The Right Hashtag, at the Right Time, that is the Challenge

Last year we watched one of those “What makes you happy?” videos at a staff-meeting. People’s answer to this question was the usual: family, friends, doing what they like, except for one guy who said that what made him happy was the number of likes he got on his instagram photos. How silly and vain, I thought.

Little did I know that a couple of months later I would be obsessed with something similar. I joined Twitter after Jeff Utecht highly recommended it as one of the best tools to build a professional learning network in the digital world. I wanted, no, needed to network and find a teacher to collaborate with me on my final COETAIL project, so the clock was ticking. 

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 11.25.41 PMMy first and only follower for a while was a friend of mine who works at the same school. I found myself obsessively checking if I had gained any followers. Two weeks later I got my first retweet by the Guardian; I was hoping this would get me at least some comments from people disagreeing with my opinions. Nothing happened. In the course of eight months my number of followers has s-l-o-w-l-y increased, but as the graphic shows, 57% of them are in Chennai, India and happen to be my colleagues. Although there has been some interactions with my followers, they have been rare. Maybe I’m not using the right hashtag, maybe I’m not Tweeting at the right time… 

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 11.33.52 AM

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 9.19.05 AMMy experience with G+, Facebook communities, and other networks has been similar. Sadly, this happened even within the COETAIL community (blogs, forums and groups). Although I have enjoyed blogging, it has been frustrating to receive comments or to get my comments approved typically only during grading periods. Could this have been a coincidence? Probably. Could it have been that my blog posts are not interesting enough? Probably, after all one cannot reinvent the wheel and have people in awe. As a friend and colleague bluntly put it, “What’s the point of following you if I can follow the direct source of information?” I would argue that if it weren’t for the people I follow in different social media platforms, I would have missed some very good articles, ideas, resources and professional development opportunities. Thanks to Twitter and G+ I have learned about several online events, and I have participated in two conferences, a few webinars, and a Twitter chat. There is no doubt that I have benefited from reaching out, however I still have to see results in terms of networking and building a professional learning community that works for me. As I said in my final project video, building connections has been extremely challenging. 

As I reflected on these experiences, I could not help but think about the Instagram guy… Maybe at the time he was interviewed he was a photography major and his grades dependeded on the number of likes he got on Instagram… Promise to myself: Don’t judge people based on what makes them happy… May his efforts (and mine) not be in vain.

Posted in Course 5 | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Course 5 Final Project: Flattening the World Language Classroom

YouTube Preview ImageI did it!

I think that pretty much in every blog post I have written since I joined COETAIL, I had expressed my desire to flatten my classroom. This experience may not have been 100% successful, but it is a step forward. I faced several issues along the way, but I learned a great deal. I dare to say that if the project had gone smoothly,  I might not have learned as much.

My students are definitely excited to use the Spanish with their new friends. In the past, I have provided them with opportunities to speak Spanish by inviting community members to my classroom, but I have not seen the level of enthusiasm that they displayed while communicating with their e-pals and blog-buddies. Whether it is because they are are interacting with ‘peers’ instead of interacting with a parent or with another teacher, because they are using technology, or both, is irrelevant. What matters is that these flat connections have made Spanish more relevant for them, and that they are looking forward to expand their network of Spanish speaking friends.

I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised with these results. Although my students were excited about the project when I first introduced it to them, they lost interest when they learned that our partner classes were in the United States, and not in a Spanish speaking country. Nevertheless, once they started interacting with their e-pals and and blog-buddies, their enthusiasm peaked. They were thrilled to find out that they practiced the same sports, or listened to the same music. They also enjoyed learning new vocabulary, or learning about new topics through these interactions.

So…did this project reached the level of redefinition?

It depends on who answers this question. When I was in high school having a pen-pal was very popular, so for me having an e-pal is only substitution. Nevertheless, for my students, who have never used snail mail, and cannot conceive the idea of maintaining these exchanges without using technology, this is redefinition. Also, instead of writing to a ‘fake’ person, or playing roles, they had a genuine opportunity to use Spanish.

The blog-buddies exchange is clearly redefinition. It has provided students with a global audience for their writing and other learning products. I cannot think of any other way to do this without technology. Although students were initially reluctant to share their blogs, they have found value in having an audience outside the confinements of our school. Additionally, as a by-product of this, they are not only learning in my classroom, but also from what their friends post in their blog.

