I wanted my first post to be an introduction to myself. I figured why not just start off by telling my story and explaining how I ended up where I am today. As you can tell by the title, it has definitely been an unexpected journey. I would not trade any of my experiences, however, because they have helped get where I am today. I will just break my story up into sections.
This is when I took a Spanish class for the first time ever. It was required all three years of middle school. I won’t lie and say that Spanish was my favorite subject. It was not even close. In fact, I actually did not like Spanish class at all. I did not understand what was going on most of the time. It all went over my head and I felt very lost. We learned from the textbook and it was super boring. The teacher spoke pretty much all in Spanish and I had no idea what she was saying most of the time. I faked my way through it because I was good at completing worksheets and using my vocabulary lists. I could memorize things but then forget them after the test. The teacher intimidated me a lot and I never wanted to approach her for help.
When I got to high school I was so HAPPY that I finally didn’t have to take Spanish anymore. I did not take it in 9th grade. Later, I realized I needed to take Spanish for a couple of years so that I could get into the college I wanted. I was a little sad about that but I knew I had to do it. I signed up for Spanish 2 in 10th grade. They ended up telling me I had to go to Spanish 3 because of all the Spanish I took in middle school. So I went to Spanish 3. I cried after the first class because I did not understand anything that the teacher had said in Spanish. Over time though, something started to change. I think the biggest thing was that I really liked this teacher. I developed a really good relationship with her and that made a huge difference. She helped me a lot and made it easier for me to understand what was going on. I started trying REALLY HARD in class because I was tired of being confused. It turns out I was really good with grammar. We mostly just learned from a textbook and did grammar worksheets, but I liked the teacher so much I didn’t even care about that. I was good at memorization. Once I got the hang of it, I actually was able to memorize all the grammar rules and verb conjugations really easily. I ended up doing super well on tests and I had more confidence in myself. I had this teacher for three years. I took Spanish with her all the way to Spanish 5. At that point, I actually loved Spanish. I felt like I was good at Spanish and wanted to do something with it. Plus I knew I wanted to travel. I loved hearing about her experiences in Spain and I wanted to travel somewhere too.
Once I got to college, I decided to major in elementary education with an emphasis in Spanish education. I loved Spanish and wanted to get better at it. I did really well in the classes that focused on grammar, but I really struggled with actually being able to use the language. I had studied the language for so many years at this point but I couldn’t say much spontaneously. Whenever I wanted to speak, I had to stop and really think about the rules in my head to help me. I spent a summer in Costa Rica where I lived with a family. That helped a lot being in an immersion environment. When I returned to the United States, I started practicing my Spanish with friends who spoke the language. I just kept finding ways to listen to the language and looked for opportunities to communicate with native speakers. That really helped me reach the point that I am at now.
1st year of teaching
I have been at the same school for all three years of my teaching career. Just for some background information, I teach Spanish to grades 5-8. I am the only Spanish teacher in the middle school. For my first year, I was hired only as a part-time teacher. Enrollment in Spanish was very low. I don’t know if you can ever fully be prepared for the first year of your teaching career. I am happy to say I only cried a few times! I was overwhelmed just trying to learn the names of 150 different students while figuring out what to teach. There was no curriculum guide left for me so I just went to the Spanish textbook in the classroom for ideas. I did not know what students already knew or where to even start. I struggled through that first year with the curriculum but I actually still had fun. I loved having my own classroom and I really enjoyed connecting with students. There were definitely some students who wanted nothing to do with me, but the majority of the students were kind. I definitely didn’t know what I was doing in terms of classroom management. I always had the most issues when I was doing grammar lessons… because let’s be honest, it’s straight up boring. Looking back I can’t blame those kids for tuning out or wanting to chat with their friends about something else. I still did those long grammar lessons anyway because it just seemed like the right thing to do. It’s how I was taught. It’s what was in the Spanish textbook. How else could kids learn all this grammar if I didn’t explicitly teach it to them? Of course my thinking on this changed drastically later on.
2nd year of teaching
Year two was smoother than year one. I still used the textbook, but I decided it was actually super boring even from the standpoint of a teacher. I was bored teaching it so you can imagine how my students probably felt. I decided I needed to make it more fun. I still used the VERY LONG vocabulary lists from the textbooks, but I tried to make it fun with games and other hands-on activities. I did a fashion show. We acted out skits that students memorized and performed. Students created and labeled their own house for our house unit. Students were really having fun with the vocabulary and I was feeling a lot happier. Enrollment had gone way up and my principal told me I would now be teaching full-time. I was happy and everything seemed to be going well. I was still using the textbook, but I made memorizing vocabulary fun for students.
