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Teachers’ Corner  Teachers' Diaries - Sofía
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Anita Bill Sofía Amelia Ramona Stephanie Jen Anna


Sofía is a second-year Spanish teacher at a charter school in the Baltimore area. She will share her teaching experiences and reflections over the coming year (2006-2007).

Sofía's diary entries are in chronological order, from the most current entry. You can also browse the entries by month:
January | February | March | April | May | June
August | September | October | December

June 2007

Dear Diary,
Last Thursday was our last day of classes and I must say, it was rather anticlimactic. I'm not sure what I expected, but I suppose none of us can be too excited when exams follow. In fact, as I write, I am proctoring the science exam. I gave my exams on Monday, and although I haven't had a chance to correct many of them, they seemed to go over well - no complaints.

I am pleased with the way that my classes wrapped up this year, particularly my Spanish IV sections. In a couple of my earlier entries, I mentioned that I was having a hard time getting my Spanish IV students to do their homework, particularly when it came to reading. I finally took the advice of one of my mentors and started having them do their reading in class utilizing some strategies she suggested. We started using the strategies on a series of essays about the education system in the Spanish-speaking world. At the beginning of period, the students would get into assigned groups and we would start by previewing the reading as a class: we identified the title and read over the new vocabulary words, read and translated the comprehension questions, and then predicted answers to the comprehension questions. Then the students would read the essay aloud in their groups. They would take turns reading, and at the end of each paragraph, they would discuss in English what they thought they had just read. As they read and discussed, I circulated around the room to answer questions and make clarifications. After reading the essay, the students would answer the comprehension questions as a group, or do so for homework. The following day, we would go over the questions as a class. I also had them do follow-up activities on each essay, depending on the content. For example, for the reading on the structure of the education system, I asked each group to draw a visual representation of the system on a large post-it and then share it with the class.

I consider the unit to have been a success, and I attribute it primarily to the implementation of the reading strategies. In contrast to readings we did had done in the past, the students expressed interest in the subject matter and seemed confident with the content. Furthermore, we had numerous interesting discussions comparing and contrasting the Hispanic system with our own. Ultimately, the majority of them did well on their final assessment, which was an essay test in which they had to identify at least three major differences between the two systems and explain them in as much detail as possible.

Another thing that seemed to work well was the interview assignment that I mentioned in my last entry. I asked the students to interview a native speaker and in doing so, find out something about their country of origin and/or their immigration experience. As their final product, the students had the option of passing in a transcript, a video of the interview, or an article about the person they interviewed. The students interviewed an interesting array of people including teachers, relatives, the owner of the most popular Mexican restaurant in the area, the Director of the local Latino Federation, and the former Attorney General of Puerto Rico. I would like to try the assignment on my new students in September as most students said they really enjoyed the experience.

I am very much looking forward to taking a break from teaching this summer. After I finish up my summer graduate school course at the end of June, my husband and I will head to Italy for our honeymoon! As you may remember, I started teaching two days after I got married so we never really got to take a "real honeymoon." A week after I return, I will fly to Bolivia to take part in an intensive two-week workshop in Cochabamba for teachers of Spanish. I will be taking an intensive class on the dialects of modern Spanish, and living with a host family. Participating in the program will provide me with the opportunity to analyze and practice the Spanish language in a natural linguistic and cultural context, and provide me with a greater understanding of the many varieties of Spanish spoken throughout the world at the beginning of the 21st century. I can't wait!

On that note, I thank you very much for taking interest in my journey and wish you a relaxing and enjoyable summer!

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May 2007

Dear Diary,
I got a job! Starting next September, I will be teaching Upper School Spanish at a local private school. They offered me a fifty percent raise (yes, I really am being exploited where I currently teach) and will pay for half of each class I take towards my Masters degree. The school appears to be pretty well administered and the Foreign Language department head seems kind and supportive. Last but not least, I will no longer have to coach sports. At my current job we are required to coach for two seasons, even if we have no idea what we are doing (me).

