MCTLC 2019

It’s been nearly a month since I attended and presented at the Minnesota Council on the Teaching of Languages and Cultures Fall Conference. I may be biased, but I think my state puts on a pretty amazing annual conference, with wonderful hospitality, great sessions and meaningful, important focus strands.

In 2017, I had my first taste of presenting at MCTLC, when my friend and heritage language champion Jenna Cushing-Leubner talked me into being a part of a group presenting on a variety of ways to incorporate social justice topics into the heritage language classroom. Because my topic (free voluntary reading) was pretty loosely related to the social justice theme, and also because of my anxiety, I was the last one in our group to present. I was grateful to have an excuse to rush through everything because we had less than 10 minutes left when we got to my part of the presentation.

Thanks in large part to Jenna’s work, MCTLC created a full strand for heritage language teaching. After attending in 2018, I approached Jenna and said I’d like to present, on my own, about my growth in my heritage teaching and all of the changes I was implementing in my heritage classes. (It’s probably a good time to note that Jenna doesn’t just have fantastic ideas, she also makes them happen. So if you volunteer to present in the spur of the moment, you’re not getting out of it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Fast forward to spring of 2019, when I was writing my proposals for both #MCTLC19 and CSCTFL20 (Central States conference). I proposed a session on moving away from grammar and vocabulary instruction and towards a language arts model in my heritage classes. At the time, I had no idea how transformative my summer PD with my school’s English team, led by Amy Rasmussen, would be. I didn’t mention using workshop model in my proposals because I didn’t know that that’s where I was heading.

I am sitting here in a hotel room on a mini getaway with my husband (he’s sound asleep but the bed was way too firm for me) realizing this post is kind of rambling on too much. I came here to share my presentation with you all, so here it is:

MCTLC 2019

If you make it all the way to the end, you’ll find some great resources and also my rough plan for the year. One thing that’s not there, because it was a plan hatched at MCTLC, is Aracely Thomas’ idea to create a poetry slam for our students from several local (la and not-so-local) schools and get them all together to perform their poems. Stay tuned for more info on this exciting event that will hopefully happen in May 2020.

Be sure to drop your questions or suggestions down below. I’d love to hear what *you* are up to!

Writing Notebooks: Setup, Maintenance & Grading

One of the perks of using the workshop model is that I am using so much less paper and wasting way less time standing by the copy machine. Less worksheets is great for so many reasons: it saves money, and trees, and time, and frustration, and best of all, students aren’t bored or feeling buried in work that doesn’t seem meaningful.

But if I’m focusing on writing, students have to write, so where do they do that? The answer is simple: virtually everything that we write in class goes in the students’ writer’s notebooks. And since everything goes in one place, it’s important to have a system that makes sense and keeps it all organized. It’s also essential to have a system for grading it that is as quick and painless as possible. Today I’ll detail what I’ve done so far this year, and how it’s going for me.

I want to first credit a lot of this back to Amy Rasmussen from the blog Three Teachers Talk. After she came to teach us how to use workshop in our classes, I adapted and implemented many of her notebook ideas in my own class.

I knew that I needed an organizational system that would be simple to setup and easy to maintain. I decided to set up the main components of our notebooks right away on day 2. This allowed us to get in the routine of using our notebooks right from the start. (On day one, students wrote their quick write on a notecard that they turned in at the end of class for me to read.)

Notebook setup & organization

Page 1: This is where we put our reading goal for the year. It is also where we calculate our current reading rate. Students should recalculate their reading rate each time they start a new book. We use reading rate to determine how many pages each student needs to read each week, so it’s important to have an accurate calculation.

This example is from my notebook. I haven’t actually calculated my reading rate, but I probably should.
I had students glue the instructions for calculating their reading rate inside the front cover of their notebooks so they could recalculate each time they start a new book. Unfortunately, despite my constant reminders, most students only do it when I include it as part of class.

Page 2: The second page of our notebooks is where students track what they are currently reading. They haven’t been good about maintaining this list on their own, so I remind them on Mondays to check their list and update it: completed books, abandoned books, and new books they are starting. I ask them to give a brief explanation why they abandon any book.

For next year, I want to add some things our English teachers include on this page: author, genre, date completed. Since I didn’t start the year with that, though, I won’t try to add it now.

