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When We Are In It Together Archived Post 2.10.10

It Ain’t Easy…Bein’ Sick  (this post originally posted 2/10/10)

For the last week and a half I’ve been fighting mano a mano with a sinus/double ear infection.   Between the two days with subs and the fact that talking sends me into long-lasting coughing spasms, my students and I switched from our usual dose of verbal interaction to activities that are more reading-centered and group/pair-oriented.

I like all of the activities.  I think that they are educationally sound.  I think that my students are getting a lot of good, quality, written Comprehensible Input.  But I am astounded at the difference in the classes.

First of all, discipline is off.  I have to employ signals and silences more often.  I really don’t enjoy that.  Neither do the students.   It isn’t a lot of extra tension…but it is enough to change the classroom atmosphere.

What is REALLY missing, however, is the strong sense of “being in this together.”  When they work in pairs or groups, when they work at an individual pace, there is no sense of collegiality.  There are no group “inside” jokes.   The class feels very different without that!!!

When I am “conducting” the class, and everyone is working on the same story/idea/conversation/topic, it is like being on a family car trip.  Sure, there is a little bickering.  Yeah, it’s annoying when someone has to stop and go to the restroom.   No, everyone does not like the radio station.   But….. there are  shared moments of hilarity and common experience that create an atmosphere like no other I’ve taught in.

I can’t wait to get back after a week of vacation (next week).  Hopefully the coughing etc. will have subsided and we can get to work on using as much Spanish as possible hanging out together.   The story of Ana and her adventures in Casi Se Muere are just more interesting when we read it, and talk about it,  together.   Not just at the same time in the same room.   But really together.   It goes from being Ana’s story to our story that we read about Ana.

Oh we’ll still do activities that allow students to work ‘out of the group”……but not as often.   We need that together time.   It’s who we are.  We all miss it.

with love,

All content of this website © Hearts For Teaching 2009-present and/or original authors. Unauthorized use or distribution of materials without express and written consent of the owners/authors is strictly prohibited. Examples and links may be used as long as clear and direct reference to the site and original authors is clearly established.

Laughter and Tears…or When Games Work Archived Post 1.29.10

(This post was originally published 1/29/10)

Many of you know that Karen Moretti  and I have a series of workshops on games in the classroom.   I so wish that I could have shared a “fly-on-the-wall” clip of my class this morning with you to show you when, how and why games can be such a powerful part of the classroom.

This morning I divided (actually, they self-divided, I directed as needed) the class into several groups.  Each group had a different game to play.  The groups played for about 10 minutes and then we rotated so that each group got to play several games.

Below is an explanation of how I set things up….but that is not what I want to share.

First, there was the laughter.   Tons of it.  What a wonderful thing to hear first thing in the morning.   Not laughing at….laughing with.    They were relaxed and happy, enjoying the simple games and comaraderie of their classmates.    After a stress-filled midterm week, it was a refreshing change for all of us.

The tears were mine….and kept to myself until the class left the room.   Why?   Well…..first there is the student whose mother is very ill.    He is so exhausted that he nearly always falls asleep in class.   He likes to “hoodie up” and hunker down.   By himself.   He rarely speaks.   Today he was laughing and smiling for thirty minutes.

Second, there was the eighth grader, who is often set apart from the 9th and 10th graders in the class.  He comes up from the middle school and today he was totally in his element, laughing and silly and part of a group having a great time.

Third, the student who tries very hard NOT to participate was calling the Bingo game.  In Spanish.  Why?   Because, as he stated, he has the best pronunciation of all of the guys in the group.  (Did I mention that this is a class of 18 boys and 3 girls??)

Fourth, the student who likes to come in late, hide in the very back of the room, and dream about hunting and fishing was in the front of the room blasting his team through a Who Wants to Be A Millionaire game on the Smart Board.  Totally involved.   Having a great time.

Fifth, on the way out one of the girls said to me…”You know, inside, we are all still kids.”

Yes we are.

And who better to realize it than the heart of a child?

Ok…now if you want the “details” of game set-up, here is a little information:

The logistics of creating games that work is another post.  Actually it’s a book we are working on :o).  The quick story of this morning is this:

*We had played all of the games before as a class so they knew the games and the rules.

*They were short, simple and involved structures/vocabulary/information that was familiar.

* I let them, for the most part, choose their own groups….because they are at a point in the year where I knew that they understood the rules of the class and would PLAY the games without my having to be in charge.

* They switched games after 10 minutes….not enough time to get bored.

*I did not get all crazy about English as long as they were playing the games which were in and about Spanish.  (I’ll save that for later…this was the first time that they had played in independent game groups)

Creating the right atmosphere for games is the key element…..and I’ll try to get back to that another time.

with love,


Are We Even Making A Difference? Archived Post 1.25.10

Are We Even Making a Difference?

January can be a very bleak month in education.    The days may actually be getting longer, but the skies are so dark that it can be hard to notice.  We are being pushed forcefully through the funnel of midterm exams.    There is a feeling of frustration that we still have a half-year left and a feeling of desperation that there is only a half-year remaining.   We are getting closer to those days when school boards make the decisions that fund or eliminate our programs and our positions.  And we ask ourselves….

Are we even making a difference?

There were many Januarys (and Junes) when I was sure that the answer was no.

I was wrong.

I used to think that “making a difference” meant “fixing everything.”

I was wrong.

I never fixed a thing.  I never rescued a child from poverty.  I never saved a student from suicide.  I never turned a D student into an A student.

I never inspired a student not to drop out of school.  I never convinced every colleague to change a curriculum.  I never revamped a program that was a disservice to students.  I never turned an administrator into a building leader.

