Acres of Diamonds
note: letter written to my school  

Many years ago, a teacher I knew would share with his students a story based on the book Acres of Diamonds.  As the story goes, a farmer in Africa wanted to be like all the other farmers and find that elusive diamond mine that would gain him millions of dollars. He lived on a small farm near a stream and one day decided to sell the farm and go search for that mine. After many years of searching and not finding what he was looking for, distraught he threw himself in the river and drowned.  A short while later another farmer came along and bought the same farm located near the stream.  One day as he was walking near the stream he noticed something shiny. It turns out that the stream turned out to be one of the most productive diamond mines on the African continent. The original owner had spent his entire life searching for something that was literally right in front of his eyes.

The issue with the textbooks for our Spanish speakers has never been about technology. Mr. Rojas and I were hired in 2005-06, I taught two Spanish AP sections and Mr. Rojas taught two Spanish speakers classes.  42 out of 49 of the students that took that AP Exam, passed with a 3 or better.  In 2006 we were on the verge of making a difference for our Spanish speaking students here. But for some reason, instead of building on our early success, we made a U-turn and the Spanish speaker’s classes became "not relevant". Instead of more Spanish speaker classes, we had less, instead of more Spanish AP, we had less and as for resources, we had to make do with what we had. What we had at that time in the AP class was not much and what we had in 2005-06 in the Spanish speaker’s class, we still have today, old, outdated textbooks, many of those trashed with missing pages.

This year we once again have two Spanish AP sections, with new textbooks, being taught by Mr. Rojas, who is the ideal person to be teaching this class. Finally, we have seven sections of Spanish speakers, the number of sections that we should have had in 2006-2007 (with the same old books). I don’t have the answer to the question, why it took so long to get this program to this point.? My guess is that no one in the administrative position at the site or district level was looking at this program as a way to increase the literacy of our students that come from a Spanish speaking background. And as everyone knows, we have a few.

The irony to all of this is that a case could be made that if literacy is increased in one language, literacy in a second language could also increase. And is not increased literacy the “diamond” that we have been looking for? Someday it would be a positive for us to not only offer Spanish Language AP, but also Spanish Literature AP.  We have the capacity, as far as qualified teachers are concerned, to do that. But that will also mean that we will need to give those teachers the resources needed to make those classes successful.

Somewhere I read, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.  How sad would it be to see our World Language classes for Spanish speakers in five or six years at the very same place they are today? This is not about technology; this is about recognizing that we have very capable students that need classes with the necessary resources to be truly successful.

I promise you I will not “throw myself into the river”, I know where to find the diamonds.


After attending the OPI workshop put on by LARC at SDSU, I have been trying to use the training in my advanced Spanish class. We were told that trying that trying to recreate OPI interviews would not be the same in a classroom setting, but that we could certainly use the ideas and concepts to provide meaningful activities for our students. This then became the challenge, how to use OPI in a classroom setting without actually trying to conduct an OPI interview. The solution for us was to do interviews using the 4 types of questions, “self” questions, “daily routine” questions, “community” questions, and “about the world” questions.

We began the process by inviting people on our campus who come from the various cultures that  we have studied to our classroom.  A counselor, who was born in the US, with parents from Mexico, a secretary whose parents came from Cuba, our resource officer, from Puerto Rico, a student-teacher from Guatemala, and our ELD Coordinator from Mexico. Students wrote questions and then we took questions from those to write our final list of questions. Writing questions for interview purposes is a challenge, students tended to focus on the “self and daily routine” questions, but had trouble getting to the “community and world questions”, questions that asked people to compare, to explain, to describe, or to state an opinion. The solution to this was to give students an outline of the different types of questions that would help remind them not to focus on the first two levels.

This semester students have been assigned to do “una entrevista fuera de clase”. We are redoing the 5 classroom interviews with 1 to 1 interviews. “Entrevistas” are more difficult than they appear, with this one Monica did a fantastic “first try”. We’re all learning from each other, and that after all is a key in education. 

What Is Critical Thinking?

