Report from the Field – Jeff Underwood

Hi Ben,

I recently read with envy about our colleague that has so much freedom to teach as he wants.  My status as a new teacher in a department based on traditional textbook instruction leaves me vulnerable on many angles.  I have had blowback from parents, students and administration.  I have not been able to go completely textbook free but now there are students resisting to the point of causing major trouble. 

My biggest issue is with students who had traditional textbook instruction in Spanish 1 and now as my students in Spanish 2 they believe I am not teaching them correctly.  These are very emotional, vocal and I might say entitled students.  A few of them are resisting to the point where the ship might capsize.  It only takes a few bad apples.  

My recent feedback from admin (because of this one group of students) is that the method may not provide enough structure and therefore students misbehave.  I have been trying to balance both methods but it has been tough. I work really hard to engage students but to be honest my teaching style lacks the charisma that might win everyone over.

How can I make all of my students feel safe and assured they will be prepared for Spanish 3?  The majority of students are fine but the few that want to go back to the textbook are a problem.  Although I provide the textbook vocab list and grammar lessons, these students seem to get stressed or feel anxiety when I ask them to clear their desks and watch, listen and respond in the target language.  I need defined weekly structure that is designed for 80 minute block periods.  I only get to see my students three times per week due to the block scheduling.
 
I tried personalizing the classroom at the beginning of the year but was only somewhat successful with buy in.  Now I have to decide; fight to keep the CI instruction or let these kids win and go back to textbook instruction.  I feel drained emotionally / psychologically trying to do both.

It is tiring fighting a group of students that are so textbook driven and who believe this is the best way to learn a language. I am working on designing a weekly plan that outlines every instructional activity we will do in class until Christmas break. Perhaps simply posting this weekly activity chart will calm some of their fears. Or else posting something like this may just add fuel to the fire.
Jeff

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38 thoughts on “Report from the Field – Jeff Underwood”

  1. We must be practical and not let the ship capsize.

    The sentence that jumps out at me from what you wrote above Jeff is this one:

    …I have been trying to balance both methods but it has been tough….

    I have been there w those level 2’s trained traditionally in level 1 and the worst is that the ones I was working with were sophomores which is a very oppositional age, especially when the sophomores are entitled ones.

  2. You ask:

    …how can I make all of my students feel safe and assured they will be prepared for Spanish 3? ….

    In my opinion it depends on how many of these kids there are. In my experience if it is more than one or two you won’t win. I don’t think you can. It takes a strong group of kids with buy-in into what you are doing to stand up for you to the few bullies but you don’t sound like you have that. What is the reaction of the kids who are fine with what you are doing to those few who are not?

    Maybe you can make it simple and do SSR for the first 10 min. of class and then do traditional teaching for the next 25 min. and then do “listening activities” (CI) for the next 10/15 min. and then give a quiz (quiz writer) to keep those tense kids honest. Then for the rest of the block repeat the pattern of traditional instruction followed by a “listening activity” that they are quizzed on (up to two quizzes per block). If they don’t see it as you pushing a particular kind of teaching on them but a required activity then they have to shut up and do it.

    We must all learn to avoid making our instruction about a new method but just call it a “listening activity”. You want to keep your job. I would much rather just give them 50 minutes of what they think they want than fight the fight you describe above.

    Another factor is who teaches Spanish 3 but it sounds like they are going to have to blend back into a traditional classroom next year.

    I would just distribute the instructional minutes as described above and then if any of the kids who like what you are doing complain about all the grammar then you can try to gently have the “discussion” in class. But really I would avoid that.

    This is really charged. The few, the high achievers, are once again trying to dictate to the masses.

    We have had this discussion with different teachers on and off now for ten years here. It’s so exasperating!

  3. I think that posting the weekly activities, if they are all CI, is going to add fuel to the fire. Why not give them 50 min. of traditional teaching and 20 min. of CI (termed listening activity) with the 10 min. of SSR to start the class, as mentioned above?

    I know why this happened. It was the first year of traditional. It is hopeless to fight it. Give in. Plus, the kids who are ok w the instruction sound like they don’t care much either way. So remove the stress and pray for five level one classes next year. Or a CI school to work in.

