back to school, classroom, engagement, management, new teachers, Uncategorized

Making Every Minute Count


If you think about how little time we have with our students, you probably wonder how they ever meet all the learning objectives we’ve set for them. On a traditional schedule of 40 minutes a day, that equates to 200 minutes a week of instruction – or 120 hours a school year. Now subtract all the time taken away for assemblies, standardized testing, and absences – and you’ve got even less time. Now add up all the wasted time – transitions, sharpening pencils, bathroom breaks, and waiting for slower students to finish up tasks. Suddenly you’re faced with even less time to do all things it takes to get them speaking, listening, reading, and writing in their world language.

Never fear – there are some strategies to keep things moving along. With some judicious planning and consistency, you, too, can keep your class on track so that all your teaching objectives get attended to!

Supplies are a necessary tool for both you and your learners to use in order to get work done. Where do you store them? Are they easily accessible to students? Would having a stack of pre-sharpened pencils be helpful? Do your students know where to get blank writing paper? Make a place for these items and allow students access to it.

Target language use is really important. ACTFL, our national world language educators’ organization recommends that 90% of class be conducted in the TL. Many teachers chose to conduct portions of class in English because they believe it facilitates student understand. The problem with doing so is that it undermines the utility of the world language; you’re essentially showing the students that the target language isn’t important for communication. To increase student understanding, one merely needs to employ a series of Comprehensible Input strategies, such as adjusting teacher talk, using gestures and pictures, and giving examples. With these scaffolding interventions, students feel more supported and willing to open their receptivity to the target language. For other strategies, please consult Douglass Crouse’s “Going for 90% Plus: How to Stay in the Target Language.”

Directions and Routines are a part of every teacher’s classroom – whether her learners are in elementary school or high school. Those directions and routines will look a lot different depending on the age of the learner, but they are there for a purpose – to let students know what to do and how to do it. They keep order. Now doing this in the target language can complicate things, but if students are adequately prepared, then it can work. So make sure they know what you’re talking about – demonstrate, use visuals, do whatever it takes. Julie from Mundo de Pepita inspired me to make illustrated instruction cards so my learners always know what steps are necessary to complete a task. Read her blog entry here. The other important point to make about directions is this – if they’re too complicated for students to understand in the target language, then the task is too difficult for your students. Instead, do something they can do.

Do Now Activities/Bell Ringers are an excellent way to get students focused fast and eliminate the transition time into class. For a list of some tried and true bell ringers, please consult this Edutopia article and for world language specific bell ringers, try FLTeach Digest.

Filler activities are a great way to fill in spare time in class. A former mentor of mine once recommended to me to always plan for extra activities just in case you finish the regularly scheduled lesson faster than expected. This is especially important for teachers who teach on a block schedule.  For some quick time filler activities, try these from Education World.

Quick finishers are those students who sail through classwork and then need something to do when they’re done. I’m sure they’d rather listen to music, chat with friends, do homework for another class, or cram for next period’s test. Instead, they should be on task for your class. Over the years, I’ve tried different things depending on the age of the students and level of the class. I have a classroom library stocked with books and magazines in the target language. For teachers who want something a little more structured, you may have enrichment assignments or puzzles that pertain to the unit you’re currently working on.

Transitions can eat up a lot of your class time. My fabulous colleague, Señora Gragg, often bursts into song while passing out materials or collecting them. Her students join in and they make good use of an otherwise wasted moment. I love her effective use of time! She often has little kits waiting for her students – so that all the supplies needed for a certain activity are there and ready to go.

With this list of tips, I hope you can better fill your class time with meaningful activities that help lead your learners to higher levels of proficiency.

So, have you developed some strategies to maximize learning time in your classroom?

back to school, planning

Planning for Instruction

planning for instructionI was just talking with a colleague the other day about planning time – and I expressed how grateful I am for the time we get during the school day to do our planning. After all, good instruction can’t happen without good planning.

