Building Relationships between language teachers

Some language teachers are the only one or one of a few in their building. Other language teachers have a department to rely on, but may be in a different place in their professional development than their colleagues. I have a great colleague who I talk to every day and in years past I planned with a colleague on a regular basis. Whatever your situation, we can all benefit from building relationships with other language teachers. I am going to address building relationships outside of your own district by joining your state’s professional development organization, forming a professional learning group and creating an online presence.

I hope you have already joined your state’s professional development organization. In Massachusetts ours is Massachusetts Foreign Language Association and like most of them nationally, we have a newsletter, online site, workshops and annual conference. Over the years of attending the annual conference, I have come to know other language teachers who I have interacted with outside of the conference from time to time.

Vegetable in the médina in Rabat, Alexndra LeComte

But for me the best thing to happen was that I joined the board of directors last year. Serving on the board, volunteering at the conference and presenting at the conference have put me in touch with dynamic teachers across the state. You can volunteer and present at the annual conference without joining the board yet consider applying to get to know other language teachers and administrators.

It is important to realize that sometimes you need to take the first step to bring people together instead of waiting for others to contact you. Be confident. Even those teachers who in your eyes may be stronger or further on the journey most likely would appreciate joining a professional learning group. My experience was that all I had to do was ask and a group of talented educators was happy to come together once every two months to discuss new strategies, articles, adopting a standards-based grading system and discuss chapters of a useful book. In my group there is a French teacher who presents nationally, a department head and other teachers like me who are still finding their way.

If you are reading this blog, you are seeing me model a strategy that I would advise to other teachers, create an online presence. There is an online community who is out there gathering ideas from blogs. I have only 23 followers. Some of my posts have been read by over three hundred people, but not all. The most popular are the ones that are ready-to-use ideas. I am not bothered that my circle isn’t large as I am continuing to build it. The easiest way to start an online presence is on Twitter. I retweet authentic documents that can be useful in instruction and on occasion take a picture of something my students produced and post it. I also use Twitter to encourage others to read my latest blog posts. I have only two hundred followers, so I use hashtags to widen my audience, like #langchat, #fle and #authres. Online relationships have served me well. I have asked for help on Twitter and received it. I even had a teacher I never met revise my presentation for a conference. There is a Facebook page called Musique Mercredi where I have received new ideas and activities as well as posted some of my own. I may never meet in person any of the members of my online community, but relationships with them have been valuable.

We are social beings and learn great things from others. I encourage you to build relationships with other language teachers.

Picture Talk: how to get students talking through stories

What I am trying to make happen in the proficiency-based classroom is to create opportunities for communication. Some teachers do this talking with students about the basketball game last night or the dance on Friday evening. Unfortunately talking about our students’ lives doesn’t get you through the year and I have realized that I can create communicative contexts through stories found in picture books and cartoons.

TPRS has modeled a way to generate communication around a story. Over the years I have appreciated the “circling” that happens as a story is created, i.e. “Is there a girl or a boy?”, “Oh, a boy. What is his name, Patrick or Julius?” “Ok, Julius. What is he like, serious or funny?” In this way the teacher develops a story with the class. I enjoyed teaching like that, but recently I have adopted authentic stories and put aside TPRS. As much as I loved them, after years of teaching stories written intentionally for language learners I was bored.

When using stories, I create the communicative context through a version of Movie Talk, a TPRS technique that employs circling while playing a video without sound. Lisa Shepard spells this technique out on her blog Madame’s Musings and thanks to her I had a eureka moment. She has some excellent resources with children’s cartoons that I have added to my curriculum. Then, I read online about how some teachers do the same technique with pictures instead of video and have called it Picture Talk. Soon I was taking short cartoons and picture books and doing screenshots of what was happening in the story and introducing vocabulary by talking about the pictures, circling as I asked students to predict what the story would be about.

