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Ramona

Ramona has over 30 years of experience teaching in the high school classroom (and nearly 15 as an adjunct community college instructor). She teaches Spanish to 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students in a rural school not far from large urban centers. With an enrollment of around 1,000 students, hers is the only high school in the district. Although these are her true diary entries, all names and identifying details have been changed.

Ramona's diary entries are in chronological order, from the most current entry. You can also browse the entries by month:

2005
January | February | March | April | May | June/July

2004
September | October | November

June/July 2005

Dear Diary,

Here we are at the end of the year already! Since the start of school, I admit that I experienced more than a few days when I seriously wondered if this day would ever arrive ö but most of the time the days and weeks zoomed by entirely too fast. Reflecting over the past months, I find that this has been an excellent year for my students as well as for me.

Almost all of my students will be leaving my classes with strong foundations for the next step in their study of the language and culture. We achieved this by working together toward the challenge and goal that I presented to them at the beginning of the course. Our goal : ãYou have met the requirements and pre-requisites to be in this class. My goal is to help you never get anything lower than a C on any assignment, and hopefully to see you getting A's and B's on all of your assignments, and to see you enjoying the experience. We can do this!ä Their challenge : ãIt is important for you to be in class every day, ready and willing to participate. It is important for you to ask for help when you feel that you are starting to flounder. It is important for you to practice outside of class, as well as in class.ä My promise to them: ãI will be available after school for individual help. I will be aware of your interests, problems, and how you learn. I'm confident that if we work together as a team, we will all reach this goal.ä They are proud of their success ö and surprised by the fun and satisfaction they had achieving it!

My upper level students progressed far beyond my expectations. They are becoming involved with voluntarily using their language successfully outside of the school environment. In a variety of ways, either through travel, through community service work, at their places of worship, or in their after-school jobs, they are learning useful daily spoken Spanish. Their contagious enthusiasm when telling about their experiences is exciting for the other students and exhilarating to me. The bottom line is that they are thrilled, and a little incredulous, that it actually works!

I truly believe that end-of-the-year reflection is imperative. I recognize that there is always room for improvement in what I do; therefore, my goal for the future in the upper level classes is to follow my syllabus better. I find it easy to become sidetracked by valid discussions, sometimes willingly and sometimes without realizing that it is happening. With the class meeting the last slot of the day we lose a lot of class time to other school events. However, this year I stayed with the plan better than in the past. I decided to make a variety of modifications to improve the content and timing by eliminating some sections and adding others that met the interests of the class better.

What am I going to do now that summer is facing me? Being a planner and having a very busy out-of-school life, I made my summer decisions months ago. All of my requirements for my licensure renewal are completed, so I am not pushed to take a course, unless I want to do so. There is no foreign travel on my summer horizon; I'm saving that experience for next year. Instead, I am enrolled in a 2-week intensive immersion experience at a near-by university in July. I'm also planning to attend some shorter, 1 and 2-day workshops that are being offered in a near-by city. These kinds of experiences are always invigorating and interesting for me; I'm really looking forward to the contact with new ideas and interaction with other teachers. (This contact is especially important in my situation where we only have one high school in our district.) Other than that, I'll read books and magazines in Spanish, find people locally with whom I can talk, explore new ideas for things to do in classes next fall, generally improve my knowledge base, and try to keep my language skills honed.

Ramona

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May 2005

Dear Diary,

Spring break is over. The end of the year is fast approaching. It is time to do a serious evaluation of where my classes are, where they should be, and how are they going to get there. Some questions I will ask myself: •  How are their conversational skills? Can they express their ideas with relative comfort? Are they groping for words? For verb endings? Do they understand what they hear? Do they respond appropriately? Can they carry on a sustained conversation? Are they getting enough practice? Are the situations I provide realistic enough? Is the evaluation consistent from one event to the next?

•  How are they progressing with their writing? Is the writing well organized? Does it reflect the appropriate level of knowledge (vocabulary, grammar, and syntax)? Have I talked with the students about their writing (both individually and as a whole class)? Are they doing enough writing? Is the type of writing varied? Is the evaluation consistent so they have a measure of their progress?

•  What is happening with their reading? Looking at their first reading experience this year and their current one, is there a progressive pattern? Are they using more intuitive skills? Is it becoming less of a challenge to understand content? Has the challenge changed to discussing content and ideas, rather than decoding text?

•  Have they been given opportunities to see the language and culture outside of the classroom? Have I brought in guest speakers? Have I provided magazines, newspapers, and other types of accessible reading for browsing? Have they heard different types of music?