From my notebook. I’ve been reading a lot already this year!

Bulk of notebook: The majority of the notebook is dedicated to our daily writing tasks: Quick Writes, mini-lesson notes, writing workshop pieces, etc. We also glue a lot of things into our notebooks: rubrics, mini-lesson notes, mentor texts, anything I want them to have handy and keep from one day to the next. Below are several examples.

Example of a couple pages of quick writes from a student’s notebook. Note how she made revisions in a different color (as instructed).
I had students glue their rubrics into their notebooks. I also asked them to write a reflection on their writing process, what they did well, and what they still need to work on.
This is a review of some figurative language we were working on. I realized that I needed to give students a copy so they could refer back to it as they worked on their writing.

The last page: This is where students keep their “To Read Next” list. I do book talks every day, we do a variety of book browsing activities, and I sometimes use quotes from books in my library for a Quick Write. I always remind students that, if a book sounds interesting, they should add it to their list. Students are accountable for having multiple books on their list when I check notebooks and also during reading conferences.

This list is so important in helping students continue reading after they finish a book. Rather than spend all of their reading time searching for a new book, they can flip to their list and quickly find their next book. Since I mostly only have single copies of books, students need to have multiple titles on their list so they can find something they are interested in that’s available on the shelves.

This student came to me already identifying as a reader, so it’s no surprise that she has a long and varied list of books she wants to read.

2nd to last page: This is where we glue the instructions and start our personal dictionaries. Each student is expected to add 5 entries per week from their independent reading book. They can be words that are new to them, or words they understand but don’t often use in writing or speech. For the personal dictionary, students will work backwards through their notebook.

Personal dictionary instructions (with example entry).

This system allows us to keep things separate and organized in a way that seems logical and easy to maintain. We don’t need tabs or dividers that might fall off or break, and everything has a place.

Notebook Grading

This is the part we all dread. Right? Right! After my first slow, tedious notebook check, I learned some things and made some changes. They made my second notebook check faster and less subjective.

One change was creating a notebook grading slip that works as a scoring checklist. This makes it obvious to students why they received the grade they did. It also made it easy for me to track all of the things I was looking for, which were many because too much time passed between checks. I purposely stapled the slip into their notebook on the last used page and sticking up about 1/4 inch, to help me easily know where to start the next time I collect notebooks.

I made a similar slip for grading personal dictionary entries:

These slips turned grading notebooks into a more streamlined and less painful process. Still, I will make changes going forward. For one thing, I will not be collecting notebooks for more than one purpose at a time – last time, I was checking notebooks, grading a writing piece, and grading vocab entries. Don’t do that! You will regret it! Please, trust me here. That was a really bad decision. I’m also considering collecting notebooks one or two classes at a time to make it more manageable and less panic-inducing.

If you made it this far, congratulations! You are a real trooper! This post is not nearly as exciting or fun as a unit or lesson explanation, but I hope you’ll find it practical and useful.

Do you use writer’s notebooks, or another notebook system, in your classes? I’d love to hear how you manage notebook setup and grading!

Conference time!

It’s been a while since my last post. As tends to happen, life got really busy and time got away from me. Then, a family member passed away in Mexico, and I became a solo parent for 10 days while my husband was out of the country. He’s on an airplane flying home right now, and it seemed like a perfect time to start my next post. I finally feel like I can breathe again.

Of course, that feeling is shortlived. Tomorrow is our first of 2 days of parent-student-teacher conferences, and they are grueling back-to-back 12+ hour days. My husband will get home close to midnight and I have to be at work by 7:25 and then be at my best with parents all evening. Wish me luck!

I’ve always wanted conferences to be mostly student led, but have usually fallen short of making that happen. I end up talking way too much, which is both exhausting (talking for hours straight in your second language with people you don’t know is work) and just not ideal. So I had been ruminating on ideas to make a change this year. Especially considering the massive shift in my class, it seemed appropriate to shift the mental load of conferences to students as well.