  4. This is the most revealing thing you wrote:

    …these students seem to get stressed or feel anxiety when I ask them to clear their desks and watch, listen and respond in the target language….

    They are being challenged and cannot respond to the participatory back and forth demands that real language instruction require. They are out of their league, sad little elitist memorizers who want the world to bow to their needs of being little robots. It’s not you. It’s part of the sickness.

    Remember that the discussion on this site is not geared toward winning the CI Super Bowl for all that is right and good in foreign language teaching, but rather it is about first taking care of ourselves and our emotional life now in this time of gut-wrenching change, so that we can rise above the fray and remain strong and professionally vibrant ten and twenty years from now, without feeling like we’ve been beaten up by a bunch of idiots that we made the mistake of engaging in battle with.

  5. I don’t think you can get better advise than from Ben here, Jeff. Sorry you are going through this. Many of us have. Know that being a new teacher is hard, especially for us CI teachers. Don’t feel like you’re a failure by having to do some (or all) traditional teaching. Take some baby steps and think about the long haul. Think about next year. If you move slowly, you may even lure the eyes of your colleagues. “So, Jeff, I heard your students laughing in your classroom. How did you manage to have that happen?”

    But, yeah. It may feel like you have a large group of students against you when it’s really like one or two that pull the others down with them. Nonetheless, they can be a powerful one or two students.

  6. Oh, this is so heavy Jeff. Ben’s advice is sage. Keep your own mental and physical health at the forefront. Make sure that whatever shifts you make do not add more work / grading / etc. I agree with the multiple quick quizzes per block. Correct them right there (more input! no taking papers home!).

    The weekly plan idea could be good. I agree that it could also backfire. One idea I have for my students (non-engagement for different reasons) is that I’m going to try making some google slides with “What?” “How? and “Why?” My students need very explicit instructions for each activity and I realize I may also need to tell them why we do what we do, beyond the brief research lessons I give occasionally.

    I have not done this yet. Plan to get it together over break, and I will share for sure. I am thinking of one slide per activity, very little text. For example: What? TPR Total Physical Response = I ask questions or say a command; you answer with a gesture or action. Why? You listen and respond without needing English. Meaning gets into your brain through your body.

    Stuff like that??? I will go through all my activities in this way, so there is a concrete reason for everything we do. I know that for me this is an issue. There is a perception that it’s a free for all. Kind of like what your administrator says.

    Give yourself a break by letting them have at it with the textbook. Then demand their attention and focus during the “listening activity” which you can totally justify even in a traditional scheme because they are not gonna be taking notes in the middle of an interaction with someone in real life, which is what we are aiming to use language for, right?

    If they can’t handle the “listening activity” then use dictation. It will give them listening but with that schooly feeling of “real work.” And you can milk that every which way.

    Above all be kind to yourself!

    1. Jen said:

      …if they can’t handle the “listening activity” then use dictation….

      Ditto that. It’s a power move. And the students have been trained to think that whenever they have a pencil in their hand they are learning, so dictee is a win-win for us.

  7. I agree with Ben. You are facing a mountain load of cow manure that can bury you deep in no time, so I would take the course he is suggesting. Especially if you are the lonely cowboy that takes a level one traditional and feeds into a level 3 traditional, then there is absolutely no point in being el quijote of CI.
    However, if you want to wage that battle, if you have strong support among the other students you could create a compact plan to address this:
    -send out a letter to parents and students with an explanation of what and why you want to do. It should contain also your grading system with rubrics and classroom rules. Have them sign and return-keep your records.
    -give the option to do independent work during class time for those attached to their grammar “success” (Bryce Headstrom–I think–has a form/explanation about this on his website). Don’t let the entitled have a platform to shine and make everyone else feel less.
    Then, if you get the approval, start from scratch. Do class OWIs then Invisibles. Don’t do free range PQA, it creates too many discipline problems that can be used against you. ABOVE all, enforce the rules EVERY-SINGLE-TIME so your admin can’t blame you for CM ineptitude.
    I agree with what Tina said somewhere: our classes are the result of our creation. It is no one else’s fault.