3rd year of teaching (this past year)
The summer after year two is when I had my light bulb moment. I did a lot of reflecting that summer and I figured some things out. As much as my students were enjoying Spanish, something still didn’t seem right. I realized the amount that they were actually retaining was very VERY minimal. It seemed like the minute we had moved on to the next unit, they barely recalled anything from the previous unit. I was frustrated until I realized it actually wasn’t their fault. It was MY fault. It took me awhile to come to this realization and to accept it. The more research I did on second language acquisition, the more I realized that the way I was teaching Spanish was actually very ineffective. Students were ‘learning’ the language, but they weren’t actually ACQUIRING the language. The more I learned, the more I needed to know. All this knowledge was my big light bulb moment where everything suddenly made sense. It made sense why students weren’t actually acquiring the language. It made sense why I personally struggled with Spanish for so many years as a student.
That summer, I decided I was no longer going to use the textbook. I wanted to teach using comprehensible input, something I had just recently discovered. Comprehensible input is a message the student receives in the target language (through listening or reading) that they are able to understand. It is a meaningful interaction in the target language and it is key for language acquisition. I have also heard CI called compelling input, which I LOVE. It’s not enough for it to just be comprehensible. Something very boring could be comprehensible! It needs to be something that engages students to the point where they are so focused on the message they don’t even think about the fact that it’s a different language. There are many different skills and strategies that can be used to make your input comprehensible (and compelling) to students. In order for students to acquire a new word, they need to be exposed to it MANY times in different contexts. The focus is all about communicating IN the target language in a way that is interesting to students. They are not learning ABOUT the language. They are acquiring the language through the messages they receive in Spanish and interacting with those messages.
I knew year three was the time for me to make a change. It turns out there is a very big community of world language teachers who teach with comprehensible input. I just hadn’t known about it until that point. I spent a lot of time that summer discovering new blogs and gathering ideas. The blogs that I relied on the most were these two:
Allison Wienhold was very helpful since she had several posts explaining her Spanish curriculum and what has worked well for her. She talked about teaching with novels and using the SOMOS curriculum from Martina Bex. I used those ideas to help me get started. I checked out Martina’s curriculum (some units are free, including the very first one) and watched Martina do a video demonstration. I was hooked and wanted to use her curriculum. Here is what Martina Bex says about the curriculum, quoted directly from her own website:
“The Spanish language is inextricably linked to the cultures of its speakers. Through comprehensible input, the SOMOS Spanish 1 and Spanish 2 curriculum from The Comprehensible Classroom teach language and culture simultaneously, allowing Spanish students the opportunity to develop cultural understanding at a depth rarely achieved in novice courses.”
I also wanted some novels for my classes. My school purchased some novels for me over the summer and I also received donations through Donors Choose.
Curriculum overview for my 3rd year
After I spent the summer getting things together, here is what I ended up doing for my third year. Even though the older students were technically “more advanced,” they were new to learning with comprehension-based methods and it was challenging for them. I decided to just start most of them on SOMOS unit one and it worked out very well!
5th grade and 6th grade
- SOMOS units 1-3
- Señor Wooly songs
Spanish 1 (grades 7/8) one quarter
- SOMOS units 1-4
- Persona especial
Spanish 2 (grades 7/8) one quarter
- Super 7 verbs / persona especial
- Rainforest / Ecuador / pre-teaching vocab from novel
- Novel: El Capibara Con Botas
Spanish 3 (grades 7/8) one quarter
- Pets / family / pre-teaching vocab from novel
- Novel: Brandon Brown Quiere Un Perro
- SOMOS unit 8: la comida
- Market day / día de mercado
Overall, students were very open to the changes I made. There were a couple who thoughts the stories were “stupid” and would have preferred to just memorize a million vocab words and rules. The ones who were resistant were ones who just wanted an A and couldn’t care less about actually acquiring the language. That was the exception, though. Most of the feedback was positive. All students were able to be successful in my class rather than just a few who were good at memorizing. Most students LOVED the stories we acted out from the SOMOS units. I had kids shouting “¡CIERRA LA PUERTA!” randomly months after that story was over. One student reported that Spanish was “way better this year because [she] could understand more and the book we read was fun.” I also had some students ask where I bought my books from because they wanted to buy their own and read even more books in Spanish. Win! The final response was student enrollment. I had such high interest in Spanish this year that I needed to add more classes for next year. Many students took ALL of my classes this year and needed more options so they could continue with me next year.
