Training Period

I readily admit that being in a class with no textbooks takes a little getting used to. Or, depending on your point of view: A lot.

So I do a bit of a “boot camp” at the beginning of the year for students who’ve come from a class with a different style of teaching. This training period takes two or three weeks, typically – but it can last longer, if I feel a class is still not comfortable with how everything’s going to work. A lot of English is used as these systems are established and we do a number of practice rounds with all the various systems and standards we’ll be using in class. There are five concepts for students to get used to:

  1. Everyday, nuts-and-bolts classroom expectations.
  2. News articles.
  3. The SmorgasBoard.
  4. Resource exploration.
  5. Assessments.

Everyday Expectations:

Every teacher has his or her own set of these – I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But the training period is where these are established for my classes, so I’ll lay my own particular set of expectations out for you.

I have been told that I run a tight ship. (OK: I know I do.) If there is a grand unifying theme in my classroom, it’s that all of us are going to respect our time together. Everything else, in my view – all the real learning, in any subject, at any level – becomes possible only once the classroom has become a productive space. And by “productive,” I pretty much just mean “respected.”

I’m not saying this is the only way to do it, but this is how I’ve done it.

  • No cell phones visible, at any point, ever. We should all be as fully present as we can, and designed-to-be-addictive, miniature, personalized digital distraction devices are not conducive to that. Don’t try to convince me otherwise on this – I will fight you.
  • No ear phones in ears. I mean, obviously. If you’re listening to something else, you’re not present. (“But they’re not on!” The distilled, crisp, purified idiocy of this argument always charms me.)
  • No hoods up. Pretty much only because if the hood is up, I can’t tell if you’re wearing ear phones. Which you shouldn’t be.
  • No gum. It’s Spanish class. Spanish is spoken. We speak. No gum.
  • Notebooks. Students have a notebook, in which they will keep notes, and from which they will be able to consult during any and all assessments. It is open and on your desk before class begins. The notebook essentially becomes the students’ text books, so this one might actually be the most important of my classroom norms.
  • Backpacks do not block ANY aisles. They’re behind desks, under desks, hanging from the backs of chairs, or left in the lockers. I need to be able to move around freely.  (So does everybody, actually.)

Maybe your own classroom environment means trying to enforce some (or all) of these rules would be more destructive to classroom cohesion than constructive. And if that is the case, believe me: I get it. The culture and the demographics I teach in do not necessarily have anything to do with where you teach.

And now, the broad strokes of how my textbook-free classes work:

News Articles:

Essentially the only homework I give is a rotating news article presentation. One student presents per day, and the order in which the students present is randomly determined. It’s a five-to-ten minute summary of an article I have selected. The basic rules are these:

  1. Students must speak only Spanish during the presentation;
  2. they may not write anything on the board, but rather must dictate to a scribe (the person whose turn to present comes the following day);
  3. they have to share 5 new cognates that they did not realize were Spanish words before reading the article;
  4. they must present three questions that they still have about the article or its subject (the scribe copies these onto the board during the presentation);
  5. they may consult notes, but never read aloud directly from them;
  6. they may consult anything they like – including articles in English about the same subject – to prepare;
  7. they are responsible for being able to explain the meaning, in Spanish, of any word they actually say, or which winds up written on the board by the scribe; and
  8. grammar is not a factor in their assessment.

I find these to be immensely useful and fruitful tools for improving student speaking ability. There is pressure involved, but none of it has to do with grammar – it’s all about communicating. The grammar improves as if by magic. (I’ve written a more in-depth description, complete with the rubric, on my Article Presentations page.)

The SmorgasBoardThe details of this are on the SmorgasBoard page, but the basics are these: A daily verb quiz in which one conjugation of all 14 major tenses of a randomly-selected verb (14 is the number that, I have decided, matter) are written on a half-sheet of paper. The subject pronoun for the day is randomly selected by throwing a suction-cup-covered rubber ball at a pie chart on the white board on which all five (six, if you’re a “vosotros” kind of guy/gal) have been written. Once the students have turned in their individual attempts, I send them to the board in groups of 4 or 5 (or 6) to reproduce there the version of the verb they all agree is likeliest correct. Then we see which groups are right, I throw out some translation puzzles (“Cómo se dice ‘I used to bake’?”), and we move on to the next portion of the class.

I love this system because it get students to touch every tense, every day. They quickly lose their fear of it. It also gives a visual representation of just what every single tense is for – the chart is divided into three columns that represent the past, present, and future, and is split horizontally – above the line is real, and below the line is conjecture. Once you get used to it, it becomes a simple matter to decide which tense to use in which situations.

My students who go on to college report back to me that this is extremely useful. Several have placed into advanced courses in college, and their professors have asked the just how it is that, fresh out of high school, they know exactly when and why to deploy absolutely all the tenses. And the student shows them the SmorgasBoard.

(I am doomed to invent things that (a) work, and (b) are impossible to market. What am I going to sell you? The little suction-cup balls…? Go ahead, try it out. If you like it, keep doing it. I’ll never charge you a dime.)

Resource Exploration


The main determining factors behind why I assess the way I do are these:

  1. I don’t believe conscious, purposeful memorization, of vocabulary or grammar, is worth the time or the effort. Because:
  2. Stressing students with high-pressure black-or-white, right-or-wrong testing destroys the atmosphere of exploration. Or, as Stephen Krashen would say: It raises the affective filter, and inhibits learning.
  3. I don’t believe we can keep all students at the same level with the same set of expectations about how they use the language.
  4. I don’t believe we should keep all students at the same level with the same set of expectations about how they use the language.
  5. I believe we should encourage students to physically write down and maintain their own notes. Toward which end:
  6. I believe we should let them use their own notes on their assessments.
  7. I do not trust stressed teenagers who are trying to get into college (and, far too often, particular colleges) not to cheat.

The assessment that cures all these ills?

In-class, hand-written, open-notes compositions, the prompt for which they do not see until the day they write it.

Why in-class?

I used to tell my students, when I assigned them an at-home composition: “Don’t use an online electronic translator. I absolutely will catch you. I always do.” But one of my students raised his hand and said this, which chilled me to my core: “Logically, there’s no way you could possibly know that.”

He was totally right. If they’re clever about it, if they insert enough errors, if the quality of the translator is high enough, if they happen to have written something simple that the translator can handle without throwing in anything obviously beyond the student’s level, I wouldn’t necessarily know.

I also wouldn’t know what percentage of the composition was written by a tutor, or by a parent, or by an older sibling. And I was tired of trying to investigate this. So I decided: In-class. That way I know that YOU did it, and that you did it during this period.

Why hand-written?

Lots of research shows that it’s good for you, I know you personally produced the text, and I can keep them all together in the same blue composition books that students re-use until they run out of pages. In addition to which, it’s very difficult for anyone else to do ahead of time. It allows me to compare their early work with their latest and see the progress easily. If a student’s IEP calls for them to use a computer, then obviously I comply.

Why open-notes?

Memorization is both unhelpful in language acquisition, and intellectually uninteresting. And if students know they can use their notes, they’ll keep good ones. I let them know that they should write quite correctly, given that they could look up the conjugations and the tenses required for any verb they’re stuck on. There’s a sweet spot between writing freely and checking whether you’ve made a mistake on every single word. That sweet spot is different for every student, and I like to let them find their own.

Why can’t they see the prompt ahead of time?

Too many of them would crank out a version they cheat on and then meticulously copy it into their composition book. I have learned this the hard way.