Sunday, December 1, 2019

New activity types: Speed dating, PearDeck, and Conjuguemos games

As I have more of my materials developed, I've been working on improving or modifying existing activities to better meet learning objectives.  I have a number of activities where I ask students to interview classmates, and in the past I've done this as a free-for-all where they get up and move around the classroom. This worked pretty well in higher ed, but in K-12, what usually ends up happening is that I get a few big clumps of people that are answering the questions as a group. Efficient, yes, but part of the goal of the activity is to get them repetitions asking and answering the questions. So I borrowed an activity that I read about online (with apologies, because I can't remember where I read about it) and set up interviews in a speed dating format. To make it easier for me, I arrange all of my classes to do interviews on the same day so that I can arrange the desks the day before. I make a set of questions for each class, and give them 2-3 minutes to interview their partner. When the time is up, one partner moves on and the other one stays, and the process repeats. This has the added benefit of holding all students accountable for participating, and it's easier to plan for how long it will take. It also makes it easier for me to walk around and make sure people are talking in Spanish, and there's a lot more focus and a lot less off-task talking. Pretty much every time I've done it, I've heard students negotiating meaning in the target language in a way that surprised and impressed me, so it's been a great addition to my rotation of activities! I still do the free-for-all for short activities, but I've really been enjoying the speed dating set-up for more detailed interviews.

My school bought a subscription to PearDeck for all teachers this year, and it has a lot of great features. (It's a Google Slides add-on that lets you make your slides interactive, kind of like Kahoot but with more options.) It has a lot of features that I haven't tried yet, but my two favorites so far are drawing and dragging. For drawing, I'll give students a description of something and have them draw it. So in our housing unit, I might describe a room with furniture and students will draw what they hear. In a clothing unit, I describe what someone in a picture is wearing (or I just make something up) and they draw the outfit. I have also made a mental note of what someone in the class is wearing and described that for students to draw, and then asked students to tell me who in the class is wearing that. You could just as easily go low tech with this and have students use paper or mini white boards, but the added bonus of this is that I can show everyone's responses on the projector, and they enjoy seeing each other's drawings. (There is a feature that allows teachers to select specific responses to avoid projecting anything that might not be school-appropriate.)

The other feature I've been using is the dragging feature. With a draggable question, students can drag up to five icons to a specified place on the slide. There are a lot of potential uses for this, but I've found it to be great for working on location prepositions. So I might say "The red dot is in the center. The blue dot is to the left of the red dot. The green dot is above the blue dot. etc."  I can add shapes or drawings to my slide and then give students directions on where the dots are located in relation to items on my slide. For example, "The red dot is in the center of the circle. The orange dot is underneath the rectangle. etc." Once I've modeled it for students and we've practiced (over several class periods, I have students work in groups doing this activity on their own. So one student will put the dots in a pattern on the slide and describe it to the other students in the group, and at the end, they'll compare their screens and see if they match.

I work hard on creating activities that are meaning-focused and rarely use drills, but I do think it is very important that students know verb endings because so much meaning is conveyed in verb endings in Spanish (tense, aspect, mood, and subject in one tiny verb ending!). For the last two years, I assigned timed Conjuguemos quizzes with a required minimum percentage and number correct for a particular grade. It was not a popular assignment, which in itself would not be enough to dissuade me, but some of my best students were getting frustrated because they didn't type very fast, and their knowledge of verb endings was being conflated with typing speed (it also resulted in lots of cheating, as students who didn't know the forms just handed their computer to a friend who did to complete it for them). However, when students took their first unit test this semester, they did far worse than students in previous years in their ability to recognize who a verb was referring to and produce the appropriate verb ending. So I made two changes. First, Conjuguemos has a set of games that I hadn't been using, including Battleship. Students didn't like the timed practice, but they were pretty excited to play Battleship with each other, and it's a nice low-prep activity for days when I have a lot of other stuff to prepare, or days when I have a sub (I have students submit a screenshot of their game to Google Classroom). The other thing I started doing was having a required but ungraded practice time at the beginning of every class period. I pick a different pronoun to work on and students set the timer to 5 minutes and conjugate as many verbs as they can in 5 minutes.  Some of them still hate it, but now that it's just practice and not for a grade, it's more palatable, and now that they're doing it in class, I can walk around and make sure that each student is doing the work themselves, so it's easier to identify who might be struggling.  My pedagogical commentary on this subject because I can't not make this disclaimer when I'm writing about using drills: My main focus is always on making sure students can interpret language and produce intelligible language, so a lot of my activities push students to associate form and meaning.  We do not recite or chant verb endings, because those types of activities don't push students to make form-meaning connections. Conjuguemos also does not push students to make form-meaning connections, but it does push them to produce forms that will allow their listener/reader to understand what they're saying. Even if you firmly hold the line on explicit grammatical instruction not being converted into implicit knowledge, there is value in students knowing and being able to produce a grammatical form because it makes them more intelligible.

