How “Coaching” Can Complement the Classroom

Returning to the well for a yearly conference is rejuvenating and special. This week I am in the middle of two weeks of attending two amazing weeklong conferences – NTPRS and IFLT. I am sure both will provide tremendous amounts of growth opportunities for me as an educator and as a trainer and coach (which are my main roles at each conference).

I am fortunate to serve on both Coaching Teams at these conferences that value the need for participants to reflect and practice skills. It is crucial that teachers take the time to try out all of the new ideas and skills that they are learning in order to best prepare them for when they return to their classrooms. In “Coaching” we provide a safe space for teachers to practice and grow with the support and nurturing from a Coach and fellow participants. Each conference provides coaching times embedded throughout the workshops and Open Coaching sessions throughout the week. And yet, although I see these moments as opportunities for growth and development, the reality is that some may see a coaching experience as torture.

Why torture? There are a few reasons. We are asking educators to get up in front of peers and teach in an artificial setting. Let’s add the reality that some educators may have concerns speaking in a non-native language they teach or if English is their second language, they must communicate in our English-speaking environment. Lastly, participants are learning so many new concepts, skills, and strategies that may be outside of their comfort zone to try to implement. So when you put all of that together, we as Coaches know how overwhelming a Coaching experience could seem.

Over the course of many years, TPRS/CI Coaches have created a model that puts participants at ease and works to best meet their individual needs. In fact, we know that people learn so much by reflection and observing that observation plays a big role in the Coaching process and, for those who do not want to “teach in front of peers,” they can observe or learn language as students. The model has all participants focus on everything that they CAN DO WELL. Everyone is reflecting on what they see and throughout the process, they are all learning by looking for the good instead of the bad. [If you are attending NTPRS, IFLT or AGEN, be sure to feel the power of Coaching].

Now in this post, I wanted to think about connecting elements from our Coaching model to the classroom. I have to really take a step back with this because I do not think I am always as encouraging or positive with my students as I am on the Coaching Team. Do I always just look for the positive and what my students can do or do I point out the negative and their errors? If I am often criticizing my students’ language or possibly creating a culture of scrutiny, what is their impetus to even try? My desire to “help” them and correct their Spanish could be having a reverse effect. I also have been reflecting on my level of “positivity” working daily with teenagers whose commitment to their smart phones often takes precedent over focus in class or, even worse, the priority is to just talk over me as I am trying to provide input and conduct the class as the teacher. I am aware that their actions do not always put me in the most positive state of mind.

In many ways our Coaching experience is just like how my classes need to be. In Coaching, we set ground rules and expectations and work to shed light on everything that participants can do while providing guidance to hone a new skill. Although our conference audience is most often happy to be there, we know that there is a tremendous amount of pressure put on them. Frankly their Affective Filters (from SLA research) could be quite high but if we provide the support needed, nerves can be calmed and then their success celebrated. When I ask students to perform by comprehending, reading, and speaking Spanish, they too could experience high Affective Filters, especially if the environment sometimes goes toward the negative or is not set up to celebrate their successes. My thoughts on this are resonating a bit more now as we just finished the end of a the school year, which was more challenging than the “bright eyed” beginning of the year. Students’ actions and the constant need for classroom management in some classes really brought me down this spring. Knowing this, I think back to all of the negative energy that was in the classroom environment and how perhaps the Coaching Team mindset could have helped both my students and me as an educator. Even though I serve as Co-Coordinator for the Coaching Team at NTPRS, it has taken the support from our coaches and our time together to refocus, recharge and remember all of the good that we can do by looking for the positive in others. Bit by bit I am preparing for the school year. Cheers to Summer PD.

My First Two Weeks: Respect, Routines, Plus Language

What a couple of weeks! It is incredible how much goes into the first full two weeks of school. This year I am teaching Spanish II, III and IV (the past two years I have only had Spanish II and IV).  So in addition to a third prep, figuring out my routine and new class schedule (similar for students) is the greatest challenge as we all find our new rhythm.

Regardless of figuring out a new fascinating rhythm, I am able to rely on many language activities, routines, and procedures that have made the last two weeks feel very successful and rewarding. The goal of the first few weeks or month of school needs to be more about developing the procedures necessary for maintaining classroom management instead of just trying to teach language.

Don’t get me wrong, these last two weeks have been full of language acquisition, learning, and practice – but the truth is that setting the tone, procedures, expectations, establishing community, and learning students’ names have been my ultimate classroom goals. I learned this essential piece the hard way, even as a seasoned teacher who went to teacher school when I transitioned to my new position four years ago. What I soon realized was that many of the same routines and procedures developed by master teachers in elementary and middle school grades could and should apply to a high school setting. I must thank Bryce Hedstrom (http://www.brycehedstrom.com) for his careful articulation of procedures and expectations for students that he has shared because so many of them have helped me be a stronger teacher.