    1. I am laughing at the El Quijote of CI joke, but I think this is important. I don´t want to call any more attention to my CI program. The plan to send out the letter would raise too many questions. Plus, the students that enjoy the stories and CI are not as vocal / outspoken about their preferences. As you suggested, I will try independent work during class time if certain students need their paper and pencils.

      1. Yeah I agree Jeff. We need to learn to teach effectively using our “listening strategies” (credit: Amy Wall thanks to Dana’s good memory) and we all need to stop fretting so much. Except in certain schools where time seems to have stopped, we are not the ones who are about to feel the heat – if they aren’t already. Sometimes common assessments will cause direct conflict with us, but each year I sense less direct confrontation of CI teachers. The old style teachers are starting to pick up on the change. So go with the flow and fly low.

  8. Check out the textbook “Sabias que” (first edition) written by Bill VanPatten. It’s a textbook but it’s all input based. Also his textbook Sol y Viento has a ton of input activities that are arranged by themes.

    Check out “structured input activities” too.

    I am glad I am not in such a situation but I really believe I could teach input-based even if I had to use a textbook.

    Also check out Martina Bex’s book “Grammar in Context”. Also, a lot of her materials on Teachers Pay Teachers could be used to supplement the textbook themes.

    I started out with CI/TPRS while in a situation similar to yours.

  9. I love being able to speak my mind here and I really unloaded my weight in my report. So thanks for letting me do that. I am at a crossroad for sure. When we return from Fall break we will have one month until Christmas break. I am not totally sure which way to go. I have a feeling admin doesn´t care just as long as I maintain composure and address any problems with students and /or parents professionally. They would rather not get involved and my AP said to ¨not throw the baby out with the bath water¨. She also said to scaffold and find different approaches to reach all students, which is why I´ve been trying both methods. Basically, we all want peace and harmony. This is what I am shooting for. Peace and harmony – if I can´t get that in my classroom then what is the point.

  10. “Verb slams”—-> A Ben Slavic activity from the CI Book is PERFECT for your situation.

    Also try “horizontal conjugation” activities. It’s a compromise activity- somewhere between traditional and CI.

    In fact, I gave a presentation on teaching CI with the textbook at a Chicagoland TPRS meeting:

    Here is my google presentation: http://tinyurl.com/TPRStextbook

    1. Thanks for the compliment, but I’m not sure I have any original ideas that would allow me to write a book. Plus, I’m still figuring things out. My main hobby now is FVR reading. I want to come up with short digital books that are not more than $5 and teachers can download them and print as many copies as they want from their classroom. Others I want to just give away for free (like student work that I can’t copyright) Grateful Dead style.

      It’s just unreasonable for teachers to have to shell out $6 a piece of their own money for the TPRS Books and Fluency Matters readers for their classroom libraries. Mike Peto’s free books are more of a hit in my classroom than the books I had to pay for.

  11. I think one of the big issues is the vocab lists handed out by the traditional teachers. There is such reverence for the unit vocab list. Students have been told to memorize these lists of words based on unit themes from the textbook and then all lessons that follow in the textbook incorporate these words. The high achievers (4%) adore these lists! To make accommodations for these students and the other language teachers I passed out these vocab lists for the first couple of lessons from the textbook. That was probably a mistake, but I wanted to cover my bases. Now, I have a quizlet site where students can review these lists of words but it is not my main focus in class. So by doing both CI and textbook, it is sending mixed messages.

  12. All the experts, like Ben and BVP both say the first thing is just to keep your job even if you have to teach the textbook.

    A big thing in education now is “flipped” classroom. I had a colleague that would assign Señor Jordan’s grammar videos as Edpuzzles as homework. That is how she covered herself with the grammar study. Most of the kids won’t do it, but admin doesn’t have to know that, do they?

    Doing CI and the textbook only sends mixed messages if your students have a degree in SLA. Students will believe anything you tell them. I used to be into forced output ala Benny the Irish Polyglot and I had my kids believing, along with me, that you need to “force yourself” to speak to learn how to speak. We did speaking activities almost daily. Those kids, now graduated and juniors in college, still think I was a good teacher.

    ACTFL embraces eclecticism, so by being “eclectic” with the textbook and CI you are only obeying your professional organization. <—— See what I did there?

    Pull out your BS pen.