Every time I go to a staff development at my school about using Thinking Maps, someone inevitably throws in a phrase something like this, “this will help our students think critically”. Thinking critically IS a big thing and educators should be concerned about students’ ability to learn. But the problem with activities that are designed to help students think critically is they don’t. Why? It might help to look at what others have said  about critical thinking.  There is a Center for Critical Thinking, who knew? This is their take, “Critical thinking is essential if we are to get to the root of our problems and develop reasonable solutions. After all, the quality of everything we do is determined by the quality of our thinking.” This is a good thing, problems and solutions; but it is difficult to think of solutions when students don’t even understand the 

problems.  Here’s another view, this one comes from the Association of Colleges and Universities, and they have to know. “Critical thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting 

or formulating an opinion or conclusion”.  I like this one, especially the part about exploring issues. There is also this great YouTube video that speaks to 21st Century critical thinking. In this video teachers talk about how students need to “question the information put in front of them”, "to adapt, things don’t always work out the way you want”, and “to respond in different ways, you’re not meant to conform to one way”.

My own experience with critical thinking in the classroom is that we don’t see much because we don’t teach what we don’t test. Look at most standardized tests and very few, if any, have the types of questions that elicit critical thinking. Does it exist in our classrooms? Yes, but you  have to be able to identify it when you see it. Case in point, we were doing an activity using Cervantes, don Quijote, about the time he went after the windmills thinking they were monsters. Students were assigned the task of listing a chart of objects and how those objects might be imagined, windmills as monsters. Students came up with several ideas, a banana that was imagined to be a telephone, a lawn hose as a snake, and a dolphin as a submarine. Students were than assigned a writing task. After watching the video about don Quijote, write your story using one of the objects on your list. I collected their stories and began reading. Most were interesting and the story had some humorous slant, “mi amigo hizo una llamada con el platano”. (my friend made a call with the banana) But then I read one that stood out over the rest, it wasn’t funny, but it was powerful. In it this student wrote about the time she went to Sea World with some friends and they saw the animals/mammals that could do tricks, but all she could see was a hell. In order to have those performing animals, they had to be taken from their natural habitat. These animals shouldn’t be performing tricks; they should be where they belong, in the wild. Her point, some see animals/mammals as toys when in reality they are beautiful creatures.  You can read the paragraph below it’s in Spanish and it is what critical thinking is all about.


 Un día fui a Sea World con mis primas. Cuando entramos al parque ellas vieron animales curiosos que sabían como hacer trucos pero yo vi un infierno. Para tener esos animales tenían que quitarlos de su familia y tenerlos en espacios muy chiquitos. Mis primas pensaron que Shamu estaba feliz haciendo esos trucos para (recibir) comida pero yo vi un animal haciendo eso para que no lo regañen y para comer.  Brenda R.


Who Owns the Classroom? 



Recently during a 2-day course for WASC, A Data-Driven Self Analysis for Student Performance, this topic came up during a discussion about an article written by Dennis Fox, The Principal’s Mind-set for Data. According to Fox (and others) good schools don’t just happen, it takes a lot of stakeholders (teachers, parents, administrators) working together to make a good school. The article pointed out nine attributes of an, “appropriate mind-set for data driven instruction.” Fox’s opening point was that principals “may not be learning how to apply new knowledge and skills in a way that improves student outcomes”.



Many of the participants attend these courses to help their school through the WASC  Accreditation Process and questions such as this help everyone “re-think” what their respective schools are doing to educate students. One of the participants at this particular course, a superintendent, whose job is to work with principals, had an interesting “take” on this question.. He opened his comment with, “don’t take this wrong, but many teachers think they own the classroom”. He went on to note that in many cultures, it’s the teachers who move from class to class and not the students. Interesting, but the point he was trying to make was, teacher’s don’t own their classrooms. This made me think, if not the teachers, then who? And furthermore, what does it mean to own the classroom.



If I learned anything in my Policy Studies Program at San Diego State, it was that classroom teachers are not the “gatekeepers of knowledge” they are the “facilitators of knowledge”. In other words, teachers must find a way to include students in the learning process. It isn't  the teacher that has all the answers and knowledge, it is teachers and students working together that makes the classroom work. If one were to read the nine attributes of a principal's mind-set in Fox's article,the conclusion might be that principals are the owners. However, the intro to the article actually states, “Amid the focus on data literacy, principals may not be learning how to apply new knowledge and skills in a way that improves student outcomes”. Really, is this true?



