Know Thy Students
Knowing your students is mentioned as a tenant of good teaching, but as it is not an academically rigorous goal, it is not something I often hear discussed as a topic at educational conferences, in school meetings, or even remember discussing much as a student teacher. Teachers know it is important, but I think it seems so obvious, that it is sometimes paid less attention than it is owed. It is easy to see how it can become just another thing among many; with high stakes testing, social media posts, lesson planning, test grading, meetings, phone calls, data sets, etc, etc, etc, there are a lot of balls to juggle, and knowing your students can seem like one among many.
After 14 years in the classroom however, my belief is that knowing our students is one of the MOST important parts of being a good teacher, and that this can both help students reach greater understanding of material, and also decrease the need for discipline in the classroom. There is science to back me up too!
Why We Like to Talk About Ourselves and Why it is Important
A Harvard study shows we talk about ourselves 60% of the time in conversations and 80% of time on Social Media. Scientists watched people in an fMRI machine talk about themselves and found that talking about yourself lights up the reward centers of the brain releasing dopamine (much the same way eating good food or chocolate would). Even better, if you talk about yourself to other people (instead of just thinking about yourself in your own head) the pleasure centers light up even more. Talking about ourselves to others feels good, and letting our students talk about themselves in class, feels good to them too. We want our students to feel good in our class, it is in a happy, safe, and inspired state that our brains function best, and our students learn best!
I'm not just in this for the dopamine release though! When teaching any subject, but especially a language, no two students will ever be in the exact same spot, ready to learn the exact same thing. This is not something teachers can fix over night, but a reality we must accommodate. Some student in front of us will come to school with homework done, a great nights sleep, a healthy breakfast, a great conversation with a caregiver in the morning, ready to learn. Some students will come to us without a backpack, no breakfast, a fight with a parent on the way to school, and unsure of where they will spend the night. We will teach to these students, and every other type of student in between. I do not say this in judgement, as we all have our own struggles to overcome., I say this in support of knowing your students.
Early in my teaching career I had a middle school student that always used to give me the hardest time. Any time I had a lesson running smoothly, and an engaged group of students, he would do something to throw me off my game. Finally, I pulled him in the hall one day, and rather than lecture or give consequences, I sat on the ground with him and asked him to tell me what was going on, and how I could help him. He instantly turned into a different kid, and told me all about his dad yelling at him that morning. I quickly came to realize that each time he acted out, he just needed to talk. We came up with a signal so he could let me know when he needed to talk, without acting up or asking for help in front of his peers.
Not all of your challenging kids will be that easy. Some of them will test you again and again. Try to remember that the ones that push hardest, have probably been pushed hard in some way or another in their personal life. They need us to see their potential even through the pushing.
Getting to know your students will bring so much richness to your classroom. When you know who likes Star Wars, who likes sharks, who likes Minecraft, and who likes llamas, you can weave incredible personal details into stories that will make students feel like stars, and sear the language you want them to acquire into their moldable brains! Knowing a student's dog ran away can lead to an interesting story about the missing dog, and support from their peers. When students hear that another student is ill, or has an ill family member, the class often closes around these students in support. The simple act of getting to know each other helps turn my classroom into a supportive and creative learning environment for all learner who cross the door.
Teachers have a lot of students, and a lot of curriculum to cover over the year. Every minute counts, so how do we take the time to get to know our students, while still taking care of our curricular responsibilities? I try to talk to my students in the halls, and at recess when I get to sneak out, but I have a few specific activities that help me the most.
