Category: Spanish/world languages

This new teacher’s biggest challenge

This new teacher’s biggest challenge

My biggest challenge as a first year teacher was not classroom management. It was not keeping up with lesson planning or grading.

My biggest challenge was not responding to questions and complaints from parents  or staying cheerful at long faculty meetings.

No, my biggest challenge was encouraging my students to think — what educators these days call developing a growth mindset.

As someone who loves making kids happy and comfortable in the classroom — and someone who has never been shy about sharing what she knows, it is hard to describe how difficult it was to bite my tongue and not immediately reply when students demanded:

“Just TELL us the answer!”

“Remind us!”

And, my favorite from the last week of school, “FIX THIS!” when a capable eighth grader’s Google Slides project went haywire.

It would have been an easy way to keep stress levels down in my classroom. Just provide the answer (or fix the problem on the computer screen) every time a student struggled. But that’s not in a student’s best interest.

Learning is a struggle — but a good one

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck coined the term growth mindset and presented arguments for praising students who make the struggle to learn in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

She encourages parents and teachers to praise students when they work hard and ask them how they feel about themselves afterward.

The idea is to help students value the process of learning and feel good about themselves when they have figured out something on their own — not just memorized correct answers from a textbook.

As a world language teacher, I wanted to students to value the process of figuring out new words in Spanish based on vocabulary they already knew in Spanish and in English. I also wanted them to feel good about being able to create new sentences in Spanish with rules they had learned about nouns, adjectives and verb conjugations.


At the start of the school year, I discovered I had my work cut out for me. Students wanted to memorize passages from the textbook and phrases that I wrote on the board. They wanted those exact passages and phrases to appear on quizzes and tests.

“WHAT?? We didn’t learn this!” I heard over and over. No, I would say. You did not have that exact sentence but you learned something similar. Apply what you know.

As I said. It was hard not to just break down and just tell students the answers. All of the kids I taught were smart and adorable. I wanted them to like me and like my class.

Learning how to learn a world language

I had to continually remind myself that learning to think about how to learn Spanish would benefit them more than an immediate A on a quiz.

I wasn’t successful getting all of my students to embrace the passion for learning how to learn a world language. But I know I reached many of them.

More than 90 percent of the eighth graders I taught scored well enough on an end-of-year exam to earn a credit for Spanish 1-2 — a class ninth graders normally take the first year of high school.

I feel like I scored big too. I will be starting a new job at a magnet traditional public school in July. I look forward to teaching the growth mindset at my new school.




My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

My big surprise: Kids who want a traditional teacher

I’ve been a teacher for two months now and my biggest challenge has not been the short attention spans of middle schoolers – or how much they crave lessons with computers and cell phones.

Eight weeks into my new life, I am shocked by the handful of kids who still want an old-fashioned teacher.

Yes, the kind of teacher who wants everyone in their seat facing forward, who writes everything out on the board and peppers lectures with the phrase “know this for the test.”

The kind of teacher my education course instructors and textbooks tell me NOT to be.

Not a ‘sage on the stage’

When I decided to leave my journalism career and teach Spanish to kids, I did not picture myself standing at a lectern and reciting verb conjugations until kids nod off. I did not want to be what modern educators disparagingly call “the sage on the stage.”

I arrived at the classroom with ideas for games, a stack of music CDs and links to educational videos that kids can dance to. Sure I planned to do short lectures but I expected to spend most of the time overseeing group work, encouraging kids to converse in Spanish and having fun with music, drawing and other activities that reinforce what we are learning.

With most students, this system works. At the end of last week, I gave out a boatload of As to kids who have worked hard, played hard and say they are enjoying my class.

But then there are the students who surprise me.

Some kids want an old-fashioned teacher

“You have only taught us ONCE this year,” one student complained a few weeks after the start of the school year.

It took me a few minutes to realize she was referring to a time when I conjugated a verb on the white board because I could not find a creative image of the conjugation online and the verb was not in our textbook. As I wrote, I explained the rules for the conjugation. And I felt like a bit of a failure because the instuctions were not more fun.

