Four characteristics observed in an effective teacher at the beginning of the year

Observing expert teachers is a pretty common practice in education – in the middle of the  year.  But what happens at the beginning of the year to jump-start that success?

I had been wondering this for awhile and decided to see someone for myself during the first week of school.  

My school has a choir teacher, Kelsey Tortorice, who has experienced a high level of success with a group of vocalists at our school.   I asked her if I could come in and spy on her, while also doing an audio recording of the class.

I boiled down my general observations to four elements, and they all start with P.  I didn’t plan it that way like a hip megachurch pastor might; it just ended up that way.  I’ll start from most important observations to the least important, although in reality it’s all important.  Let’s go to our 2pm choir class.  

Pre-thinking everything:

It was quite clear when I was in Kelsey’s choir class that she had thought through everything ahead of time.  Everything.  Nothing was left to happenstance.  Not only is she experienced, she has been reflective on her experience and has used her experience to structure class.

  • She had an agenda on a Powerpoint slide, which I rarely see choir directors post (we just walk in, sing, and do what the conductor says, right?):  “Attendance, sing, weekly rehearsal grade, materials overview, room set up”.  She knew what she needed to cover with them, and she made sure that they knew. 
  • The chairs were seated in a circle when students walked in with written instructions to sit anywhere in the circle
  • She said that she wanted students to teach her their last names so that communication and coordination with other teachers would be easier 
  • When she said “take 30 seconds to do X”, she gave them 30 seconds.  
  • She told them that they had a week to get a black binder, 1-inch-thick, that they can use just for this class.  

She also encouraged students to do pre-thinking of their own.  This was the first year I had heard a teacher state to a group of students that they needed to manage their lunch period (right before class) such that they can arrive to her class on time in order to be ready to start class, because at the 2:00PM bell (she stated that) they needed to be seated and ready to sing.  

Within the first 5 minutes of class, I knew what Kelsey was all about.  

Pause to reflect:  What elements of your classroom flow are you not pre-thinking?  Is it possible that your classroom management issues stem from you as the teacher not thinking about something ahead of time, which gives room for chaos? 

Pinpointing what students should be doing

Kelsey is an expert at narrating what she expects her students to be doing at every point along the way.   Nothing – absolutely nothing – is a mystery in Ms. Tortorice’s classroom.  If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing and when you are supposed to be doing it, it’s because you’re legitimately dumb, because she spells it out by the minute.  

Here are some phrases that I saw or heard from her:  

  • “Ok, we’ll take attendance.  Please don’t respond if you’re not the person I’m calling out.”
  • On a Powerpoint:  “By the 2:00pm bell, all belongings should be below or behind your chair.  All phones away.”  
  • She broke down the criteria for their five daily participation points.  I only got to jot down 5-4-3- points.
    • 5 – seated with all materials below seat or out of the way by 2pm
    • 4 – Seated by any other materials are still out, digging out of backpack or phone still out at 2pm
    • 3 – in the room but not seated

What I really took away from my time with her is the idea of narrating student behavior.  In classes that need a lot of direction, the teacher must constantly be definitively narrating the who, what, where, and how of student conduct at any given moment.

In the sound clip below, I really appreciated how she had an established call-back-to-order procedure in place.  The classroom goes from noisy transition back to rehearsing within 15 seconds.  Take a listen.  

She offered a brain break in the middle of the lesson.  But before going there, she specified how students were to spend their brain break, and she notified them how they’d be called back out of it.  Made for a really smooth transition.  Listen below.

Polite redirection

One of the biggest takeaways from my time with Kelsey was the polite and non-aggressive tone of her redirections.  This is a group of vocalists who are starting the sixth hour of their school day (out of nine – yeah, our school day is long).  It’s easy to get frustrated with them when they’re chatting too much or getting out of order.  Kelsey redirects them with a non-threatening, non-angry tone that I have tried to implement this year.  Have a listen. 

She just states what she wants, in a precise way, with little to no emotion behind it, and students understand.  Same thing here. 

Pause to reflect:  Do you tend to get upset with your students and show anger when something is happening in your classroom that you don’t want?  Is it possible that specificity mixed with a polite, human tone could help bring them in?  

