There has been some buzz on the OWL listserv and on the OWL forums about what everyone is doing for English week.  I thought I might get into the mix and share my thoughts on the very important foundation week.

For me, English week (the only time where the classroom is not 100% immersion) has three main goals:

1.  To Build Community

2.  Establish OWL Routines (the circle, immersion, circumlocution, risk taking, class structure, etc. . . )

3.  Set Quarter and Semester Learning Targets

This year, my English week is actually six days, two days before labor day and four days after. At the end of these six 40 minute classes,  I want students to be comfortable with their classmates and me,  understand the class philosophy, and be aware of their proficiency level and how to progress to the next level.

So here goes!


My mantra this year is, build a community, learning follows.  Therefore,  the objective for this day will be for students to meet each other and me and to HAVE FUN.  Let’s set a positive and supportive tone from the start. Likewise, the expectation is established that in an OWL classroom, you will MOVE and BE ENGAGED.  Most likely, even though this is the first day of English week, I will not speak any English.  This way we can also establish the rules of circumlocution: describe it, draw it or act it out!

If you want some suggestions on first day games check out my earlier post or the OWL forums!


Undoubtably, the classes will have produced some first day vocabulary.  On day two I am going to stress putting backpacks on the tables, coming to the circle and repeating the vocabulary with a partner.  However, instead of designing a lesson around the previous topics, the literacy activities and questioning will be replaced by reviewing my class expectations (coming soon!) and going over the contents of their Google Folder.  (Many teachers have a class website, but I have found that making class documents available in a google folder works for me.)  If time allows, we can play another game.  At the very least, we will end class with a final word and a cheer.


After a warm up and circle activities, we will take some time to discuss the purpose of the circle, transitions and immersion.  And of course, you can’t forget a game or cheers!


Last year, students’ biggest complaint about OWL was the lack or seeming lack of  structure.  Don’t get me wrong, there is lots of structure in an OWL class, but at first it feels so different to students they just don’t see it. As a result, I am making it a point to explicitly go over the class structure with students: Warm up, review of vocabulary, hook, conversation, literacy activity, conversation, literacy activity, final circle.


As a private school, my high school is fed by approximately 15 different middle schools.  As a result, I have wide range of abilities in my classes, especially in Spanish Two.  I cannot set blanket goals of for example, students must reach a novice high level by the end of the quarter.  Proficiency targets need to be individualized given that I have novice mids and intermediate mids in the same class.  Therefore, on this day I will have students write about and record a conversation on familiar topics so I can have a more accurate idea of their proficiency level. My prep and evening will be spent assessing approximate proficiency level!!


While students work on a choose your own homework activity, I will meeting individually with students to let them know their approximate proficiency level, look at what they do well,  and to set quarter and semester goals. They love this individual attention!


Thoughts? Feedback?  What games will you be playing? What themes might you start the year with?


Bootcamp Takeaway 3: Nonverbal activities in a language classroom?


If my goal is to get my students to speak Spanish, why are non verbal activities so important?  Simple, to give the brain a break, make space for more learning and to foster community.

I was reminded of the necessity of nonverbal activities while participating in a Mandarin circle activity.  At bootcamp, Chinese teacher Sally Thorpe adeptly introduced the group to words and phrases such as hello, How are you?,  I am good, I am not well, head, back, stomach, My head hurts, My back hurts, My stomach hurts and most importantly applause!  In the circle, we repeated words with actions, talked to our neighbors and applauded one another about every 30 seconds.  It was a positive experience, but at 10 minutes of the 15 minute activity, I was done.  I didn’t know what I was saying. I had started to confuse phrases and really the only words I could get straight were hello and head.  I felt tremendous empathy for my true beginner students. After this reminder of what it is to be a novice low learner,  I made it my mission to amp up my repertoire of nonverbal activities.

Again, these serve to give students a well deserved break before continuing with the lesson and help to foster community! They are incredibly helpful in a language classroom but could be used in any classroom when students are approaching breakdown.

FOLLOW THE LEADER This is not your playground version of follow the leader, but close.  Students walk randomly in a circle however they choose.  For instance, they may swing their arms, jump, clap or make a goofy noise.  The goal is for students to eventually all be doing the same action.  Once all students are doing the same action, they need to transition onto a different action. No talking is allowed.  Instead, students must watch their peers closely and take a risk by initiating an action.  To make this game more difficult, the teacher can make state that if he or she can tell who began the movement, they will need to choose a new one.  This forces different students to lead the group and not rely on class leaders.

