Year Eight: Growth vs. Grit

A new home.
Yesterday I lay on the floor of the lunch room at school and surveyed my eight years of teaching from that angle. On a floor or flat on my face can feel like the right perspective for this expanse of time. I remember lying on the floor of my empty apartment, my first year of teaching and my first year of living by myself. I remember sleeping on the floor of my first classroom, trying to gather myself together for a long commute home in the snow. I remember sunnier afternoons in Spain, where two other teachers and I lay out mats on the floor in the music room on during afternoon siestas, for un poquito de relax.

Eight years brings me here to San Diego, where we finished our two weeks of teacher prep with an hour of yoga together. Stretching and moving and lying still among a big group of my coworkers was good. For some reason I think it helped get me into an emotional place where I can actually reflect on my school year, which I try to do each summer. Maybe the equivalent of mental stretching.

As a not-new-anymore teacher, I keep checking my pulse: Am I growing or am I just surviving? The end of last year was hard because I didn’t know if I was doing either. It was an exhausting year, and the exhausted end of the year is not the best place to recognize growth. In the midst of growing pains is also not the best place to recognize growth, and there were a lot of growing pains (both as a school and as a teacher.)

And now… I’m here, and I’ve grown. So here I am with some wordy lists and some listy words (because that’s just me.)

Things to celebrate this year:

  1. Meaningful & Differentiated Homework: I never thought homework would be at the top of a “great things this year” list! Nobody likes homework – not teachers, not students, not parents. I spent a lot of time last summer mulling over how to give my middle school students meaningful practice outside the classroom, and how to connect that to their grades. This year, students had a list of practice options for each month, including lots of cool online practice tools (like Duolingo and LyricsTraining) and activities appropriate for various levels, learning styles, and access to technology. They had to choose at least one activity a week and turn in a report at the end of the month with evidence of what they had done. (More info here, if you’re someone looking for homework for your students.) Throughout the year I got feedback from students and tweaked the options a bit, and even extended the options to my 5th grade students during the second semester. Most students found activities that they enjoyed, and I had a much higher percentage of homework completion than I’ve had in the past. Duolingo especially made a difference when it came to students’ gaining and retaining language proficiency. Weekly reports via Google Classroom were also very manageable from a grading perspective – I spent about 40 minutes of grading per class per month, which isn’t too shabby.
  2. Project Based Learning: We’re a PBL focused school, and most of our professional development this year was focused on developing projects. I dove in, and did a lot of projects across the grade levels. I came out of the year with at least one strong project for each grade level that I’ll use in the future:
  • 3rd-5th grade: We participated in Journey North for the first time, which was great. We sent symbolic butterflies to Mexico while learning about the migration of the Monarch butterflies. It was a great chance to talk about being cultural ambassadors sending messages of peace, friendship and conservation. There were also so many cross-curricular connections built in, especially to science. Best of all (for busy teachers) it’s a project that someone else put together and that is organized and ready to go – the folks at Annenberg do a great job. Participate this year if you can!
Some of our butterflies where they landed in Angangueo, Mexico.

Some of our butterflies where they landed in Angangueo, Mexico – photo from Journey North.

  • 6th grade: I think our strongest project that I will definitely return to was our 6th grade Lotería  project, which also fits really nicely with the language objectives in Unit 1 of our curriculum. We explored the gender of nouns by looking at a lot of historical and modern Loterías (including Teresa Villegas‘ absolutely gorgeous version, and Chepo Peña’s nerdy and wonderful Space Loteria.) Students then created their own Lotería sets with items that were meaningful to them, and sentences about themselves on the back.


  • 7th grade: I did a big cross-curricular Advertising unit with 7th grade, collaborating with humanities and math. Students analyzed advertising messages in English and Spanish, connected that to how artists convey messages (like Goya’s Caprichos) and finally created their own ad campaigns for social change, in English in Spanish. This was a very prep-heavy unit, but with good results. It was good for a differentiated focus on interpretive language since students could analyze a variety of print & video advertisements in Spanish that corresponded to their levels.


  • 8th grade: 8th grade was tricky this year because our one 8th grade class was a very diverse mix, including a handful of native speakers, students who had me last year, and a large percentage of newcomers and absolute beginners. I tried to find heavily differentiated lessons and projects, with varied success. One project that went well with such a mixed group was a group project where students chose a text at an appropriate level to research and teach to a younger class. They chose a variety of books, poems, rhymes, songs, and games and prepared lessons. I’m not sure it’s an ideal project for focusing on specific language objectives, but it worked well for this group of students and fit well with our school’s overall focus on PBL and collaborative skills.


Three challenges this year…

  1. PBL vs. Proficiency: I believe the value of project based learning, and I believe in the value of proficiency-based language programs. I haven’t quite found the balance of the two – or at least, how to do both well at the same time. I did more projects this past year than I ever have, but I don’t think my students gained enough proficiency. Project based learning requires so much collaboration and teaching students how to collaborate, and if students are not already at a level where they can collaborate in Spanish, there’s going to be a lot of English. Real-world connections don’t always fit into a best practices box. It’s a balance I’m still working toward.
  2. PBL vs. Time: Last year I advocated hard for increased Spanish time, especially in younger grades. I got my wish, and we hired another Spanish teacher for grades K-3. However, she quit at the last minute and we had to contract out the younger classes with an outside company. As a result, I didn’t had more classes and not much prep time. This is nothing new (since before I was teaching K-8, sometimes with no lunch break) but planning projects requires so much extra time that I was really swamped. I came in just about every weekend, and didn’t have energy for much of anything outside of work. Aside from having zero work/life balance, this also didn’t give me time to be the kind of teacher I wanted to be – especially as a PBL newbie.
  3. PBL vs. Space: I’m no stranger to being a homeless traveling teacher. As it turns out, projects from a cart are a little tricky. We have a beautiful and modern new building in downtown San Diego, which unfortunately does not include a Spanish classroom. So in the midst of several projects at once (and without prep time between grade levels) my cart tended to be a hot mess most of the time. (I knew it was bad when my principal walked past and took a photo of the cart.) My wonderful seventh graders designed some new carts for me… let’s see if we can work those into the budget for this year.


3 things I’m excited about for this coming year:

  1. A new schedule. I got to be part of a committee this past year who completely rebuilt our schedule from the ground up, with our new space and our focus on PBL in mind. I’m excited about the schedule and how it fits with what’s important at the school, but also on a personal level I’m excited to have a more manageable work load. I’ll be teaching 5th-8th grade, with time in between for prep and collaboration and to help with our EL students.
  2. Familiar faces. One of the benefits of teaching multiple grades is that I have the same students as they progress through the grades. This year, since I’m changing from teaching 3rd and up to teaching 5th and up, I’ll know every one of my students at the beginning of the school year (with the exception of a few newbies.)
  3. Zines! I started exploring zines last year, and threw together a zine project at the end of the year for my 8th graders. This year I’m starting the year with zines – we’ll be making zines about reasons to learn languages, and sharing them with the community at the San Diego Zine Fest.

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