•  Are the students eager to continue their study of the language? What specifically has sparked their interest? How can those ideas be incorporated sooner in my plans for next year? What have they not done that they would like to do?

The answers to these questions should set my goals for the last few weeks of the year. Planning to finish the year on an up note is important. I want my students to go away from the school for the summer with eagerness to return in the fall, with good memories of their time in language class. That way, they will be more likely to play around with their language over the summer and come back ready and eager to start another language adventure. Another thing that I have been thinking about a lot recently is the idea of traveling with students to a country where their language is spoken. I listen to other teachers about how they have chosen their program, how they selected the students, how they prepared their students for the experiences they would have, how they worked with them while in-country, and how they followed up once they returned. My take on this, in few words, is: The more preparation that is done ahead of time, the more successful the travel experience becomes. The more care that is taken in selecting the participating students, the more successful the travel experience becomes. The more the teacher and chaperones participate in the activities with the students, the more successful the travel experience becomes. For me, traveling with students is an intense and rewarding experience. I carefully screen the students, have regularly scheduled pre-trip meetings to help prepare them for their experience, and during the trip I constantly check with them about their health, their reactions, their questions, and their experiences. Once the trip is over there are follow-up sessions to “de-brief” the students. Personally I prefer home-stays where the students can really experience daily life in another country, learn to use their language in a natural way, and perhaps forge some life-long friendships. Organized daily excursions expose the students to other facets of the culture as well as keeping them occupied. As one of my students said after our trip this spring, “When I was in Spain last summer we stayed in hotels and I was a tourist looking in on the world. This week I feel as if I'm entering the inside and experiencing things from a more personal view, as if I belonged here. That's because of my family experience.”

Now, I'm off to find the answers to my questions about where my students are in their course, what still remains to be done, and how to do that -- and have the students leave the class excited about next year.

Ramona

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April 2005

Dear Diary,

Not too much to reflect upon this month, I'm afraid. Reading skills are as varied in foreign languages as they are in English! When I use the term “reading” I mean to say “understanding what is read.” My first foray into reading was only moderately successful. I gave the class some background on the selection and sent them home to read it. The next day we recapped the content, answered specific questions, and generally talked about the piece. It was perhaps a bit too challenging a piece, with a plot twist that wasn't immediately obvious. After our discussion, they read it again and enjoyed it. Their writing assignment was to create a similar story with themselves as the main character. They liked the writing.

The second reading attempt comprised a variety of methods. Sometimes I read to them, sometimes they listened to a recording and followed along, sometimes they listened first and then followed, sometimes they read out loud. Each approach was successful with this class.

My most recent attempt at reading involved reading the script of a segment from a play. They watched a video of the segment first, and then read out loud. Having seen the segment, they were very aware of intonation, enunciation, and the finer innuendoes of speech. That was a very successful experience for all.

So, what works best? I'd say it depends on the nature of the reading. For a play, perhaps seeing a production (video) might help. For short stories, reading guides that require some interpretation work well. For factual information, direct questions about the content help. Every group of students is different. What has worked well this year for me would not have worked well with my group last year. I must remember to always take the abilities and interests of the students into account when selecting things to be read.

We high school teachers are supposed to be training our students in how to do rigorous academic research. Citing their sources, giving credit to ideas and words that are somebody else's, and organizing a paper or presentation are challenges that we all face. My group this semester seems to have this pretty well under control. They understand what plagiarism is, and how to avoid it. There are several on-line sites that help put together a proper citation according to MLA or APA format and many on-line articles are now providing the correct citation. It is so easy to copy and paste that we must always be vigilant about not giving credit.

Ramona

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March 2005

Dear Diary,

My teaching assignment changed at semesters and I am now learning about new students. This is a challenge I look forward to eagerly. These will be better writers than the last students I had. Their confidence, background, and interest levels are higher, and the quality of their work reflects the difference. We will concentrate on improving reading skills, but I'm not exactly sure what all I'm going to do to help them. Sometimes I've found that reading out loud to them is a good way, but that doesn't let them develop their own skills. Often I give them some pre-reading guidelines such as "draw a sketch of the person, place, thing," or "list the action in order of occurrence," or "which is your favorite character and why?" or "does this remind you of anything you have experienced?" Then they read the selection. After reading, we share their ideas, realizing that all opinions are valid (even if they are wrong) if they are supported with evidence from the reading selection. Choosing selections with uncomplicated plot lines and few characters eases the job for the students. They don't have to work hard to keep those things straight and they can concentrate on content. I'll revisit this topic next month after I've had an opportunity to see how these tricks of the trade work with my students.