But a couple other students chimed in after their classmate’s comment. They praised teachers who write out everything students need to know on overhead transparencies. And teachers who give long, and apparently comforting, lectures.

Nevermind that one of my textbooks calls the document camera and overhead projector the worst enemies of teachers. It is impossible to sit behind a desk and walk around to monitor student’s independent work at the same time.

So how did these kids get so traditional? And what about the majority of students who do so well in classes where teachers mix things up for a variety of learning styles, including musical and kinesthetic intelligence?

An experiment with tradition

After some long, soul-searching conversations with my principal, who tells me he is trying to get teachers out from behind the desk and at students’ sides, I decided to experiment with more traditional lessons.

We started out with an activity that always put me right to sleep when I was a public school student: Reading directly from the textbook.

But the previously unhappy students cooperated happily. As they read, you could feel the anxiety level in the room drop. I did not call on kids randomly but went in alphabetical order so they knew exactly what to expect. We went through the vocabulary words one by one until we had covered an entire page.

I was amazed. Students were focused. No one whispered or crumbled paper for spit balls. This was their way of learning. My college instructors would call them “auditory learners.” Most got As on the next quiz.

I am still a little baffled by this situation. Is my confusion because I learn best by reading about something, then writing or doing a practical activity related to what I have read? Perhaps. So, as I plan lessons for the second quarter, I am including more time for old-fashioned lectures and reading aloud for the kids who want it so much.

My worry – will they survive in AP classes?

Part of me is sad for the kids who learn in such an old-fashioned way. How will they make it in the more free-form high school honors classes that I know they are capable of taking?

I picture them in college waiting to take notes until a college professor opens the textbook and read it to them. Or in a high-tech work group waiting in vain for a team leader to write out instructions for that day’s work.

I worry about them.

Let it go, my teacher friends tell me. They will find their way.

And so I do. After all, I am finding mine.







‘Never embarrass your students’ and other tips from master teachers

‘Never embarrass your students’ and other tips from master teachers

Turning a toddler’s potty seat into a bathroom pass seemed like a great way to discourage middle school students from leaving my classroom for too many breaks.

After all, what self-respecting 11-, 12- or 13-year-old would want to be seen walking down the hall holding a red and green Elmo seat with the expressions “Ha! Ha!” and “LOL?”

I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. Other teachers use it too.

Still, I was wrong. The potty seat goes into the trash and I am starting a new system this week.

Laughing Elmo seat was embarrassing

Elmo’s laughing image did nothing to discourage most boys from leaving my class as often as they pleased. Some would even come back into the classroom holding it high like a sports trophy — disrupting everything that was going on.

And girls who probably really needed a break would look at the potty pass, turn up their noses and go back to their seats.

It might have taken me more than a month to realize I was making a mistake by using the potty seat, but I was fortunate to recently spend a school day with master teacher Stephanie Franquinha, a Chandler, Ariz., Pueblo Middle School teacher and Spanish department chair for the Kyrene School District.

“NEVER embarrass your students,” Stephanie told me when I asked about her classroom management philosophy.

This idea made me stop and think about everything I have been doing since I began teaching in August . I have made rules and given passes, detentions, rewards and praise … but basic politeness has not entered into many of my actions.

I watched Stephanie’s finesse with her large classes of sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Nearly all of the students were very clear about the rules and their responsibilities in class. When one would get out of line, Stephanie would walk over and talk to them quietly. She never stopped a class to call anyone out. The other students did not even look up when she redirected someone here or there.

Quiet classroom management works

At one point, Stephanie took a bottle away from a kid who was playing with it instead of paying attention. I was sure a few heads would turn and watch what was going on. Nope. She and I were the only ones who knew a student had been reprimanded. Everyone else was hard at work.

My own classes have been a bit calmer since my day with Stephanie. But I still have a lot of work to do on my system.