There are so many things to keep in mind as you are planning for your world language classes…

  • What are my students’ proficiency levels?
  • Am I getting my students to work in all three modes of communication: interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational?
  • Am I addressing a “big picture” item – like an Essential Question or an Enduring Understanding?
  • Am I building on what my students already know?
  • Am I properly preparing for the next thing they need to know how to do?

I hear a lot of teachers who get stressed out over planning and spend hours on honing the perfect lessons. That is certainly not a sustainable lifestyle. If you roughly map out your year, then your individual units, and then spend more time on your individual lessons, you’ll have a good framework to follow. With the manageable pieces identified, you’ll feel more comfortable with planning a few days to a week in advance on your lessons.

For a more step-by-step guide to planning for instruction, please check out my self-paced learning module: Planning for Instruction. Versal requires you to register, but it’s free!


back to school, management, new teachers

Back to School: Setting Expectations


No matter how versed you are in your content area and pedagogy, one of the most important things of the true art of teaching is having the ability to maintain control over a group of people. I don’t mean this in a messiah-like or Jim Jones sort of way, but in the way that a shepherd can keep his flock in order. In education terms, I’m talking about classroom management.

In all my years of teaching, I confess that this is probably the weakest aspect of my craft. I’m definitely no artist when it comes to managing the masses. My particular problem was that I was a softie until things got too out of control and then I became Godzilla. I definitely don’t like releasing the Kraken, so I resorted to research and sought counsel from the some of the most gifted artists in this area.

Early in my career, a wise principal suggested I sit down with the kids and ask them what they think a successful should look like. From there we crafted a list of RULES and slapped it on the wall. When someone deviated from the rule, he was immediately busted and some sort of PUNISHMENT was enacted. The funny thing about the kids’ list was that it was a lot more draconian than any list of expectations I had ever seen. It was almost exclusively constructed of “DO NOT” statements that sounded like a school marm’s version of the Ten Commandments.

I started suggesting that we construct statements that are more positive sounding. I demonstrated with a sentence that showed how certain behaviors should look instead of what they should NOT look like. My example was: “Eyes and ears focused on whoever is speaking.”

When I frame this exercise, I don’t even like using the word “rules.” I prefer “expectations” or “procedures.” Heck, this year I might even entitle it “How We Roll.” The point is: keep it positive.

Gather your students together on one of the first days and do ask them what a successful classroom looks like. Write down what the students say and synthesize this list into a manageable document that can be posted for them all to see and refer to. Try to keep it simple. Craft your expectations so that everyone can succeed.


Picture credit: “Le Poulpe Colossal,” Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801.

back to school, new teachers, planning

Back to School: Plotting out Your Curriculum


Many school systems have very regimented curricula. I have a teacher friend who literally opens up a binder, turns to whatever day it is, and that day’s lesson’s objectives, procedures, materials, and assessments are all there for him. It’s more like an actor reading a script. Then there are those teachers who work in independent, charter, or less rigid school systems that have a looser grip on what teachers are supposed to teach. I imagine there are several shades of rigidity and laxness in between.

When I started my last job, I kept pestering my principal for the curricula for the courses I was going to teach. After all, I was teaching two languages to the entire elementary school, spanning some seven grade levels. It was a little intimidating! After she sheepishly handed over seven sheets of paper, I realized why she was so reluctant to do so; the “curricula” was a mere list of vocabulary words that were taught to each of those seven grade levels.

At that point, I was even more stressed out because I had a huge job ahead of me. Furthermore, without having had the chance to meet these kids, I was completely unaware if they knew these umpteen words on the page, or better yet, if they even knew how to use them.

After an initial full panic mode, I eventually rationalized with myself: “I’m just going to take it month by month and see where things go.” Sure, I had to make a general plan, but I had to stay flexible. I wasn’t sure what proficiency level each grade level was going to be at.

Flash forward fifteen years. I’ve been at my current school for five years. My Spanish teacher colleague in the primary school and I have decided that it’s time to fully align our curriculum. Over the years, we’ve done this task for Pre-K through grade 2. This summer we received a grant to write curriculum for grades 3-5.