So today (yes, the day before conferences), when a colleague who is notorious for having extremely long conferences, mentioned that his goal was to not talk, I laughed. And then I told him that I was thinking over ways to do the same. A few hours later, I started a Google doc collaboration with him and another colleague, and this abstract idea began to take shape. This is what we came up with in the span of about 15 minutes while supervising study hall:

We were able to borrow ideas from each other, and refine our own ideas through our chat comments (the magic of Google Docs, am I right?). Since all but one of my students are heritage speakers (I have 1 student who came through a dual immersion program), I just need to clean up and translate my document tomorrow and I’ll be ready to go.

I titled this post Conference Time because we begin parent-teacher conferences tomorrow, but also because it’s professional conference season. Next week (Oct. 25-26) brings the MCTLC conference here in Minneapolis, and I’m so excited to attend the sessions in the Heritage Language strand! I will finally get to meet some of my fabulous online teacher friends, and I cannot wait! At the same time, I’m already battling my anxiety, because I’m presenting a session on Saturday – eek! It’s my first time presenting by myself, and I’m TERRIFIED. I haven’t even started planning yet, except in my head. I’m presenting on making the switch to being a Spanish language arts teacher,  so I’ll look back through this blog and notes from a less formal presentation this summer. I know I have a lot to share. I just really hate speaking in public. I end up shaking for an hour after it’s over. So if you see me, smile or wave or give me chocolate!

Finally, I want to talk about reading and writing conferences during class. And by talk about, I really mean say that they aren’t going great. This is where some actual training in teaching language arts would be helpful. So I continue reading and attending English department meetings and hope to be able to pop into some classes to observe teachers conferring soon. This is definitely an area of growth for me, and I plan to dedicate a future post to this topic, hopefully with an update that things are improving.

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a prize. Unfortunately, I’m fresh out of prizes. But I thank you for sticking with me! I hope you found something useful from my stressed out, sleep deprived ramblings. I just got word that my husband’s flight has been delayed, and honestly I’m not surprised – that’s just the way things have been going lately.

Today my car was vandalized, but in a good way. I left work with a smile, and I know tomorrow’s conferences, while exhausting, will go well thanks to the planning and collaborating I did today.

Room for grace

It’s been way too long since I’ve written a blog post. Truth be told, I haven’t done much writing at all, aside from some quick writes with my sophomores and a sample FRQ for my AP Spanish Lit students. The thing is, I’ve been struggling to stay afloat; most days it feels like my nose is slipping beneath the surface, and I have to fight just to sneak a breath before sinking again.

My days are stuffed to the point of overflowing, and something, or many somethings, has to give. One of those things has been writing. I know that’s not good, because sharing my ideas and successes and worries here has been so good for me as I reflect on my practice. It’s also not good because I feel like I’m letting myself down by not keeping my commitment to writing.

But today I realized something really important. I was advising a new teacher to be creative in finding ways to lighten her load so she doesn’t burn out, and said something about giving yourself some grace in these first years. And it hit me: you don’t need to be a new teacher to afford yourself the same grace you afford to your students and colleagues and family and friends. In the same way that I try to recognize and honor the challenges my students face, the obstacles to attendance and engagement, the distractions and disruptions, I need to be patient and kind and flexible with myself.

Especially as I embark down this path of new learning, I have to be willing to let some things go. I must recognize that I am one person being pulled in many directions. I cannot do everything, I cannot fix everything, I cannot be everything to everyone.

So I’m making room for grace. I’m formulating a plan to take care of myself. I might not write every day, and that’s okay. I might not answer every email or make all the parent calls or stay on top of all the grading. But I will do my best every day to put as much light as I can back out into the world, while also focusing some of that light inward.

Be kind. Show grace. Breathe. Simple reminders for myself as I brace for another jam-packed weekend, followed by another crazy week.

My next post will be about what’s been going on in my workshop world over the past few weeks. I promise. I have lots of updates to share, and I know that’s what you come here for. But I needed this reminder so much today that I thought maybe you needed it, too. ❤

This made me laugh out loud, because, honestly, I tell myself all the time “next week will be better/easier/less busy.” But the thing is, I’m the one who needs to make sure that’s true.

When Magic DOESN’T Happen

Things were off to a great start in my heritage Spanish classes. Students were reading and writing, and talking about reading and writing. They wrote beautiful letters and many finished reading their first complete book in Spanish, ever! And then, sometime in week 3, we seemed to hit a rut. The magic faded. Students started pushing back about reading in class, many were clearly not doing ANY reading outside of class (and that is their only homework for my class), and So. Many. Students were wasting their writing workshop time, even when they knew they had an impending deadline.

