YEAR FIVE WITH OWL: Lessons Learned


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  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.

Literacy in the New Year


Hello OWL community!  Sorry for such a long break without posts. As many of you know my Denver condo flooded in early November and my husband and I were sent packing for almost two months. Recently, we returned to our lovely home with lovely new floors, new walls and a new ceiling.  The mundane routine of work, gym, dinner, sleep, repeat has started once again, but it has never felt so good.  Best of all, I am able to sit down on a Sunday night, blog and reconnect with my community of innovative and inspiring educators.

After such a long break, I have much to post, but have decided to to start 2015 with a reflective question and a challenge.

I’ll start off with my question:

What is the role of literacy in a world language classroom?

It is embarrassing to admit, but for the first eight years of my teaching career, literacy played a bit part in my classroom.  I taught students more about the language rather than how to be literate in the language.  Instead of spending time looking for ways to improve reading, writing, listening and speaking, I looked for fun ways to teach grammar, memorize vocabulary and extensive lists of irregular verbs.  I then wasted hours creating contrived “real world” scenarios which demanded specific vocabulary and grammar structures. Fortunately, since introducing the OWL method to my classroom, literacy activities alongside level appropriate questions have become the backbone of all lesson plans.

Unfortunately, literacy in an OWL classroom frequently gets overshadowed by the popularity of the circle. While the OWL circle is essential and loads of fun, the literacy activities that are completed daily in and outside the circle formation are what ensure the progression through the ACTFL levels. Therefore this year in my blog, I will be putting special focus on the literacy techniques within the outrageously awesome structure of the OWL circle.

This brings me to our challenge:

Redefine yourself as a literacy teacher.

Go ahead, make the switch.  Stop worrying about teaching vocabulary, grammar and culture. Stop trying to teach how we were taught, it is OK. Instead think how you can teach for proficiency, how you can build literacy. How you can prepare students to interact confidently in their fill your language in here world.  If you teach Novice levels, talk to elementary teachers.  Do you teach intermediate to advanced? Talk to seventh, eighth or ninth grade language arts teachers.  Observe them.  What methods are they using to improve the reading, writing, listening and verbal skills of their students at the various developmental levels? Are you isolated or just don’t have time? Follow some literacy boards on Pinterest. Take these ideas and work them into your lesson plans and of course, let me know how it goes!


Community + Thinking in your L2 = Why I Love OWL


Last week, a student was absent for all four days of a four day week.  On the fourth day, the students asked in Spanish if they could write get well cards to the absent student. In the OWL spirit, I said sure and began rummaging around in my closet for stationary.  While I gathered supplies, I asked students to write their well wishes on the board.  Without hesitation the students rushed to the board, grabbed a marker, began chatting in Spanish and writing down their messages.  Once ready, I called students back, handed them the cards and two minutes later I had get well cards ready to mail.  The whole activity took a maximum of 8 minutes, from original inquiry to final product.


Now you might not be that impressed.  There are no commands. (No mas inferma por favor.) There is no cute “Get well soon” slogan. (Tú necesito mucho bien.) There are errors both in spelling and in grammar. (Tú esta inferma. Me gusta tú.) Vocabulary is basic and sentences are incomplete and confusing. (Tu gusta “rojo de garganta”). However, I was ecstatic with the class.  From my perspective, I saw class that cares about a each other. I saw a class that communicated comfortably all in Spanish.  I saw all the community building activities paying off!  Moreover, I saw a group of students attack an out of context task without hesitation.  We had no prior conversations about health vocabulary nor grammar structures.  Instead of trying to translate from English, they went right to the Spanish they knew and used it to communicate successfully. If they didn’t know a word, they described it to a classmate who then provided the missing word. They were a class without judgement and as a result they were fearless with their language!

Moments like these remind me of why I love OWL.  First, through constant community building, judgement is taken away allowing students to take communicative risks.  Secondly, OWL students think in L2 from day one. In an OWL classroom there is never direct translation.  Students are forced to find L2 meaning using their L2.  As a result, students stop translating from English to their L2.  Instead, they go straight to their base vocabulary and begin to use it to communicate. This combined with a supportive language community forms the perfect environment for creative thinking and courageous language learning. Again, did I mention, I love OWL!?



Nathan for You!


One of the goals of an OWL classroom is to empower students to take control of their language learning experience.  With this end in mind, my students and I spent several classes discussing and exploring ACTFL proficiency levels.  First, we examined the levels and  how they are measured.  Then we discuss their individual oral and written proficiency levels and made a road map of how to arrive at the next level.

Below, I share with you my lesson plan for the class discussion of the ACTFL levels. However, before you read the lesson please take a moment to watch this clip from Nathan for You as it is the basis for the whole discussion.  This Comedy Central video, in which seven year Amir is interviewed for a position at a law firm became the hit of English week. It was funny and students empathized with Amir, but most importantly it was a fantastic introduction to the concept of language levels. Additionally, many students who did not identify as Spanish speakers do now thanks to Amir. It was obvious to them that he spoke English, but they saw that it was limited to certain contexts, vocabulary and structures. Drawing the connections between Amir and themselves, they grasped that just like him, their language has limits but without a doubt, they speak Spanish.