I passed out and reviewed a renewed homework policy with my students when they returned from their internships. So far, it seems to be effective in the sense that the students have been more on top of their work. Under the policy, homework continues to count for thirty percent of their grade, and the students start the quarter with a homework grade of 93% (A). I have been checking or collecting the homework every day. On the days I check the homework, they lose 5 points if they fail to bring it in, but can earn back 2 of those points if they complete it by the following day. If I determine that the homework is sloppy or incomplete, they lose 2.5 points. The homework I collect is graded. Every couple of weeks I update them on their average.

It may seem extreme to some of you that I put so much weight on homework. One of the main reasons I do this is that a number of students at our school have learning differences and struggle on tests in particular. Putting more weight on homework gives them the possibility to boost their grade. Furthermore, I believe that practice and repetition are key to learning a foreign language, and a little outside practice won't hurt them. Perhaps my approach is mistaken, but this is where I currently stand. I do plan on reassessing over the summer though, particularly in light of the fact that the circumstances at the new school will be different.

I am in the beginning phases of planning an interview project for my Spanish IV class. The students expressed interest in doing a project or presentation that requires them to interview native speakers. I have gotten their feedback and am currently trying to hammer out the details. The point of the project would be for students to gain insight into their interviewee's immigration story or country of origin, and to practice their listening and speaking skills. I want them to have a choice as to what their final product will look like. So far I have brainstormed the following possibilities: short article, question/answer, video diary, or power point presentation. I would appreciate any ideas or feedback that you may have.

I will keep you updated.

April 2007

Dear Diary,
This has been a hectic week for me. It's spring break, and instead of relaxing, I find myself in the throes of job interview hell (or heaven perhaps, depending on how you look at it). I am writing from a job fair for independent and charter schools. I checked in this morning at 8:30am and was given my schedule for the day, a nametag, and assigned a mailbox where updated schedules can be placed. My schedule had three local schools on it and three out of state. I have no intention of relocating, so I canceled the three that were out of state and found myself a table to park at. The "ballroom" where the interviews are being held is chock full of candidates, to the point where there are some people sitting on the floor in their spiffy suits. There is also a message board system that candidates can utilize to express interest to schools in which they are particularly interested. My first two interviews seemed to go quite well, though I must admit, I feel more like I'm speed dating than interviewing... Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit a local public school. The principal is an adjunct professor at my graduate school. He talked to me about how the application process works in the county and then invited me back after spring break to meet with the assistant principal in charge of foreign languages and to observe a couple of classes (YAY!)... If nothing else, I am learning a lot about the different types of schools out there.

My Spanish IV students continue to frustrate me. I've recently been having a homework issue with them. They complete it most of the time, but don't seem to be putting much time or effort into it. I brought my concerns up with my classmates last week and they suggested that I start collecting it, or at least checking it every day (I have been doing it randomly). They also thought that it would be a good idea to give the students periodic updates on their performance, highlighting how their homework and participation grade is affecting their overall grade. I am also going to set up a very specific point system for their homework and preparation (I know, I know, this should have been established on the first day of school). The first thing that I'm going to do when we return from break (aside from asking them about their vacations) is pass out my new homework policy to and lead a discussion about the importance of repetition and practice in the study of foreign languages.

Any suggestions you may have with regard to this issue, or any others I bring up in my writing would be greatly appreciated.

Until next time,

March 2007

Dear Diary,

I am feeling pretty overwhelmed right now. As I mentioned last month, I am in the process of applying to new jobs, which is essentially a job in and of itself. At the same time, I am trying to balance my teaching, my Masters course, part time tutoring, and oh yeah, indoor soccer starts next week, so I'll be coaching that three times a week too. Ah... the life of an underpaid and overworked teacher.

My students came back to class last week after completing their work internship period. Every February for two weeks, students volunteer at local businesses and organizations. The idea behind it is that the students develop important life skills at the same time that they are learning about career opportunities in interest areas they have identified. While the students are away, we teachers have the joy of meeting with their parents.

One question that seemed to keep coming up during my parent-teacher conferences was, "How can we, as parents and teachers, encourage our students to take responsibility for their own learning?" The beauty of working at a charter school like the one I am currently at, is that there is a small teacher to student ratio and therefore, more one-on-one interaction can take place. I constantly remind my students that I am available for extra help both before and after school and during lunch. Also, if a student performs poorly on an exam, I give them the opportunity to retake it. Despite my frequent reminders, the students that take advantage of my offer for extra help or my retake policy are few and far between.