Why things worked so well for my classes
That year I noticed huge changes in student motivation and they were able to do more with the language than before. Why did things work so well with comprehensible input? Here is what I noticed with my own students:
- It was much easier to teach the class in Spanish. SOMOS and the novels made it so easy for me to stay in Spanish. Without the grammar lessons and the insane vocab lists, it was easier to make the Spanish comprehensible to students.
- Students were successful with the language because actually understood it and gained confidence.
- I had less issues with classroom management. Students felt very successful and enjoyed Spanish which kept them more focused during class time.
- Less vocabulary, more impact: Students had less vocabulary yet they were able to do more with the language than ever before. This is because the vocabulary was broken up into smaller chunks, taught in meaningful context and the words were actually incredibly useful. Students were exposed to some of the highest frequency verbs right away, rather than learning them later on. Instead of learning words like “roof” and “eyebrow” (words from the textbook lists), we focused on words like “wants”, “goes”, “has”, “is”, “likes”, “plays”, “says”, “sees”, “makes/does” etc. I’m sure you can guess which words are initially more useful for communication when you are first starting out in a new language.
- It’s all about the students: Instead of feeling tied down to a textbook unit, I was able to make it all about the students. Rather than learning about clothing or body parts, we learned about the students in our class. I did interviews in Spanish so that we could focus on a new student each day.
- Communication felt more genuine and natural: Some of those practice questions in the textbook were so awkward sounding and very forced. Kids don’t want to talk about how many rooms are in their house. They don’t want to tell us what clothing items they wear when it’s raining outside. Instead, our conversations felt more natural. I asked them questions that I genuinely wanted to know the answer to and they sensed that. Do you have any pets? What kind of pets? What is your favorite animal? Do you play any instruments or sports? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend? (Their favorite question!) What do you like to do at home? What do you want for your birthday? These are the kind of things kids actually want to talk about. We didn’t have to wait for the textbook unit on hobbies to show up. We just talked about anything that interested them right away.
- Reading: Honestly, students did not do much reading in Spanish my first two years as a teacher. The only “reading” we did was reading sentences as we completed assignments from the textbook. Reading has a huge impact on second language acquisition because it is another way for students to receive input. A quote that I have hanging up in my classroom library: “Picking up word meaning by reading is ten times faster than intensive vocabulary instruction.” (Stephen Krashen). Stories are memorable. We connect with stories. We tell and listen to stories on a daily basis in conversation. We need stories. In fact, we ARE stories.
- More input, less forced output: Students received so much more input that year through listening and reading stories. This allowed them to take in more Spanish and internalize it. We did a lot more input activities than output. I stopped doing the fashion show and memorized skits because they were not helping students acquire the language. Practicing output does not lead to more/better output. What students need is more input as research shows us.
This past year was a huge success for me. I had so much fun with my students and I learned a lot. There are some things I know that I want to change for next year so that things can be even better.
- More comprehensible input – I want to provide my students with even more input, and that means using less English. My goal is 100% Spanish but I know it will take time to learn how to effectively do this with novice learners. I want 100% Spanish that is comprehensible to my beginners. If they can’t understand the message, then it’s just noise to them.
- Deskless – I’m working on this situation right now. I want to get rid of the desks in my room and just have chairs.
- Brain breaks and movement – Listening to the target language for an entire class period is very rigorous for students and they need lots of brain breaks. Being deskless would make movement and breaks much easier.
- Student jobs – I’ll say more on this later, but students jobs can help class run more smoothly and keep us in Spanish. Plus it gives students a specific role in our classroom community that they are responsible for.
- Passwords and more persona especial interviews – these are two ideas that I have gotten from Bryce Hedstrom and I have also seen done by other teachers.
- Free reading time – Students choose a book from my class library that they are interested in and can mostly understand. Reading time is short in the beginning, maybe only like 5 minutes each class period. Reading is another form of input and we know students need lots of input to acquire a language.
That is my story! It took awhile for me to get to where I am right now but that is okay. I am happy with where I am and I have so much support from other world language teachers in this community. Please let me know if you have any questions! I’d love to help out in any way that I can!
Thank you for reading!