Class Meeting is one of the most useful things that I have done in every class I taught in various ways. It is a specific, set amount of time each day, where I just sit and talk with my students (I time it so we don't get too carried away). This is my LONG get-to-know-you activity, and it starts with my Kindergarten students. All students sit in a circle and we pass around a stuffed animal. Only the teacher and the person with the stuffed animal get to talk at the start of the year (we add rejoinders as the year progresses). I start by asking each student '¿Cómo estás?/ How are you? in Spanish. At the start of the year when they are just starting to acquire, students show me with their face how they are feeling (happy, mad, sad, etc). I confirm with them how they feel in English. 'Happy', and then say the same word in Spanish back to them 'feliz'. I have different reactions for each answer. If they say they are 'mad'. I say 'Tengo miedo/ I am scared' and act scared. I then follow up with '¿Por qué?/why? to give them a chance to explain. When they say they are sad I say 'pobrecito/a' and explain the meaning. I then ask 'why' again for sad. If the student has something truly sad going on, we send them an 'abrazo/hug' by hugging ourselves, and then flinging our hands towards the student and shouting 'abrazo' (I have yet to see a student, even a genuinely sad one, not smile when we throw the hugs at them).
After a few weeks students start to answer me verbally. When the first few answer me in Spanish I get excited and give them an air high five. This is a big deal to them (don't ever miss if you start this procedure). As the year goes on we add more emotions (excited, jealous, sleepy, bored, nervous) to our meetings and more rejoinders (me too, congratulations, etc). We even make an imaginary 'ball of luck' that we 'throw' at students who have games, contests, or meets coming up. The 'receiving' student catches the ball of luck and eats it. Starting with your lowest class, and building up these routines and procedures through class meeting is a great way to create a system of support, introduce lots of useful words right when they are needed, and establish classroom routines.
In my older grades (1st, 2nd, 3rd), we still do class meeting, but since I spend Kindergarten creating a meeting that everyone understands and can respond to, it is much quicker. As students enter my room they must greet 4 other students, ask them how they are and listen to their response before taking a seat. I 'ban' some responses sometimes if students get lazy and start all saying 'good' in response to 'how are you?'. Anyone caught using English (unless they are new or have other extenuating circumstances) or not listening to responses gets to take their seat last. If I hear students asking good questions or having a more thoughtful conversation they earn class points.
After the students greet each other (1-2 minutes tops) they all sit down, I set my timer for 3 minutes. When I call on a student I first ask them 'How are you?' in Spanish, and then expand questioning from there. Students already have the language they acquired last year, in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade I get to dig for more. If they got a new pet, I can ask if it is big or small, what it eats, and what it is called. If they have a birthday coming up, I can ask when. If they have a party to go to, I can ask where and if I can come (and act sad or happy and express it in the target language depending upon their response). Students in my older classes, also earn points (that I keep track of quietly on a clicker) towards class parties for answering in Spanish. Class meetings in my older grades are full of Comprehensible and Compelling input for the entire class, plus gold for me to add to my stories, and help for me in understanding which of my students are struggling and who needs support in what way.
I haven't experimented as much with class meeting with my older students, but I think I saw Christy Lade post about how she had different evening activities posted around the room, and her older students wrote their name by activities they had done during the weekend. Bryce Hedstrom, and Grant Boulanger also have lots of good stuff on talking to older kids!
I am, I want, I can, I need, I have...
All of the above words have a few things in common, they are all high frequency words, they are all interesting conversation pieces, and the way people finish the statement tell us a lot about who they are. You can learn more about your students any time of the year by putting one of these sentence starters in the middle of a large sheet of paper (for example: 'Soy/I am') and having students write their answers all around the paper. You can do this in a few different ways to add variety. You could have students write their answer and their name next to it (interesting reading). You could have each class write their answers in a different color marker, and you could guess who written what for each class. You could have students draw their answer on a sticky note, place the sticky note on the paper, and write their name underneath the sticky note (so students can read, guess the answer, and see if they are right). All of the above activities are great, low-prep ways to get to know your students better, while practicing compelling comprehensible input.
Begin and End of Year Survey
My last two easy, get-to-know you tricks (practically cheating) that help guide my teaching both during the year, and into the next year are an 'All About Me' page at the start of the year, and a 'Student Survey' at the end of the year.