I debated a lot whether or not my project had been successful. I initially felt that it had failed because my students did not get to collaborate with their ‘pals’ to complete any of the products I had originally planned. However, as I worked on my video, I realized that collaboration was not my only goal, in fact, my driving goal was to establish global connections. I also realized that there are other measures of success besides the completion of a poster or a movie.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 12.59.59 PM

Making this video also helped me see my project from a different perspective, and to reflect on what went wrong. In her book Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World (2010) Heidi Jacobs says that taking small steps is key to avoid feeling overwhelmed when implementing changes. I realized that my project was too ambitious, particularly considering that we had a relatively short period of time for it. Not only did I want to complete several products, but I also wanted to involve all of my students in my first flat connection experience.

But… What happened with “A Week in the life of…”? The project had several stages, and having to find new partnerships reduced the time to complete these stages. Nevertheless, the school year is not over yet, and I hope to continue to with this work for the remaining of the year. I finished my COETAIL course work, but I am only beginning to flatten my classroom. Like my students, I am excited to make new connections and I am looking forward to see where this journey takes us.

Are you Interested in flattening your classroom? Here is a list of communities where you can get started. There are lots of projects for elementary students and core teachers. It is a little harder to find connections for language teachers, but not impossible. Good luck!

Posted in Course 5 | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Virtual Learning (Drill) Every Day

Distance Learning Girl on Bed By Ray Cross

Today my school held a virtual learning drill to assess its readiness to provide distance learning in the event of a forced school closure. Although this is the first time that we have had an official virtual learning day, it was not the first time that my students and I engaged in virtual learning/facilitation. I have used virtual platforms with my students whenever I have to miss school, while at school, and also in an attempt to differentiate and personalize learning.

Who has not written lesson plans while sick, just to find out when returning to school that the work assigned was not completed, or that it was completed and you have a pile of papers to mark while trying to make up for missed instruction? After years of frustration with this, I started using Moodle to deliver instruction and to assign and monitor work during my absences. In my experience, delivering instruction through Moodle (or other platforms) is faster and more efficient that writing a lesson plan for a sub. Students get the information ‘directly’ from the teacher, and the lesson can include assessments set to be graded automatically. As a result, students are more engaged in the assigments, and with just a quick look the teacher can see if the activities were completed and how well they were completed.

I recently had an accident and broke my leg and ankle. Although I was able to teach, I was not able to move around to provide individual feedback to students. I was pretty much restricted to a corner of my classroom. Google Apps for Education and Hapara were my saviors. They allowed me to monitor my students work, and to provide feedback in a timely manner (through chat and comments). Some students showed significant improvement as a result of receiving feedback in this private manner. Since their peers did not know I was giving them feedback, they focused on what I said instead of feeling self-conscious.

As a language teacher, it is typical for me to have heterogeneous classes. Technology has allowed me to provide students with resources that allow them to move at their own pace, re-visit material as needed, and learn through the activities of their choice. I have had several students ask me if we could use only self-directed activities. While I am not an expert on personalization, or even differentiation, the more we do this type of work, the easier it gets for my students and I to adopt the role of learners and facilitator.

These are just three situations in which virtual learning has beeen part of my everyday routine. If we have the resources, why wait for a drill or a ‘problem’ when virtual learning could enhance everyday instruction, or simplify tasks? If, God forbid, our school were forced to close, my students are ready to continue learning .

Posted in Course 5 | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Week Without Ipad…

Yami Yamauchi by Flor C. Martin

Yami Yamauchi by Flor C. Martin

When my only daughter was born, I vowed to keep her away from the influence of television and Disney princesses. Technology was not even part of the question, why would a little girl need to be exposed to technology? Nevertheless, as she got ‘older’, she found out all the things she was missing: TV programs, movies and toys. I started to feel guilty for not allowing my daughter to be part of the main stream kid’s culture, call it “peer-parent’s pressure.” Little by little Dora the Explorer, Disney princesses and Barbies entered our house, but technology? No way! She was too young for that.

One day, during a play date, I noticed that my daughter’s friend was able to find the links to her videos and “educational” games on her mom’s computer. The girls were barely two and a half years old, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was hindering my daughter’s ability to thrive in the digital world.  Nevertheless, I continued to keep her away from technology. Then, along came the Ipad and one excited mother who showed me all the wonderful things her children were learning with it. Soon after, I attended a technology integration workshop and I was convinced that my daughter NEEDED an Ipad. I bought one, and inmediately downloaded books, music and several apps. I decided that I could not prevent my daughter from using technology. I also felt that I really didn’t have a choice; afterall, she was born in the digital age.

