A Strong Start

This is my first week back to school for the 2010-2011 school year. It’s been a smooth transition for the most part and I’m grateful! The first week back is always brutal physically: to go from no responsibilities to responsibilities all day long, every day is always a shock to the system. But, slowly I am adjusting. I’ve even managed to get up around 5:30 every morning to work out so far and it’s  such a great feeling to leave school in the afternoon knowing I’m done with my workout already.  I also have this sense in the morning after P90X of: “OK! I made it through that! Nothing today will be likely to be as challenging as that last hour just was, so I can do this!” – it’s a good boost in the AM to get me motivated for the day ahead.

This year I feel that I planned surprisingly well for the first day and first week in general. I want to record what I did so that in future years I can look back & see what worked well and repeat it!

It really all begins with the end of last school year. I spent about a week after the school year ended purging old stuff, getting reorganized and wrapping up loose ends. This was nice becasue I returned to an organized space this year- felt like a clean slate. I will probably try to cut this down from a week to a day or two next year but I do think it helps my state of mind over the summer to know my classroom is well packed-up and ready for fall, so I will repeat some of it.

Next, over the summer months, I met with colleague friends of mine from school once a week or so to do various things – work on our curriculum, have informal french lessons, or just go out to lunch or coffee. This helped me stay a little bit in the loop but not so much that I was fretting over school. It also helped to stay socially connected to colleagues over the summer and I hope to keep that up more even during the school year this year. This can be tough, though, because often by the end of the school day or week we are so exhausted we just want to go home rather than out. Maybe once a month or so we can do something un-school-related to keep that going.

For back to school prep, I began to go into school the Monday prior to our Monday convocation, which gave me a full week of prep time. The first day I went for just 3 hours, got set up again physically (unpacked, rearranged, organized – basically the reverse of the week following the last day of school) and the next day I stayed home and did some thinking about how I wanted to approach the year re: use of technology, etc, and did some playing with different sites before just taking a break to hit up the pool in the afternoon – this was lovely and I’m so glad I did it because once school begins the time just flies and suddenly it’s snowing! It felt good to take advantage of that sunshine. The last 3 days of the week I went in to school every day for 5-6 hours for more physical organization, to meet with our textbook sales rep to learn about & install some of the software that accompanies our books, and to begin to work on documents like syllabi, etc.

Monday we had meetings all morning, during which I updated my academic calendar for the school year with our meetings and days off, and then broadly pencilled in when to begin each unit for a sense of what pace to set. Then in more detail I pencilled in possible dates for assessments for the year and finally planned the daily pacing for the first review chapter. That afternoon I planned the first, freshmen-only day activity (which is only a 10-minute period).

The activity was fun, if a little awkward, and ate up the time perfectly which was just what I was looking for. I will repeat it again – it was called “United Nations Cocktail Party” and each student received a description of a person from an imaginary country & their typical behaviors, which they had to act out while mingling with fellow classmates. For example:

You are from Blissland. In your country it is considered rude to make eye contact while speaking. You always look at a person’s stomach while holding a conversation with them”

The objective of the activity was to have students experience awkward, out of the norm (for them) social interactions that made them a bit uncomfortable.

Students’ homework that first night was to think of what the relevance of this activity might have been for a language class. This led to an easy transition into class the next day when freshmen filled in upperclassmen on the activity and they began class in small groups discussing what they thought the relevance of the activity may have been. Then each group had one person report out and themes as to the relevance of the activity for a language class emerged, such as: the importance of developing tolerance, learning the behaviors of other cultures, and the definition of what we consider normal vs. abnormal in various (social) contexts.

The 2nd day of school, all students were in attendance but we had shortened periods for opening day homeroom – about 45 minutes. This lesson worked just right for that period of time:

Day 2 Lesson – 45 minutes

1) Bellwork/Warmup: Students got together in groups of 3-5 & discussed the relevance of the UN cocktail party activity from the day prior – we then debriefed as a class together (10-15 min.)