Assessments using Chromebooks and Google forms

Our school switched from iPads to Chromebooks this year, and I am all kinds of excited about the possibilities with Google forms and locked browser mode. A few weeks ago I spent about 30 minutes making my first vocab quiz in a Google form, and it went great and the kids said they liked the format better than paper. So a few weeks ago I spent about an hour putting my unit test into a Google form, and I am ridiculously excited about being able to get it all graded in 30 minutes or less.

In case it's useful, here's how I set it up: I divided the test into sections (4 different Google forms) so that students can choose which section they want work on first, just like they can with a paper test (but unlike a paper test, they can't go back to a previous section).

To streamline entering grades in the gradebook, my first two questions are "What is your last name?" and "What class are you in?" Then I can open the spreadsheet for the form and sort by class period and last name when it's time to put grades in.

I made a draft post of the different test parts in Google Classroom so that it's ready to go on test day, but when I post the draft, I only release it to students who are in class on the day of the test. If students are absent, I just release it to them whenever they come in to make up the test.

I tested it myself to see what students can and can't do. They can decide to exit the form without submitting, but if they re-open it, you get an email notification. Chrome disables the ability to take screenshots in locked browser mode (I tried it to just to make sure), and they can't open any other programs, tabs, etc. without exiting the Google form. I've used this in class for formative assessments where I don't want students to use a translator, and have discovered that it erases their progress on any other Google forms that they have open. Other than that, when they finish and submit, their browser should go back to what it was before they opened the quiz.

I should say that most of my test isn't multiple choice, but it will still be a lot faster to grade than paper because I can use the "grade by question" option in Google forms, which is a lot faster even than my grading-by-page method on paper.

After giving the test and a few quizzes this way, here are a few tweaks I've made:

1. I have a vocabulary section where I ask students to ID a certain number of words and another section that requires students to use what they know. I had these combined into one Google form, but in the future, I'll split it into two forms. The reason is that I give students a bunch of words that they can identify, but they don't need to identify them all. So there are maybe 10-15 points possible on the vocab ID section and another 5-10 points on the vocab in use section, but the Google form just gives me a total, and the total might be 50 or 60 if they identified all of the words that were in our unit vocab. So there are 15-25 points possible, but students might have more than that, and then I have to go in and look and see how they did on the second section where there aren't extra items (they don't get extra credit for identifying more than the required number of words). With the two sections separated, I'll be able to see quickly that they got the minimum number of words identified for 10-15 points, and in another spreadsheet their score on the second vocab section.

2. When grading: Don't try to grade anything while students are still taking the test. I thought I'd be efficient and get things started, but every time a student submits a form, the Google form refreshes, and you lose any work you haven't saved.

3. I only released it to students who were in class using Google Classroom, but it's theoretically possible that a student could share the link with someone who wasn't in class. So I also started adding passwords to Google forms that I change as soon as every student has opened the quiz or test. I used instructions from these two sites to set it up: and

4. Create two sections for every form. I like to scramble question order, but if I only have one section, the last name and class section questions get scrambled in with the actual test questions . So now every test and quiz has section 1 that asks for last name, class section, and a password, and section 2 that has the actual test/quiz items.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Teaching pronunciation in high school world language classes

One of the great things about teaching high school is how long I have all of my students. I'm now in my 3rd year with some of them, and it is so much fun to see how much they've learned in the last two years! One of the things that I've been doing in my classes is reinforcing basic concepts that students need to be able to function in the language. So for example, at the college level, I taught numbers and the alphabet in the first few weeks of first-semester Spanish, and then almost never worked on them. Partly this is a reality of teaching at the college level...the expectation is that a lot of material will be covered, so you don't really have time to spend building a solid foundation.

At the high school, and especially as the only Spanish teacher at my school, I can move at a pace that's conducive to deep learning. So we do go over the alphabet and practice sounds a lot at the beginning of Spanish 1, but I've been building on that by doing a weekly pronunciation lesson. My first year, I did the same lesson for Spanish 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then with each new year, I build a new set of lessons. So in year 1, I went through the alphabet letter by letter starting with vowels. In year 2, I did that again with Spanish 1, but for Spanish 2, 3, and 4, I went through vowel combinations and we practiced pronouncing vowel sequences (ae, ai, ao, au, etc.). In year 3, we're still working on vowel sequences in Spanish 3 and 4, but we're getting a little bit more detailed and comparing what vowel sequences sound like with and without accent marks on weak vowels. This will only take about half the year, and I'm still debating what we'll go over in the spring. In Spanish 1, I have students practice the vowels every week all year, so by the end of the year, they're doing relatively well with vowels for the most part.

