Michele Whaley – Student Generated Stuff Works

I just gave my second final exam to a mixed group (levels 2-5). I stole the idea from a traditional teacher in our building.
The concept was that the kids were returning ten years after having graduated to the Russian class reunion. They had to have 15 pictures that they would share with classmates. They also had to write up a certain length in advance so that I would know they had prepared their stories and didn’t just waltz in to make everything up the last day (though I honestly wouldn’t have cared…I wanted to give them the practice in getting ready). I did a two-stage correction for them—sat with them in class during FVR or at lunch clarifying the obvious mistakes (“did you mean you are still living there or you did live there?”) and then they e-mailed me so that I can make these into books with their pictures.
We prepared for this exam by telling stories all year and by reading all the biographies on Sarah Palin and Chuck Norris (thanks, guys!) that I could find in Russian. Those helped establish some of the phrases they would need for “studied at,” “transferred schools,” “established a company,” “became an actor/writer/governor,” and so on.
When they got to class, they drew partner names and had ten minutes to sit down and hear each other’s stories while I set up the food. Then each partner introduced the other to the class. I had limited partner introductions to five facts, but next time I’m going to put in a time limit of a minute, because kids went over in a big way. Once that was finished, the whole class walked around eating, sharing pictures and telling about their lives. One kid has 100 kids and has been living in Moscow, adopting orphans (knew that word would come in handy). A girl got a scholarship to go study languages in Nepal, and she ended up teaching children there. One of my juniors was the first woman on the moon, and that is where she met her future husband. Several people have children and famous husbands. Sad to say that one girl (a US Senator) killed Victoria Beckam, who was at the time married to one of my boys after having divorced her husband…
We have an 80-minute block period (usually we have two-hour finals, but the seniors get out early so we did this two weeks earlier than the non-seniors would have finished). All I had to do was walk around, marking grades on a rubric similar to Bryce’s. got to ooh and aah over children’s pictures and houses and travel photos. By the end, there were very good grades: two kids got C’s (progressing) in speaking. Most of them met expectations, and a number went well over. The best part was that three Russian exchange students walked in after a field trip because they didn’t want to go back to their regular classes, and it took them a while to understand what was going on. Once they did, they got into the action and started asking lots of questions. They told me that my kids spoke very well and that they thought this should be the end of every language class. One of them came up to ask me about my own ten-years-later life, and that was fun too. I am definitely going to work a visit from native speakers into this final next time.
When the bell rang, the clamor from a group of kids sharing their lives in Russian was so great that no one noticed. We’ll have to hug our seniors at graduation. I was planning to play a couple of graduation songs we’ve learned and hand out cards and do a little speech. Instead, we had to stop class, sweep up the food, and yell “Da svidanya!”



9 thoughts on “Michele Whaley – Student Generated Stuff Works”

  1. Robert Harrell

    Michele, that is so great! Sounds like a wonderful final exam.
    You wrote “I just gave my second final exam to a mixed group (levels 2-5). ” Could you write some time about the experience(s) of teaching a mixed group across so many levels? My enrollment for next year is huge, but since we are not hiring I won’t be able to get any help. As a result, we’re going to do some combining of levels, and I would appreciate any insights, tips, etc. you might have. My enrollment numbers are as follows:
    level 1: 101 students
    level 2: 66 students
    level 3: 22 students
    level 4/AP: 15 students
    While we have enough students for 7 sections of German, we will offer only 5 sections. As a result, there will be two sections each of levels 1 and 2. Levels 3/4/AP will be combined in a single class. That only leaves one section of level 1 students out in the cold. (I suggested to my principal that the solution is to hire a combination German/French teacher since our current French teacher is leaving to get married, but that doesn’t seem to be an option.)