Is it sheer laziness, or is it something else? The mother of one student (that has been struggling in my class all year without seeking help) told me that her son recently confessed to her that he no longer feels "smart", and that if he goes to see his teachers for extra help, he is afraid that his friends will realize he is "stupid". Another mother told me that she has offered to get her son a tutor to meet with him during his free period, but he refused saying that only the "stupid kids" meet with tutors.

I believe that the ability to recognize when we need help and knowing how to ask for it is a skill. How can we teach this skill to our students? I am trying to impart this to them by making myself available and by refusing the urge to hunt them down during lunch in order to "force" them to spend some extra time working with me. Am I doing my part, or am I missing the point? Should I be chasing them down and hope that with time they will come to the realization that the extra work positively effects their grades and that therefore, they will begin to seek me out on their own? It still remains a mystery to me, but I'll try it out and let you know how it goes.
Hasta luego,

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February 2007

Dear Diary,

Yesterday I had my contract meeting with the head of school. Although I was pleased to hear that he is happy with my progress this year and that he would like for me to come back in the fall, I informed him that I am looking to move on after this year. In light of the fact that I am in the process of applying to other schools, I have begun working on articulating my personal teaching philosophy. Today I would like to share one of my beliefs about teaching and an anecdote with you.

I believe in the power of building relationships with my students. I believe that establishing strong relationships with them can increase both their learning and motivation. My experiences in the last two years have shown me that I can do this by giving them my time and by holding them to high standards. This year, for example, I have a student named Julie who from the first day of school began announcing that she is not good at Spanish. She had already convinced herself that she was not going to do well in my class, and has thus been doing the bare minimum. All year, I have been encouraging her to see me for extra help and trying to connect with her on a personal level by asking her about her passion, dancing, and just generally, how she is doing.

At the end of second quarter, I assigned the students to write a movie review on an Argentine film we saw in class. I gave them a format to follow and required them to pass in a draft, which I then edited and gave back to them to revise before passing in their final review. Julie never passed in a draft and her "final" copy was unformatted and wrought with grammatical and spelling errors. I was forced to give her a "D" on the paper. I knew Julie would be upset after I handed out the graded reviews and therefore, approached her after class. I told her that I would like to talk with her about the paper and asked her to come by after school. When she came by, we had a long conversation about the importance of staying on top of her work and the sense of satisfaction that can be earned from a job well done. I used dancing as an analogy. I then gave Julie the opportunity to rewrite the paper with my help. She came to see me every day after school for a week and I provided her with scaffolding and worked with her within her zone of proximal development. She earned an "A+" on the re-write. Not only did Julie write an excellent paper, but both her understanding of the writing process and her motivation to work on Spanish increased.

Working with Julie was a pleasure for me too. It was wonderful for me to see her sharpening her Spanish skills and gaining confidence as we went along. We chatted and joked around while we worked, and even got to know each other a little better. For me, the best part about the whole thing was that after finishing her paper, she went right to her grade advisor and told him that she thinks I am "SO TIGHT"! If you didn't know, "tight" means fabulous in urban slang. Does it get any better than this?

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January 2007

Dear Diary,

We're only in the first week of school and my students are driving me crazy.

As it is, the start of second semester is generally jarring. A week after we teachers come back from vacation we are expected to have completed our grades and a paragraph long report for each student. On top of that, we get calls and e-mails left and right from parents that are concerned about their students' midterm exam grades. Then there are those students, the ones that have been slacking off all semester, who show up in your office, after the semester has already ended, to ask if they can do extra credit work (First of all, it's too darn late! Second of all, I shouldn't have to spend extra time grading because you didn't do it right the first time).

To make matters worse, I am perplexed by the way that students of different ages react to me. When I walk into my Spanish IV sections, my students, who are primarily 10th and 11th graders, give me an apathetic look, as if to say, "What do you want from me now?" When I insist that they speak Spanish during class, they look at me as if I'm crazy. I mean, how dare I make such a request of them. I must not realize that we're in Spanish class... oh yah. On the other hand, my Spanish II students (primarily 8th and 9th graders) smile and yell out my name when they see me, and a few even express that they are excited on days that we have class for an entire block period. What makes one class roll their eyes at me and another burst with excitement? Is this what puberty does to these developing creatures, or is it something else? Is there something that I'm doing with one class that I'm not with the other? I am determined to find the answers to these questions before the end of the school year.