During the first two years with the Ipad, she was happy to play with educational apps, and a couple of games that she asked for because “everybody else had them.” My husband and I were pleased with what she had learned independently. Her favorite app was Stack the States, and at five, she was able to identify all the U.S. states, she knew most of the capitals, and also the landmarks of each state (pretty good for a TCK!). She enjoyed writing on her diary, creating stories in Book Creator, doing art, or even research. If she had to choose between playing with us or her friends, doing art and crafts, or the Ipad, the Ipad was always the least prefered option.

My daughter is now eight years old, and she is in third grade. Last year her school adopted a BYOD program, and this gave her total ownership of the Ipad (that we shared before). Ironically, the Ipad has now become a gaming device. Although during school time she uses it for learning purposes, during her free time all she wants to do is play, or watch videos. Reading, writing, doing arts and crafts were all taken over by less creative activities. If she has to do homework using an app, she cannot focus as well we have noted. Distractions are just a click away.

My husband and I are both teachers, and we advocate for teachnology integration. Technology plays an important role in our classrooms. However, as parents, we are now seeing the other side of the coin, and we are trying to find the right balance. Since last week, the Ipad is locked in a closet, while my daughter is on ‘digital detox’. We’re all happy with the changes we have seen during the first week. She has spent more time playing board games with us, reading, and working on her hobbies like origami. In the meantime, we are working on a schedule for screentime, and we’d love to hear what other parents have done. We thought we had a good balance, but it seemed to slip away and we have had to re-think some things.

Posted in Course 5, Ponderings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Obsessed with Twitter

By Pasquale D’Silva (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

By Pasquale D’Silva (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

I finally took the plunge and joined Twitter a little over a month ago. I accepted that in the fast-paced world were we live, my best bet to build my professional network was Twitter.

When I joined COETAIL, my primary goal was to find teachers interested in collaborating. Since we would be working on the same skills, it seemed like the ideal environment to start networking with teachers interested in flat classroom projects. Unfortunately this did not work out as I expected. In my experience, there was not much interaction beyond responding to posts to fulfill class requirements. This taught me that many people do not have the time to stop and read a blog post. In this context, Twitter is a much better option. It is easier to read 140 characters, than a long text. Also, Twitter allows you to reach very specific communities. Definitely, it has been easier for me to stay somehow active on Twitter than to blog.

Nevertheless, networking is still hard. At the beginning, my hashtags did not show in the corresponding group. I did some research to find out why. I learned that if you are new to Twitter, your hashtags will not show until you have some followers. I also learned that you cannot get many followers, if you don’t have many followers, ironic, isn’t it? You are not worth following if you don’t have followers, Catch 22…

I got my first retweet by The Guardian, as part of their Language Debate thread. I thought this retweet would help me speed up my networking efforts, but not much happened, besides some more traffic on my blog.

I’m still on my quest to build a bigger community, and to find connections to flatten my classroom, but the rate it is going, it may take a few years.

Posted in Course 5, Ponderings, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Is learning a foreign language becoming obsolete?

Word Lens in use, it is not perfect, but it does the trick.

Word Lens in use, it is not perfect, but it does the trick.

A month into my twentieth year as a language teacher, and my second year in a BYOD program, I cannot help but wonder if learning a foreign language  is becoming obsolete.

When my school implemented the BYOD program, I was very excited about how technology would enhance my students learning, providing access to authentic materials, opportunities to connect with others, and new outputs for their learning, among other things. However, things are happening slowly. Building connections with other students and/or classes has proven to be harder than I expected. Instead of having my students interact with a class on the other side of the globe, I am dealing with academic integrity issues that had become more common with technology at the finger tips of students. As a consequence, I seem to be spending a significant amount of time and energy teaching digital citizenship; as well as making sure that work turned in, is my students’, and not a copy of someone else’s work or the product of Google translation.

Students who are instrinsically motivated to learn the language continue to do their best, whether we use technology in class or not. I am not worried about them. Nevertheless,  those students who are taking the language only to fullfill their graduation requirements, see technology as a tool  to defeat “the system”. Or… could I be misunderstanding them? Am I imposing my digital-migrant perspectives on them? Perhaps, within the context of their needs and motivations, they are using technology fairly and efficiently. They are doing their best to complete their work and to fullfill their graduation credits. After all, the requirements say that they need an X number of credits in a foreign language, not that they have to reach certain proficiency in the language they study.