Once second semester begins, it seems like time flies. I am already in a near-panic mode about "How am I ever going to finish all I set out to do?" I always over-plan and consequently never end up where I thought I wanted to be. I am left with a sense of dissatisfaction and incompleteness every year and I promise to do better next year only to wind up in the same situation once again. The truth of the matter is that I always get everything done that needs to be done, plus some extra, "fun" things. My perception of my ambitions is what is askew. It is very helpful for me to have a semester plan broken down into a week-by-week that keeps me moving along and doing what needs to be done. It also keeps me from ranging too far off the track for too long. Over-planning provided options within the structure of the semester plan.

Today I was listening to several of my colleagues working on and worrying about their recertification. Every state is different; my state requires recertification every five years. We have a variety of ways in which to complete the process, from taking graduate level classes in our field to attending conferences, publishing original work, mentoring, and a whole host of other options, including travel. There is something for everybody in the list of possibilities. As soon as I receive my new certificate I begin to plan what I'm going to do during the next five years to re-certify. Actually, "plan" is not the right word for what I do. I immediately keep my eye open for courses of interest, so I don't have to sit through something incredibly boring just to meet the requirement. I also continue to be active in my professional organizations because these provide many opportunities for recertification points. Within my school, I mentor new teachers, serve on committees, and participate in the in-service opportunities provided by my system. If I travel, I always write up my experiences and share them in a way that will enable me to earn points. Even though I am jumping through the hoops, I'm doing it in ways that are interesting and beneficial to me. What I don't do is put it off until the last minute. And that is exactly what some of my colleagues have done. How do they think they can get all of the requirements done in six months????

Ramona

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February 2005

Dear Diary,

My urgent musings in early January have to do with exams and exam review. How much time should be set aside for review? How should this review be constructed? How much of the review is graded? What should the exam look like? Should it be comprehensive across the semester and include the 4 skills and culture as well as all of the national standards? What is the focus of the exam? How do I organize it? How do I balance instruction against review against testing?

It seems that I always "lose" at least a week of instruction time to exams and it frustrates me. Every year I try to condense the end of semester review to free up time for more direct, hands-on learning experiences, and to provide sufficient time during the exam period to assure that the students can actually finish the test.

This year I'm going to use the speaking part (a conversation) as intensive review and listen to the students 3 or 4 days before the end of the semester. I will also do the listening part during a class period after I've finished the speaking. I will insert a writing sample in there sometime as well. During the time that I am listening to the conversations, students will have a written review practice that is formatted to acquaint them with the types of questions they will see during the exam period. That portion of the exam will be multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blank, and other quick-to-grade answers. The sum result: I will have already graded the time-consuming portions of the exam by the time the students arrive on exam day, and they will only have to concentrate on one type of testing.

Writing for presentation purposes is the final writing thrust for this semester. My students seem to have internalized what they must do to be effective writers; they are still struggling with application of that knowledge. Their errors are fewer and generally reflect more complicated structure, so the evidence shows that we've made a lot of progress. Writing for presentation purposes includes writing a guiding outline, the preparation of note cards, and the role of text in PowerPoint or as captions on a poster.

My hope that the focus on writing by looking carefully at the structure of a sentence, paragraph, and essay would carry over to better reading skills has also proven to be true. The last short story we read was a much more pleasant experience for them. They were aware of how the plot developed, of who was who, of the sequence of events, of subtle grammar hints and clues (such as the clue to the identity of the narrator is found in the verb ending), and of descriptions that contributed to the mood. This also gave them the confidence to read beyond the simple plot structure and look at character development and metaphorical images. It proved to be an exciting final reading for the semester for them.

We have submitted our budget request for next year and now we await the results of the deliberations of the decision-making bodies. As an elective, foreign languages always seem to be sacrificed for the core subject areas. This is becoming more and more true as the stakes become higher and higher with testing, school report cards, and state and federal requirements. I am fortunate to work in a system that is committed to providing a broad range of foreign language opportunities, but they expect it to be done on a shoestring. They know that we are creative and resourceful teachers and depend upon that to fill in the holes. It is very frustrating and we are going to use ACTFL's Year of Language to publicize some of our more successful ventures, in the hope that our budget will not be cut again. More on this next time.