So here's what it looks like so far:
Spanish 1: individual letters (a, e, i, o, u, and then all consonants starting with b and ending with z)
Spanish 2: 2-vowel sequences (ae, ai, ao, au, ea, ei, eo, eu, ia, ie, io, iu, oa, oe, oi, ou, ua, ue, ui, uo)
Spanish 3: 3-vowel sequences, diphthong vs. hiatus contrasts, still deciding between allophonic variations and accent patterns/rules for the spring semester
Spanish 4: TBD next year

The one thing that I realized this year that's missing is that I haven't been doing any perception practice with them. I want them to be able to hear words and have a basic idea of how they're spelled, but without doing listening practice, most students aren't going to make those connections. So I've started incorporating listening practice to help students make associations between the sounds and the letters that represent them. In the interest of not overloading myself with prep, I'm doing the same listening practice at all 4 levels with words from the bottom of the 10,000 most frequent word list of the RAE so that I'm using unknown words.

We have short days every Friday, so I take a lot of stress off myself by making Fridays my pronunciation and culture days (basically one lesson plan for all 4 levels of Spanish). I have a short reading and map activity about a different Spanish-speaking country that students work on while I'm circulating through room having them all pronounce the word list to me. I'm working on putting all of my lessons into one big presentation so that they're easy to access. I'm not done yet, but this is where you can find them if you're interested:

Spanish 1 pronunciation lessons
Spanish 2 pronunciation lessons
Spanish 3 pronunciation lessons
Spanish 4 pronunciation lessons

Why pronunciation? I know the trend has been to move away from teaching pronunciation since the audiolingual era, and some of that is a good thing...students don't need to sound like native speakers. But they do need to be intelligible in order to interact successfully in the target language, and the longer I teach, the more I realize that even in a "phonetic" language like Spanish, in the absence of direct instruction, most students aren't going to make the sound-letter correspondences. (And the results of my dissertation research suggested that even a small amount of time spent on training learners to perceive sound contrasts is enough to help them measurably improve their perception even over a relatively short period of time...not gonna lie, I really want to do a longitudinal study on this with my current learner population. Some habits die hard. :D)

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Google form template and header images

I've mentioned before that I use Google forms every day in my classes for a variety of purposes. Last year I made a simple change to make it less time-consuming for me to track form completion that I discussed here. This year, I've made two changes to my forms to make them work better for me. First, I created a folder of form templates on my Google Drive. I have a series of forms that I use as bell-ringers to practice things like days of the week, units of time, etc. So I made templates of those forms and then just copy them each week. I also made a basic template with my class section and last name questions, and then whenever I make a new Google form, I just copy my basic template so that I don't have to re-type those two questions every time I make a new form.

I also looked at my bland purple Google forms and decided to use the header to incorporate images from the Spanish-speaking world. So I went to Pixabay and grabbed some (free public domain!) images of different places in the Spanish-speaking world and started making my forms more visually appealing. Google also pulls colors out of your picture to make possible palettes to use as your background colors, so you don't need to have any sense of coordinating colors to make a reasonably attractive form (which is great for me, because although I keep trying to do this, I have no sense of color combinations and it always ends badly).

Sad, boring Google form

Google form that reminds me of my trip to Puerto Rico

Monday, June 10, 2019

Advice for the Spanish Praxis test

I've had various requests for help with the Spanish Praxis test over the last few years (since taking it myself to get my K-12 certification), and I thought I'd put a few thoughts together for people who are going to take it soon or need to retake it.  While the test-taker agreement (and my own memory) do not allow me to disclose the nature of the items on the test, ETS's practice test and prep materials offer a good starting point for study. So here's my advice (I received a 200 on the Spanish Praxis, Praxis Core Reading, and Praxis Core Math, and a 196 on the Praxis Core Writing).

1.  Pay to take ETS's practice test. I had been teaching Spanish at the college level for 18 years and was pretty confident that I'd do well on the Praxis, but I still like to prepare for tests. So I bought the ETS practice tests for the Praxis Core and the Spanish Praxis and did all of them as if it were a real test (timed, no use of outside resources, etc.). If you have test anxiety this is especially important because you can get used to the exam format and how the timed sections work.  When you take the test, it will show you your correct and incorrect answers, but it won't save them when you exit, so if you want to remember what you got wrong, you'll want to make sure that you leave enough time to go through your answers after you're done taking the test. For free, you can check out ETS's World Language Study Companion.

2. Do as much as you can in the target language.  The thing to remember about the Praxis test is that the goal is to see how well you can communicate in the target language in terms of both receptive and productive skills. It helps to know what the test looks like, but if your ability to understand and communicate in the target language is limited, there are no easy fixes. If you've taken the test and haven't passed, you probably need to amp up your time in the target language. Some ways that you can do this:

