Dr. Baros is a dedicated researcher, educator, and LGBTQ advocate. Her areas of expertise are proficiency-based language teaching and creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and people.
UPDATE (October 16, 2016): Due to my experiences over the past few months, I've had a "rebirth" of sorts into the CI world. Due to this, I have taken some significant steps away from using Kagan as a main method in my classroom and instead focusing on simply storytelling and communicating compelling and comprehensible methods. However, Kagan and the underlying principals of cooperative learning do still have their appropriate places and are used often in my classroom - just not as extensively and not in the same way that I was using them before. I do still feel that cooperative learning is essential in my classroom for a few reasons - it demonstrates my faith in students to figure something out on their own, allows them to build relationship through supporting one another, adds variety to the classroom, and especially because it gives me an opportunity to hear how they verbalize their internal processing of the language - I occasionally realize that the class was "understanding" something in a different way than I intended, and this gives me a quick break from instructing to monitor and adjust instruction as we move forward. I generally use teacher-centered instruction to co-creation of stories, which forms the backbone of the language that we use in class. The cooperative activities (and therefore Kagan) come into play when students are processing input together, such as re-reading a story that we co-created. There are excellent structures beyond Kagan that utilize cooperative learning, such as the "Running Dictation" or any variation thereof. As long as students are engaging in Positive Interdependence, have Independent Accountability, have Equal Opportunities to participate, and are Simultaneously Interacting, then all of the benefits of true cooperative learning are present and valid.
UPDATE: For a summary of most useful Kagan structures for CI instruction as well as specific activity ideas, click here. For a comprehensive list of Kagan structures and ideas, click here.
I started my CI journey at the beginning of my career when I taught in a TPRS classroom. In fact, we could actually go even earlier when I observed my would-be master teacher at work during my teaching program and was amazed by what he was doing, so I requested that I be placed in his class for student teaching. I'd never heard of Comprehensible Input or TPRS, but I was hooked! I have been 100% on the CI boat from the very beginning and it shapes everything about my classroom, from the activities we do to assessment to the posters I have on my wall. When it comes to foreign language teaching CI is king. Of course, I know I'm likely preaching to the choir here, but I wanted to make it clear where I stand in terms of the importance and superiority of CI. I also want to make a comparison:
I was introduced to Kagan two years ago during a staff development activity. Since then, my school as worked to become a "Kagan" school, complete with our own certified Kagan coach on staff and complete professional development days dedicated to official Kagan training and credits. At first I was resistant to using Kagan in my classroom - I argued that I needed to be the one providing input because students can't possibly learn correct language without a proper model! I resisted for the entire first semester. Then, I had the opportunity to observe our Kagan coach at work (he teaches middle school math) - and I was hooked. Again, I was amazed by the energy and engagement levels of students at all levels and I had to have that same thing in my own classroom! Kagan, like learning about CI and TPRS, has again revolutionized my classroom and I won't go back to how things were before.
Before I go any further, I should point out that Kagan can be a LOT to process, but it's best to take it little by little. Just like CI (and especially TPRS), misunderstanding and misapplying the Kagan methodology is likely to end in frustration and abandonment, claiming "it didn't work for me." I believe it can and will work for you as long as you are careful and really know what you are doing. If you are new to CI, focus on developing your CI skills first. That is the foundation of your language instruction. Once you are ready to dip your feet in the Kagan pool, keep reading and follow the "next steps" at the end of this article.
What is Kagan?
For those of you unfamiliar with Kagan, it is a style of cooperative learning that provides structures/strategies to increase engagement and accountability. However, the full Kagan methodology is just that - a methodology. Like with CI, most teachers have to re-think their classroom paradigm and have some philosophical discussions about the what, how, and why of teaching and learning. However, those that teach and assess using CI have already made most of those same paradigm shifts. In particular, Kagan emphasizes student-centered teaching and personalization, learning through communication and interaction, building a positive and supportive classroom environment, and moving from teacher-controlled classrooms to student-driven lessons where mistakes are OK! For many teachers, these can be radical ideas - I would argue that for many CI teachers, these ideas are standard and best practice. In many ways, Kagan and Comprehensible Input are made for marriage. However, just like with any real marriage, careful considerations must be made in order to make the marriage a success:
There are four fundamental components to every Kagan structure for engagement, summarized by the acronym PIES (which every other teacher understands to be a fruit-filled pastry, while I understand to be "feet"!). If one of these is missing, the structure will not work as intended:
How do I use Kagan in a CI classroom?
To really make this process efficient, I keep a catalog of CI strategies and Kagan structures handy to flip through during steps 2 and 3. I recommend that you develop your own personal catalog of the structures you've tried (meaning that you didn't just give it a shot once, but actually did it 3-5 times and ensured you followed every step every time) and found most effective for your classroom, along with the specific activities and objectives that you've used them for. I'm working on categorizing Kagan structures by the types of CI activities that they pair well with, including whether they are suitable for input or output activities. At most, you may only ever use 5-10 different structures during a given year - this again emphasizes that you are not expected to use every Kagan structure, just the ones that work best for you and your content area!