  13. Hey Jeff. While you want to stand your ground against the naysaying entitled students, your main concern — that is, our main concern — is to make sure that we are teaching every child in the classroom. The vast, V.A.S.T. majority of your students learn best through CI and stories. Be careful not to lose them while you blend activities. You don’t want the masses turning against you because they don’t feel like they understand the grammar exercises and don’t feel like they are learning anything in your class. And all for the sake of a couple of bullies!

    Maybe you can find a way, over the span of several weeks perhaps, to show the masses just how much better stories and CI is over the textbook. And just maybe the joyful collective voice of the masses will overpower the bitter voice of the entitled few.

    1. I think you are right. I will cover my bases by blending activities but I don´t want to lose my happy classes nor the quiet, shy students that would rather have CI but don´t speak up.

  14. I had another thought today, Jeff, and it’s this. Tons of teachers waste instructional minutes like crazy: projects, parties, showing movies before breaks. For example, these two days before Thanksgiving break at my school a ton of teachers (in other disciplines) will be showing movies- even movies that have nothing to do with their curriculum. A colleague and I have been speaking against showing full length movies in class and unfortunately we won a few enemies that way (I learned to filter my opinions the hard way, LOL).

    Today I’m doing a movietalk on the Spanish lottery (Martina Bex). I’ve only done one other movietalk this year, the rest has been Invisibles/OWI and Persona especial. I just tell the kids that since they are relaxing in other classes, we will still work in my class but it will be more relaxed, so we will do a movietalk.

    So what I’m saying is that, even if you teach the textbook, as long as you don’t waste instructional minutes like traditional teachers do, you still have a ton of time for some CI activities and just call them “listening” activities like Ben says.

    1. Haha Greg, I did the same thing Mon. and Tues. with a Spanish Lottery video. I did not movie talk it exactly, but we had a brief discussion in Spanish about the story line and also linked it to a larger discussion about routines vs rituals and the choice to shift one’s thinking. Kids were engaged and curious on Monday. Tuesday we did Kahoot and quizlet live. It was not “optimum” CI, but still…kids were into it, having fun, processing some language even on the day before break!

  15. I had the same experience last year with my level 2 students. Level 1 students were great, and LOVED it, and could easily out-write my level 2 traditionally taught students. There were a few that were very vocal, and they rallied their parents, and my life was HELL because of a few that refused to jump on board. They were C students before, were able to cram right before a chapter assessment and did okay. I had experimented the previous year with CI, but didn’t feel like I knew enough or was good enough to jump in completely. I went to a training the following summer with Ben and Tina and Ben recommended I do CI with just my level 1 students specifically because of my helicopter parents, and I wish I would have listened. I teach at a school with very involved parents and very entitled students and it is all about the grades to them and what colleges they can get into and what scholarships they can get. The parents of a few were mad that there wasn’t a “plan” online or in my syllabus where they could follow along and see exactly what was going to happen each day and exactly what the tests would be over, etc. I spent over 100 hours dealing with issues from just one parent in particular…no joke. I had to get the union involved to get my principal to protect me from one parent’s harassment. Like an hour long meeting with her arguing about half of a point on an assignment, and her scrutinizing EVERY assignment and quiz that I gave. She wasn’t going to rest until her son got an A, and she bullied me and bullied my principal, complained several times to my principal’s district supervisor and threatened a lawsuit and outright lied about me. She finally was not allowed to come into our building without an appointment but it continued until even after the last day of school. She complained to her son’s friends’ parents and then got a few of them ro complain too. After months, my principal finally said it was obvious that she had mental health issues. Ya think??!! She had problems and altercations with every teacher in our building but I was her favorite target. She marched into the office one day, and in front of about 10 people, interrupted a conversation I was having and said, “just so you know, I disagree with Krashen’s theories and my son is learning nothing in your class!” I am in serious cover your ass mode this year, but the students I have are happy, doing well, and I have had ZERO problems and much success. I am doing Tina’s cycles of instruction and assessment so I have portfolios that show growth, and I am giving my Spanish 2 kids a grammar assignment calendar in semester 2 for studyspanish.com so they can do online grammar lessons and assignments so they can’t complain about “not getting grammar”. I am only doing it so they have a foundation if they continue in a non-CI class. I think that last year was a year of adjustment and to save my mental health and sanity, I should have just kept doing what I was doing with my level 2 kids and started the non-targeted CI with just the new ones that had no previous experience or expectations. It was so bad last year that I considered leaving my school…ridiculous, I know. I love my school, my colleagues, my schedule, everything, but I was so mentally exhausted from dealing with a couple of parents and constant questioning from my principal that I was ready to throw in the towel. I’m glad that I stuck with it and I am so glad that things are better this year. Hang in there, and yes, a few bad apples can ruin the bunch, unfortunately. If you do stick with it, studyspanish.com is an easy out and they can do the lessons on their own, take the free online quizzes, and re-do them for a higher score. Also, I recommend watching Tina’s videos on cycles of instruction and assessment, and doing portfolios to show and track their growth, timed writes to track growth, etc. Hang in there!