What other goals do I have for second semester? Well, my biggest goal is to start teaching learning strategies to my students. For my graduate school class last semester, I decided to write a paper on learning strategies instruction. The majority of the literature that I came across asserted that explicit strategies instruction, if properly conducted, can increase language learning ability and confidence. I hope that integrating strategies instruction in my classes will not only be beneficial to my students, but that it will increase my sense of personal efficacy by giving me a specific way to assist my students in the learning process. I have a high sense of teaching efficacy, meaning that I hold myself accountable for the success or failure of my instruction. I just can't help but feel responsible (most of the time) when one of my students fails to master a particular concept or activity. Ultimately, I would like my students to see me as a facilitator, rather than an authority figure.

On that note, I hope that you all enjoyed your break from school and that your semester has gotten off to a wonderful start!

Hasta luego,

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December 2006
Dear Diary,

A couple of weeks ago, I showed my students "Through Our Eyes," (2006) a thirty-minute documentary that showcases the successes and struggles of Washington, DC's Latino community since the 1970s. The documentary, which was produced by MAYA features several events that have influenced and shaped the local Latino community, including the Civil Rights movement, the creation of the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs and the Mount Pleasant disturbances. It also highlights the progress that Latinos have made in the areas of education and health in the city.

I went in to the lesson thinking that the film was going to be a way to give the students some historical information about the Latino community in a neighboring city. I could never have imagined that it would incite such strong reactions... For the most part, the students seemed to like the documentary and said that it made them want to reach out to the community (We have very few Latino students at our school). One student even suggested that they go out and interview people from the community as a class project. There was one student in particular, however, whose reaction to the film blew me away.

After the film, I asked the students what they thought about it. One student, who we'll call James, raised his hand and said that he has been to a neighborhood in our town with a high concentration of Latinos and that in his opinion, it is "dirty" and "disgusting" and that the film "glorified" the Latino community. When I asked him what he meant by that, he said that the documentary only showed "exceptions" to the rule and that all that the Latinos in that area ever do is "sit around in the street and drink beer." Well, you can only imagine how I felt. I was so angry that I think I started to see blood.

Now, I didn't want to come off like a "crazy liberal" so I tried to moderate my reaction. I said something about how we shouldn't generalize, and that Latinos make up a significant part of the labor force in the region, particularly in the areas of service and construction. There was a bit of back and forth, but the class ended soon afterwards. I felt uncomfortable about not having said more, but I wasn't sure how to be constructive.

A couple of weeks later, the class was in the media center looking up some statistics on Argentina and the U.S. to prepare for an upcoming project. One of the students brought up the fact that the U.S. does not have an official language and asked me why. Well, James decided that he'd answer for me and said, "So we can make the Hispanics feel better." The other students looked shocked and a few marveled at how he could have let that come out of his mouth in Spanish class. I then got up and went into the office next door to call his class counselor to tell him what happened and to let him know that I would be sending the student down to see him. I then calmly asked the student to step outside of the class and told him that I was becoming increasingly concerned about the types of comments that were coming out of his mouth in class and that this was something that we needed to explore further. I then asked him to go down to the grade counselor's office and told him that I'd meet him there when class was over.

After class, I went down to the grade counselor's office and spoke with him first. He told me that James had expressed a lot of regret about his latest comment and he suggested that I speak with him one on one. He also said that James had acknowledged that what he had said was out of line and inappropriate. The counselor then made the point that young people today are just going around and imitating the humor of today's comedians, which is racist, sexist and anti-Semitic. The counselor's intention was not to excuse James behavior, but rather to explain where his comments may have come from. And I think he has a point. I mean, Borat has become the hero of many of students. What is a teacher to do in a climate like this? Is pointing out the inappropriateness of their comments enough?

James and I had a long conversation that afternoon. I went into it with an attitude of concern and let him know what impression he was giving to me and to his peers about his feelings on Latinos. We talked through it and I think we both came out understanding each other better.

What would you have done?