How do I get started?
First, get familiar with what Kagan really is and how it looks in the classroom. Do a little bit of reading to understand the fundamentals and familiarize yourself with some of the most common structures (see The Essential 5). If possible, attend a conference (you'll want to start with the "Kagan Structures Level I" 4-day workshop). If you can't go to a training or attend a conference, then you should read the Kagan Cooperative Learning book. However, DO NOT read this book front to back - that would be far too overwhelming! Start with the essentials - I recommend reading about the Seven Keys for Success (Chapter 5) and previewing the Structures (Chapter 6). That should be enough to get started - look over the other chapter headings and read/apply as it suits you. There is a LOT more to true cooperative learning that just what is in those two chapters, but it's enough to get the very basics down.
Next, group and label your students appropriately. If you've read about teams and grouping in the book above, you'll know the what and why for this. I skipped the heterogeneous groups and went straight to the structures my first time around - it was ok, but not really what it could have been because I had the blind leading the blind. I really saw the benefits of Kagan when I had my students grouped properly - my high students were processing information on a deeper level as they had to explain to their partner(s) why they know that word means "they live" instead of "he lives" (it has an n!), while my students at lower levels were getting quality input, all while building a positive relationships and value for one another. Don't make the mistake I did - if you're going to do Kagan, do it right the first time and carefully assign those groups (I recommend purchasing the Team Tools software to make this a breeze!). Then, make sure students know their letters and numbers (Kagan style - see the book!) - these help with the facilitation, management, and efficiency of Kagan activities. For those without desks (I'm hoping to join your ranks next year!), you can label your chairs with the group names, numbers, and letters and then teach your students who their "group mates" are so they can quickly move their chairs to be with their groups.
Finally, use the lesson planning steps above to carefully select the structures that will support and enhance your instruction. Start small with simple structures (your first few structures will likely come from The Essential 5), and only try one or two Kagan structures at a time. It will take 3+ tries to really make a structure work, so don't give up! Double check and make sure you are following all of the instructions and steps. If you realize you missed something or students are confused, don't be afraid to pause the class and clarify. I usually teach structures like this:
Follow the steps above, and you should be well on your way to an effective CI/Kagan classroom. Please leave any questions below and let me know if I can be of any assistance - I would be happy to be your "virtual Kagan tutor"! I will update this post once I have the "catalog" of Kagan structures matched to CI strategies that I referenced above. Happy teaching!
As I'm reflecting on the year so far, I figured it was a good time to invite input from my Beginning Spanish students on what they'd like to see happen in the future. Overall, I've been very happy with my Beginning Spanish classes and would have been satisfied to keep doing what I'm doing. But, hey, maybe there's something I'm missing? So, I decided to put the question out to my sixth and seventh graders and see what they have to say - and I'm so glad I did!
I labeled three areas on my board ("I like...", "I don't like...", and "We should...") and passed out sticky notes to each group. I invited them to write their feedback on the post-it notes and stick them on the board under the category it went with. I set the timer for 5 minutes and they were very engaged in writing the notes! Afterward, I went through what was on the board with them and responded (eliminating the suggestions like "taking naps" and "no homework", etc.) as well as asked for clarification on what they wanted to see happen. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by all of their great suggestions (and I have to admit it gave me the warm fuzzies to see all of the wonderful things they wrote about class so far, with nothing mean or negative - I love my kiddos!). Here are some of my big take-away's from this discussion:
Students love Señor Wooly! In fact, there weren't any notes that said they didn't like the songs, but a few that asked that I don't use any more non-Señor Wooly songs because they're just not up to par with those on the website. There were a few that said they didn't like the Nuggets for homework, but once I told them that they were going to have homework, they all agreed that the Nuggets are better than anything else I could assign.
Students want to play games and use their devices to learn and review, namely using Kahoot. They report that they do it in other classes and that they pair up if they don't have their own device - and they agreed to "teach" me how to make it work. Overall, I want to do more review, so I will build in all of the requests for games by using them for review. Another activity that they suggested that they do in other classes involves giving hints and pictures of a spot in the world, and have students use their devices to figure out "where in the world" that place is. This could be an interesting way to introduce cultural activities or even have little mini-lessons in under five minutes.
Overall, students seem to enjoy the classroom environment and activities. These are things I already knew, but it's nice to hear them say they enjoy the teamwork, I'm building rapport, that I interact with them, that I'm joyful, and "awesome possum" haha. There were a number of different things they expressed that they enjoyed about class, and multiple students specifically said it helped them learn Spanish.