A few weeks ago I asked other experienced teachers  to share their wisdom. Here are a few more tips:

Tips from other master teachers

“Keep Sundays for yourself. Run your errands and do everything you need to do on Saturday. Then lay on the sofa with a good book or movie on Sunday,” recommends Kathy Nunez,  a history teacher at Kyrene Altadeña Middle School in Phoenix

“Find an exercise outlet that helps you physically and mentally,” advises retired Mesa Dobson High School English teacher Mike McClellan. “I used to take a four-mile run after school.”

“Self correct as you go along and never be too harsh on yourself,” says retired Mesa Redbird Elementary teacher Cindy Eckert-Timm.

“Nice matters,” coaches Beth Snyder, science teacher at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School in Phoenix. “You know how they say ‘Don’t smile before Christmas?’ Forget that.

“Laugh at yourself. Eat well. Hydrate. Sleep.”

“Remember that the kids will get it,” advises Sara Adams, a language arts teacher at Kyrene Altadeña. “All teachers doubt themselves but then there is that moment when the light goes on.”

What’s next for my students

Early on, I decided one of my missions is to teach my students how to plan their time and be responsible for themselves in the classroom. The Elmo potty pass was not doing anything to help kids with those goals.

So this week I am going to distribute two cardboard restroom passes to each student — to be used between now and the end of the term. Students don’t use the passes can turn them in before report card time and get extra credit points.

This idea also comes from Stephanie Franquinha. I will write again about how well it works!






Teachers: Pack rats or practical?

Teachers: Pack rats or practical?

A couple of weeks before the school year started, it dawned on me how much public school teaching is like putting on a theater production.

There’s the script – lesson plans – to write.

There are directors and crew members – teachers, administrators and support staff.

In my active-learning style classroom, students are the stars of the show.

Recently I have come to think of my teaching materials — from books to CDs to puppets and maracas – as theater props. You can give a show on an empty stage – but is it as interesting as a fully outfitted production?

My classroom is the stage

Storage of my growing collection of teaching materials has been an interesting challenge. I have lots of things on display in the classroom, more in classroom closets and an expanding array of items in my walk-in closet at home.

Only two weeks into the school year, my own closet has come to resemble a theater props room. No I am not going to post a photo of it, but here is an image from school.


When I was still in the planning stages of my career change, I read Marie Kondo’s bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I did not follow her program fanatically, but was able to clear out two bedrooms, five closets and some kitchen cabinets before I had a housemate move in.

I sold books, CDs, clothing and unwanted knickknacks at second-hand shops. I sent the rest to Goodwill. I did some painting and put in new floors. And for a short time, my sleek and well-organized house could have been featured in a magazine.

Tidiness ended when I started teaching

Alas, I am now a teacher and the life-changing magic is gone. My closet is now filled with baskets and boxes of pens,  file folders, colored paper and even a couple rolls of bubble wrap. I have a collection of Mexican dresses and blouses in my drawers. I knew something had changed in me the first week of school when, instead of recycling the packaging material from an shipment, I tucked it away in case I needed it for a classroom art project.

I didn’t feel obsessed with hanging on to the bubble wrap. I felt like I was doing something practical.

My good friend and outstanding Ohio music educator Tamara Morris once told me that while she admired people with extremely tidy houses, she would never be one. Tami has had an amazing career teaching kids music and staging school theater productions. She now coordinates events and publicity for the Ohio State University’s School of Music.

A new creative way of life

“A lot of people with neat houses never do anything else,” I recall her saying.

I nodded in agreement, thinking I knew exactly what she was talking about. And, by the way,  her home always looks beautiful.

Now, as I wonder what to move from the closet shelves when I need additional sombrero storage, I see I had no understanding at all of the wonderful trade-off she was making.

I am delighted to be joining the show!








What’s a teaching intern?

What’s a teaching intern?

Fingerprint clearance card? Check.

Proof of immunity to measles? Check.

College transcripts? Check.

Professional references? Check.

Arizona Department of Education teaching intern certificate? Check.

Wait? What? The state is letting interns teach in public schools?