Peaceful poise in front of the class

Kelsey showed no nerves or self-consciousness about being in front of high school students.  She had a posture and calmness that conveyed mission and purpose.  There were no sudden jerky physical moves on her part (I’m starting to think that I freak my students out some time).  She walked around the classroom, taking an even pace as she circulated among all students throughout the rehearsal.  

There was a spot in which some students clapped (once) at the end of a song, but some didn’t.  She said in a very neutral tone, “It’s not your fault if you didn’t clap, I wasn’t clear about that.”  It didn’t unnerve her to apologize for something.  

Pause to reflect:  What is your poise like in front of students?  Do students sense that you’re nervous about the day?  Do you have a presence in the room that lets them know that you’ve got this?  

I think the 3 minute video with former students shows it best (see below). 

I’m thankful to work with colleagues like Ms. Tortorice who I can model, and whose effectiveness can be felt in the room.   You might not be a choir teacher, but I hope this post has helped you consider what you can replicate in your own classroom setting!

Are your heritage courses producing any results? How do you know?

So one of the up-and-coming stars of heritage language teaching, Adrienne Brandenburg, asked a very good question recently for heritage teachers, which I’m sure their administrators wonder also:

I’d like to answer that question with more questions:

How do the American Lit teachers on the third floor know that their instruction is working?  What does it look like when a British Lit teacher’s instruction is working?  What research is showing that English 101 is working?  Hm, “working”…

In the heritage classroom, we are less language-y and more language arts-y.  So how do language arts teachers prove the effectiveness of their classes?  I have two impressions based on interactions with my language arts colleagues:  (1) You can show some improved reading comprehension and knowledge of mechanics of grammar and writing through STAR testing, PSAE, PARCC, and other fun exams; but (2) progress is not always quantifiable, but we trust – oftentimes anecdotally – that being immersed in the reading of novels, discussions about them, writing research papers and essays, all does improve our students’ written, verbal, and cognitive skills.

Unless your school funds the National Spanish Exam, AAPPL, or the Stamp exams for your students every year, you really don’t have access to all the assessment resources you would need in order to show hard proof that your heritage class is working like our language arts colleagues do.  That being said, people constantly raise questions about how worthwhile those language arts oriented exams are anyway.

We do have a way to measure how effective our heritage classes are.  It’s called ACTFL’s 5 C’s, the World Readiness Standards.  “But wait- all that ACTFL stuff is for L2 learners!”  Generally speaking, I disagree, but the devil is in the details.  I’m actually going to present a conference session in February addressing this very issue (my first conference presentation ever – I’m insanely nervous), and I guess this blog post is turning into a sneak preview of where that’s going:


  • Reading- Are your students being challenged to read texts in your heritage class that they wouldn’t encounter in an L2 classroom or outside of a classroom?
  • Speaking- Are you having conversations at the Advanced and Superior levels in your heritage class that they wouldn’t have at home or in the community?
  • Listening- Are you exposing your students to media and audio resources that contain topics at a higher level than they are able to speak and write at in order to move them up the proficiency pyramid?
  • Writing- Are you attempting to help your students spell better, revise their work, use more creative vocabulary, and write within genres that they would never have to if they weren’t in your class?

Codigo de correcciones screenshot

I am going to say that most heritage teachers will give a resounding “yes” to the above.  Your class is worthwhile.  You are doing the work that the field (ACTFL) is telling you to do and doing things to improve your heritage students’ proficiency.  Check.


  • Is your students’ knowledge of their own history and culture expanding in your classroom?  Take a look at some of those questions towards the middle of my post here.
  • Is your students’ knowledge of the history and culture of the wider Spanish-speaking world (or worldwide Chinese community, or Vietnamese history and culture) growing?

I bet it is.  Your heritage class is worthwhile.  Check.


Are your students learning about science, technology, the environment, politics, and current events in Spanish?  We talk about drones every year.

5-21 preguntas about drones

Double-points for learning about those things, and improving their language skills along the way.  You are doing the work.  Check.


  • Do you have students compare English and the heritage language?
  • Do you ever compare American culture to the heritage culture(s)?  This is one of our best discussions every year.