I have been pondering this issue for a while, but further reflection was triggered by  something that happened in my class last week. I had asked my students to create a video to explain a grammar topic from our current unit of study. They were expected to do research, and to show their understanding of the topic in their video.  All this was done in class time, and most students worked diligently. One of my students turned in a very good project, but it was obvious that it was not his work.  He had done the research, but at some point along the way he decided to download a Power Point presentation from internet, add his voice and some music, and voila! he was done. He argued that it was not plagiarism, because he enhanced the video. I argued that he was turning in work that was not his, and that by doing this, he had skipped the lerning part of the activity. Who was right? Was it a ‘mash up’? Wasn’t this somehow like becoming a prosumer? By the way, this is the same student who uses Google translator everytime that I’m not looking.

Most of my students are Korean, and they plan to return to their country to attend college. They value language learning, in fact, they are already bilingual (Korean- English). However, they do not forsee the need to be proficient in Spanish or French, which are the languages offered at my school. They think that if they ever need these languages, they will manage using technology. After all, last May Microsoft presented Skype translator:

“Skype Translator allows users to speak into the video chatting service in their language of choice. The words are then translated into the recipient’s preferred language. The system will hear users’ words and do its best to translate them in real time. The display will show a text translation of what was just spoken …”

According observers, the translations done by Skype Translator were not perfect, but they were approximate enough for people to understand the message conveyed.

Skype translator is definitely a break through in these area, but it is not the only attemt to facilitate life navigating a foreign language. Although in a smaller scale,  apps such as Word lens, which translates printed words using your phone’s videocamera, has minimized the need to carry a traveler’s phrase book. And there are more in the making. According to an article in Times of India, Kshitij Kumar, a high school student is currently developing  an app for Google glass called

“If you are talking to someone whose language you do not understand, the app will show you, on the glass, the translation of what is being said in a language that you understand – like subtitles in a movie,”

Although, in my opinion, technology will never replace verbal communication in its purest form, it has changed the way some students see language  learning. We may not have access yet to thal level of sophisticated apps and devices in the classroom. However, we do have a translation tool in Google Docs, Moodle, Blogger and other platforms. I also have students who argue that their ability to use a tool or device to get their work done, is as valid as to actually learn the language. Are they wrong? Has technology created a divide among language learners, those who focus on developing skills to solve ‘language problems’ using tools, and those who prefer to focus on proficiency? Is the Foreign Language program at your school attending to the needs and characteristics of digital natives?

What do you think?

Posted in Course 5, Ponderings | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Great Ideas for the First Week of School




This year is my twenty-something year in the classroom, but I still get a little aprenhensive at the beginning of the school year. If there’s something I have learned is that, thankfully, no year is alike. Students personalities, interests and needs add new life to my classes and make my job appealing. I also make an effort to try different activities and keep my classes engaging. This year I found some great ideas, for the first day of school and beyond,  in the following blog posts:

I had to move to a new classroom and spent precious planning time unpacking and getting set. The activities in these posts include ready-to-print materials which make them great time-saving resources. Talking about saving time, check out this Edutopia on how to make the most of your (prep)time:



Posted in Course 5, Learning to blog | Tagged | 2 Comments

Back to School Week


Decisions, decisions…

I can hardly believe that I have been back to work for almost a week already, and that classes start tomorrow (Tuesday August 5). I had a great time with family and friends, but now the summer vacation seems so long ago…

We arrived in India last Monday, had a day to unpack, and by Wednesday we were attending in-service while fighting jet lag. The days that followed have been busy and tiresome, but I am excited to see my students and embark on another learning journey.

Posted in Course 5, Learning to blog | Tagged | Leave a comment

Flattening, Blogging, Gamefying, or …

all of the above?

National Foreign Language Week 2012, Alpha Mu Gamma Honor Society

National Foreign Language Week 2012, Alpha Mu Gamma Honor Society

Wow! I can’t believe that, after one more course, I’ll be done with my COETAIL Certification. I’m quite excited about Course 5 and the possibilities for my final project.

For the upteenth time, I’m going to say that, in my opinion, technology in the world language classroom is meant to bridge the gap between language learners, the target language and culture, and the entire world. Why should we continue using textbooks, working within the confiment of four walls? Alright, I know that many teachers out there have been taking full advantage of communication technologies for years, but this is sort of ‘new’ for me. For most of my career I felt restricted by schools policies (and by my own concerns) about students privacy and security online. Luckily, now I’m working at a school that, though just completed year 1 of the BYOD program, encourages teachers and students to reach out to the world. Instead of protecting our students by keeping them away from social networks, we focus on teaching them digital citizenship skills along with our subject matter. There are so many things I want to do, but here are my top three choices.