It’s a question friends and acquaintances have asked since last November, when I left a long career as a newspaper reporter and editor to start a two-year teacher training program. It has come up even more frequently since I signed a one-year contract to teach middle school Spanish a few weeks ago.

In a perfect world, all teachers would spend four years studying education theory and student teaching before graduating from college. Then they would spend another year or so  co-teaching with a more experienced educator before standing in front of a classroom of their own — as the New York Times recently recommended.

In a perfect world, there would be no shortage of teachers for difficult subjects like math, science, special education and world languages. Teachers would not leave the profession in frustration over long hours and low salaries. And more students would graduate from college wanting to be teachers instead of business leaders.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

For me, a life-long Spanish learner with a master’s degree in the subject but no education degree, an intern certificate is a win-win. I’ve accepted a difficult-to-fill spot and will spend the next two years teaching full time and taking education courses at Rio Salado College. If all goes well, I will have a full teaching certificate in two years.

Teaching interns take hard-to-fill jobs

Arizona created the teaching intern program a decade ago, when national and state officials decided that too many schools were hiring uncertified teachers for hard-to-fill spots. Many had little or no training in the subjects they were teaching.

In contrast, an intern is required to have at least a bachelor’s degree, to have passed a comprehensive exam in the subject they wish to teach, to have enrolled in a teacher education program and to have passed a criminal background check.

The program is helpful, but not a panacea, said education department spokesman Charles Tack.

While the state is short thousands of teachers — more than half of  state officials who responded to a 2014 survey said they were struggling to fill openings — Arizona only had about 880 teaching interns last year. In the hardest-to-fill categories, only about 2 percent of math, science and technology teachers and only about 3 percent of special education teachers hold intern certificates.

My teaching intern certificate from the Arizona Department of Education is valid for a year.

Seed planted five years ago

I learned about Arizona’s teaching intern program five years ago when I wrote a news article about the subject. I met retirees starting second careers as special education teachers and recent graduates leaving jobs in business to teach high school chemistry and geometry.  As interns, they earned the same pay as a starting teachers. They both taught and took education classes full time.

I saw the interns’ passion for the classroom and was inspired. I thought of my own master’s degree in Spanish that I had used in a journalism career instead of teaching. Would I also be happy as a teacher? As time passed, I decided the answer was yes.

When I had the opportunity to take an early-retirement buyout last fall, I enrolled in Rio Salado College’s Teacher in Residence program. 

What it takes to become an intern

Like most major life changes, becoming a teaching intern was not easy.

After passing Rio’s entrance exams, I headed to Oaxaca, Mexico and spent most of December at a school that helped me prep for my Spanish proficiency exam. The three-hour test included advanced grammar and questions about Spanish and Latin American culture, politics, arts and literature. It included a speaking presentation and an essay.

Learning about traditional ways to make tamales was part of my studies in Mexico before becoming a teaching intern.


While taking Spanish language immersion classes, I observed teacher protests in Mexico.

After passing the proficiency test,  I started classes at Rio Salado. Arizona requires educators to be prepared to teach students who arrive speaking languages other than English. So I took a structured language immersion course. I also took the state’s required Arizona and American Constitution classes and coursework in brain development and lesson planning.

In June, I headed back to Mexico for more language and cultural immersion. I took language classes in Mexico City, visited the pyramids at Teotihuacan, observed teacher protests and had long conversations in Spanish with a variety of people about the differences between life here and life there. I look forward to sharing what I learned in my classes.

Job openings a pleasant surprise

Over the last nine months, I have been overwhelmed by support and encouragement from educators who have welcomed me to their field. And I was pleasantly surprised by the number of job openings for Spanish teachers in metro Phoenix. I applied at eight districts, heard from four that were interested in hiring teaching interns and had interviews at four schools. I accepted an offer with the Kyrene School District, which has an outstanding training program for new teachers.

School officials must sign forms stating that they  support the interns they hire, so I felt honored to interview at so many places. Not only will Kyrene staffers mentor me, they also will allow professors from Rio Salado into my classroom to monitor my progress.

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