4-27 Los padres cultural relationship difference a comenzar

Don’t we do those things all the time?  You’re doing the work.  Check.


  • Do your heritage students have pen pals in Spain, Uruguay, Costa Rica, or the Dominican Republic?

  • Do you ever do “Latino studies” in your class?
  • Do you have your heritage students interview family members or someone in the community about their experience immigrating to the U.S.?
  • Do you do something like one of these things above?  If so, check.


Is it more likely that your heritage students will be able to be Intermediate-High or Advanced-Low speakers and writers by taking your class, thus increasing the probability of earning the Seal of Biliteracy in your state?  Then you’re giving something beneficial to your students and your district.  Check.

Has your state not approved the Seal of Biliteracy yet?  Why not, for crying out loud?

Heritage teachers will have just as hard (or easy) of a time proving the effectiveness of their courses just as much as language arts teachers will.  When I see my students leaving my heritage class knowing who Diego Rivera was, knowing more about the Aztecs, knowing why they all have a little bit of Arab blood, understanding the cycle of dictators in Latin America, identifying what “UNAM” is, having some rules to rely on for knowing where to put accents, and being able to explain the historical figures embedded in the murals and posters in my school’s immediate community, I have full confidence that my heritage courses are effective.


Una leyenda, y después ‘yerba mate’

Es muy sabido que el ser humano recuerda muy poco de lo que lee y de lo que escucha, pero lo que uno experimenta con los cinco sentidos se graba en la memoria y se queda allí por muchos años.  A continuación les explico cómo es que traigo un sabor de Sudamérica a mis estudiantes cada año en mi clase de Español Para Hispanohablantes.

#1 – Les pregunto a mis estudiantes si saben dónde está localizado Paraguay, y si saben algo de este país.  Les enseño dónde está localizado Paraguay y hablamos un poco del bilingüismo allí (español y guaraní), y de paso les recuerdo a mis alumnos que el español se encuentra en una situación de contacto con otros idiomas en muchos lugares alrededor del mundo, no solamente en Estados Unidos.

#2 – Leemos la leyenda “El regalo de la diosa luna” en el libro Leyendas  Latinoamericanas, un recurso indispensable para una clase de hablanDiosa lunates nativos en mi opinión.  El “regalo” en esta leyenda es el té yerba mate que se consume en los países del Cono Sur.

#3 – Mientras preparo la yerba mate, mis estudiantes miran el video (al final de esta página) que explica en qué consiste el proceso de preparar yerba mate.

#4 – Tomamos yerba mate y comemos galletas de María.

¿Cómo preparar la mate para la clase?  

Es fácil.

  1. Consigue estas cosas que seguramente ya tienes en casa:  dos cafeteras para calentar el agua, vasos, azúcar, cucharas para servir el azúcar, cucharas para menear el azúcar, y filtros de malla como se ven abajo.
  2. Y hay que conseguir algunas cosas que no tendrás si no practicas esta costumbre sudamericana:  un matero y una bombilla para demostrar cómo se toma en la América del Sur (pues no se la toman allí como lo hago con mis alumnos), y yerba mate.
  3. Calienta el agua en dos cafeteras antes de que sus estudiantes lleguen a la clase.
  4. Reparte los vasos a los estudiantes, e invítales a echar azúcar en sus vasos si así lo desean.  Lo recomiendo, es un té muy amargo.
  5. Llena dos filtros de malla con mucha yerba mate.
  6. Pon el filtro encima de un vaso, y vierte el agua para que recoja el sabor de la yerba.
  7. En algún momento, utiliza el matero y la bombilla que trajiste para demostrar cómo lo toman en Argentina, Paraguay, y Uruguay, según puedes ver en el video.


Sus estudiantes seguramente disfrutarán de esta actividad que es útil para enseñar una costumbre tradicional del Cono Sur, y volverán a sus salones de clase en algún momento pidiendo que les sirvan el té durante el invierno.

What heritage teachers were doing on October 3rd

Learning about big ideas is great.  So is seeing and hearing what teachers did on Wednesday morning, so that’s what we’ve done here.  Fourteen awesome participants, from the East and West coast, from the north and from the south, all sent me what they did in their heritage classrooms on Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018– the only goal being to share their ideas with you, their colleagues (and future colleagues).  One teacher below teaches three different levels of Heritage Spanish on the same day, so she sent three lesson plans at different levels, which is very useful to see.