    1. This is so poignant – 100 hours is undoubtedly the record. Bless your heart Ryann:

      … I spent over 100 hours dealing with issues from just one parent in particular….

      Very much appreciative of this report Dana. Send more. We all relate. You really a warrior.

  16. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Jeff – you are right you got fabulous ideas and feedback here! Greg you totally ROCK!
    I’m wondering if there’s a way to play up the original writing (that you write up) from Persona Especial, OWI and Invisible stories – that’s a lot of written words that they process together as a group -and the readings feel more school-ish than the front-loaded oral input. So if the kids have to take home the class-created reading, read it to their parents and then explain it to them in English – and get a signature, perhaps that helps legitimize the ‘activity…’ Somehow like Ben says, having a pencil or paper/words in their hands quells the anxiety (that’s what I think is at the root of it) of the mutineers…

    1. Yes Alisa I agree w your read on the cause of the mutineers (great word to describe those few kids in each class!) – they experience anxiety when in a class where they are encouraged/required to exhibit actual reciprocal back and forth human sharing….

  17. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Tina can you pls send us specific links from your channel on the Cycles of Instruction vids – people here seem hungry for them! I thought it was Tina who came up with the “Listening Activites” moniker…¿No?

  18. Another idea. How about doing Señor Wooly stuff alongside the textbook? I don’t think there is a student or teacher alive legacy or CI, who does not like Señor Wooly…..

  19. Wow – I feel like you just explained my last two days, Jeff. I am in a traditional setting with a very tight curriculum. I used to teach a combo of CI and loose traditional back when TPRS was the only other option. As much as I love TPR, I could never fully buy in to TPRS so I did my own thing and had a very successful department and kids who loved learning. I actually had a long term sub tell me I should publish my curriculum. Five years ago our family moved west and I was asked to apply for my current teaching position. I love the school and my coworkers but tradition has been very important to the one lone writer of the original curriculum and I opened my mouth without realizing what I was stepping into when I defended the students’ right to language acquisition. I now have a principal who is on board with me teaching CI but we are trying to work out how I can have the same students for both trimesters. Trimesters are great for teachers but not for kids and I foresee semesters coming back in the next 5 years. My principal understands the need for establishing a culture and it takes awhile for acquisition to occur but he doesn’t control the scheduling in a building of 1600. My prayer is that I can join a group that hopes to be PBL next year and we would keep our kids for 2 semesters. That said, I did use CI as much as I could with my one’s last tri. They loved it! I also did it with my 2’s and have a number of students who are trying to transfer into my 2B classes next tri. I have 1B’s now and my kids are ahead of where the kids who had the traditional class of 1A. I have 1 class of 2B and most of them are from the traditional classroom. They gave me grief the last 2 days because I said I wasn’t going to give them packets – yes, those lists of vocab and grammar everyone has mentioned here. I also went desk-less this tri. That is a shock to their system – my principal loves that I’m doing it – then I talked about a different way of teaching – too much for some. Reading this thread tonight confirmed what I’ve been thinking about to soothe and calm my traditional students. I think I will give my students a slimmer version of their packet, just enough to reassure them, and give them online grammar practice options. The few students I have now that I had last tri love the room and are comfortable with what we are doing. I wish I had all of my last trimester kids! Anyway, I was feeling discouraged about the room change and a bit defeated by the naysayers. All the advice given here is appreciated and on target – good luck, Jeff!

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