In the unit I am currently developing on “What do young people do in summer?” I am going to use a video from the television show Les Sisters. The episode is about the younger sister wanting to do everything the older sister does, but I am not going to ask questions about the themes that are presented in the show. Instead I am going to use the show’s setting by having students comment on what is happening when the girls go to a pool. The input they will receive will be the vocabulary I want to include about how students feel about their summer plans.

Here are my steps, following Lisa Shepard’s lead, but making the technique my own:

  • Take screen shots to do a picture talk
  • Show the video
  • Have students match the pictures with sentences describing them
  • Go back to the slides and do a choral retell of the story with the pictures
  • Students watch the video and answer questions on EdPuzzle.
  • Have students do a group retell of the story

For novices, frequently for this technique the input is not the words in the video, but a description of what is happening in the video. For example, with the Les Sisters video it is at the point in the unit “What do young people do in summer?” where I want students to learn words for saying how they feel about their summer plans. So while the video does not have our vocabulary words, in the activity I ask the student how the girl in the video feels using the vocabulary we want to teach.

You will see in my stories resources folder another video and two sets of slides from pictures books. You can access the picture books for free through an educator’s account on Epic Books. This new-to-me technique has created a communicative context where my class makes up silly possibilities of what the story is going to be about. As we predict the story, we communicate and I introduce students to new vocabulary for the unit.

Sitcoms: Making the task accessible

You will find the resources for the post in this folder.

Television is a very compelling medium. Even taken in small doses of less than fifteen minutes, a segment of a sitcom can show us the products, practices and perspectives of a culture. TV shows are a mostly unexploited resource in the World Language Classroom even though fictional stories are central to the ACTFL Can Do’s. I have found clips from Les Sisters, En famille and Parents Mode d’Emploi that can be accessible in a beginning class if the activity is carefully planned.

Les Sisters is a realistic cartoon about two sisters. The elder sister is always getting annoyed by her little sister. Fortunately for me, I was able to find a clip where the action happens in different rooms of the house when I was working on a unit about La maison idéale. I made statements about what happens in the show and the students put them in order, then they retell the story themselves. This activity is accessible because while the dialogue in the show is pretty advanced, my students were instead decoding the accessible langauge in the statements I wrote.

En famille and Parents Mode d’Emploi are sitcoms about the members of a family, much like Parenthood or Black-ish. I decided to use the clips to work on the key language function of describing, so the task would be accessible for Novice and Intermediate Low students. To encourage more complex thinking, I also ask students to explain why the clip is funny. Again, these tasks are accessible because students don’t need to understand all the dialogue in the clip. If they are able to get the gist, then they can rely on beginning language to explain what they see is happening in the clip.

I included with the other resources two extra shows, a reality competition show called Le Meilleur Pâtissier and a version of Parents Mode d’Emploi from Gabon. For Le Meilleur Pâtissier I made an EdPuzzle for the first segment of the show, then we watched another few minutes together and discussed. The show is a lot of fun to watch with students. While watching this episode my students saw how a French pastry chef is very exact in the decoration of a dessert. Another good reality television show for French class is Recerche Appartement ou Maison and though I didn’t share a task for that show with you, you can find one by searching the show’s name in EdPuzzle. What I did share with you are some clips from the African version of Parents Mode d’Emploi that appeared on TV5 Monde. I have included those clips with the student activities also made by TV5 Monde.

I believe your students will find these television clips compelling and they will also find the tasks accessible.

Teaching language through songs: Reacting to the music

Current practice for teaching language using songs seems to be word clouds and cloze activities. A word cloud is a jumble of words and the student circles the words that are heard in the song. This is a solid listening activity as are cloze activities, where the students fill in the missing words in the song lyrics. I have used both strategies to help give my students something to support them as they listen to songs that otherwise might be overwhelming. I also see teachers use a song to give students examples of grammar to then have an indirect lesson on grammar. I am also a fan of this approach where you guide students to examples of the grammar structure, have them deduce the rules then ask them to do a writing assignment that has students using the grammar without implicitly asking for it, perhaps in the form of an Exit ticket.