Fortunately I do not have to take a management approach of “not smiling until December,” and I am able to still build the ideal rapport with my students while consistently reinforcing my expectations. The truth is that maintaining consistency is challenging and at times not fun, but then I remember the times of feeling helpless with an unruly class, which was much worse that just being consistent. My high school students need as much follow through and reminders as fifth graders; in fact, I have the luck of being married to a fifth grade teacher, who is a master in developing classroom routine and structure so over the years we have had many conversations on the topic. Knowing this, I cannot expect my students to follow all of the rules and procedures only after telling them once nor can I feel that my directing and retraining of student behavior is a waste of precious time for language learning or providing comprehensible input. I believe this a fallacy for many teachers especially in school cultures rushing to teach for the test and get results. Teachers and administrators must set the limits and enforce them in order to provide safe learning environments for all students. I do not feel we must all be authoritative disciplinarians but we must create learning environments with limits and respect.

Over the past two weeks, I have worked through many activities and limit setting pieces within my lessons in order to develop some of the skills necessary for language acquisition and/or learning to occur. I do not find this area to be my strongest suit and I am always adding new pieces to my arsenal. This year I have included a new call and response system that I saw beautifully demonstrated by Alina Filipescu at IFLT this summer. She uses many catchphrases (the call) that she trains her students to listen for and when said, students must reply with another piece (the response). Of course, this takes training but once the expectation is set, it becomes second nature and helps demand that students are listening and watching. There are some elements of body language used in the system; for example, I raise my hand for an all-class response and Alina leans forward with her body. For the past two years, I have successfully incorporated Bryce Hedstrom’s “Clase/Sí señor/a” when the teacher says “Clase” and students respond “Sí, señor/a.” This is how I have requested students’ attention and now I have incorporated many more into my daily routine: Alina’s “1,2,3 / No inglés (No English)” and “Mira, Escucha / Estamos en la lucha (Look, Listen / We are in the battle/fight),” some classics like “Hola, hola / Coca-Cola,” “A,E,I,O,U / El burro sabe más que tú” and a few of my own: “4,5,6 / no móviles (no cell-phones),” “Estamos juntos / hasta el fin. (We are together, until the end),” “Otra cosa / poderosa (another powerful thing)” and “Es viernes / gracias a dios (It’s Friday, thank god.)” My new ones were developed as I was backwards planning structures that I know my students will need in the future (juntos, cosa, poderosa, dios).

Setting a respectful tone and safe classroom is very important for me as an educator. We discuss that using inappropriate or sexist/racist/homophobic language is not permitted in our community and there will be consequences. I use the same infraction system as cellphone usage in class: first offense is an after school detention, second is a call home and detention, and third is an office referral. From a curricular stand-point, I have chosen to begin my Spanish II and III classes with the song “Colores, Colores” by Bacilos because the song talks about diversity and how people feel they are superior because of their skin color yet students do not get this message when just listening to this fun and catchy song. I do four to six days of short language listening lessons with the final day viewing a student made video of images (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgRfGGxr76Q&feature=youtu.be – yes there are some language errors in the written Spanish). The images are powerful and simply having students define the meaning of the lyrics with the pictures allows them to see that this fluffy and fun song is much deeper. Along those same lines, Spanish III and IV students were engaged in a Movietalk using the “Paper, Rock, Scissors” Android commercial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gk5yeiydxV4). I know many have used this in it the past, but it was a first for me, and it worked like a charm. Again, incorporating these resources help set the tone of respect in my room the same way when I correct a student’s behavior for being rude during a competitive game of Quizlet Live.

I do not want it to seem like language and comprehensible input were not an important piece of the equation from day one; it absolutely was and students were not introduced to a syllabus until day three. In all of my levels, we worked toward 90% target language for us all using James Asher’s TPR (Total Physical Response), Ben Slavic’s Card Talk (aka Circling with Balls), name games, discussing the date, day, weather and emotions, reporting what happened or will happen over the weekend, passwords, asking a story, reading a story, a Movietalk, a song, learning how to use wordreference.com, our first ten minute free write, and seven minutes of silent-sustained reading. All of these pieces needed routine building and training. The first two weeks provided the initial experiences of these important aspects of my classes.

Now it is my job to continually go over the routines for each of these activities and be consistent in expectations while also incorporating more. I know that it has taken me my whole Mosaic of World Language Teaching to get to the point to have such a full and what I think meaningful two weeks. What I always have had to remember as a teacher is that we are all at different places in our careers and our experiences. For teachers reading this, please do not feel you ever need to incorporate every aspect that I have included above (because we often want to include it all). We must all look at our teaching and process by polishing one piece of our mosaics at a time. These two weeks reminded me that a bit of self-care is also needed – when I was on the brink of losing my voice. Teaching with lots of comprehensible input and establishing the routines required lots of talking and I had to make some lesson design decisions around the fact that I needed to save my voice. We all must do what we need to do to be effective for our students and ourselves.

I am leaving the post with this message from Wicked the Musical. After reflecting on my first two weeks, I know that I must set the limits for my students (and myself) and then with my students we’ll be “Unlimited. Together we’re unlimited. Together we’ll be the greatest team there’s ever been.” I believe that working on procedures, routines, respect, and limits will allow us all to be unlimited and grow together. Over the next few weeks I will include some classroom jobs, which will enhance our community and team even more.