom and Mike Peto and Crystal Barragán, among others, do (I just know that they've blogged about theirs!).


So, what I didn't realize going into today was that I was going to be in the classroom of a celebrity. Susan has actually appeared in a Señor Wooly video--she is one of the reporters/fans in the ¡Sé chévere! video. I AM SO JEALOUS! Accordingly, I watched her use several of Señor Wooly's videos in class. What I loved is how she was able to show a video and immediately pull from it the content and structures that she needed and transform it into comprehensible input that matched her lesson objectives. She used the "Pan" video to get in repetitions of the nosostros (we) forms of verbs, and she tied that into the interview questions about me ("What do we know? What do we want to know?"). I'm telling you, this lady is a genius!!


Susan did a TPRS® story in one of her classes. To introduce the new vocabulary, she had put together a very simple and very effective slideshow with pictures of animals, animals with tails, and tails. She discussed the pictures with students to get in repetitions of the target structures as students became accustomed to the sound of each structure, and then she jumped right into the story. She had several actors, and I had to laugh because students are students no matter where they live or what school they attend. The main character in the story was an awesome student actor, and I thought, "Wow. I wish that I could get ALL of my students to do just a great job acting!". Well, then came the second student. She really enjoyed participating in the story, but she definitely filled the role of the "DISTRactor". So yes, we all have one of those. She still did a great job--she was just a little bit more into being the center of the attention than furthering her classmates' language proficiency. Go figure. Susan had lots of props ready to go (animal hats, a tail, etc.), and she made use of the entire classroom by directing each scene in its own unique location in the room. I've written about this idea before (don't know where), and it really helps students when they need to recall and retell the story if they have a different physical location to associate with each event in the story.


The last activity that I want to share with you from today was the last activity that Susan did in one of her classes. She learned the idea from someone else, but y'all will have to help me recall who it was so that I can cite it, because I forget the name that she shared with me! I think she called it "Perrito caliente" (hot dog...similar to hot potato), but she couldn't find the stuffed dog that she usually uses, so she just used a ball. After her Spanish Is finished reading their typed version of the class story, she used this great musical activity as a formative reading comprehension assessment. She turned on an energizing Spanish song and threw a ball out into the class. As the music played, students tossed the ball around. When the music stopped, the student with the ball in his or her hands had to respond to a question about the reading that Susan asked (in Spanish). After the student responded, she turned the music back on as students tossed around the ball until it came time for another question. I loved this activity, because it was an easy way to lower the affective filter during an assessment. Students get stressed about formative assessments, so anything that we can do to put them at ease and make the experience more novel and engaging will pay great dividends.

All in all, it was a great day, and I cannot emphasize enough the importance of seeking out high quality training in whatever methodology or strategy you have chosen to use in your classes. For the amount of time that we spend in our classrooms and working on school related tasks, we owe it to ourselves to be excellent. Becoming a master teacher won't solve all of our problems--after all, we are human and so are our administrators and students and their parents--but it will go a long way to reducing the stress that comes from feeling lost and inadequate. With that in mind....why not register now for iFLT 2015 (this summer in St. Paul) or NTPRS 2015 (this summer in DC)?! I'll be there, and I would love to see YOU!

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