At the start of the school year I do a 'All About Me' page. This asks students to describe themselves, share their birthday, likes and dislikes, where they went, and then a bunch of favorites (movie, book, food, sport, music, etc). These worksheets are all in Spanish, and vary in difficulty depending on grade level. When students fill them out, I tour the room and chat with them. They get their second round of usefulness when a month into school we cover up the names on the worksheets, read about the student as a class, and then guess who it is in the room. The All About Me page is most useful to me later in the year, when I need inspiration for a round of Bad Unicorn (AKA Mafia) or a way to pull back in a student who hasn't been quite as interested. You see, I keep these All About Me sheets ALL YEAR LONG. That means any time I need to know about a student, I can pull these and have something interesting to talk about or add to a story. Students can NOT believe you remember so much about them, and you don't even need to remember it all!
My last get-to-know you trick sets me up for the coming school year. I let me students grade me every year. These End of the Year Surveys give me important info to guide next year's teaching, on what works and what didn't, what helped them learn, and what was just boring...but my favorite question isn't even academic. My last question on the survey simply says 'Tell me anything else you'd like to tell me'. Some answers are silly (I want to eat ice cream for breakfast tomorrow), some answers are informative (I have 3 kittens) and some answers are incredible (this is my favorite class, and it helped me when we learned about Day of the Dead because it was the first time I felt like I could talk about death). In an anonymous end-of-the-year survey students can tell you things they might not have been able to otherwise, and help remind you why it is you teach how and what you teach.
Every student, every day. Right before I began student teaching, I sought out my favorite teacher as a kid, 5th grade, Mr. Miracola. I'd always been a good student, but something about my year in his classroom lit a love of learning in my heart that has continued to burn these many years. When I saw Mr. Miracola (he said I had to call him Frank) he told me that on his desk he had always had a plaque, and that it said ESED. He asked me if I remembered it (sadly I didn't). He told me that was his motto as a teacher, 'every student, every day'. He said it was always his goal to make sure he checked in with each one of us each day, individually in some way. I couldn't say why my year in his classroom was my favorite, but maybe it was the simple act of being acknowledged as an individual. We may have anywhere from 12 to 500 students, but each one of these students is a unique individual with unique gifts. Spending time getting to know them makes you a better teacher and person, and them better students and little lights of love and learning that we can put out into the world.
If you have other ideas to help us get to know our kids add them in the comments!
Anyone who has children (or who has worked with them closely) knows that when a kid finds a favorite book, they like to hear the same story approximately 1,356 times. There is some research that shows that hearing repeat stories is comforting and helps children learn new words. Which is a bonus when you are helping students acquire a second language. However, we also know that brains crave novelty. How do we take advantage of these two seemingly contradictory pieces of information about how students acquire language and what maintains interest? This year I tried to marry these two different strategies together with Repeating Interactive Stories with a Twist.
What are RISTs (a new acronym!!) ? Repeating Interactive Stories with a Twist are just what they sound like, stories that repeat, include student interaction for all students, and have a different twist at the end (to keep everyone tuned in); an added bonus is that all of these stories are low teacher prep. As I went over in a previous post, we can't be our best selves for our students if we are not taking care of ourselves!
Below are some of my favorite RISTs, if you have any ideas for a new RIST or have tried this strategy in your classroom please share in the comments so we can all learn together.
Can I go to the Bathroom? This is a fun way to ease into RISTs , and a fun way to start the school year. If you are a Spanish teacher, it ties in perfectly with SrWooly's ¿Puedo ir al baño?(see above videos for the original and a re-make by my first graders). The set up for the story, is that one student plays the teacher, and another student comes and asks the 'teacher' if they can go to the bathroom. The class watches as they ask, and give a thumbs up or down (very dramatically, gladiator style) to decide if they think the kid should be allowed to go. The ultimate decision (thus the mini twist) is with the teacher, who says 'yes you can' or 'no' and passes or denies the bathroom pass accordingly. Whoever played the student asking to go to the bathroom in the first round, becomes the teacher in the second round. The story repeats with a new student asking to go to the bathroom.