Ramona

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January 2005

Dear Diary,

Through the years I have discovered that sharing materials and ideas with colleagues is perhaps one of the best ways to enhance my teaching. I love listening to what others are doing in their classes, and sharing what I do in mine! I remember one year we had a department chair who insisted that we have a monthly sharing meeting; she could not understand why nobody had anything to share because she had been listening to our lunchtime conversation. Eventually, we stopped doing it formally and just tried to be certain that we would all have lunch at the same time. The spontaneous excitement of a successful activity, or the disappointment in a failed attempt, built a sense of community and we all became better teachers as a result. It didn't matter that we all taught a different language; the ideas were easily transferred.

This whole idea of collaboration is an important one that I think about a lot. How to bring individuals together who have different teaching styles, different experiences, and different goals, and have them all head in the same direction with the same content finished at the same time??? Again, I think our lunchtime conversations have had a lot to do with our success. I'm sure it helps that we are a one-high-school system; because when we include teaching staff from the middle school we aren't nearly as successful. The yearly syllabus has to be something that everyone feels is relevant, reasonable, and flexible enough to allow for individual additions and interpretations. Teachers have to have an equal opportunity to contribute to the creation of the syllabus for each of them to feel it has any value. Keeping an eye on our state standards, as well as the national standards, certainly helps us keep focused on where we are going with each level of students.

I'm struggling right now with trying to help my students become more effective writers. They seem to have an aversion to organizing and supporting their ideas with details. I think they approach writing in Spanish in much the same manner as they do their English-language writing. There is mental thought put into what they will write, but very little editing once the thoughts are down on paper. What editing that does occur generally has to do with organization rather than with basic grammar correction. As a result their papers have entirely too many simple grammatical mistakes. To help them sharpen awareness of their personal grammar hurdles, I've devised a list of common errors in chart-form and have the students keep tabs on those errors that crop up regularly in their writing. I shudder at marking up their papers, but with the tallies I am requiring them to do, it seems to be paying off. They tell me that now they are more cognizant of the kinds of things they should be aware of as they write; and this awareness is beginning to translate into better quality writing. They asked me to help them with organization as well. We will do some work with idea organizers and outlining. I used these techniques successfully last year, but will have to do further work with them to refresh and sharpen those skills.

As I write this I am looking forward to some seasonal activities: the reading of Don Juan Tenorio is a great Halloween activity, to be quickly followed by a cooking session using only foods native to the Spanish Empire portion of the Western Hemisphere. And the foods unit is always a good activity to plan for the short Thanksgiving week. Students are surprised to find out that tomatoes weren't always grown in Italy!

Ramona

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November 2004

Dear Diary,

Whew! Things have finally settled into a routine. I am learning about my students, who they are, their interests, their personalities. Each one of them is a unique individual with many positive attributes. I look forward to working with them for the rest of the course.

There are a few students that are still a mystery to me. I am slowly breaking through the wall that divides us, but it is hard work! Through paying very close attention to them whenever I see them, I am slowly figuring out how to reach them. I have found that praising them publicly in class for academic progress is counter productive. So I give them public praise for their sports endeavors. They all respond to quiet, subtle, positive feedback: a smile, a greeting when they come into the room, a pat on the shoulder, helping their group, notes on papers. I am careful to make it clear that it is their behavior that is unacceptable, not their person. Behavior is correctable; personality and identity are too intrinsic to be easily changed. Little by little they are beginning to understand that they are important to me as individuals. They are discovering that it doesn't matter that they don't love Spanish as much as I do; what matters is their success. Some days I am encouraged by my progress with them, and others I wonder if we will ever have a common meeting ground.

Attendance is a major problem for a small number of my students. For some reason they either can't get out of bed in time, or they have to leave early. The classes at the beginning and end of the day are being hit the hardest. I am working with them individually, talking to their parents, their guidance counselor, and in one case, the truancy officer, to help them understand how success in class is directly tied to their presence in the class. They all say they understand, but I am not seeing much improvement in their attendance yet. Another attendance problem is due to early dismissals for sports. Fortunately, these students are very conscientious about finding out what they have missed. In a class where discussion and exchange of ideas are important components, this makes it especially difficult to design make up work. I usually try to have those portions of the class before these students leave. That way their make up work is tied more to reading, writing, lectures notes, or research and preparation of a presentation.

Our language clubs are gearing up for an exciting year of activities. A dynamic teacher and good officers lead each one, with large memberships. Even our smaller clubs have increased numbers this year. We will try to publish more about their activities in our school newsletters and local newspapers. Good, positive publicity is always a boon for our endeavors.