OK enough with the explanation, onto the lesson!

Time: Two forty minute class periods.

Levels: Spanish One and Two

Students will be able to:                                                                                                                           Describe the difference between novice and intermediate speakers using ACTFL level descriptors.       Assess language levels using ACTFL level descriptors.

1.  Watch the video clip and laugh.

2.  Watch the clip again, but have students answer the following questions in their notebook:

a) What is Amir able to communicate in the video?

b) What difficulties does Amir have?

c) Does Amir speak English?

3.  Record questions a) and b) on the board.   Here is a sample:

IMG_20140922_094221341       IMG_20140922_094241669

4.  Pass out the Proficiency level descriptors and have students read silently. Here are two that I use.  One is from Jefferson County Public Schools and the other is from teacher extraordinaire, Wyatt Crane.

PBA_Rubric_color (2) (1)ACTFL Level Descriptors


5.  Discuss with students the meaning of context, form, function, comprehensibility and comprehension.

6.  Pair students up and ask them to discuss the differences between a novice and intermediate speaker.

7.  Watch sample videos of novice and intermediate speakers.  Using the descriptors, ask students why the novice is a novice and what makes the intermediate an intermediate?

8.   In a T chart have students and summarize novice and intermediate capabilities.

9.  Watch Amir one last time have student assess Amir’s proficiency level.  Make sure students justify their response either orally or in writing.

10.  End class by asking students if Amir speaks English.  Then flip it on them and ask them if they speak Spanish!

This lesson is a bit late for English week, but perhaps it will prove helpful for next year, as a sub plan or as a refresher.  At the very least, appreciate the video!


Choose Your Own Homework!!



In my first year of OWL teaching, I was terrible at assigning homework.  I would be so focused on repeating vocabulary and ending class on a positive note, that I would forget to explain the assignment. Likewise, if I did manage to assign homework, the following class would either take a direction that rendered our homework irrelevant or I would simply forget to check and incorporate the work.  To tackle this problem, I decided to stop assigning and checking homework and jumped on the choose your own homework bandwagon.

Creating a Choose Your Own homework document has been a lifesaver.  It has given me more time in class, taken away the stress of creating a homework assignment and most importantly, it forces students to take charge of their educational experience.

Below, I am attaching what I use for my Spanish Two Classes.  It is based on Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell’s of Musicuentos Choose Your Own Homework document. Here you can find her version as well as other samples from fantastic educators.  In the Musicuentos’s version you will notice that homework options are assigned a point value ranging from one to five.  As the point value increases, the tasks become more difficult and interactive. The different point values also require different language functions. For instance, one pointers ask students to list words and use a lot of vocabulary from the class.  A two pointer might ask them to write phrases or sentences with the vocabulary. A three pointer might require some internet investigation as well as a description while a four pointer might require narration.  Five pointers frequently require interactivity with the community beyond the classroom.

For grading, I choose a number of points to be completed each week and then multiplied this by the number of weeks in the quarter in order to determine how many points are necessary to receive an A.  I also had students record their homework in a blog.  I chose blogger by Google as students can easily email videos and posts to their blog. This accountability system worked well for me, but use what works for you!

Enjoy and OWL on!

Elige tu propia aventura







English Week: Course Expectations!


We are off and running and what a great start it has been! Day one was invigorating.  We did introductions, transitions and games and spoke lots of SPANISH!

Then on day two, we did course  . . .

expectation two

The decision to do so early was more logistical than necessary. As Ashley Uyaguari points out in her blog, through the use of the circle OWL students implicitly understand classroom expectations. My gosh is this true. Before even receiving the handout, the students informed me they were expected to participate, work with others, smile, laugh, and speak ONLY SPANISH! Way to go class!  However, students did still have questions as to where homework is posted, how they are graded and most importantly what school supplies they should buy!  Ha! We therefore spent twenty minutes going over expectations to address their questions. After this brief conversation students were rearing to get back to the circle.  They had enough with English!

Below are my course expectations.  Please feel free to use any components or just take a look to see how another OWL teacher presents her course to the school community. I did this flyer using Lucidpress Document, a Google Docs app.  It was easy to use and if you email me, I can share the document and you can use the same layout and just change what is necessary. Anything to save valuable time!

Español Uno Expectations (1) Español Dos Expectations (4)


Bootcamp Bonus: Starting Class


Most OWL classes start with a mix of  greetings, at level warm up questions, clapping, cheering and of course vocabulary review.  However, have you considered  beginning class with some reflection? breathing? mindfulness training?  A fellow bootcamp participant begins his classes everyday with this mantra:



For all of you non Spanish OWLers here is your translation:

You are my other self .

If I harm you, 

I harm myself.

If I love and respect you,

I love and respect myself.

WOW! Talk about a community builder! Could you or would you use this?  How else do you effectively begin class?