October 2006

Dear Diary,

For my graduate school class this semester, I am required to observe some of my fellow teachers in action. For my first assignment, I chose to observe Ms. K, my department head, and the (only) French teacher at the school. Despite the fact that I don’t speak a word of French, I thought it would be best to start with her, as she is the only experienced foreign language teacher in the department. I first observed her beginner and intermediate classes and ultimately wrote my observation log on her French IV/V class. The class takes place in the school’s living room area, which is furnished with couches and lounge chairs. Most of the students sit on the furniture and make themselves comfortable with the numerous pillows available to them. I was amazed that despite the informal environment, the students appeared highly engaged in the lesson. Prior to the start of the class, a couple of female students made a point of telling me that they think that Ms. K is a caring and wonderful teacher. I was happy to hear that, but found it a little odd that they were so eager to share that with me. It turns out that they thought I was there to give Ms. K an “official evaluation” and wanted to make sure that she wasn’t fired. Once I realized that, I reminded them that I was only a lowly second year teacher and explained to them why I was really there.

Ms. K’s lesson that day focused on reviewing three readings that the class would be tested on after the weekend. She spent the first ten minutes of the class asking the students about their plans for the long weekend, and then began the review, which was completely oral. She asked the students to recall at least one piece of information from the readings, and after every student participated, she asked specific questions. The last ten minutes of the class was spent on a dictation.

I was left dumbfounded by what I saw that afternoon. The students participated enthusiastically in each part of the lesson and transitioned smoothly from one activity to another. They discussed medieval French history (medieval French history?!) with excitement and after the dictation was over, they couldn’t get their books out fast enough to check their work. Ms. K was effective in both her teaching and in creating an environment for student learning. She interacted with, and maintained students’ attention throughout the entire period, and successfully worked the four foreign language skill areas into her lesson. Most importantly, perhaps, the students seem to love her and the class, and at this stage in their language learning, this motivation is a key factor to continued study and success.

HOW DOES SHE DO IT? I generally have to call on my Spanish IV students to get them to participate, and it seems to take them forever to get into gear. Furthermore, they struggle to recall what they read, even with the text or their notes in front them. I have to admit, I felt pretty bad about my own classes after observing Ms. K.

I had a long conversation with her after class that day and she gave me the following suggestions:

  1. Compliment the students often and make sure that they know that you like them and care about them.
  2. Create opportunities for the students to talk about themselves.
  3. Give the students assignments/tasks that make them feel successful.
  4. Break up each class session into different components.
  5. Do a least one “fun” thing during each class session – even if it’s only for five minutes.
  6. Don’t get bogged down on grammar. At this stage in their learning of the language, it is less important that their grammar and spelling are perfect, but more important that they are able to make themselves understood. (Ms K does not penalize them for incorrect usage and thinks that it is sufficient that they work on grammar and spelling indirectly, through readings and dictations.)

I am not sure how I feel about Ms. K’s last point, but it’s an approach I’d like to research. If anyone out there has any thoughts or additions to the list, please let me know. I’d be particularly interested to hear your thoughts on number 6.

Thanks for reading.
Hasta luego,

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September 2006

Dear Diary,

I am writing to you for the first time as a married woman. Yes, despite the stress that preceded the wedding, I did go through with it and I am thrilled. The weather cooperated (you may remember that it rained over most of Labor Day weekend) and we were able to get married outside as we had hoped. Unfortunately, there was no time for a honeymoon, and I was standing in front of a group of adolescents two days later.

On the first day of school, rather than go over your run of the mill set of rules and expectations, I decided to write up “Los Diez Mandamientos de la Ley de Sofia” (Sofia’s 10 Commandments); I stole the idea from one of my film professors. We read over and discussed the meaning of each one. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, the first and second commandments were, “Honor thy self, thy classmates, and thy teacher” and “Respect the subject material.” I wanted the kids to really think about my expectations, to realize that there is a rationale behind each one, and that ultimately, our goal as a community of learners should be to create a harmonious classroom environment together.

The first project that I had my students work on was to put together an “artifact bag” and present it to the class in Spanish (I got this idea from one of my colleagues at graduate school). I explained to them that an artifact is generally an object made and used by human beings, and that anthropologists learn about the way that people lived long ago by collecting and studying these objects. I then asked them to find five artifacts that tell something about themselves (hobbies, background, interests, etc.) and their lives. During the presentations, they were asked to present their bags and to discuss the importance of each item they chose. I modeled the assignment and then gave them a couple of days to complete it.

