YEAR FIVE WITH OWL: Lessons Learned

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This school year marks the fifth year I will be using OWL techniques in my classroom. Where does the time go!? Below are some of the most valuable lessons I have learned from the past four years.  What are some of your most valuable experiences?  Similar or different, please share!

  1. The OWL lesson plan format is gold.  The basic concept of hook, discussion question, literacy activity, accountability activity, follow up question is a wonderful template that can be used with any topic and makes lesson planning easier for teacher.  It also provides a consistent structure to a course where you can be talking about Starbucks Frappuchinos one day only to be talking about Unicorn Cafes in Bangkok the next. Students know that everyday we talk, read/write/listen/, talk some more and most likely throw a silly game or brainbreak into the mix.  The consistency in class structure allows them to focus their energies on interpersonal interaction, having fun and engaging in the topic of the day.
  2. If the lesson plan format is gold, the OWL circle is platinum.  Running class in a circle has been the perhaps the simplest, but best thing to happen to me as a teacher.  By nature, students are looking, listening and focusing on one another and not me.  Throughout the class I am in the middle of the circle, standing next to students, but for 50% of the time I am outside of the circle listening! to conversations or helping students with writing or comprehension.  As an added bonus, do you know how easy and efficient it is to transition from activity to activity when your kids are standing up and there is nothing in the way to hinder movement!?
  3. Sometimes, I need to use chairs.  Every year, there is a class that just cannot handle standing up.  They think, “Oh, I am standing up in a circle and high fiving, this is not class.  I can act ridiculous and poke my neighbor in the belly every four seconds.”  I have found for classes like this, sitting in a circle of chairs and getting up throughout class brings just the right amount additional structure and reminder that ,”Hey, just cause this doesn’t look like school, doesn’t mean all social norms are gone.”  Additionally, I frequently use chairs in my upper levels as they are doing extended research, reading, writing and conversing in class and chairs are more comfortable than my floor
  4. Sometimes, I use ENGLISH!  Interestingly, I actually use more English in my upper levels than my lower levels.  For the most part, the words and concepts in levels one, two and three can be described, acted out, or drawn.  Yet in my level four and culture and conversation course, we do sometimes quickly provide an English translation for more precise vocabulary.  For instance, students no longer just want to say tree but now they want to name the trees.  It is easy to act out arbol, but very hard to act out roble.  So we very quickly say the word, oak and move on.
  5. I directly teach GRAMMAR, but I wish I didn’t have to.  For my first two years, I stuck true to the OLA/OWL approach, focused on communication and let the grammar come naturally.  Unfortunately, what happened is students left my class feeling confident, but when they got to courses where they were faced with conjugation charts and preterite verses imperfect exercises they were lost.  Their grades plummeted and lost their identity as Spanish speakers and ultimately they stopped taking language.  I have come to peace that direct evaluation of grammar is still a common practice in many language courses.  If by introducing stem changing verbs makes my students more successful in other courses and they take more language, I will teach the concept of stem changing verbs.  I still refuse to directly assess the grammar concepts, but rather indirectly measure grammar via evaluation of comprehensibility, form and function.
  6. Don’t create every lesson plan on your own, it is exhausting.  My favorite resource for my novice to intermediate low students continues to be www.creativelanguageclass.com.  Kara Parker and Megan Smith scour the internet for you, choosing high interest topics and suggesting lesson plans.  These authentic resources and proficiency based activities can be integrated easily into an OWL format lesson plan.  With upper levels, I frequently rely on a text for quality input.  Recently,  I have been pulling from the Wayside Publishing Tejidos for both overarching and challenging questions and quality leveled authentic resources.
  7. You will face criticism and praise.  An OWL classroom is frequently criticized by teachers for not being academic enough or for focusing too much on output.  Listen to the critics, but also to the students and parents that love your class. Know that you are doing a great job of listening to and evaluating your students and are creating a supportive, interactive environment prime for language acquisition that is tightly aligned to ACTFL standards.
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