I like baseball. In 1919, 8 players on the Chicago White Sox World Series team were found guilty of “throwing the series”. Legend has it that as one of the players, Shoeless Joe Jackson, walked out of the courtroom and several young kids walked up and and one said, “Say it ain’t so Joe”.  Jackson later clarified the encounter saying the conversation went more like this,  It ain't true, is it, Joe?" "Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is," Jackson replied. The boys opened a path for the ball player and stood in silence until he passed out of sight. "Well, I'd never have thought it," sighed the lad.

OPI Training...it's all about thinking

Last week I had the special opportunity to attend the OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) Training at LARC on the campus of San Diego State University.  This is my fourth workshop organized by the good people at LARC. As always, I left the OPI workshop with many ideas and resources to use in my classroom.  There is so much to write about, it seemed best to reflect back on one area that stood out. For me that was the idea of asking questions that make us think.  The focus of the training was to interview speakers to determine their proficiency level (knowing what they can do with the language, not what they know about the language) by developing a series of topics and asking them a range of questions from novice type questions to superior level questions.

Asking questions is something we do all the time, but being able to think of questions that will elicit a certain proficiency level, that takes skill .  Have your ever thought about the questions we ask our students to answer in their foreign language textbook? When I begin to think more about this, it occurred to me that our textbooks actually make acquiring a second language more difficult than it should be.  I’m sure publishers mean well, it’s just that they have a different set of goals.  OPI Training made me rethink about the level of questions we ask our students. Often teachers ask them to answer and ask simple questions with simple answers, some even one-word answers. But are those they types of questions that help students reach more advanced levels? Probably not. Questions that lead to advanced and superior levels are questions that ask students to compare, to elaborate, to or to give supporting evidence.

We need to ask higher level questions in order to increase critical thinking (a goal in most mission statements).  That was the focus of OPI Training, asking the correct question to determine the correct level of the interviewee’s language proficiency. If the correct questions are asked, not only does the interviewee have to use critical thinking (skills), but so does the interviewer.  A major part of part of OPI Training is about real critical thinking, not the type of critical thinking usually found in our lessons.  Some have actually questioned  the validity of critical thinking activities we ask of our students.  When we want students to use critical thinking but the activity does not reflect critical thinking, that’s what some would call, “fishing in the bathtub”.

It’s good to know that there are resources such as LARC and workshops such as Oral Proficiency Training that demonstrate what critical thinking is all about. If a prerequisite to catching fish is having fish present, then we ought to go to where there are fish. You wouldn’t think that would be that difficult.



A Book Share: Brave New Digital Foreign Language Classroom by Robert J. Blake

(click on link below to see the Prezi)

A Webinar by Rene Palafox 


Are you interested in learning how to move your foreign language classroom from being teacher-centered to student-centered? If you are this webinar is for you. Topics to be covered will be 1) The place of technology in the foreign language classroom; 2) Computer assisted language learning; and 3) the three stages of computer competence. In addition to these topics, several websites, with video instruction, will also be shared. These websites, GoogleMaps, WordChamp, Storybird, Vocaroo, Jing, and Padlet (Wallwisher) are all excellent websites. These websites will help teachers at all levels of second language learning provide lessons that will help engage their students’ in meaningful technology for the foreign language classroom.

Ideas to use with these websites:

1.   Create a cultural report about a foreign country or city with pictures and videos (Google Maps)

2.   Practice vocabulary using flash cards (WordChamp)

3.   Read authentic literature for more advanced classes (WordChamp)

4.   Write an original story using the target language (Storybird)

5.   Have student respond to a prompt in the target language and upload or send the response to the teacher. (Vocaroo)

6.   Capture a picture about an important cultural location and add text to describe the location. (Jing)

7.   Respond to a video, story, book, or article using a “wall” for students to write their ideas. (Padlet)


Follow me on Twitter: @mehizopensar

Dos Leones

Había dos leones

Uno vivía en la selva. Cuando se levantaba, no tenía comida para comer. Nunca se preocupaba. Siempre estaba cómodo, siempre comía porque siempre hacia lo que tenía que hacer para comer. 