At the same time, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with planning, grading, my AP Spanish Lit class, my own kids’ busy schedules, and so many other pieces of my busy day-to-day life. I knew I needed to plan the next writing unit, but I couldn’t decide where I wanted to go next. I had planned to have students write their own author bios, but they just finished doing that in English class, so I decided that would probably feel redundant and not be well-received. However, since I had already started those plans, I was really short on time, and that made me feel even more overwhelmed.

Monday was the due date for the final draft of their name stories. We used “Mi nombre” from Sandra Cisneros’ La casa en Mango Street as our mentor text. We spent all of last week working on using similes, metaphors and imagery in our stories. Then on Monday (which, apparently, was yesterday; why does it feel so far away?), we sat in a circle and each student read their story aloud. While many students struggled to incorporate the rhetorical devices that we had practiced, they did a good job with their first attempt at sharing a story. And although I was disappointed that several students did not complete the assignment, others blew me away with their beautiful imagery, excellent metaphors, and overall well-written, creative pieces.

The name story read-aloud gave me a bit of a boost, but I still had no idea what I was going to teach the next day, and Monday night was parent night. I got home, beyond exhausted, at 8:00, just in time to start the nightly battle that is getting three school-aged kids to bed. When that finally happened, I decided I was too tired to think, and just got myself ready for bed.

With my anxiety growing (about everything: lesson plans, a million upcoming kid appointments, AP work, the 100 name stories I now have to grade…), I made some decisions on a whim. First, I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. I need a break from the bad news and distractions of my digital life. Second, I decided I also needed a break from writing workshop. I’m not giving up (I AM NOT GIVING UP!), but I am giving myself the space to pause, reflect, and yes, fall back to lessons that are already planned from last year, so I can have a small mental and emotional break.

So today, during our daily reading time, I sat down and read instead of conferring with students. We did a quick write that was already ready to go, and then I introduced some pre-listening questions that I created last year for a Radio Ambulante episode that fits nicely with our essential question for this quarter.

I’m giving myself 2 easy days of reading, quick writes, and listening to a podcast. Last week, my students showed signs of needing to slow down and regroup, even before I realized that was exactly what I needed. Next week, we’ll jump back in with renewed energy and focus, and we will love the crap out of our workshop classroom!

When Magic Happens

I’m back, and I want to tell you about what’s been happening in my new workshop world. We’re two weeks into the school year, I’ve learned all of their names (okay, I know 100% of their names about 97% of the time in my classroom. Out in the “wild” of hallways and lunch duty, it gets a bit sketchy.), and I’ve collected and graded their first writing assignment.

First, some background on the assignment. As I’ve mentioned probably too many times before, I wrote a letter to my students and read it to them on the first day of school. This assignment grew out of that letter: after spending some time looking at and writing about my letter, I asked students to write their own letter. In the spirit of choice, they got to pick who the letter was to and what it was about. Together, using my letter as their mentor text, we settled on some parameters:

  • Their letter should have a saludo and a despedida.
  • Their letter should include some kind of introduction explaining why they were writing it.
  • Their letter should have, at minimum, 3-5 points (bullet points or a numbered list were fine)
  • We agreed that grammar and spelling are important, but since I haven’t taught them any grammar or spelling, they would not be graded on those things. (I added that part, because many students suggested that “good grammar” be required, but I know that most have had no formal education in Spanish.

I was worried that this assignment might be too open-ended for students who are used to a lot more structure and used to responding to very specific writing prompts in their other classes. Certainly there were many students who needed some time to get started. I simply told them “Think of someone you have something you want to say to, and write to them.” Through lots of idea sharing and examples, everyone eventually came up with an idea and got started writing.

So let’s talk about the magic that happened last week. Students asked a lot of questions that started with “¿Puedo…?” and I said yes to everything. Can I write a letter to my mom? Yes. Can I write a letter to the freshmen? Yes. Can I write a letter to myself? Absolutely! What about a letter to you, Miss? Yep, I’d love that! I only said no once, when the student asked if he could write a letter to his dead dog. (It seemed like a thinly veiled excuse to write “Querida perra” in his letter.) Everyone else was surprised that the answer to all of their queries was an excited yes.