MIRROR MIRROR In groups of two, the students face one another as if looking at a mirror.  One student begins a movement and the other one mimics.  Students may pass off who is the leader and who is the follower. The goal is to be so in synch that the teacher cannot tell who is leading and who is following.

TRACTOR BEAM One student puts out their palm.  The other student lines their face up with the palm, about eight inches away. The student with their palm out, moves their hand and the other student must follow keeping their face equidistant from the palm as if caught in a tractor beam or their force field.  Talk about trust.  My partner had me head banging!

ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS, SHOOT This is the classic game that we all played as kids.  Why not use it as a brain break?  You may either keep it silent or teach students the words in target language.  You can use it just as a brain break or you can have the loser (or winner) repeat a vocabulary word, use it in a sentence or ask a question depending on the level of the class.

EGG, CHICKEN, DINOSAUR This is an hysterical version of rock, paper, scissors.  Students begin by wandering around the circle and then begin a best of three game of rock, paper, scissors.  The winner of this first round is transformed into a chicken, the loser into an egg.  The chickens and the eggs then circle around the room.  The chickens look for chickens and the eggs for eggs.  You must compete with someone on your level.  After another best of three if the egg loses they stay an egg, if they win they transform into a chicken.  If the chicken loses they go back down to being an egg, but if they win they transform to a dinosaur.  Likewise, if a dinosaur wins they stay a dinosaur, but if they lose they are back down to being an egg!  So to recap, you may only play against someone who is in the same state as you.  If you win, you go up a level and if you loose you go down a level.  If you loose as a dinosaur, you are back to being an egg.

SILENT INTERVIEWS This I can’t wait to do in my Spanish one and two classes.  Maybe another first day activity? In pairs students try to find out as much as they can about one another but without talking.  Students then can state what they learned about their partner or they can act it out.  In Spanish One, I will have the students act out what they learned for the class and supplement new vocabulary words.  In Spanish Two, I will have the students act out what they learned about their partners and have other students write down what they think the students is “saying”.   We will then share what we think we learned about one another. There are many more silent community building activities / brain breaks, but this seems to be a good start.  What are some of your favorites?

Bootcamp Takeway 2: First Day Activities


Create a classroom community and learning will follow.  This is my mantra for this year.  As such, I plan on starting off the year with a few team building games.  While I am beginning with these activities, I am sure that they will be recycled as the year progresses.

1.  THE NAME GAME (with a twist).  This version of the game was uber simple, but a blast.  Students go around the circle and state their name.  However, they must also perform and action to go along with their name.  Every five or so students go back and everyone repeats the name with the action.  Later in the class or later in the year (you know the kids forget each others’ names) you can challenge individual students to repeat all the names along with the action.

2.  THE SHEET GAME  In this game the group is spilt into two teams.  The teams are then separated by a sheet so that they cannot see each other.  Each team sends a representative to stand close to the sheet, right across from the representative of the other team.  The sheet is dropped and the first team to say the name of the person across from them is the winner.  This could be used with more than names.  For instance, students could shout out hair color, eye color or articles of clothing.  For Spanish One I will stick to names, but in Spanish Two, I am going to ask students to blurt out something they like about the other student.

3.  TEAM CHARADES  We have all played charades before, but I really liked this set up. The group is divided in two or three groups.  A member of the group comes up to the teacher or a class member who gives the student a word to act out.  The words pertain to one of three categories.  Sample categories might be cartoon characters, fast food, sports,  summer activities, etc . . . The students then act out the word and when their group guesses correctly, they must celebrate with an action such as jumping up and down or fist pumping. The celebration must be different every time they get a word right.  Once correct, a different students goes up for a word.  This continues until one of the teams goes through all the words.

There are so many other possible community building games, but I though these might be of use for the start of the year.


Bootcamp Takeaway 1: ACTFL Proficiency Scales


Greetings from Portland!  This week, I am fortunate enough to be attending an OWL bootcamp in Portland, Oregon.  Thank you St. Mary’s.  Today we had a workshop run by ACTFL trainer, Arnold Bielcher.  The goal of the training was to familiarize the group with the various ACTFL proficiency levels (in multiple languages!) and then discuss how we move our students through the levels.  Here are my top three takeaways:


When questioning students always base your questions around what they have put on the table.  For instance, if a student states he lives with his grandparents, don’t ask about his parents.  If a student mentions she went to the movies with a friend, don’t ask about the boyfriend. This seems simple, but it is easy to let curiosity get the best of us.  This also keeps the student at ease, allowing for better language production.


