Starting the school year fabulously

I saw this meme of facebook recently, and realized how much this really resonates with me and so many other teachers! Going back to school is a really emotionally-charged experience for kids (and teachers).

For kids, they feel most or all of the following:

  • Nervous about everything unknown
  • Fearful about whether their teachers will like them
  • Anxious about whether they have “changed” over summer and whether this will finally be “their year” to become cool/popular/smart/accepted (think about all the “teen” movies where the hero somehow gets transformed and gains social acceptance).
  • Grieving over their lost freedom
  • Depressed about their own social situation or relationship status
  • Overwhelmed at the huge task looming of “getting through” a whole school year
  • Hopeful that they will like their classes/teachers/activities
  • Worried that they won’t do well or that they will look stupid in front of teachers/peers
  • Resolved to make positive changes for the new year
  • Dreading the feeling of being forced to comply with rules they don’t like/agree with
  • Tired at the very thought of getting up at 6am for the next 180 school days
  • Excited about returning to the place where they get to see their friends everyday in person instead of just over Snapchat!

As teachers, we feel many of these same emotions. We need to be really cognizant of the high-intensity emotional situation we are all in as we head back!

Personally, I think we can find some ways to establish relationships and become comfortable with Spanish class without awkward ice breakers. I’d like to share some things I’ve tried that have worked well in the past as well as how I plan to begin this year.

  1. Card talk (formerly known as “Circling with Balls”)

Ben Slavic came up with this idea to describe how his novice classes operate during the first couple weeks of school. What are the various sports that kids enjoy playing or watching. You can also discuss video games, dance, rapping, movies, or whatever kids in your class feel passionate about. I highly recommend you learn about this process directly from the man himself by clicking here!

I find that this activity is a great way to learn some really basic high-frequency language structures, but even better, it immediately puts the focus on the students in a very positive way. It feels more like genuine “getting to know each other” and less like an icebreaker. I used this faithfully in Spanish 1 for years. Unfortunately I don’t teach Spanish 1 anymore, but you can still make this type of discussion technique work in any level.

I frequently type up short readings based on the things we have learned about each other in class. We review each day about the sports/activity knowledge we gain from each member of the class and at the end of the couple of weeks it takes to get through everyone I give a comprehension test about the discussions we’ve had.

2.Teach like a Pirate: Play Doh!

I had the honor of meeting Dave Burgess and watching him “perform” as he taught world language teachers how to teach like pirates at iFLT 2013 (and he returned in 2014 which was also awesome!).

One of the many cool tricks Dave shared was his “Play doh” lesson to begin classes for the year. Basically the way it translated into my class was very similar to the “circling with balls” unit. I bought a big multi-pack of play dough and gave each kid a can of dough and a plastic plate to work on. I instructed them to create a sculpture that represented themselves, their summer, their passions, or anything that they wanted to represent themself out of the play doh. I gave them about 5-7 minutes. At first I wanted to be super controlling and limit them to one color and keep them from making a mess, but I realized that would defeat the whole purpose so I stopped being like that.

After they made their creations, I asked a LOT of questions, using Spanish, keeping it simple, writing lots on the board, using cognates, etc. I did MOST of the talking. Caveat: If you want to talk about EVERY kid, it will take more than one class period. You will need a place to store their sculptures and enough play doh so that all kids can make a sculpture if the earlier classes aren’t putting theirs back in the can! Sp think about this ahead of time!

The next year I went to using chenille stems (aka pipe cleaners). It was still pretty fun, but you cannot deny the novelty of high schoolers getting to use play doh!

Cecile Laine blogged about this activity here.

3. This year, I am going to do card talk/circling with balls with my new level 2s (freshmen; they don’t know me and will be new to “CI”). I addition, I will play “human bingo” with them, toward the end of week 1 after we have bonded a bit. Human bingo is a more traditional icebreaker, but it is quick enough to hold their interest and non-personal enough to alleviate anxiety.The TRICK to this activity is after you use it, you discuss the results. For example, one of the bingo squares is “listens to country music.” The teacher can ask after the activity, “How many of you do listen to country music?” (This is always taking place in the TL, with lots of support and comprehension checking, adding new words to the board, pointing at new words when you use them again.) “Ohhhhh, Connor, I see that you listen to country music. Do you like Eric Church? Yes? Ohhhhh, class, Connor likes to listen to Eric Church. Are there any other fans of Eric Church here in my class? What is your favorite song by Eric Church?” You can use these discussion techniques for virtually ANY of the questions on the bingo survey.

Human Bingo Icebreaker for Novice Learners

In level 3, most of them know me and we know each other, so the ice has been broken. We will do the play doh activity for fun, and we will also be doing a survey activity about our pets and our personalities. (Spanish 2 will also do this activity but I will save it for week 2!) This activity involves a little more independent reading (which they are totally ready for!) and it will allow me to really “milk” the discussion with them and get them immersed in that sweet sweet Spanish CI that they’ve been missing all summer! In addition, as part of our “discussion time” I am going to have them answer some questions using my 4-corners posters. I have these posters up around the room all the time which allows me to do really quick little “surveys” where students vote with their feet.

For example, I can say (in Spanish), “Using the ORANGE posters…I agree / I disagree…Do you agree with this: ‘I am an adventurous person.’ [students move to the posters] Now…the non-adventurous people move over to the side of the room. Of the people who say ‘I am adventurous’ how do you react to this? ‘I have a cat.’ ”

The article we have already read at this point says that people with cats are more adventurous.So we can now use this as a discussion point about whether the article was accurate or not in that regard.

mascotas4 Corners Posters (4 options! 24 posters!)

In Spanish 5, they love two activities A LOT: playing Mafia and playing “Would you rather.” I will probably not indulge them with a game of mafia right away, but we will begin our adventures by playing “¿Cuál Preferirías?” with a twist. We will play using the agree/disagree posters and add lots of discussion to the game. There are questions such as “Would you rather never brush your teeth or never wash your hair?” So, you can get out your agree / disagree posters (you don’t have to BUY these posters by the way. Take a marker and write agree/disagree on 2 pieces of paper and tape them to the wall!) and say in the TL “Who agrees that if the choice is never brush teeth or never wash hair that you would rather never brush your teeth?” Then you can ask WHY questions. And you can get really complex if it is level 4 or 5! Think of questions such as “If you were going on a date with someone super good-looking, and could ONLY do one thing…brush your teeth or wash your hair, which would you choose?”

Later in the week, we will also play “Circumlocution.” In this game, students are given pictures of items they probably do not know the name of an they must describe in the TL what the item is. Their partner guesses in English. If their partner can’t guess, the opposing team/pair gets to guess. A really fun way to let them do some output and also to drive home the point that communication skills beat vocabulary every time.

So, how do YOU start the year in your CI class? By the way, please like my facebook page! I try to share things of interest primarily for Spanish teachers.

¿Cuál Preferirías? Would you rather? Spanish Task Cards                               Circumlocution Game







    1. I agree Terry. I think many teachers feel that they can use some guidance and are often uncomfortable with too little structure. If I tell teachers to “just teach the language” that can seem a little vague and overwhelming. Hopefully the activities that work well for me can help others too.

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