El otro vivía en el zoológico. Cuando se levantaba, tampoco tenía comida para comer. Siempre estaba cómodo. Siempre comía porque esperaba al guardián, quien le traía comida. 

Sólo uno era Rey

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

It’s summer and some of us are off for the summer, others may still be teaching. For those who are enjoying the break, the fact is teaching is a year round profession even if you aren’t in your classroom every day. One of my goals this summer was to find some new ideas to use in the fall with my classes and fortunately with some of the connections that I have been able to make one idea really got my attention, to set up a webinar. In this case a “book-share” webinar. It is still in planning stages but hopefully it will be ready to go in about 4-6 weeks. I’ve attended webinars, but never have I had the opportunity to host one. But with the inspiration of Ruth Valle and Phyliss Manning (http://edproconsultants.weebly.com/) I said why not? Reminds me of Steinbeck’s novel, The Pearl and the scene where Kino is in his hut with the pearl and all of the neighbors are standing around and listening to him speak. Kino begins to talk about what he is going to do with the money from the sale of the pearl. All of a sudden he stops and begins to think that now that he has spoken out loud, what if he doesn’t reach his goals and dreams? What will all the people think?

For all of the negative stuff that shows up on the internet, there are some pearls to be found. Now that I’ve put it out there to do this webinar, there are aspects of this that are clearly out of my comfort level. But as the saying goes, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Let’s see where this goes…

A quick preview of this book-share webinar will lead us to technology and foreign language learning based on a book by Robert J. Blake, Brave New Digital Classroom. Some of the questions we will try and answer:

  1. How does the time we have our students in class relate to the time it takes to learn L2?
  2. How many people surf the web? In English? In other languages? Why is this important?
  3. Does technology have a place in the foreign language classroom? If it does, why are some (teachers) hesitant to use it?
  4. How many professors does it take to change a light bulb?
We will also take a look of several interesting websites that can be of great use in the foreign language classroom.


Getting Paid to Not Teach, Really?

Much has been written about teaching English learners, articles such as this one found at Rethinking Schools is a prime example. Strategies range from bad to very good. A few years back, some even proposed that English learners would best be served by learning only in English, very shortsighted. What have we learned about this idea?  It didn’t work and the gap between English learners isn’t closing. On the other end of those strategies are educators like Dr. Maria Montano-Harmon. Of all those who know about teaching English learners, few have provided better activities and strategies than her. Having sat in several of her workshops, her ideas work for English learners, but even with mainstream students as well.

So, who is right? A study conducted by American Institutes for Research and West Ed came to several interesting findings. One was that  “this study found no clear evidence to support the superiority of one EL instructional approach over another.” Second, “extensive analyses of the available were conducted and very little evidence can be found that the proposition’s (Prop 227)  basic premise was correct.”

Now comes more disturbing news, some districts have been receiving money to teach English learners and that many of these learners haven’t been receiving instruction of any kind. That shouldn't surprise many, it doesn’t surprise me. The reason for this could be related to the types of instruction that are offered. There is no consistency in instruction, programs, and more importantly, inconsistent or erroneous use of data to drive the instruction. This hasn’t been resolved so we don’t know how this will play out but experience tells me that there is definitely some smoke here.

Seeing in Your Head and in Your Heart

One of the most well-known songs heard at Christmas is Jose Feliciano’s, I Want to Wish You a Merry Christmas.  Many people admire his singing and playing because he can’t see the notes on the page or the strings on the guitar, yet the music is amazing. A few years back I took a guitar class and learned how to read the notes and which string was which, but in no way does what I play come remotely close to what I hear from most accomplished guitar players. Apparently sight is at times overrated. The question is how are musicians like Feliciano and Stevie Wonder able to do what they do? The answer is simple; they see the music in their head and in their heart. I’m thinking that the two are related, being able to “see in your head” but not feel it in your heart doesn’t work.

Today as many celebrate the season, there are many issues in our nation, in our schools, and in our communities.  In case you missed it, Pat Kelsy, Winthrop’s basketball coach had some very interesting comments in the aftermath of what occurred in Sandy Hook and our nation’s reaction to that event. It seems that he was saying that being able to see the problem is not enough; we have to be able to feel the problem in our heart. If we don’t, the changes he talks about will come out sounding like my guitar playing and not like the music we hear from artists like Jose Feliciano.