  • Change your settings to Spanish on apps, social media, email, etc.  The more exposure you have to Spanish (and the more you're doing in Spanish on a daily basis), the better you'll do, because you're picking up incidental vocabulary, giving your brain a chance to process different sentence structures, exposing yourself to cultural knowledge about the target language, etc. We need lots of exposure to input (listening and reading) in the target language to become fluent, so the more exposure you can give yourself, the better off you'll be.
  • Read and listen to the news in the target language. If you look at the practice test, you'll see that a lot of the listening and reading comprehension passages are pulled from the news. So the best thing you can do to prepare for the reading and listening comprehension sections are to read and listen to a little news every day. That's actually advice that I've been giving my students for years before taking the practice test, because that's basically how I learned to read with some degree of fluency. I did my study abroad in Costa Rica, and I was struggling to read academic texts because there were so many words that I didn't know. So I would sit down with a dictionary every night and try to plow through my readings, but it was slow and painful. I needed to be reading at a level that was more accessible to me in terms of vocabulary (and topic familiarity), so I started buying magazines and newspapers and reading them, and that's how I built enough vocabulary (and reading skill) to read at a higher level.  For students who are generally interested in Spanish but who aren't taking the Praxis, I recommend finding articles, videos, and podcasts on subjects that are interesting to you, because you'll be more invested in learning Spanish. For students preparing for the Praxis exam, I recommend mixing it up. Do read and listen to news about topics that interest you, but also read and listen to news on topics that are less interesting, because there's a high probability that you will not care about some of the topics, and this will help you prepare for trying to recall information about a topic that you don't care about (which is always harder than recalling information for a topic that you're interested in). 
  •  Talk to yourself. Speaking is a skill like any other skill, and you get better at it by practicing.  Use ETS's practice test speaking prompts to get started so that you know what the tasks will look like and practice those task types, but even beyond that, spend at least a few minutes every day talking through your day. If you struggle with verb tenses, work on past, present, and future by saying what you did yesterday, what you're doing today, and what you're going to do tomorrow. I know I'm a weirdo, but I did this when I took French, Portuguese, Italian, and Mandarin. I wanted more speaking practice but I was poor and couldn't afford to pay a tutor, so I just talked to myself to work on the language. You don't get the interpersonal side, but you do get practice speaking, and that helps even if you're just talking to yourself.
  • Talk to other people. If you have the chance, have as many conversations in the target language as you can. A number of universities have started to offer conversation classes for teachers and teacher candidates because it is HARD to maintain fluency when you're teaching lower levels, and these would be a great opportunity. My own alma mater, UNL, is offering this type of class online this summer (SPAN 432/832), and the University of Colorado's Certificate in Language Teaching offers a telecollaboration course to practice speaking, so you could do this from anywhere (and potentially get started on graduate classes to move up that pay scale!). You can also pay a tutor, or if money is an obstacle, you could join a language exchange site  and trade your English knowledge for practice in the target language (Google language exchange websites and find one that works for you; I don't have any recommendations because I haven't used any of these for a long time). 
  • Practice writing. Again, look at the writing prompts in the practice test, or check out the prompts in ETS's World Language Study Companion. Practice writing those specific genres of writing so that you're familiar with the task and the structure. I taught Spanish composition for a number of years, and one piece of advice I frequently gave to students was to use more specific words. Words like bueno, malo, interesante, cosa, etc. are pretty generic, so work on expanding your vocabulary enough to be more descriptive with your adjectives. For example, if you're writing a persuasive essay, the odds are that you think whatever you're trying to persuade someone to do would be beneficial. So instead of saying "XYZ would be good because...", you could say "XYZ sería beneficioso porque..." If you're arguing against something, you might use the words dañino (harmful) or consecuencias negativas. These are relatively minor changes that make your writing sound more sophisticated. If you're working on interpersonal writing, practice controlling register. Is the situation formal or informal? If you're testing in a language like French or Spanish that distinguishes between a formal and informal you, and a singular and a plural you, practice using those verb forms in your writing. 
3.  Follow directions and organize your ideas. In the free response sections, make sure you're following the directions. You may be able to speak and write fluent Spanish, but if your response doesn't follow directions, it isn't going to get a very good score, even if your Spanish is flawless.  The scoring rubrics are available here in ETS's study companion. Note that for any score above 0, you must address and complete the task. 

If you look at the scoring rubric for the Praxis, you'll see that a well-organized response falls into the 3 score criteria (the highest score) for all types of free response tasks. There are a lot of other criteria, but organization is the most easily controlled characteristic for a non-native speaker. Realistically speaking, you may not have great control of grammatical structures or pronunciation, or a wide range of vocabulary. It takes a long time to acquire some things; I was still having a lot of trouble with preterit and imperfect during my master's degree program, and I really didn't grasp it until I was working on my PhD in Hispanic linguistics. However, everyone is capable of organizing their responses coherently. In addition, a lack of organization can create the impression of disfluency, especially for non-native speakers. This isn't exactly the same thing, but in a study on pronunciation, Munro (1995) found that non-native speakers were judged to be harder to understand when they uttered untrue statements than when they uttered true statements. So even if your grammar and vocabulary are generally good, a lack of organization combined with even minor language errors typical of a non-native speaker may create the impression that you're not fluent.