If students are not ready to produce the language, they act and move their mouths, and I say the words for them. If the students are more advanced they can add reasons about why they need to go to the bathroom (it is an emergency, my stomach hurst, etc) to differentiate the language. Depending on the level of your students you could also describe what the "teacher" is doing (i.e. on the computer, on the phone, drinking coffee, looks mad, looks happy, etc. as well as the student). I recommend this game for the start of the year as an icebreaker when establishing classroom routines.
The House: The next RIST has a slightly scarier slant, I use it with my 1st graders near the middle of the year when we are learning some house vocabulary. While you can include whatever words you like in your RIST, words I include in this RIST include: sleeping, night, suddenly, a noise, bedroom, walk, window, look, hall, listen, door, open, run, jump, cover, and blanket. Again, feel free to include whatever words work for your class in this or any RIST.
This story the entire class acts out at the same time. I tell students they are sleeping in their bedroom at night. When I say the words sleeping all students close their eyes (many snore), when I say 'night' students make night sounds (bugs, wind in the trees, etc). After all the eyes are closed I make some sort of noise (it may be a snake hissing, a growl, a scratching noise, a sound of hooves, whatever sound I want to connect to the end of the story).
I then say, 'suddenly you hear a noise' (students sit up). Next I say, you stand up slowly and you walk to your window (students act out as I speak, walking slowly to an invisible window and making their arms into a square window shape so they can look through it). I say ' you see nothing.' Next I tell students 'you walk slowly down the hall', and 'you listen at the door' (students act out both of these narrations). I tell students 'you open the door slowly'. At this point I have some sort of prop there that matches the noise I made that 'woke them up'. If I made a hissing noise, I have a giant snake, if I made a scratching noise a monster puppet or a spider, the sound of hooves? A unicorn (that looks nice at first, but turns out to be mean). I then yell 'There is a (fill in the blank with appropriate creature), instruct the students to shut the door quickly (they slam the door), run down the hall (they run in place), jump in their bed, cover themselves with their blanket, and sleep (students act accordingly).
My students LOVE this one, and acquire several words from this story very quickly. We could play it over and over for an entire class, but I try to keep it to 3 to 4 rounds at a time so it doesn't get old. With enough repetition fast processors can narrate, low students can also help 'choose the story' by secretly selecting whatever will make the noise before you begin your story.
It hurts me... This next RIST was inspired by Sr. Wooly's Me Duele (It Hurts Me) for non-Spanish teachers, and my favorite Shel Silverstein poem as a kid: Sick. The premise is someone is sick (or pretending to be sick) and wants to go home. Words that I focus on include: sick, it hurts me, body parts, home, school, go, and action words. The set up for this RIST is very similar to the set up for the 'Can I go to the bathroom?' story. In it, one student plays the secretary or school nurse (the gatekeeper to leaving the school) another student plays the 'sick' kid. Everyone else in the class weighs in (gladiator style with a thumbs up or thumbs down) on whether or not the 'sick' kid gets to go home, or has to go back to class. The sick student walks into the office (a third student can play the door to the office if needed) and walks up to the secretary/nurse. They greet the secretary/nurse and use their best acting skills to convince them that they are sick and need to go home. The audience (rest of the class) recommends they go home (thumbs up) or back to class (thumbs down) based on their performance. The secretary or nurse gets to make the ultimate decision and sends them back to class, or home. Whoever was the student becomes the secretary/nurse. The former secretary/nurse rejoins the class audience.
As before, if the student is a fast processor or has acquired the language, I let them speak for themselves and elaborate on their excuses. If the student is a slow processor, they act and move their mouth, and I say the words for them. That way every student can shine in their own way.
Of course, you can make the vocabulary as rich (describe the nurse/secretary, describe the student opening the door, and their state of health, the weather etc) or as basic as needed to fit the needs of your learners.
coFor my birthday I want... This RIST is one I just started a few weeks ago, as I needed to cover 'birthday presents' as part of my curriculum before EOY testing and I had not covered that specifically during the year. The focus of this lesson for me were the words: present, wants, and doesn't want. You can also include animal words (or whatever 'presents' you throw in the circle), and descriptive words for the 'birthday student'.