For me yet a new way of teaching using songs is emerging. As I’ve mentioned on these pages before, TV5 Monde’s Paroles des clips is an excellent source for activities to use with songs in the classroom. Two of my favorite examples are On écrit sur les murs by Kids United and Cette Anée là by M. Pokora. As these are activities that are pushing into new territory, let’s see what we can gather from them. In Cette Année Là, students are asked to react to the song by giving their opinion, which is spot on for the proficiency-based classroom. I decided to adopt this kind of activity and use it for other songs, like Frérot and Le Plus Fort du Monde both by Black M.. I wrote the linked handouts with the help of my colleague Heather Pineault. We still use cloze activities as well and another new-to-us idea is to have students comment on what they see, like you will see in the activity I made for the song Papa by Bigflo et Oli. And a final technique we incorporate to use songs to further communication is to have students understand a structure in a song and then make it their own by doing a short writing assignment about something personal to them using the structure. You see an example of that in the activity for Le Plus Fort du Monde where students then write about their own family members.

Activities that ask students to identify words, while a good way to have them focus their listening, don’t give a chance for the same level of communication as activities that ask students to react to the song, give one’s opinion, talk about what they see and write about oneself.

Les jeux olympiques

Creative Language Class did a one day training in my district last year and it has changed how we think about Interpretive Activities. Until then I was making Interpretive tasks that asked for students to find words or to mark statements as true or false. Creative Language Class explained, as you can read for yourself in this blog post from Kara Parker, how to include higher order thinking skills by encouraging students to react to what they hear and see in videos. Kara’s idea is that it is real world communication to have students tell someone else about the video or give their opinion about it.

You will see in the slide presentation that I am following the Creative Language Class lead. I show a video and then ask real questions that while they are accessible to beginning language learners, they get students to think and express themselves. At the end of the slide show there is a slide with many athletes on it. The teacher describes an athlete and the students say which one it is. For students who have learned ages, nationalities, sports and physical descriptions, this is a chance for a lot of repetition in communication. Students can then do the guessing game with each other.

My students yesterday got especially excited about the Olympic Games. Students couldn’t wait to talk, so I thought I’d share what we did so that you can introduce some Francophone athletes to your students before the games begin and you could see how I have tried to make our tasks use higher order thinking skills. You will find my materials here.


Novices reading current events

1jour1actu is a French periodical about current events which is written for young people 8 to 12 years old. I find their website, videos, print copy newspaper and eMag great for keeping my students up to date on current events in France. My 8th grade students have subscriptions to the eMag and like the variety of articles and being able to independently navigate them, each student on a computer. Though the subscription is expensive, I am a believer in the quality of paid content. The 1jour1actu eMag has been a great addition to my 8th grade classroom because it allows for student-centered instruction and it shows American students what is of interest to young people in France.logo

Most importantly, student-centered tasks increase motivation at the middle school level. When we are working with 1jour1actu I try as much as possible to get out of the students’ way. This means keeping my role simple, for example I don’t supply vocabulary lists and I try to make extension activities where students can pick the content that they want to read. Here is an example of an activity that I used with my students when they were reading about what it means to be a good community member for an issue that was called Bien Vivre Ensemble. While I can’t share the paid content from the eMag, for this particular issue, there was some free-content released that you can find here. With that pdf, you have the materials at your hands to have your students read and do the activity I shared above. This could be a good way to try out 1jour1actu for the first time with your own students.

In addition, I love that a French publisher with an eye for what interests young people curates the news. Through the eMag we have been able to discover the French point of view on the US presidential election as well as find out more about the music group Kids United. Without subscribing to paid content, my students are subjected to the articles that I choose to download. What I share with them, by definition as I have chosen it for the students of my French class, is filtered through the lens of an American language teacher and is much less authentic than what they will experience when they read content selected by a French editor.