1) Flattening my Classroom

“A Week in the Life of..”, one of the projects of Flat Connections fits perfectly with our World Languages Curriculum. Although this program is designed for elementary school students aged 8-10 years, it can easily be adapted to the world language classroom. In fact, I worked on the draft for this project last February, at a workshop with Julie Lindsay at ASB Un-Plugged 2014. This project strives to foster understanding about the culture of Spanish speaking countries among language learners, while providing students with opportunities to comunnicate in the target language to complete authentic tasks.

2) Blogging Buddies

Next year I will be teaching IB Spanish, and I would love for students to have their own blogs. These blogs would allow students to document and showcase their progress, as well as to interact with students outside our school community. This would include opportunities for them to speak Spanish with their ‘buddies’ via Google Hangouts.

3) Gamefication

I’m also considering e-gamification of some of my units (HS Spanish 2) course. I have included elements of gamification in my teaching before, but I have not yet taken full advantage of technology to do this. To begin with, I’d upgrade my “pesos felices” (a reward system I have used in the past), to QR pesos. I took this idea from the SlideShare Presentation Gamifying the Language Classroom by Graham Stanley. I would use the QR pesos to ‘unlock’ new challenges in a unit, and avatars and badges to keep track of students achievements in a digital passport (something I wanted to implement this year, but that due to time constrains I replaced with interactive bulletin boards (Aurasma).

It is hard for me to choose one of the options above. I have already done some of the work for options 1 and 3, and option 2 seems like a ‘must do’ for an IB class. Chances are that next academic year I will find myself juggling three projects at once. The deciding factor will be finding other teachers and schools who want to collaborate with me. Let me know if you are interested. 

Posted in Course 4, Ponderings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

To gamify or not to gamify? There is no question

Gamification Infographic
Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

Do game-based learning and play have a place in my classroom?

Of course! There is no question about it. I think everybody, young or adult enjoys playing. Maybe not all of us are into videogames, but we certainly like (traditional) games. Then, why should learning and playing be at odds? Why not use games and/or gamification to increase motivation in the classroom? After all, playing and learning have common attributes (Glover). They both have measurable outcomes, outcomes that are assigned values.  In gaming, these values come in the form of badges, rewards, or scores in a leaders board, and in learning they come in the form of grades and achievement awards.

I am not saying that we should play for the sake of having fun. As Mark Church recently said at an in-service at my school, we must be careful not to confuse fun that has the appearance of learning, with fun in the service of learning. We need to think thoroughly how to embed games or/and gamification as we plan a unit or a lesson. We must always keep in mind our audience and the learning outcomes. Glover suggests answering the questions quoted below before gamefiying a unit/lesson:

      • Is motivation actually a problem?
      • Are there behaviors to encourage/discourage?
      • Can a specific activity be gamified?
      • Am I creating a parallel assessment route? (gamification is meant to increase motivation, not to replace formal assessments)
      • Would it favor some learners over others?
      • What rewards would provide the most motivation for learners?
      • Will it encourage learners to spend disproportionate time in some activities?
      • Are rewards too easy to obtain?

Gamification is not a new concept. I would dare to say that every teacher has used gamification or some elements of gamefication at some point or another. Although technology has made gamefication easier, we can also gamefy lessons without using technology. For example, in her second grade class my daughter is learning about money and decimals. Each child was given an ‘allowance’ and they can earn more money by doing their best in class each day. They can use the money they earn to buy items, and they enhance their math skills during these transactions. My daughter is not a fan of math, but she has learned a lot in this unit (and not only about math). In my foreign language classroom, among other things, I have used a system where students earn pesos by demonstrating their learning in summative assessments. They can use these pesos to ‘go shopping’ at the end of each term, when they can buy back quizzes with low scores (or other formative assessments), missed homework assignments or little crafts from Spanish speaking countries. This system is organized so that when students buy back a quiz, they use pesos they earned by demonstrating learning in summative assessments. They also could share their transactions with the class or keep them private. I have not used leaders boards since I last worked in elementary school. I owe this to a former principal who used leader boards to keep track of teachers’ sick days (as if teachers should be embarrassed for getting sick). Anyways, if teachers did not enjoy seeing these boards displayed in the staff room, I figured students did not enjoy seeing them in the classroom either.

Besides ‘pesos’, my students get other ‘rewards’ for demonstrating learning, stickers or a higher spot in the Champions Board in Quizlet, for example. Although I do not keep track of these rewards, I have noticed that many students have created their own leaders board and keep a healthy competitions among themselves. I have also used the layered curriculum approach when teaching high school, which in my opinion has some elements of gamification. Next year, I plan to round out these and other things I have done into a more comprehensive gamifying system for some of my units. More on this in a future post, gamification may be my final project.

Posted in Course 4 | Tagged | Leave a comment