My One Big Thing From Central States

Oh, spring in Ohio. On Wednesday we cut our grass for the first time this year, this Monday (the first day of Spring Break!) the forecast high is 71 degrees, and today is a snow day. I’m a little late to the Central States reflection game, but I’ve had some time to try out what I learned now, so let me share what’s going on in my classroom.

All of the sessions I attended were great, and they really all worked together very well, but the one that caused the biggest immediate shakeup for me was Mercedes Koch and Ryan Rockaitis’ Beyond the Shoulder Partner workshop (here are my notes, too). Lately, I have been trying to figure out a way to get more Spanish spoken in class, and how to more effectively engage all of my students. We often remind ourselves that a grammar-and-vocab drive curriculum effectively teaches to only the top tier of language learners, and lately I’ve been feeling that despite all the changes I have made (and made, and made) to my curriculum, I have still been doing a bit of a disservice to the “Struggles with language” tier and the “My [insert guardian] is making me take this class” crowd.

So Ryan and Mercedes’ workshop left me feeling inspired to shake things up. In the fall. I thought I would finish out the year, do some thinking and planning, and try out their grouping strategies in the fall with my Spanish 2 classes. After one week back at school, I decided to move my timeline up a bit. At the end of the day on Friday, I told all my Spanish 1 classes to expect some big changes on Monday, but I didn’t say what it was. Then I scheduled an observation with my principal for the following Friday. I guess you could say I was feeling confident.

To boil down the workshop, the basic idea was this: Put students in semi-permanent groups (to be changed every quarter or so – or, to mention an idea from another session – every time we start a new novel) of generally mixed ability levels and genders (they stressed no single boys or single girls in a group!). They suggested doing a pre-assessment writing to determine levels (high, mid, low), but at this point in the year, I pretty much know how my students are doing, so I skipped that part. You can see an example of how Mercedes broke down one of her classes in the slideshow, but just to give you a quick idea, here’s one of my classes:

Group 1: (Very) High Girl, Low Boy, Low/Mid Girl, Mid Boy, Mid Girl (5)
Group 2: High Girl (very quiet), Mid/High Girl (outgoing), Low Boy, Mid Boy (4)
Group 3: High Boy, Low Boy, Low/Mid Girl, Mid Girl, Mid Boy (5)
Group 4: Mid/High Girl, Mid/High Boy, Low Girl, Mid Boy (4)
Group 5: High Boy, Low Boy, Mid Boy, Mid Boy (4)

Sidenote: in the workshop they mentioned that they have found 4 students per group to be the ideal number, but I am limited by the fact that I simply have 5 tables, so 5 groups. My biggest class has groups of 5 and my smallest has groups of 4. Generally, I do think 4 is better and my school just happens to be thinking about diversifying seating options so instead of my “garage sale tables,” as our Intervention Coordinator called them, I’m hoping for some more flexible seating options for next year.

Kids sit with these groups every day, which is a shakeup from the random seating that I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. Once the groups had decided on their names (you can read about that activity, which was a huge success in speaking only Spanish and accomplishing goals, in the slideshow and my notes), I had each group make a name tent that I use to randomly assign a table each day. Five name tents take much less time to set out than 23 in the 3 minutes between classes, which has definitely been an unexpected perk. I have always used the name tents to keep certain personalities apart, or to make sure that each table has a leader, but this way the groups are much more intentional, especially in bigger classes.

Honestly, I expected kids to complain about this at least a little, because generally I get comments when a particular person is at the same table or with the same people too many days in a row, and this means there’s no chance that they’re going to be with their BFF on a random day. In reality, the only comments I have gotten about seating are when a particular group ends up at the same table 3 or 4 days in a week.

Along with these new groups, I assigned each student a color. My high-achieving, group-leaders are all one color, the lower-achieving or harder-to-engage students are all one color, and the meeting expectations students are all one of three colors. I didn’t tell the kids that, and I thought that they might figure it out, but I haven’t heard anyone speculating on how all the “smart kids” are all the same color. It has really made me a better teacher. It is highly convenient for randomly (or sometimes not so randomly) choosing someone to answer a question. In the past, I have tended to take volunteers, now I usually call on a color, but again, there have been no complaints about me choosing a random color to answer (sometimes I get an answer from that color from every table, sometimes just from one or two, depends on the question and what we’re doing), and I’m hearing more from all of my students, not just the most outspoken ones.