I never graduated a newly bilingual student.  I taught a rare few students who achieved a 100 on a state exam.    I couldn’t convince  a district to expand our program.    For fifteen years, I didn’t manage to take students abroad.   I didn’t coach a team that won a state title.

I often wondered WHAT I was doing.   I sometimes wondered if I should stop teaching.  I occasionally wondered if anyone would care if I did.

Then, little by little, the years went by.  Life forced me to look at things in a different way and my perspective shifted.  I realized that “fixing everything and saving everyone” were not part of my job description.  To be honest…..I figured out that for most teachers…there is no job description. …just a giant checklist.  A checklist that could never be completed.  So I stopped trying.

Realizing that I wasn’t saving/fixing the world and that I could never do it all freed me to finally do what DOES make a difference:  the day to day interactions with my students as citizens of the world.

My lessons became less about getting through the material and more about connecting the material to the student.    My focus changed from being the teacher to working with the students.  I began to listen.    I began to watch.   I stopped comparing my students to the ones I thought I should have and started to concentrate on appreciating the students I did have.

Students still struggle.   Students still fail.  Students still drop out.  Students still get pregnant, end up in rehab, get suspended, run away, and get sent to jail.   Parents may move them to another district.   Teachers may call them dumb or lazy.    Peer still talk them into unhealthy behaviors.   They still get cancer.   It wasn’t ever my job to stop those things.

It was my job to treat them as important, intelligent, interesting, capable individuals regardless of what what they did.  Regardless of what was done to them.

That I can do.  That really does make a difference.

with love,


All content of this website © Hearts For Teaching 2009-present and/or original authors. Unauthorized use or distribution of materials without express and written consent of the owners/authors is strictly prohibited. Examples and links may be used as long as clear and direct reference to the site and original authors is clearly established.


What Happens in the Brain Archived Post 1.1.10

(This post originally appeared first on 1/1/10)

When I tell my students about language, I point out to them that much of what happens in our brains is “automatic”, that we are not conscious of what actually happens in L1 and so it feels strange or difficult in L2.

I point out that there are the following steps:

1:  Hear/See the language element (sound/word/phrase/sentence).

2:  Recognize the language element.

3:  Comprehend the language element.

That is why on listening quizzes, with fairly “new” language elements, I give them 2/3 credit if they hear “La casa” or “Quisiera comprarlo’ and can write or say it back to me.  The remaining 1/3 credit is the meaning.  This is often confusing to them because they think that the meaning carries the most importance.  I try to remind them that unless they can hear/see and recognize it, they will never get to the meaning portion!!!


It is also practical.  Being able to hear/see an element and write/pronounce it allows them to then ask someone…what does “X” mean.   Very useful.  

Step #3 can be fairly complex for the brain.  The brain may run through several process, simultaneously, to arrive at meaning and I am sure that some of you out there can offer research to back me up on this.  From a layman’s perspective, at the very least, the students’ brains may use context clues, in comparison to L1 (which relies heavily on the level of development in that language!!!),  and/or reach into stored memory for the meaning.    

All of this takes time.   The input speed, IF I AM TEACHING FOR ACQUISITION, can make or break the students’ ability to attach meaning.  When teaching for acquisition…I already knew…and try to remember to frequently point out to my students (colleagues, parents, administrators as necessary) that slower is better.


Step 4:  “Picture” the meaning.    Holding on to the meaning of an element (again, sound, word, phrase, sentence) means being able to “picture” , “imagine”, or “feel” the  meaning.    Step 4 is CRUCIAL.  Without it, there is no acquisition, no long-term memory.   That is why nouns and actions are so much ‘easier” for the brain to hang on to.  It is why the “little’ words are the hardest, and take the most time to get.   The meaning of the word “while” cannot be pictured, nor even easily described.  It has little “weight”, it is more of a feeling or situation where meaning is concerned and is frequently harder to remember.   It takes longer for the brain to assign, hang on to, dig up the meaning of the word.  

Step 5:  Connecting the meaning to the “story in the brain.”  A random set of words that creates no pattern or picture is very hard to remember.  Memory and comprehension occur when meaning is connected to a pattern.  

Memory and comprehension occur when meaning is connected to a pattern.    

On a very simple level, when we do TPR with students and ask them to “Jump three times” their minds must connect the meaning of all three elements in order to  know what is required of them and THEN they need time to make their bodies move.  Just knowing the meaning of all three elements is not enough.  The mind must connect the meanings to comprehend the phrase.  Their brains and bodies need TIME to do that.

In conversation or in a story, every meaning-carrying utterance is added to the ones before it in the students’ minds in order to add to the conversation or story.  That is how comprehension is built.  That is why humor works.  

When our students laugh at the idea of our principal feeding doughnuts to a Chihuahua he has hidden under his desk, it is because they got to Step 4: visualizing the situation….and to Step 5:  comparing that image to the image of what is expected of a principal and finding humor in the absurdity of it.  

IF WE ARE TEACHING FOR ACQUISITION, then we must slow down to allow their minds to go there.

Therefore….following the sage advice of my 9th grade Geometry teacher….I reversed that and was stunned and humbled by the (now obvious, at least to me) truth:

IF WE SLOW DOWN AND LET THEIR MINDS GO THERE, then, and only then, are we teaching for acquisition.

with love,


All content of this website © Hearts For Teaching 2009-present and/or original authors. Unauthorized use or distribution of materials without express and written consent of the owners/authors is strictly prohibited. Examples and links may be used as long as clear and direct reference to the site and original authors is clearly established.

Making Progress!!

I’m very excited to say that we are making progress on uploading past posts.  Sadly, not all of them are recoverable.  However, I’m grateful to be able to save the ones that we did.   New posts and old will be up in the next few days!!


with love,


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