Overall, I was pleased with the results and found it to be a wonderful way to learn things about them that may never have come up otherwise. One of the most amusing presentations was given by one of the more affluent students: In her very Americanized Spanish accent she said, “Esto es mi compacto (polvera) de Chanel, porque Chanel es mi favorito.” On my terrifyingly low teacher’s salary, I can’t say that I’ve ever owned any Chanel makeup myself. A Latina student gave my favorite presentation: She brought in three flags that she had cut out and colored in herself. She explained that she had a Mexican flag because her father is from Mexico, a Salvadorian flag because her mother is from El Salvador, and an American Flag because she is American, but that all three represent part of her identity. Overall, I am refreshed by the amount of respect I seem to be getting as a second year teacher! I’m happy to say that the students seem to be reacting well to me and that most of them seem quite lovely. I know I may sound a little naive, but I really have noticed a marked difference in the manner that the students are treating me this year. Most of them listen to me when I speak and follow my directions. Gosh, they’re starting to treat me like I’m in charge or something, like “a real teacher.” It’s truly uncanny. You may be thinking to yourself, “Of course they’re behaving well, it’s only the third week of school,” but I’ll tell you this much, the students that “tortured” me last year started on day one and did not relent the entire year. I can’t help but be hopeful at this point.

Until next time,
Sof ía

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August 2006

Dear Diary:

I feel like I am going out of my mind. Perhaps I am out of my mind; I scheduled my wedding two days before the start of the school year. Last October, when my fiancé and I put money down on the venue, getting married over Labor Day weekend seemed like a fabulous idea. We decided against doing it during the summer because I didn't want my makeup to melt off of my face as we exchanged our vows in front of 100 of our closest friends, and we thought that doing it while school was in session would just be too hectic. Two weeks out, I realize that there is never really a "good" time to plan such a huge affair. Two nights ago, my face broke out into itchy red hives, and yesterday, I had such a terrible migraine that I ended up throwing up my entire dinner. Needless to say, I am not really dealing very well with the start of my married life and the start of the new school year.

With that said, I am really looking forward to starting my second year of teaching. The thought of the first day of school feels a lot less daunting than last year. Prior to the start of the school year last summer, I made many attempts to get in touch with faculty/administrators that could pass on curriculum to me so that I could start preparing as soon as possible. Finally, a couple of weeks before school started, I was contacted by the Dean of Curriculum who told me that there was no specific curriculum for the classes that I would be teaching, and then handed me a couple of textbooks. As you can imagine, I had no idea where to begin.

It may sound ridiculous, but during teacher meetings in the two weeks leading up to the official first day of school, I remember asking my department head what I should do and say on that first day of school. She gave me very specific instructions as to what I should say and how I should say it, as basic as how to introduce myself and how to present my rules and expectations of the students for the year.

This year, for a few reasons, I will walk the halls with more confidence. First of all, I will be teaching two preps, as opposed to three. I taught one of the classes last year and the new one is an elementary level class. Second, I know a lot of the students and I look forward to having some of them in my class again. And lastly, I have a much better understanding of how the school works, internal politics and all.

Furthermore, I started taking classes to obtain my Masters in Secondary Education last spring, and I spent a lot of time this summer reflecting on my teaching. I have realized that I devoted a significant amount of time in my classes last year to teaching grammar and was very rigid in my grading. I did not give students points for their thought process and I think I spent more time pointing out their mistakes and their poor behavior than I did complimenting them on a job well done. This year, I plan on spending the first week or so on "getting to know you" activities, so that we can all become comfortable with one another. I want to stress that making mistakes, particularly with a foreign language, is invaluable to the learning process. My main goal this year is to build their confidence and integrative motivation in the language and culture.

On my trip to Chile this summer, I bought a number of books on teaching and other materials I can use in the classroom. I am looking forward to implementing my new ideas and approach this fall. Hopefully, I will finally be able to focus after the "Big Day." Wish me luck with everything. I'm sure I'll need it.


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