If you are an aspiring educator and want more individualized language practice, I would recommend a site like LinguaMeeting (I have not used this site but have seen it recommended by trusted colleagues in world languages). I am not offering tutoring at this time, but if you would like to schedule a brief chat (free), please email me. My PhD is in Spanish linguistics with a certificate in second language acquisition and teacher education, and I've taught a variety of classes in Spanish at all levels of instruction, from first-year high school to advanced graduate courses in Spanish linguistics. See my CV here for a full list. For more information, please email me at aksaalfeld AT

I don't receive any form of compensation for any of the products or classes that I've recommended here.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Life and happiness after the tenure track

Updated May 17, 2020 to add the following: 

 My sister is a licensed mental health practitioner who recently started a mental health podcast. She interviewed me about my experience with depression, and you can listen here:
Original post:

I've been pondering this post for a while, because it's a personal topic and I haven't been ready to talk about this publicly yet, but I'm in a good place now, so it feels like it's time.

When I graduated from college in 1999, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Someone told me that I could apply to go to grad school and keep getting school paid for with an assistantship, so I applied for a master's program at my undergrad university, got a teaching assistantship, and promptly fell in love with teaching. On the advice of my professors, I decided to apply for PhD programs so that I could keep teaching at the college level and hopefully land a tenure-track job so that I would have some stability and earn a living wage. I was accepted with funding at all of the schools that I applied to, so I picked the one that was the best fit and went off to do a PhD in linguistics. In my 5th year, my dad had a major heart surgery, and I started feeling like I wanted to be a lot closer to home. However, I was still working on my dissertation, and had another two years left. I starting looking at HR websites at schools in Nebraska just for kicks, not really seriously thinking about leaving because I still had two years left, but then I found an ad for a job that looked like it had been written for me. I decided to apply, because I realized that if I didn't, it might be years before another job in my field opened up in Nebraska. I ended up getting the job, and my husband and I moved back to Nebraska. I was thrilled to have landed a tenure-track job (and to have avoided the academic job search), and to be within a few hours of family again.

The first two years were stressful because I was adjusting to a new place and finishing my dissertation a few states away from my dissertation director. But when I finally graduated in 2009, I thought things would get better. I still liked teaching most of the time, but there was one class I REALLY hated teaching that was a regular part of my teaching rotation, and I was getting really tired of whining from entitled students. I started having stomach pain that got worse and worse until it was pretty much non-stop, and I started saying that I hated my job in my 3rd year. But I felt trapped, because I had no idea what else I'd do, and I'd literally just finished 15 years of schooling to get my dream job as a professor. At some point, I remember thinking that everything would just be easier if I were dead because then I wouldn't have to work so much, and I finally realized that I was dealing with depression. I was surprised, because I didn't feel sad or any other emotions that I associated with depression. I was just tired and feeling like it wasn't worth it to be alive anymore. So that was good because once I realized that I was depressed, I went to the doctor and got a prescription. But what I didn't realize is that there are a ton of meds out there, and you might have to try a few before you find something that works. So I tried one and things got better, and I felt like I could function again. So I felt OK for a while, but then 2012 happened.

In the spring of 2012, I was scheduled to teach the class I hated again (senior composition in Spanish), and I also ended up with a TON of students. I had a course release from a grant that I'd written, but two sections of that one class somehow ended up being 47 students. So I was only teaching a class I hated, and it was hugely overenrolled, and a ridiculously labor-intensive class on top of all of that.

Because I started the job before I finished my PhD and didn't know to negotiate to have my tenure clock start when I finished, I was also slated to go up for tenure in the fall. I knew that my odds were bad since my publication record was modest and I'd been looking for other options. The dean scheduled meetings with all faculty slated to go up for tenure in the fall, and that meeting was the catalyst for a free-fall. I know it can't be easy to be an administrator telling a faculty member that she probably won't get tenure, but it does not need to be a debasing meeting that leaves a person feeling like she has spent the last 5 years draining herself for absolutely nothing. When I walked in the door, the dean told me that it didn't look good, and I told him that I knew, and I was looking for other employment. At that point, the best possible thing would have been to just express empathy and wrap it up. But instead, I got to hear about how my case wasn't great anyway, but because I'd been hired the same year as a literature professor in my department who published early and often and had gone up for early promotion the year before, my case looked especially bad. I don't remember most of what we talked about, but the dean going to great lengths to tell me how crappy my research profile looked compared to my colleague's is emblazoned into my memory. (This is beside the point, but it also made me angry because while we were in the same department, my field was linguistics and I did human subjects research, and my colleague's field was literature. These are very different disciplines with very different publication expectations. I should say that my colleague is a lovely person, and I am genuinely happy for her. She worked hard and earned her promotion and tenure.)