Students want more learning options. There were a number of students that want to act things out, make up songs, make up dances, do projects, etc. I could address this two ways. First, I could mix things up a little more. Although I address many learning styles, I can often get into some of the same routines with these activities. Students want to mix things up more with different activities. Second, I can assign tasks and projects with menus, allowing students to express their learning in different ways. They also don't want to present in front of the class - I could easily accomplish this by having students present in groups and using a variety of Kagan structures. Some items they suggested for menus include: arts and crafts, act out, make up songs and dances, translate authentic resources like songs and cartoons, etc.
Students want to move and interact. I can easily build in these activities with Kagan. They want both opportunities to do Kagan class-builders to "get it out" of their system (referring to talking to each other) as well as opportunities to practice talking in Spanish. I will have to look for opportunities to get the up, moving around the classroom, and talking to each other in Spanish during class time. Some even wanted to go outside. I'm sure I could accommodate that from time to time.
Students want to change seating. Of course, the request was for "free seating" and I explained that my seating was very intentional so that each person had something to contribute to the group (see information about Kagan cooperative groups for more information on my seating arrangements). As a compromise, I offered to change seats once per month. It sounds like I need to get my Kagan group tools set up so it can automate these seats!
Students want to learn about culture. I need to look for more ways to build culture in. I'm doing this much better in my higher levels, but we've been caught up so much with Señor Wooly that we don't have a whole lot of culture. But students want to learn more!
I feel like a total n00b when it comes to my Advanced Spanish class. I've never taught at this level, nor with this amount of differentiation. I feel like each day is a struggle to try and meet students' needs at the level that they need it. Moreover, since all of them are in Spanish IIIH and AP, I feel an obligation to make sure they are satisfied with their elective choice, especially since it goes beyond the two years most students feel like they need for college. They are here because they truly want to learn what I have to offer. I have to admit I'm a bit flattered that they would choose this over, say art. But yet, here they are. And I often feel like I'm letting them down with first-year teacher issues.
Except, thnere's one big difference: I'm not a first-year teacher and I know I've done more difficult things than this before. I can do this - I just have to figure out what works. I keep reminding myself - at least I know how to teach now! I just need to put the pieces together! And of course, having an additional two years of classroom management makes me feel like a pro compared to that first year.
I've tried three distinct curricula with them so far:
As students finished their tests, I drew a table with three columns on the board: "What I like", "What I don't like" and "What we should change" and filled in a few of my "big" things I've been thinking about in black. As they finished, I invited them to add their own thoughts to the board in any color other than black. When everyone finished adding their ideas, I found that I could accommodate everything they'd written and still do my job well. How awesome! However, it occurred to me that not everyone may agree with the ideas on the board, so I passed out post-it notes and told them to put a check mark next to the things they liked and an X next to the things they don't like. They didn't have to put their name and I positioned myself looking away from the board.
When they informed me I could turn around, I was happy to see that there was a high degree of consensus among students. In fact they all agreed on every item except one - more on that later. Here is their feedback (my comments are in black, theirs are in blue).
Overall, I'm very pleased with the students' suggestions. Students want to talk in Spanish! Which is ironic, because I feel like this is what I work the hardest to encourage them to do. I think that with this expressed desire, I can capitalize on this and structure more activities. I believe structure is the key - they need to know when to talk (taking turns and for certain periods of time), what to talk about, and how to talk abut it (sentence frames, etc.). They also want to explore culture more, which is something I've been moving toward using the Tejidos activities and addressing the AP exam themes. I'm not sure I'm seeing quite the payoff from listening to Un Gancho al Corazon, but it's a powerful motivation tool and the students love it. I can use that to my benefit by encouraging them to work hard for me and then reward them with Un Gancho. They also didn't completely oppose anything that I suggested was good or needed change.
It was pretty evident to me students did not find the reading log valuable. Instead, they requested worksheets. I personally feel that the reading is more valuable and I would get value from it. However, this is a place I can give in, especially since they gave me an alternate type of homework that I could use to be meaningful. I'll probably start with Conjuguemos and grammar-type worksheets. That seems to be what they want - I'll load class with Comprehensible Input and let them work out the grammar at home. Win-win!
There was sharp disagreement in feedback about splitting the class. It appeared that the majority of the class (we assumed the IIIH students with easier work) was happy with the split, while four students (we assumed these were probably the AP students) did not like the split. Some of the more vocal Heritage students were upset because "it's not fair" that they are doing harder work. They asked if they could get the "AP" on their transcript, which cannot happen because they don't have credit for Spanish IIIH (nor are they getting the full AP curriculum). However, this is one of the issues that I'm not going to budge on - I will not sell them short by giving them material that is too easy for them, nor will I give the rest of the class work that will set them up for failure. It looks like I need to have an honest discussion with them about how and why I am differentiating the instruction, and why I'm doing it for them (it's sure to make my life easier!).
Overall, I think this gives me a good "checkup" on where we are, what my students want, and what they need. I'm excited to move forward with these activities with the hope that I'll have more buy-in and motivation since the activities match their desires, resulting in more motivation and learning on their part. Plus, I'm excited to do the things that they want to do as well! It will be interesting to see how these next few weeks go with new strategies based on this conversation.
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