I wish to everyone Peace and Goodwill, Lord knows we need it.

Why We Teach

I was going to share an idea we used in one of my classes to review what we covered, but sharing about what we teach or how we teach just didn’t seem like the right thing to share.  Tragically we were all numbed and saddened by what happened last week in Newtown, Conn. Then the stories about the children and teachers/adminstrators who were killed began to come out and I started to reflect about why we teach.  For close to thirty five years I have worked at the high school level, where every day, other high school teachers such as me see five/six different classes of students on a daily basis for about 50-60 minutes every day. But for elementary teachers, their school day is much different. They see their students every day, all day for the entire year.  Imagine having to deal with the same kids every day, every period, all year. I’ve tried to imagine that and each time I keep thinking how much more of a challenge it would be for me to attempt that type of teaching situation. That’s why I have always admired and respected the work that elementary teachers do on a daily basis. Then Friday happened.


I have read many of the stories and watched most of the videos, but the one clip that really brought me to the understanding of why teachers teach was the one about Kaitlin Roig, one of the first grade teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary. In it she describes what she told her kids while locked in the bathroom. Her concern was that they would never see their parents or family again and she wanted to make sure that the last thing that they heard was that they were loved. For some reason, Kaitlin and her students were spared, but there were other teachers and administrators who died trying to save the children they saw every period, every day, all year long.


For most of those thirty five years, going to school has been something I looked forward to. While I didn’t see my students all day, seeing them in class and seeing how they progressed from day one to the end of the year was always a good feeling.  But I have to be honest, there were days, and there still are, when a certain class just didn’t or doesn’t seem to want to be there and trying to keep them motivated was and is a real challenge. Then I read about Kaitlin and some of her fellow workers and it became abundantly clear that what we teach and how we teach is secondary to why we teach.  For Kaitlin and others, teaching wasn't a job; it was a relationship that developed between her and her students who love coming to her class, every period, every day, all year long. What greater tribute can we make to teachers like Kaitlin Roig, those that died trying to protect their class, and others who work with young children, than to reflect on why we teach? Perhaps then, the tragedy, the anguish, and the deaths of 26 innocent children and adults will not have been in vain.

Today is not to worry about how we teach or what we teach.

Social Media 2012 LARC
This week the Language Acquisition and Resource Center at San Diego State has been providing an online seminar for teachers interested in how to use web 2.0 tools and other social media programs in the classroom. “We’re not technology teachers, we are language teachers”, those are the words of Michelle Olah in today’s morning session. What a great point! In fact I can imagine that many teachers have to come to grips with that idea when dealing with their administrators and students, I know I do. Michelle’s session on creating stories using Storybird provided yet another excellent tool for technology/teacher educators but it was the four reasons she shared about the advantages of using technology that stood out 1) it enhances student confidence, 2) students can communicate with others outside the classroom, 3) the opportunity for collaboration, and 4) it allows students to think critically to evaluate the process. In an environment where we have plummeting test scores it's good to know that there are ways to engage students in creative ways. Who knows, our students may even learn something. Check it out here.
"Don't confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn't make any progress." ~Alfred Montapert
With so many changes in education, we sometimes miss sight of the fact that while there are many new movements in education, not all movements help move our students to become better students. This site is intended for anyone who is interested in helping students learn how to think critically about their education. It's not just about taking tests, listening to lectures and taking notes. When students begin to think about what they are being taught, they will no longer be fishing in a bathtub.
No hay que confundir el movimiento y el progreso. Un caballito de madera se sigue moviendo, pero no hace ningún progreso ". ~ Alfred Montapert
Con tantos cambios en la educación, a veces se pierde de vista el hecho de que hay muchos movimientos nuevos en la educación, no todos los movimientos ayudan nuestros estudiantes ser mejores estudiantes. Este sitio está dirigido a todos que estén interesados en ayudar a cada docente aprender y pensar críticamente acerca de su educación. No se trata sólo de tomar pruebas, escuchar al maestro y tomar notas. Cuando los estudiantes empiecen a pensar en lo que se les enseña, ya no será la "pesca en una bañera".

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