So after that train wreck, I started looking for jobs while tanking from depression. I should have taken a medical leave, but didn't realize that it was an option, so I just kept trying to finish the semester. But it was a train wreck and I couldn't manage it. So my summer was also a disaster, but I was cautiously optimistic because I had a job lined up. But then the job fell through, and I was back to square one. I decided to submit my tenure portfolio because I didn't know what else to do, and in the past, the RPT committee had tenured weak research profiles without promotion. (It's also worth noting that my university jumped from a master's degree institution to an RU-D during my first year, and while in theory I was hired under the old guidelines, in practice, the expectations for publication became more stringent.)  So I submitted my portfolio and had the great pleasure of going to a meeting with my colleagues where my mental health became the main topic of discussion. When I left that meeting, I went back to my office, shut my door and shut the light off, and cried until everyone was gone for the day. Then I went out into the main office and pondered hanging myself. In the end I emailed my department chair and withdrew my portfolio from consideration, because I realized that if my portfolio went through the full college committee review and I didn't get tenure, I would probably decide to end my life. (For what it's worth, I was on an antidepressant, but it obviously wasn't working.)

I was in a dark place, but I kept moving forward, and was thrilled to discover after about 7 years of trying, I was finally pregnant. The hormones and happiness of finally getting pregnant gave me the boost I needed to get through the semester, and I was feeling pretty good until the Monday after Thanksgiving, when I went in for my check-up and the ultrasound tech discovered that there was no heartbeat. So I miscarried in early December (but I was still looking for jobs and went on a job interview while I was miscarrying). This is not the point of this post, but because I'm putting everything out here, I will say that my OB-GYN added to the misery by telling me that it would be like a heavy period. It was for a few hours (during my job interview), but then I started having contractions, and my OB-GYN hadn't prescribed any pain meds and sent me home to miscarry. So I labored all night to deliver a dead baby with ibuprofen as my strongest pain med.

Honestly, I don't really remember much from that time except crying every night when I went to bed. It was a terrible 5 months. But I got pregnant again in April, and my son was born the following January. I worked with my doctor to get off of my antidepressant to lessen potential side effects to the baby. In the meantime, I was in my last year at my school, still trying to find a job and sending out resumes and applications to anything that looked like it might be a decent fit, and getting 0 interviews or call-backs. My job ended in May 2014 and I still hadn't found anything. Over the summer, I applied for a job and finally got a call-back for an interview, but at that point my depression from my ongoing employment stress was combining with postpartum hormone drops, and when the person told me that they wanted to interview me, I remember thinking to myself "Why?" Pro tip: Just go ahead and turn the interview down if this is where your mental state is. It will not go well. I prepared, but as it turns out, when you're in the middle of a major depressive episode, you don't make great impressions. This is the lowest I've ever been. I sincerely believed that my family would be better off without me, and started looking into taking care of that. I dug out my insurance policies and made sure that they would pay out if I ended my life, and I looked for the most effective (and most immediate) method. Fortunately, we did not own a gun, we did not have any money to buy a gun, and I wasn't quite miserable enough yet to do something that would be less immediate.

I picked up some low-paying work rating tests online (which I emphatically don't recommend unless you have no other options, but it did not require an interview), and decided that I couldn't afford to be unemployed so I would go back on the job market and move away from our families. At that point, I got back on an antidepressant, but I didn't feel any better and it made me hungry all the time, so I gained back the 10 pounds I had lost since having my son, which made me feel even worse about myself.

I decided to see if I could find an anti-depressant that would work with me instead of working against me, so I Googled to see if there were anti-depressants that had statistically significant side effects for weight loss, and discovered that bupropion has that side effect. So I asked to switch to bupropion and FINALLY started feeling like myself again. I had several Skype interviews while taking the previous anti-depressant that went nowhere. I had a few interviews late in the semester after I'd been on bupropion for a few weeks, and I got invited for campus visits for those interviews. I ended up with 2 offers. One was for a full-time non tenure-track job in a major US city, and the other was a 1-year visiting position in Nebraska for a sabbatical replacement, but the department was hopeful that they'd be allowed to replace someone who had retired a few years earlier. In the end, the salary at the permanent position was so low compared to the cost of living that when I calculated it, I realized that we'd be better off financially staying in Nebraska with me still being unemployed. So I took the 1-year visiting position. The department didn't get approval to replace the faculty member who retired, so at the end of the year I was out of a job again. At that point we had decided that we'd rather stay in Nebraska and figure something else out rather than moving away for a job that I probably wouldn't like anyway. There were two college jobs open in my city as my 1-year job was coming to a close. I interviewed for one of them but didn't get it, and the other one got canceled for financial reasons. I cobbled together a few more freelance jobs, but I didn't like what I was doing, and it didn't pay enough to make our financial situation manageable. Sometime in there, our insurance company stopped working with Walgreens and we had to switch to CVS. When I went to switch my prescriptions over, for some reason they couldn't get my bupropion switched over. I don't know what it is about CVS, but if my prescription expired at Walgreen's, they called it in and got it filled immediately. CVS said they were doing that, but it didn't happen, and when I requested a refill myself, my doctor's office sent it to Walgreen's because the part about having to switch to CVS apparently got lost. So I ended up cold-turkeying off bupropion without planning to. (That said, cold-turkeying off of bupropion had 0 side effects, compared to tapering off of venlafaxine, which was hellish.) But I felt pretty good, and decided to just stay off of it.