A few days ago, a quiet student stayed after class to ask if she could write her letter as fiction. I asked her to explain what she meant. “Well,” she gushed, “I created a fictional character and then wrote the letter from her point of view, of what she wanted to tell someone.” What do you even say to that? All I came up with was, “That sounds really great. I can’t wait to read it!”

I don’t want to give the impression that every single student wrote something amazing. Of course they didn’t. Not everyone is ready to open up, not everyone is drawn to this type of writing, not everyone is completely bought in. But EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT. turned in the assignment, on time, and that in and of itself is pretty remarkable.

So what did they write about that was so magical? One common theme was letters of agradecimiento to parents, especially mothers, but also many to fathers. These were so heartfelt and honest that many brought tears to this mother’s eyes (yes, I know, I’m a total sap.) Another was letters of advice and encouragement to younger siblings. Many students wrote letters to me, often because they couldn’t think of anyone else to write to, or just weren’t ready to get very personal. Those letters were still very revealing, both in what they shared and what they chose not to share. Finally, many students wrote really amazing letters to themselves, where they gave their future selves advice or reminded them of who they are and what they want to achieve. They were heartwarming and really helped me get to know my students better.

Some of their letters were so incredible that I wish I could share them with you here. Unfortunately, in my rush to grade them and return them to students, I didn’t have time to take pictures of them. Here are a few that I’d like to highlight:

  • A student wrote a letter to her dad, who had abandoned her family years ago. In it, she not only spoke to the hurt and anger she still feels, but also detailed her hope that her father does not do the same thing to his new family. “Ya no sigas lastimando a gente inocente.”
  • A student wrote a letter to her foster mom who died of cancer before she started high school. This is the second time in our two weeks together that she has written about her mom, so I know that this is important to her and something she seems to be ready to talk, or at least write, about. She mentioned on day one that she could relate to my experience of losing my mom, another example of how powerful my letter to students was in setting the tone and letting my students get to know me.
  • A student wrote a letter to herself, talking about her sexuality and other things that are important to her right now. In the letter she made some comments that raised concerns about her safety and well-being, so I have referred her to social work. This is another important aspect to giving students choice: sometimes they may send a cry for help. Make sure you are listening and know how to respond appropriately.

In a team meeting last Thursday, as our social workers talked about several students who are going through difficult situations, and our dean detailed IEPs and 504 plans, I came to a beautiful realization: I *knew* something, beyond the name, about every student they talked about. I don’t think I could ever have said that less than two weeks into the school year before.

I should probably write a post about all the mistakes I made during this unit, all the things I learned, and all the questions I still have. That would likely be more useful to help me reflect on my practice and improve the process going forward. But right now, coming off the high of reading, and really enjoying, my students’ letters, I wanted to share the end result. For now, it feels really good to have a successful first foray into writing workshop.

To All The Students I’ve Taught Before…

I had a revelation this week. In reading over the letters my students wrote, due on just our 7th day of class together, I was floored by how good they were. How honest and heartfelt and creative. And it hit me: Think of all the students who I have held back all these years with graphic organizers and scripted essays and extremely limiting guidelines and, you know, NOT really working on writing at all.

This post was supposed to be all about the power of writing workshop, of giving students choice and voice in their reading and writing life. And I *will* get to that. Soon. But first, I just wanted to say, to all the heritage students I’ve taught before…

… I’m sorry. I did the best I knew how at the time, and I know you learned some things. I hope you felt welcome and cared for. I hope you felt heard. But I know now that it could have been so much better. That I could have been so much better. For you. And for that I am so, so sorry. “I didn’t know” isn’t a very good excuse, but at least this time, it’s true: I had no idea that there was a better way.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I always believed there was a better way to teach your class, and I know that every year I did do a little bit better (shout out to my first Heritage class back in 2011-2012 – I know I *really* sucked that year), but it took me too long to start to figure this out. I’m sorry for that.

So, now that I got that off my chest, I think I can get started working on that post about the magic that’s happening in my classroom. I can’t wait to tell you all about it!

My former students are out in the world doing big things, even though my class wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be. That’s a bit of consolation, I suppose.

Teaching Heritage Spanish using reading and writing workshop

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