Ramona

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October 2004

Dear Diary,

Thoughts on the first day back. When the students troop in through the school doors next week, I know that I will be ready and eagerly awaiting their arrival. However, today I am madly attempting to find the switch to flip and re-program myself back into the routine and unpredictability that is the life of a teacher. Brain cells are working overtime as we go through the business of the first day back in the saddle. Creative ideas flutter in and out of my consciousness. Several are worth pursuing; others are worthy only of discarding. This year we have two novice teachers in our department, each with one year of experience, who are full of questions. They are constantly popping in to chat about something; do they think I have all the answers? I wish!

Thoughts after the first week of classes. There have been the usual first week glitches that have popped up and been solved. My school's enrollment has grown by about 10% in the last six months, so we are bulging at the seams. Every seat is occupied, and some students are sharing tables. Every textbook is issued, and in some classes we've had to use classroom sets of texts while we frantically try to locate additional texts someplace else. Flexibility is the name of the game, and we are definitely being flexible!

Students are eager to learn, frustrated at what they have forgotten, and surprised at how fast it is returning. All of this contributes to classes full of students who are engaged in their learning, and that makes the time fly by. They all walked into the corridor on Friday with smiles on their faces, determination to practice over the weekend so they can be better on Monday. What teacher could ask for more?

My concerns over our novice teachers have proven to be groundless. They have jumped in the deep end and come up with winning strokes. Good ideas abound and progress is leading the way to success. Daily conversation with them helps us to head off mistakes before they happen, and to be sure they are headed in the right direction. Classroom management was a concern for both of them, and they seem to have established good learning environments according to their own personalities.

I certainly do enjoy working with the upper level students! This is the first year ever that I have not had a 2nd year class, and I must admit that I am enjoying it. Last week my students enjoyed bringing in a favorite object that symbolizes who and what they are. Their short descriptions in front of the class were well done and well received, even if they were a bit short on details. Their second in front of the class conversation went much better, with more detail, less hesitation, and more animation. They are even eagerly looking forward to their first writing experience.

The year is off to a good start; I only hope that it will continue to be this way!

Ramona

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September 2004

Dear Diary,

It is always challenging to develop creative and entertaining speaking activities for the first weeks of school. As always, I have a few butterflies over how to set the tone for an exciting, active and productive learning environment. Working in my favor is my unabashed love for the language I teach, its people, its cultures, and its customs. My excitement and enthusiasm are contagious because I use the language to have fun with whatever I am doing. I keep reminding myself that it really is acceptable to be silly in class sometimes. I am definitely going to remember to use ACTFL's Year of Language (YOL) topics when planning my activities. In addition, I have several new and exciting ideas for incorporating technology into a variety of assignments, different ways of approaching content, and other activities to engage my students in using their new language skills in authentic situations.

In anticipation of major renovation work to be done in our building over the summer, I boxed up everything when I left school in June. Since most of the school is still off-limits to everybody, I have no idea about the condition of "my room," or the location of my precious boxes. Our building was still structurally sound; it just needed better ventilation, and up-dated wiring and computer facilities. As I talked with friends in other schools and other states over the summer, I discovered that my district's approach is not unusual. Renovation seems to be a popular way to modernize an older building without incurring the cost of a new facility. I am looking forward to the prospect of better air circulation and better access to our computer network and the Internet.

I have seen many changes during my over thirty years in the classroom, both in pedagogy and in society in general. However, in regard to the students, fundamentally there have been few if any real changes. The changes have occurred in society as a whole and are reflected in some of the attitudes and behaviors of the students. I have seen long hair, short hair, no hair, curly hair, straight hair, blue hair, and pink hair. There have been tight pants, loose pants, fall-off-the-hips pants, mini skirts, maxi skirts, and everything in between. Pierced ears on the girls migrated to the boys and then to other parts of the body, along with tattoos. These are outward signs of the struggle to find an identity and to be an individual - a time-honored rite of passage that every generation experiences.

Beneath the surface, most of my students continue to want to learn, to achieve, and to make a better place for themselves in the world. They go about this in essentially the same ways as always. What I do see as being very different in their lives is their incredible involvement in school and community activities. They are regularly engaged in many more things now than before. I am astounded at the way each of them finds the quality time to play sports, to participate in a scouting program, to coach little league, to do community volunteer work, to be active in their church, and to maintain high grades. That's what makes it so interesting to spend my day with them.

And so this perennial optimist has forgotten all the bad things from previous years and is looking forward to another "perfect" year!

Ramona

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