I was still looking for jobs and saw a job teaching high school Spanish at a private school come up. I had lamented the year before that there were a ton of jobs teaching high school Spanish in my city, but I didn't have my certification (because you don't have to be trained to teach in order to teach at the college level...). Since certification isn't a requirement at private schools, I decided to apply, but then started looking into certification programs because most schools want you to at least be working on a certification. I figured I could afford to do a certification program if I had a real job, and then discovered that there was a program that allowed you to teach in a shortage area on a transitional certificate while completing a full certification program. So I went ahead and applied just to get the ball rolling. I had an interview at the private school, but it didn't go anywhere, and in the meantime, a job at a public school had come open. I applied and interviewed, and felt like it went really well, but I didn't hear anything by the date that they had indicated, so I decided to apply for another job that had just come open. I got an interview, and while I was at that interview, I got a call offering me the job at the first school. But I really loved the second school. They had told me to let them know if I got another offer, so I did, and they offered me a job the next day. So when I was going to start in the fall, my mom and sister suggested that I preemptively go back on an antidepressant so that I didn't tank from stress in a new job. For once, I actually listened. It took a little while to adjust my dosage because I had lost 30 pounds, so my previous dosage was giving me serious side effects (like bloody noses and a panic attack during my in-service), but once I dropped down the dosage, I got the side effects under control. I hadn't felt bad before I went back on the anti-depressant, but when I got back on, I had an amazing revelation. I had thought for the last decade that I was just cynical and bitter due to a job that sucked the life out of me and life kicking the crap out of me, but it turns out I just needed to be on the right medication. I have been ecstatic to discover that I am still an optimist! This sounds small, but I just assumed that the sweet optimist that went off to do her PhD was gone forever, and that I would always be bitter and cynical due to my crappy experiences. So discovering that I am not really a bitter and cynical person has been an amazing feeling. It has also been amazing to get back to 100% health, so to speak. I had been functioning at a degraded level for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to not be depressed. So what I considered "not depressed" was still depressed, and my family recognized that I still didn't have my personality and sense of humor back.

So now I'm finishing my second year of teaching high school, and I LOVE it. I feel like I'm doing something meaningful, and I love being in an environment where I can build relationships with my students instead of seeing them for a few months and then never seeing them again.  I thought college would be better because I'm an introvert and I had more alone time, and it has been a challenge to adjust to being around people all the time, but what I've found is that as an introvert, I need more time to make connections, and I was never going to have that time at the college level. I connected with a few students and felt like I was doing something meaningful a handful of times, but for me, knowing that at this point I've forgotten way more students than I remember, it felt pointless. Especially when coupled with the pressure to publish research that maybe a handful of people will ever read.  So I appreciate the opportunity to see my students every day and have them in my classes for 2-4 years so that I really get to know them.

I've lost about 67 pounds over the last 5 years and have developed healthy coping strategies like exercise to deal with stress, and I've realized that I will always need to be on my anti-depressant. My sister was working on a counseling degree while I was going through a lot of this, and in addition to getting me to go see a counselor, she also helped me by giving me strategies to keep me from getting stuck (she cognitive behaviored me 😀).

For anyone who's reading this who is in one of the dark times, there is hope. Life will get better. For my fellow ex-academics, life is better on the other side. It just takes a while to get there.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Do students really need to be able to produce commands with double object pronouns?

TL;DR: No. 😁

One of the things that I've really been enjoying about my job is the flexibility to teach what and how I want to teach. I opted not to use the existing textbook, since it's basically a grammar manual and didn't have a coherent design in terms of developing language proficiency. (This is true of every textbook I've ever seen, by the way. Some are better than others because they have better activities that do foster language proficiency, such as input-based activities and information gap activities, but all textbooks present grammar that students don't really need to know in order to meet the ostensible goals of the unit.)  Anyway, I've enjoyed throwing out stuff I don't think my students really need to know in favor of activities that help them communicate in the target language. It's worth noting that I'm not on the CI (comprehensible input) train. I appreciate various aspects of the CI approach, but research on language acquisition in adolescents and adults indicates that teaching structures can facilitate acquisition as long as it's meaning-based instruction (in other words, as long as you're teaching structures that help students understand and communicate in the target language). So I still teach grammar and will always teach grammar, because there's a lot of meaning that learners will never get if they don't receive explicit grammar instruction. That said, direct grammar instruction comprises less than 5% of my instructional time, because the research evidence also shows that learning the grammar rules of a language doesn't mean that we can use the target language. We need exposure to the language and lots of practice, so that's what we do.