I started by making up an elaborate story, but found after experimentation that keeping it simple worked best. Keeping it simple entailed:having all my students sit in a circle, and putting roughly 15 stuffed animals in the circle in front of them. Whichever student had the next birthday in class was 'it' and sat in my rocking chair. I talked the 'birthday' student up (is very kind, smart, creative, etc). I go on to explain that if you came to their birthday party I am sure they would be happy with whatever present you gave them and be grateful. However, for just today we are going to pretend that they only want ONE present, and will reject anything else that is given to them.) I write up info about the 'birthday student' on the board in the target language. For example: Emily's birthday is the 22nd of May. Emily wants ____________ (gives a chance for repetitions of the question word 'when' as you can ask each student when their birthday occurs). The 'birthday student' picks an item from the circle in their head (without telling anyone). Students in the class take turns picking the present they think the birthday student wants and offering it to them with the words "do you want' in the target language. The birthday student either 'keeps' the present and says 'Yes I want it thanks' or throws the present to the ground and says 'no I do not want it) in the target language. When a student guesses the correct present, they get to go next.
I haven't had much chance to experiment with this game, but I could see it being a nice lead in to circumlocution. When a student had a hard present to guess, I would ask them questions like: Is it big or small? Does it have 2 legs, 4 legs, 6, legs, or 8 legs? Is is an animal or a person? Is it pretend or real? Does it swim or fly? Etc. Using questions and descriptive words to help lead the class to guessing the correct present reveals a lot about what the class understands. In the future, I could see doing this game in a way that allows the teacher to know ahead of time what 'present' the student picks so more clues/comprehensible input can be used to reveal the correct answer. Students LOVE this one and everyone wants a turn to be 'it'.
The next few mini strategies. have the flavor of RISTs but don't quite fit the description above. These are strategies that double as brain breaks, and chances to practice direction words. In the video on the left, you see a virtual Wii U Obstacle Course (I find these on Youtube). The students run the course, as the mini player does. When the player walks, runs, jumps, falls, waits, dodges, etc. I give those words in the target language (Spanish for me) as the student does them. Inevitably I have students ask if we are really 'running' the obstacle course. I always say of course, even though it is just a video (which most of the kids know anyway). After we do this a few times, the students usually call out the actions in Spanish before I get to them.
The second video is a virtual roller coaster. For this I use words like hands up, hands down, high, fast, is scared, left, right, etc. As we 'ride' the roller coaster students put their hands up or down, scream 'I am scared' in Spanish, and lean to the left or right appropriately as I say the words.
Both of these activities serve as fun brain breaks, but the movement with the action helps tie the the meaning to the movement in their brains (which help them remember the meaning behind the words). The twist comes from varying the rollercoasters and obstacle courses (you can find many of both on Youtube). I've also done this with the Luge around the olympics. And the amazing Maestra Loca taught ME a new twist on the obstacle courses above that make them even more fun. On Youtube you can change the speed of most videos by clicking on the gear in the corner of the video. While I had used this feature in the past to slow down Spanish speaking videos for my kids, I had never thought of using it to speed things up. Doing the obstacle course or roller coaster at 1.5 or even 2 times normal speed is a whole new twist in and of itself. Thanks Annabelle!
I hope you find the above stories low prep, comprehensible input heavy, and loads of fun for yourself and your students. I know that my students ADORE these stories, and have acquired lots of new words from them in a fun and easy way, that doesn't feel like work. If you have any potential new RIST ideas please add them in the comments below so we can learn from each other!
Entering my 13th year in the classroom; I am a TPRS/CI Elementary Spanish Teacher. Passionate about TPRS/CI, Brain based learning, and using technology to bring the world to our students, and our students to the world.