2) Welcome to class Powerpoint: I always begin with a presentation of class expectations & procedures so students know what to expect in my particular classroom in the areas of use of Spanish in the classroom, how class begins each day, what to do if tardy/following an absence, and cell phone usage. This helps set the tone and also cuts down on questions later on about expectations. Admittedly, it is a little boring and a lot of me talking, but I make an effort to break up the presentation with ‘check points’ where students review with their partners and get to talk with each other. I find that the potential dullness of this presentation is worth it because if teachers skip doing this early on they get so many questions about how their class works – it’s better to just get it out there! (20 minutes)

3) Handouts : Towards the end of class I hand out the course syllabus, grading policy, and a parent letter. I do go over the grading policy a bit, establishing how they are assessed & pointing out things they will want to read over in more detail at home. (5-7 minutes)

4) Assign Homework: Students’ homework this 2nd night is to read all 3 handouts over with a parent/guardian & jot down questions they have for tomorrow, as well as get a parent signature. This year I also found a nice, short, and very relevant blog post/article on EdWeek called “The Case for Foreign Language Classes” and gave this to students to read. I asked them to choose a quote that stood out to them, and then expand upon it in a reflective paragraph; they were also to come to class today ready to share their rationale for why they are taking Spanish. (3-5 minutes)

Today, day 3, was pretty boring but got all the boring stuff out of the way effectively and we even got into Spanish a bit! This is really an accomplishment for me because I remember back to my first year when I was terrified of making the transition from start-up mumbo-jumbo to jumping into the content – now here I am, 3 years later, jumping right in on day 2!! It was great!!

Day 3 lesson:

When bell rings, ask a student to remind us of the procedure to start class / bellwork

1) Bellwork: students spoke with their class partners about their thoughts on the article & then shared with each other their reason for taking a language at all, and in particular why they chose Spanish rather than French, German, or Mandarin (the other languages offered at my school).  – we debriefed as a class and this went over great – the students had really good thoughts & reasoning for why they were in the class and I think for those kids who weren’t quite sure why they were there it may have made them start to  think a bit more about that.  I particularly liked that a quote several students chose in the article was:

While fluency is the primary goal of foreign language instruction, it should not be the sole objective by any means. There is also the matter of learning about the cultural values of the people.

This quote fit in great with a document called  “11 unfortunate translations that harmed brand reputations” that a colleague shared with me, which included the following:

When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, with the smiling baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa, companies routinely put pictures on the labels of what’s inside, since many people can’t read.                                 &

General Motors had a very famous fiasco in trying to market the Nova car in Central and South America. “No va” in Spanish means, “It Doesn’t Go”.

These mini-stories illustrated the importance of learning the culture behind the linguistics & grammar while acquiring another language and many students spoke to this rather eloquently today (especially for high school freshmen! I was very impressed!)

When asked about their rationale for taking Spanish, students cited a variety of reasons, including:

  • the growing number of spanish-speaking people in the US
  • the chance of being a more marketable employee in the future as companies look for bilingual employees who can communicate with spanish-speaking customers.
  • a personal interest in the cultures of spanish-speaking people and countries
  • a desire to take a language that is ‘easier’ to acquire than Mandarin yet as useful as Mandarin for their futures here in the united states
  • the fact that learning spanish opens up travel opportunities to so many countries throughout central & south america, as well as Spain.

I feel like I have always lacked this last activity in my back-to-school start-up: something that encourages students to think about why they are taking the class. Spanish is an elective at this point – it may someday become a state requirement for students to take 2 or more years of a language but right now it is a choice, and I want students to know why they are choosing it – perhaps in this activity some of those “why are we doing this?” questions will be answered and maybe some students who don’t really want to be there will realize it and go in a different direction that is of more interest to them. Either way I think it was a very positive way to start out the year.  (10-20 min)

2) Finish up syllabus/grading policy info – wrap up from yesterday (10-15 min)

3) GLRC tour – took students to see the global language resource center and described its purpose (10 minutes)

4) Began to review question words such as “who?” “which?” and “how?” with a basic powerpoint & students taking notes.

5) Homework: Students were assigned 3 things tonight- all tech-related: to register for our online moodle course, to get set up with a gmail account, and to complete an online student information form.

Tomorrow is the end of the first, crazy week, which is great! It feels like a tuesday to me so I’m loving that the weekend is right around the corner. Tomorrow I will begin work in the textbook in our repaso (review) chapter and move on from there! I’m really looking forward to this school year and trying new things or doing old things in new ways. I’m going to roll with the punches, be more “zen” as my colleague would say, and take the time to stop talking so much and let the kids talk more. I want to learn from them this year, or at least have them learn for themselves without me just talking at them.

What about you other teachers (or others) out there? How was the first week  or two back??

About beckysearls

Married (DINK); High School Spanish Teacher; Lover of new technology (especially apple products!), Learner (of the life-long variety), Voracious Reader, Aspiring Writer, Tweeter, and now (or rather, a returning) Blogger!
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