At each table, there are circle stickers with each student’s color (like the ones people use for garage sales) to tell the kids where to sit. They are random, so even though they are with the same people every day, the arrangement does change. And as stickers get peeled off or defaced and I replace them, I don’t usually leave them the same, so that in the groups of 5 the same person isn’t on the outside all the time.

Generally, if I know I’m going to be doing something where random students will be answering, I give a little warning. For example, if they’re answering comprehension questions from the last chapter we read, I pass out the questions and tell the kids (in the TL), that it’s important that everyone can express the answers to all the questions in Spanish. So far, that has been keeping almost everyone pretty engaged (more on that later), and I have been really impressed with their ability to work together and not just rely on their high-achieving group mate to tell them all the answers.

The last piece of this puzzle (that Ryan and Mercedes had already solved and gave us the answer to) was how to use this as a tool to increase the amount of target language spoken by everyone. They use ClassDojo (sidenote, is anyone else constantly surprised by how well tools geared for younger kids work in high school language classes?) and give each group a character. In my class, groups earn points for: all being seated when the bell rings at the beginning of class (if someone is absent, they don’t get the point), describing something instead of asking ¿Cómo se dice…?, and for winning a game or competition. They lose points for: coming to class unprepared, speaking English when it’s prohibited, and being off-task during SSR time. Once every group has 5 points (at the same time!), they will win a little celebration. No one is there yet, but a couple of classes are getting very close. You can read about how Ryan and Mercedes’s students choose celebrations in their slideshow. After that, points reset, and the threshold for a celebration goes up by 5 points.

I have a sign on the board that tells them when they are allowed to speak English and when they are not. This is new, but it is working really well, and keeps me accountable, too. At this point, I typically allow English at the beginning and end of class, but prohibit it during group work, reading time, etc. The goal is to decrease the amount of “English time” as I go along, especially in higher levels, until it is only allowed when it is really needed.

Each student also gets a visual reminder to go along with ClassDojo points and the sign. While digging through things left by former Spanish teachers, I randomly found a bag of popsicle sticks just before I implemented all of these changes. I brought them home and dyed them with Easter egg dye to match the stickers (If I did this again, I wouldn’t do green and blue – they look similar and kids mix them up). Each student gets 3 per day, and when they speak English, I just take a stick and dock a point on ClassDojo. The very first day I didn’t explain. They figured out why they were losing sticks right away, but by the end of class they were dying to know what that sound was whenever someone lost a stick. And, of course, their first question was, “What happens if someone loses all their sticks?” I told them that they didn’t want to find out, but the real answer: absolutely nothing. So far, no one has lost more than 2 sticks in one day, and after the first few days, most classes are losing fewer than 3 sticks per day.

So far, it’s going really, really well. More than once in the last couple of weeks I have had those “wow, look how far they’ve come” moments – specifically with the class that drove me the craziest before! This class has one student that I have struggled to reach all year. He has been a combination of unengaged and vocal that frequently derails the rest of the class, refusing to speak Spanish, and then causing other students to speak more English, too, usually off-topic or barely related. He is the almost I referenced earlier. But, even though he has still been less engaged than the rest of the students, he is definitely speaking less English (his group is one of 2 in his class to already be over 5 points), and the whole atmosphere in the room is different. This class that, a month ago, I despaired of ever getting to speak Spanish for more than a minute or two, now amazes me with what they can accomplish in the target language. Because I have been working to make activities both more group-oriented and include more individual accountability (I’m definitely still working on this part!), he is more involved, and more likely to respond to me when I remind him to be on task. And, I hear him speaking Spanish. Granted, he’s usually saying he doesn’t understand or he doesn’t want to do whatever we’re doing, but it’s Spanish, so I’ll take it.

And, just in case you’re not convinced yet, my observation went great, and I am definitely planning to expand to my other levels next year (maybe starting the second quarter of Spanish 1?).

Let me leave you with a quote from one of my “lower-achieving” students in that same class: “I really like how we have those groups now, it helps me a lot better!”

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