This September, I taught a whirlwind of 11 school days and then had the luxury of enjoying 4 months of maternity when our second daughter – Clara Rose – joined our family. It’s now been 2 months since I’ve returned to work, and truth be told, I’ve been delaying this post. Mostly because there have been more lows than I would like to admit. It has been decidedly harder going back to work after my second child than it was with my first, for a variety of reasons…
We all get those classes every couple of years – those classes that are extraordinarily challenging – even more so than usual – that utterly drain you and make you wonder if you are doing anything right. I am struggling with my 6th grade classes, more so than I ever have before. I am spending SO MUCH TIME managing behavior that I hardly get through my lessons. On top of it, I am having to speak SO MUCH ENGLISH to manage all of these incredibly challenging behaviors. I am a huge proponent of speaking 90%+ in the target language, so I’ve been really disappointed in myself for the heavy amount of English I have been using with my 6th grade students. Much of it is done so I can manage the unruly behavior as quickly as possible and then go BACK to speaking in the target language, but also another huge part of it is because the normal management strategies that I typically use in the target language have not been effective with this group of students. It is frustrating, I am exhausted, and for the first time in a very long time, I’ve had to close my door at the end of one day and just cry.
We will never have enough time when teaching. I know that. Yet having a second child has left me really feeling like I am always behind…and always late. For someone like myself who has a type-A personality, this drives me CRAZY. Whereas I once counted on nap times during the weekends to tackle the never-ending mountain of grading or feedback, it isn’t working out so well this time around when nap times for both my daughters never seem to coordinate.
I had the opportunity to go to the ACTFL Convention and learn so many new things….that I have had ZERO time to implement. It is frustrating to be in the middle of teaching a lesson and simultaneously thinking in my head how I could change it to so it would be more effective.
When I had to send three of my 6th grade students to the hall for a timeout the first week back to work, I knew I needed help. I immediately invited my peer coach to come observe my 6th grade classes and help me brainstorm more effective management strategies. One of the great strategies he shared with me comes from ENVoY, and many teachers refer to it as MITS (Most Important Twenty Seconds). After you give instructions to students on the task they are about to do, stand in a designated spot in the room and just observe for 20 seconds. Teach students that when you stand in that spot, they are not allowed to interrupt you (no questions, no comments, no interference). If they do interrupt, have something you can point to (a board with directions or a little sign like I have) so you can non-verbally remind students this is your uninterrupted time to observe.
What does this do? First, it gives you the time and space you need to observe the class and make sure all students are on-task. Second, it helps your learners become more independent and problem-solve on their own without always relying on you for the answers. And third, when students are aware that you are watching them, they are less likely to misbehave. One key note – while the strategy is to observe for only 20 seconds, you can extend it as long as needed until all students are on-task. I’ve stood in my designated spot for as long as two minutes!
When my peer coach first shared this strategy, I wanted to try it immediately. I employed it with my 7th and 8th grade classes the next day without actually teaching them the strategy. I gave instructions, stood in my chosen designated spot in the front of the room, and just watched. I found it super effective with my 7th grade classes – I could visually see when all students were on-task, and I noticed that some of my students who are typically the first ones to get off-task would see me standing at the front of the room watching everyone, and thus would re-engage in the activity more quickly. I realized that when I usually give instructions, I immediately would begin walking through the room because I was intent on listening to each conversation to ensure students were on-task and so I could provide feedback. However, that meant that when I was on one-side of the room, students on the other side of the room would be more likely to disengage faster because I wasn’t paying attention.
When I tried it with my 8th grade class, it failed miserably. I gave instructions, stood in my spot, and I was bombarded by students who immediately wanted to ask follow-up or clarifying questions on the directions. And that meant that my students who typically get off-task were immediately goofing around because I wasn’t paying attention to them. The next day, I took time to explain the new procedure, and immediately everything went smoother. Students got right to work and stayed engaged in the task longer because they could see I was watching all of them.
It has made a difference with my 6th grade students – they engage in tasks more quickly and they remain on-task longer. My time in my designated spot varies with grade level – with 8th grade, I find 20 seconds is sufficient. With 7th grade, I might observe up to 1 minute. And with 6th grade? I often stand up there a full 2 minutes. It means I have had to give up walking around the room in 6th grade to listen to students and provide feedback – because as soon as I do, that’s when the off-task behavior starts. So I’m working to use more exit slips, verbal questioning and summaries, and digital checks to ensure students are on the right track. But it’s made a difference in the last 2 months with ALL of my classes – particularly those challenging 6th grade students!
TARGET LANGUAGE USE
One of my biggest frustrations has been not reaching 90%+ target language use with my 6th grade students. Upon reflection though, I’m still finding some wins. Re-reading and co-moderating the #langbookcafe chats about the ACTFL book, The Keys to Strategies for Language Instruction, I was reminded by the authors that’s it’s ok to BUILD up to 90%+ target language with your students. So I’ve given myself permission to work towards that 90% use of target language with my 6th grade students and not be so upset with myself when I don’t get there. Because the reality is, I have been hitting 90% target language use with my 7th grade students from day one. With my 8th grade classes, we’re reaching multiple days where it’s nearly 100% target language use. So I know that my 6th grade students will get there, it will just take them a little longer. I was reassured that we are making progress a few weeks ago at parent teacher conferences – many parents of my 6th grade students told me that their children felt overwhelmed those first weeks of Spanish class with all the target language use (and I wasn’t even at 90% yet!). Yet now, many of those same students said they were feeling a LOT more comfortable with the amount of Spanish spoken in class. So baby steps in the right direction!
SMALL THINGS MAKING A BIG DIFFERENCE
While I haven’t had time to make any HUGE changes to my lessons or curriculum, I’ve been able to make small tweaks here and there that have made a large impact. When teaching my unit about family, I used to have students go to stations where they would view a picture of a family and take turns verbally describing people in the family to their partner. I thought it was a pretty good activity because they were moving around practicing all kinds of vocab – WRONG. I learned about tasks versus activities at the ACTFL Convention this year, which comes from Bill Van Patten’s book, While We’re on the Topic. Van Patten states that a task should have a communicative purpose other than language learning. So I kept all the same stations, but this year I tweaked the directions. In pairs, one partner would secretly select a person in the picture and begin describing that person without revealing the name. The other partner would listen and would guess which person in the picture is being described. If their partner guessed correctly, it let students know they were on the right track with their descriptions. If their partner guessed incorrectly, they could discuss where misunderstanding in communication occurred. This didn’t take me any additional time in terms of prep or material, but was a much more effective TASK with a communicative purpose.
My other struggle has been finding time and simple ways to discuss culture in the target language. Yet I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the insightful observations my students are making when viewing the same authentic resources I’ve always used, without much prompting for me. In 6th grade, students were viewing pictures and describing weather conditions in different countries. One pair of 6th grade students were arguing over whether the person wearing the brown hat in this picture was a boy or a girl. And another student observed she thought the weather in this picture must be cold because of what the women were wearing. This was such a simple yet effective way for me to jump in and discuss INFERENCES with my novice level students as well as provide cultural background knowledge about the traditional clothing in Ecuador. And my students left my class realizing that not all Spanish-speaking countries are warm all the time – MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.