After the students do the reading, using the activity sheet, I have them participate in a class discussion on the topic and each student much speak once. The students stand up their notebooks and then put them down once they have contributed to the conversation. Students try not to repeat what others have said. We did one recently on the simple topic of Les français aiment-ils le chocolat ?, after we read a multiple page infographic about chocolate consumption in France, called Les Francais, fondus de chocolat. That day twenty-three students spoke about French consumption of chocolate, each one adding in a detail that was at his or her own level of difficulty. The reading we had done together was so rich in details that it gave us excellent material for a class conversation.

As we get more and more used to using this bi-weekly periodical, I hope that my instruction could follow the content of the eMag. We could use the articles for our content and vocabulary and I could assess the students’ reading and listening skills through Interpretive Assessments seeing that there are articles, videos and sound clips from young journalists who interview specialists in their field. Then, my students could discuss the content for our Interpersonal Assessments. And, finally my students could write and speak about the content for our Presentational Assessments. I am not there yet, but this is what I would like to build towards, with the help of this exceptional resource.

How to lead students to think further

How do teachers revisit content without being repetitive? How can we encourage students middle-school-motivators-464x600to spend more time and delve deeper? How can students interact positively with other students and get up out of their seats? In the book Middle School Motivators! 22 Interactive Learning Structures by Responsive Classroom there are explanations for activities that engage students in thinking, interacting with their peers and moving around the classroom. Here I am going to explain three Interactive Learning Structures that work in the Middle School language classroom and to further paint a picture for you of how to use them, I will give examples for each. 

Maîre d’ Call out, “Table for [a number from 2 through 4]”. Students quickly assemble in small groups with that number of members. Ask a question for students to answer in their group or give a topic for them to discuss. After all students have had time to share in their small groups, debrief in the large group asking what students heard from each other. Call out another table number and students form new small groups based on the new number and answer a new question or discuss a new topic.

As an example, when I did a unit on healthy lifestyles and the Interpersonal Assessment at the end of the unit had a prompt to discuss suggestions for a healthy lifestyle, I had students practice for that exam by doing a Maître d’ Interactive Learning Structure with four questions that break down the topic and ask students to revisit the material:

Table for three, What can a person your age do to reduce stress?

Table for two, What are the good outcomes of getting exercise?

Table for five, What actions can you take daily to get exercise?

Table for four, What changes can you make in your eating to improve health?

Prior to this activity the students had done a reading on each topic and this was a way to synthesize the vocabulary and ideas in preparation for the over-arching question of how to live a healthy lifestyle.

Venn-ting After students complete a Venn diagram to compare and contrast two topics, assign one student to be the reporter and the other to be the presenter. The reporter roams the room looking for ideas from others. The presenter stays put and explains the pair’s work to the roaming reporters. Allow reporters to visit 2-3 other groups for 1-2 minutes each. Reporters return to their original partner, discuss what they have learned and add to or revise their original diagram.

As an example, when I did a unit on stories, I had the students analyze using a graphic organizer each story based on a common set of the elements of a story. Then at the end we compared two stories using a Venn diagram and the students did a Venn-ting before passing in their final draft to make it delve deeper.

Four corners Students choose a response to a teacher-posed question that best reflects their thinking or interests. They move to the corner representing that response and discuss it in small groups then share what they have learned with the whole class.

As an example, for a unit on Family and Friends, the essential framing question is, How are we connected to others? We did a reading on what it meant to be a good friend. To encourage students to use the vocabulary and ideas from the reading and further explain their own ideas, I used the Interactive Learning Structure to have them separate into four corners to further examine which statement they agreed with most:

What makes a good friend?

  1. A person you can tell everything to, but you also don’t have to
  2. A person who doesn’t ask anything in exchange for friendship
  3. A person who respects your choices, even if he or she doesn’t agree
  4. A person who stays with you silently when you have a worry

And when we shared what we learned from others, everyone in the room received additional ideas on all four points of view.

These Interactive Learning Structures increase student interest in the content, motivate students, lead them to engage positively with the content and with each other and show students how to think more deeply about the topic.