Here are my suggestions on how to start your adventures in curriculum development:

• Network. If you know the teachers who teach below your grade levels or above them, check with them. See where your cohort is coming from and where they’re going to. If you’re teaching a beginning level course, then this step has been simplified for you!

• UbD. I embraced Saint Wiggins and worked out a backward plan. I established what goals I wanted students to meet at each grade levels I was teaching.

• Interests. I chose topics that resonated with each grade level. Farm animals might appeal to Pre-Kindergarteners, but my fifth graders would need something a little cooler, like superheroes or fashion. Once you’ve got the kids in your classes, you can poll them as to what they would like, or what interests them. You should probably plan out your first unit in advance until you’ve secured enough data to customize the course to their interests.

• Stuff. What materials do you have at your disposal? Do you have textbooks? Do you have readers/novels? Dos your school have a decent library? Does your department have materials to share with you? Or will you have to make everything yourself?

• Feel free to seek inspiration. Use your Google abilities to see what teachers are doing elsewhere. There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. It is nice, however, to tailor another person’s wheel to fit your car. One size doesn’t always fit all. Check with your state’s department of education. Do they provide a syllabus? Teaching and learning standards? Use these as guidance as you’re plotting out a curriculum.

• What works? As I developed my thematic units, I needed to take into account what is developmentally appropriate for each level that I’m teaching. Do you really need to hold a first accountable for spelling in a second language? Another thing I initially had to keep reminding myself: at grade level A, I want topic X to be an introduction, but at grade level B, I want topic X to be for mastery.

As you’re crafting your curricula, let it sit for a day or two. Come back with fresh eyes and see if you’re still in agreement with the choices you’ve made. Don’t feel intimidated to make changes – or to spiral topics/vocabulary that feel worthy of repeating or expanding. Take notes – was a particular component particularly successful?

Writing a curriculum is by no means easy – nor will you ever feel satisfied with it as being finished. After my years at my school, I am still changing something every summer and having to work through these steps. Good luck!

back to school, new teachers

Back to School: Organizing Your Time


Once you’ve got your physical space all set, you can refocus your mental energy on the “big picture” of the year. I’m a planner. I have calendars and to do lists galore. A few years ago, I resolved to exclusively use an electronic calendar. I’m now doing a lot better with my time management despite a few initial hiccups. My to-do lists are all now in one electronic repository, resulting in no longer having post-its and bits of printer paper floating around my school bag, car, school desk, home desk, kitchen…you get the picture!

With these important pieces of information loaded onto my school laptop and home desktop computers as well as my iPhone and iPad, I have 24/7 access to knowing when I need to do something. A paper calendar can’t nudge me, but push notifications and calendar alarms are reminding me when to go to meetings, when to start working on a certain project, and when I’ve got a day off. I am on top of things!

One thing that isn’t decided – or at least shared with me until a few weeks before school starts, is my schedule. For us planners, this level of uncertainty can be unnerving. It can also hold you back from making schedules and class lists. This is when I need to embrace my inner yogi and command every iota of flexibility I can muster. I must say that over the years, I’ve really adapted to this lifestyle. It did, however, take years.

When your school has finally given you all the bits of information you need to know for the year, put it into your calendar. Use whatever system works for you. If paper still rules your world, then so be it. You can use color coding or highlighting if necessary. If you like electronic calendars, there are many from which to choose, such as the iPhone or even Gmail.

When I know I have large assignments due, like the grades and narrative comments that are due at the end of a marking period, I like to build work time into my calendar for that work to get done. After twenty years of doing this, I have a decent sense of how long this particular dreaded task takes and I make appointments with myself to do. Once you’ve got your unit plans worked out, put them into your calendars. Estimate when you’ll be assessing your students. When will projects be completed and due? Put these all into your calendar.

Be kind to yourself and space out the things that have heavy time constraints. Don’t put a massive amount of grading on your birthday. Or during vacation. Be kind to yourself. You have some degree of control over your calendar – so use it. You’ll thank yourself later.

As the year progresses, you’ll see a pattern emerge and you’ll be savvier about how much time to block out for certain activities. Good luck at organizing yourself for the demands of your time, one of life’s most precious resources.