I was looking over my spring units, and seeing that I have commands coming up in Spanish 2. Last year, I think I had a section on a test that required students to give commands, but as I was considering this unit, I had an epiphany. When will my students really need to give commands? And furthermore, when will they need to give commands with (double) object pronouns?  The answer for most of them is probably never. Unless they become Spanish teachers or are proficient enough in Spanish that they can use it in a work environment, they really don't need to be able to produce commands.  They do, however, need to be able to recognize when someone is giving them a command, and they need to be able to interpret pronouns that might be attached to a command. So this year, I will still be teaching commands, but I will be asking students to interpret them rather than produce them. (I'll also be asking them to interpret object pronouns, with and without commands.) So for all of my fellow grammar nerds, keep teaching that grammar. But it's worth thinking about if students really need to be able to produce a given grammatical feature, or if they only need to be able to interpret it.

On a related note, I've also started doing a soft introduction to the subjunctive in Spanish 1. When we're talking about verb endings, I point out that the endings are really important because a lot of times the verb ending is all the information you get about who's doing an action. After we'd been working on present tense endings for a few weeks, I told students that the appropriate vowel is also important because if you flip the verb endings (hable instead of habla, for example), you're now producing a different verb form that's used for hypothetical situations. I'm not formally teaching the subjunctive until Spanish 3, but by the time they get to Spanish 3, they should have a (very) basic understanding of what the subjunctive is and what it looks like. For that matter, I also focused on interpretation when I taught the subjunctive last year in Spanish 3/4, because (surprise!) the research indicates that while students are capable of learning to manipulate structures, a lot of times they do this without really understanding what they're doing. But if you first work on teaching them what they structure means, they'll be able to use it appropriately (given sufficient input and experience, of course).  If you're interested in this topic, I recommend reading VanPatten's many papers on this topic, starting with the classic VanPatten & Cadierno (1993).

Working on habit formation in the new year

I have a few things I want to work on in 2019. I don't like calling them resolutions, because resolutions are easily made and easily broken. I've been working on habit formation, because habit formation is what leads to real change, and I only do things that I can maintain long-term. For example, after my son was born in 2014, I started walking. I walked very slowly and for short distances, but I committed to walk regularly. The next year I had free access to a gym, so I started working out on an elliptical. Since the gym was at my job, an hour from my house, I also bought a trampoline jogger and started jogging on a trampoline when I couldn't get to the gym. When my job ended, I decided to bite the bullet and join the Y near my house in order to have access exercise equipment and childcare and started going to the gym almost every day. I don't go to the gym much anymore because I don't want to be around people after I've been at school all day. But I realized that if I wanted to keep improving my fitness, I needed to step up my exercise to get my heart rate up, so I started jogging. I started with a mile, and gradually added distance and am now at 3.25 miles. So what's my point? If I had resolved to start running in 2014, I would have given up pretty quickly, because I wasn't ready to start running. Instead, I made a small change and turned it into a habit, and then as my fitness level has improved, I've pushed myself more, both in terms of quality and quantity. I feel good because I'm making changes that I can live with, instead of trying to push myself to do something that I really don't want to do. I've done the same thing with my diet; rather than make a drastic change that I won't want to stick to, I've made small changes that have added up. The main thing is that I've cut way back on sugary drinks, but I've also added a few more fruits and vegetables to my diet. My diet is still far, far away from being considered a healthy diet, but between diet and exercise, I've lost 60 pounds over 4 years, with plans to drop another 15 in the next year or two. It's been a slow process, but I feel confident that I won't regain the weight because I haven't made temporary changes; I've slowly changed my habits so that I can maintain my progress. I still have my sugary drinks because I still love them, but I only have them on the weekends (and in much smaller quantities than I used to). I still eat wings, nachos, doughnuts, cookies, ice cream, etc., but I eat smaller portions and adjust my total daily calorie intake accordingly.

So one of the habits that I want to form this year is going to bed at the same time every night. I think this will benefit me in many ways...if I can go to bed on time, I'll get a decent night's sleep. I think more clearly and more quickly when I've slept well, and I also eat less...when I'm tired, I just want sugar so that I can stay awake. So my new habit formation goal is to go to bed at 9:30 every night. This will give me a little time to read in bed and still hit my goal of sleeping for 6.5 hours (ideally it would be more, but I'm finding that as I age, I just don't sleep as long as I used to even when I'm not setting an alarm). To assist me in my habit formation, I've set a 9:30 reminder on my Fitbit. However, I've had the 9:30 reminder on my Fitbit for the last year and a half, so the thing I need to change is to stop laughing at the Fitbit when it gives me the bedtime reminder and actually go upstairs and go to bed. 😂

I also joined the 40-hour teacher workweek club this semester. I appreciate the approach of picking one thing from a list to change to make work easier and lighten your load, as I think it keeps it from being more work/too overwhelming to think about. I'm apparently already doing a lot of things that are recommended (batching, simple wardrobe, simple meals), but I'm hopeful that there will be suggestions for my prep time that will help me cut down on the number of hours I prep each week.

Anyway, Happy 2019! This year, I will continue doing all of the things I've been doing, and will be introducing a few small new habits into the mix. There won't be a "new me" this year, but check back in a year or two. I certainly never would have dreamed that I'd be running 3 miles regularly even 2 years ago, and yet, here we are. Pick something that you can do and stick to, and start doing it.