  2. Robert, I don’t have your class sizes (only 40 above level 1 split between two groups). You’ve got a tough situation there. This may not help, but I have to say I LOVE teaching a variety of levels. It gives the stronger kids in each level a place to shine and the weaker kids a place to be supported. The level 2’s are cowed at first, but then they find that they are part of a family.
    I teach three Russian classes for my high school: one level 1, two levels 2-AP. I also teach a level 2 at the next-door middle school. This year I had four Russian 1 kids in my level 2 middle school class.
    Last year, I had two level 4’s who had to be in the formerly level 2 only room, and they achieved amazing results, so I told my curriculum principal to mix the levels in two groups this year. Both of those level 4 kids were chosen this year for the State Dept’s NSLI-Y program. I credit that to their being in a room where they understood every word for a year. They did complain that it was too easy.
    We do all the stories, story reading, and classroom writing together in the mixed classes. When I can, I use native speakers to read “novels” with the more advanced students. I meet with the AP/IB kids in lunch groups supposedly to attack the grammar, but we really just read a lot and do grammar pop-ups. Sometimes during class I tell kids that the most complex of the embedded stories is only for the levels 4 and up. The whole group has to be attentive, but I only call on upper levels for translation. Level 2’s occasionally insist on being able to answer, much to the chagrin of the AP kids. But then I’ll point out something really advanced that an AP kid manages to do, just to show that being at AP means you have a lot more together without thinking about it. Sometimes I put the upper kids in charge of reading groups. I train them all to do discussions in reading…find the words that kids need to repeat more and circle/PQA etc. The AP and IB kids are the only ones who have reading homework–five days a week. They turn in minimal logs with new words they have got from context and words they felt forced to look up.
    Next year, I’m going to do more writing meetings with everyone–just pulling aside two or three kids a day for five one-on-one minutes during FVR or writing time. Those little meetings have done worlds of improved grammar without any grammar discussions. And I’m going to follow a technique that I’ll blog about later that comes from some Australian teachers involving bringing kids up to a higher text level, rather than taking the text to them. Actually–because of Laurie, we’re all onto that anyway with embedded readings. But there are some interesting twists.
    I am embarrassed to say (and luckily the comment will scroll away out of sight before my department can read it) that I’m very lazy about my teaching nowadays. I barely prep — only the three words, if we even stick to those. If we have a vocabulary test, I differentiate, but not much, between levels. I always put “grammar/vocabulary appropriate to level” on my speaking and writing rubrics. Slush room. Frequently we do the same story for every single class. I just use a different grammar point in each class to focus the structures and to make kids see something different on the board from level 1 to AP. As Susie taught me, I try to focus the grammar on the highest level in the room and the comprehensibility on the lowest level. Anyone should be able to sit in my room and understand for a day. I recycle old stories like crazy, thanks again to Laurie, but it’s also because it’s less work for me. The kids add things and I add things and we draw pictures and ask for more details, and everything gets just more and more complex.
    The last thing I’m going to do for sure next year is that I’m going to consistently offer a song a week. Just today in my middle school level 2, as we identified a little particle that I never used to even introduce in 4 years, one of the level 2 kids asked whether “li” (whether) was related to the “ali” from a song that we sang last year in which the “ali” means that the singer doubts the existence of a magical place. I couldn’t believe it. I’d never thought about it. It’s nearly an obsolete use of the word. But she got it.
    Maybe I’ll get Victoria to blog with an explanation and her results with a song a week in Japanese.

  3. We use those little square (no spirals) composition notebooks. They stay in the room to collect quizzes, fast writes, and any notes the kids want to take. Kids get to keep the notebooks once they fill up, but it takes up to two years. They do no writing out of class, and precious little writing inside class lately, to be honest.
    I sit with one kid at a time, and read the latest write out loud. (I got this from Betsy Paskvan in Anchorage, whose Japanese 1 kids wrote so well by the end of October this year that no one believed her.) I heap praise on them for everything I can and ask questions that expand on the piece, and then I may choose a couple of grammar or vocabulary or punctuation things to correct. Given that it’s Russian, there’s a lot to choose from, but lately I’ve been able to show some of them how to make writing sound a little more complex. I try to make it meaning-based. It’s over fast, and the kids like the attention.

  4. Do you hold these little meetings with your level 1’s also?
    On a different note, I’m interested in hearing more about mixed level classes. I have a couple classes of level 2 that are basically extreme multi-level classes anyways, with some kids getting everything and some being at a much more beginner level so to speak. What do you do about those lower level kids not comprehending everything but not speaking up? I know the goal is to make kids feel comfortable asking those questions, but it is still like pulling teeth. Does anyone allow those kids to sit next to an all-star and ask questions? Does it work? Or does it lead to lots of chit-chat? Does it set a bad precedent where speaking English in class is ok? Any thoughts or experiences from anyone would be great to hear!

  5. This is brilliant. It motivates the kids and associates positive emotions with writing and corrections. I bet they try to give their best when they know that someone really cares what they wrote. Do you read them as written, or do you read a correct version of what they said?

  6. Wow Michele, I am excited about trying these writing conferences. I never get enough 1-on-1 time with the students who aren’t actively requiring it (either positively or negatively), and this is a great way to make sure they get face time. About how often a week do you schedule FVR and Fast Writes to make time for these?

  7. I try to do both twice a week. (No writing from my level 1’s this year, until the very end, when I finally “let” them write a story or two.) That means that I can do four conferences a week with no trouble. Betsy taught me that if I conference just one time a quarter with each kid, it’s enough. What’s happened in reality is that kids now send me e-mails in Russian ever more frequently to get that praise. And sometimes kids will hang around after class or come early to ask me about what they wrote. Then I don’t have to get them to visit with me during class.
    I don’t read out loud for the entire class. I read out loud for the kid, translating as I go–kind of like how we do class readings, except I’m the translator. That way, they hear when my translation breaks down. And I can laugh at something that’s funny or say “Wow. This is an advanced construction,” or “You got every single tense correct here.” If the rest of the class is writing at that time, then several kids will use the same stuff correctly, having heard it. They want the same comments.
    The lower-level kids get to sit right in front of me. I watch their faces. The minute I think they don’t have something, I try to ask them the most simple thing in the sentence so they get it right or back up ’till I figure out where I lost them. It’s really hard to stay slow enough and check often enough to keep the lowest ones from dropping out. That’s when we start adding parallel stories. And I might ask the highest-level kids to write me a transcript in Russian, if they’re acting bored. Sometimes they type it for me too. I try to make everything like this seem need-based to the class, but I also point out that the AP kids need a little more challenge. They might get to write and simultaneously add details.

  8. Sorry. Me again. I try to do one FVR and one write (free or relaxed or extending write) each week. Each is ten minutes, so I can fit conversations with at least two kids into those two slots, chatting with between four and six kids a week.

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