I won’t include a lot of commentary here because I believe the snapshots shared below speak for themselves (plus, I want the college students I’ll be teaching to try and make their own observations 🙄).  But suffice it say that ya’ll be kickin’ some heritage butt out there.  So without further ado, here’s what I received.  If you want to view in Google photos click here.

If you find this “One Day” post helpful, click “like” at the end!



















One Day pic #17.jpg

“But they already speak Spanish” – In defense of heritage language programs

Are heritage language classes worthwhile?  Don’t “those students already speak the language”?

I had a colleague tell me yesterday that some of her grad school classmates feel that their heritage language tracks are being threatened, because administrators are questioning whether or not they are learning anything by taking a language class in a language that they already speak.  We also commented how thankful we feel to not be in that place, and that we have a supportive administration.  Our program has shown growth over the last few years.

It’s a valid question.  So, what makes a heritage program worthwhile?  And what qualities should a good heritage program contain?

Before I answer that question directly, let me give you one tool that you can use in your response.  What does your school do with, let’s say, incoming freshmen who enter high school with an 11th grade reading level?  Do they eliminate the requirement to take the first two years of English or language arts?  They rarely do; they can still reap benefits and advance their language skills in their freshmen honors English class.  Likewise, heritage students who come through our doors may have proficiency in a certain language, but that doesn’t mean that we scratch their world language requirement, because there is always growth to be had on my fronts!

So, growth on many fronts.  Let’s answer the question now.

In two points, I believe that a heritage program is worthwhile if……

It is moving the students up the proficiency pyramid.

General (L2) world language programs start at the Novice level and (hopefully) produce Intermediate speakers.  Heritage programs will receive students somewhere in the Intermediate range and push them into the Advanced range, and probe them at the Superior level.  All high school students have gains to be had in proficiency in a non-English language, whether heritage or non-heritage students.  Sure, heritage students “already speak the language”, but I guarantee that 99.999% of them aren’t Advanced-High or Superior speakers.  There is always progress to be had, always floors to be added to the house, and always language skills to be acquired.

If you’re a Spanish teacher, look at a recent writing sample of a student of mine here at the beginning of the year.

SNS writing sample

There are gender errors, spelling errors, and a general lack of breadth of response that I would not attribute to lack of interest (great student here!), but lack of confidence in fleshing out thoughts in Spanish.  Why would we pass up an opportunity to leave the Spanish of our students at this level and not build it and enrich it?

It is expanding the breadth of cultural knowledge of your students.

I dislike the idea of “testing out of a language” if the possibility of participation in (or creation of) a heritage program exists.  Language classes are – or at least should be – about much more than learning words and grammatical structures.  Those things are a means to an end- and we can actually accomplish that “end” in heritage classes!  A heritage program should expand the width and breadth of knowledge of culture, society, history, literature, current events, and arts of your heritage students.  

Take José, a heritage student in 9th grade whose parents are from Mexico.

  • Does José know anything about why the population of Argentina is primarily white European?
  • Has José ever had a pen pal or Skype conversation with teenagers in Spain?
  • Does José know much about the Mayans, Aztecs, or Incas?
  • Does José know who Rafael Trujillo was?  
  • Does José know why there are so many words from Arabic in Spanish?
  • Has José ever listened to Natalia Lafourcade, Ruben Blades, and songs like “Latinoamérica”?

The answer to all the above is mostly “no”.  Heritage students could be pushed to take French or Mandarin to fulfill a language requirement – and that’s fantastic.  But let’s not believe that there isn’t plenty of room for expanding cultural, historical, social, and artistic horizons for our heritage students in their home language!  Let’s not scratch the language requirements for them.

I understand that school districts have to apportion their funds wisely and be careful to build sustainable programs.  But if you have a good number of heritage students who are interested in improving their language skills and expanding their cultural knowledge in their own home language, don’t add sections of Spanish 2 and 3.  Create separate classes for them to progress linguistically and culturally.

If you think this post was helpful, give it a like below!  I’d like honest feedback.