In order to move students across levels you must ask questions at the next level.  This means novice students must be given situations or questions that force them to describe, compare or ask questions. Intermediates must be asked to narrate and advanced must be ask to problem solve and discuss abstract situations.  However, the questions cannot not stay at the more advanced level. There should be a continual raising and then lowering and then raising of question level.  We don’t want to stress them out and cause break down!


When assessing proficiency level:

1.  Look at Function.  Read or listen to the student work and ask yourself,  “Did the student answer the question?”.  Could they effectively list, describe, compare, ask questions, give opinion, narrate or analyze?  Could they do what they were asked to do?

2.  Look at the Context. How rich or varied was the vocabulary?  To what extent could they talk or write about the question or did they stray from the topic?

3.  Look at FORM.  Did the student respond in lists of words, chunks of language, phrases,  sentences or paragraph?  Were the sentences original or were they memorized?

4.  Finally, look for Accuracy / Comprehensibility.

Traditionally, language teachers want to evaluate accuracy first.  For example, is there correct verb usage or adjective noun agreement?   Yet, with proficiency grading, this comes last. We must believe that correct grammar will come with time.  Whether the question is answered and how is more important than the accuracy.






Methodology: What makes an OWL teacher an OWL teacher?


OK, a bit of review. An OWL teacher is a teacher who believes in organic language acquisition and who employes the methods of Organic World Languages.  Then what are those methods?  How is the OWL teacher different?  How is the classroom different?  How is the learning experience different? You can read exactly how OWL defines the methodology here, but the point of my blog is not to reiterate the information on the official site.  Instead, here in my words are the methods that define me and my classroom.


All desks are pushed aside and students sit or stand in a circle.  This circle changes shape over the course of the class as students complete class activities.  However, every class begins and ends in the circle.  In addition, students come back to the circle after every activity.  It encourages participation and allows students to hear one another clearly, but most importantly it emphasizes the fact that language learning is social and cannot be done with out constant interaction.


Class conversation, school happenings and current events shape my classroom.  I am not tied to what comes next in the text book nor in the curriculum.  I am able to base my lessons on topics and issues that are of high interest to my students while simultaneously covering curriculum benchmarks.  For instance, Justin Bieber’s arrest was the basis of a lesson on stages of life and responsibility.


Students are given a baseline evaluation and individualized objectives at the beginning of each quarter. They then have one formative assessment a month to alert them to their progress and then are evaluated again at the end of the quarter.  Limiting assessment makes students see what language really is, a communication tool, not an academic subject.  Students become more creative with their language, make more mistakes and without knowing it, learn more.


Team building is essential to a successful OWL classroom and as such there are many games and we all know games can be loud.  There is lots of repetition of vocabulary and of phrases which again can get loud. Finally, there is a huge emphasis on interpersonal communication and as such students are constantly conversing in groups in two or three.  With 20 or so people talking at once the volume rises quickly!

5.  100% IMMERSION

From day one there is an understanding that English is not allowed in the circle.   If students need a word, they must either describe it, draw it or act it out.  Likewise, it is OK if a student does not understand everything.  The goal is to understand the gist of a conversation. As students become braver in asking for vocabulary and adapt to not understanding everything, the need for English quickly disappears.

Terminology: What is an OWL educator?


The OLA vs OWL Educator

As OWL techniques have infiltrated classrooms throughout the nation, there has been some debate amongst teachers. What do we call ourselves? Who are we? Are we OLA teachers? Are we OWL teachers? What does it mean to be an OLA teacher, an OWL teacher?

Over the past year, I have started to refer to myself as both an OLA and an OWL educator to the confusion of both my colleagues and parents.  To clarify, OWL stands for Organic World Languages, an educational organization based in Portland, Oregon.  This fabulous group under the direction of Darcy Rogers developed a teaching method that promotes Organic Language Acquisition (OLA). OLA is the theory that language learning should be natural and painless and mirror the processes of first language acquisition.  I ascribe to this theory and therefore call myself an OLA teacher.  Additionally, I am also an OWL teacher as I employ the specific methods endorsed by Organic World Languages.