We all have teaching days when we find ourselves on empty. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep, or you have a headache, or it’s just a regular day in May and everyone is losing their minds with spring fever. Whatever the situation, it’s OK not to go full throttle all the time. It’s OK to find and use a few activities that are good for student learning, but also good for YOU as the teacher who is also a human being who needs everyone to cut you some slack.
To be perfectly honest, it took me years to realize this and every semester I have to remind myself again. Building courses, planning lessons, creating new activities – I love it all! But there are times I need a low-prep option. We all do. We don’t need to completely burn out in order for our students to learn.
So, with that in mind, this blog post will combine my own observations with some useful practices, and, most of all, with contributions from a few of the dozens of language teachers on Twitter who participated in the 1 Like = 1 Answer social media game. If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s not too late to play along! Just take this picture and post it to your social media account, then invite people to like the photo. For every like the picture gets, you’ll answer one question from the list.
You’ll notice that question #10 in the list asked teachers to describe a low-prep activity they go to when they are worn out or stressed out. The answers fell into a few different categories.
Several of the teachers who answered question #10 mentioned that they wish they had a recommendation, or that they were looking forward to reading others’ responses so they could pick up some ideas. Raise your hand if you are looking for some low-prep activities to help get you to the end of the semester in one piece? Or maybe planning ahead for the fall? Am I the only one who is promising myself to reform from my obsessively-high-prep ways and do a few things that are less intense this fall? I know you’re all out there! And I hope that, after reading this post, you’ll follow up on Twitter or in the comments about YOUR go-to low-prep activities.
So, what are some of the activities that our Twitter colleagues recommended as low prep, useful activities for promoting learning in the language classroom?
When I read Katrina’s answer, I thought I remembered her mentioning visible thinking routines before, so I dug up this older post:
Here’s a link to more information on these thinking routines, and here are some links to help you dig deeper into the thinking routines Katrina mentions like headlines, color-symbol-image, and see-think-wonder. There’s some really good stuff in the linked pages, so happy hunting!
Here’s an important thing to note: The only way a thinking routine or a game or any of the other ideas mentioned here becomes “low prep” is if you do the work to integrate it into the routine of your classroom. This is true of so many useful activities. In fact, routines are so important to efficient and effective classrooms, I wrote a post about classroom routines a few weeks back. Decide what are the activities you want students to be able to do reflexively by the end of the semester, that you want to be truly low-prep at some point, the activities where you want students to be able to take the lead even if you’re not on the top of your game. Then, integrate those activities into your class at consistent regular intervals so that the practices become second nature to students.
Once you have set up a few routines in your classroom, you will have them at your disposal for when you NEED them.
Music can be a great low prep activity, and can easily connect to whatever unit, theme, or concept you are teaching. You might want to start with a pop song and the lyricstraining website or just showing the lyrics for students to explore like Shannon Lundgren:
Of course, there are also so many teachers creating great activities to accompany songs. Some make their work freely available on blogs, other sell their activities on teachers pay teachers. If you want your students to do more than peruse the song and lyrics on their own, my advice is to start with episode 75 of We Teach Languages with Kara Jacobs. She does really interesting things with music in Spanish and shares it or links to it on her own site. (Even if you don’t teach Spanish, you can get a feel for how to make music more comprehensible by looking at Kara’s work and listening to her describe her process.) You might also check out episode 15 of the Language Latte podcast which is also bursting with activities to use with music.
Profe Buccioni mentioned that she likes to use Senor Wooly music as a low prep option for her students. Senor Wooly creates fun, comprehensible songs in Spanish specifically geared toward middle and high school students. If you teach a language and a level that is appropriate for Senor Wooly videos, this could also be a great option! Pay for a subscription and you get the songs and the pre-made activities all ready to go.
Like any other kind of text you might give your students, music is most useful in a language classroom when students have the tools they need to make sense of it. You can pre-develop some useful activities and keep them in your back pocket until the day comes when you need them. Or you can rely on other people’s resources like Kara Jacobs or Senor Wooly. Whatever route you choose, you’ll find yourself, once again, needing to make sure you have a few classroom routines set up for music so that when the time comes and you need a low-prep music day, students will already know what to expect and how to participate.
TV, MOVIES, OR OTHER VIDEOS
Watching videos can be a great low prep activity. Of course, I’m not talking about just sitting for an hour watching a video instead of learning. There are lots of ways to make TV, movies, or other videos useful and comprehensible without killing yourself!
I love that Maris suggests finding great EdPuzzles that others have created. We don’t always have to reinvent the wheel! Of course, if you create a few EdPuzzles at the beginning of the semester and keep them on hand until they’re needed, that can also be very useful and saves you the prep later on.
You might also consider watching a movie or series with your students over the course of the semester like AC Quintero.
If you think you might want to use the Spanish TV series El Internado, AC Quintero has a blog post outlining her approach.
Side note: this particular one gives me as a teacher a great excuse for watching more TV and movies in my target language, which also contributes to my own language proficiency maintenance and is just a really enjoyable way to spend my time. So, start watching TV, y’all, and then share your favorite shows with your students!
Games in the classroom can be helpful for so many things. Games can help with turn taking, politeness strategies, and other conversational necessities. Games can also help with vocabulary acquisition by providing opportunities for recycling and retrieval practice. You can go low tech or high tech, fast-paced or personalized. And, let’s be honest, games are fun, and we could all use a little more fun. If you’re interested in the theoretical justification for learning through games, check out episode 96 of the We Teach Languages podcast with Jonathon Reinhardt. If you are more interested in the practical questions, like what tech tools exactly make the best in-class games, then check out episode 103 of We Teach Languages with Heidi Trude. She describes all the most interesting tools for language learning and how she uses them in her own classroom.
Making any Sort of Resource Low Prep
All of the activities I’ve described so far start with a text or resource and then ask students to do something active that is also familiar and rehearsed with that resource. As you ponder whether to go with thinking routines, music, videos, games, or some other sort of low prep activity, don’t think about low prep activities as something radically different from what you are already doing. Rather, these low prep activities allow you as the teacher to transfer the learning process over to students.
Keep in mind:
1) choose a resource that is inherently attention-getting and compelling,
2) create useful, consistent routines around that sort of task,
and 3) prepare tasks to help students make sense of the resource, either by getting the tasks from others or developing your own ahead of time and having them at the ready for when you need them.
Here are a few blog posts from teachers with more ideas for using or improving on target-language resources in a low or no-prep way:
- Gianfranco Conti‘s 11 no-prep tips for enhancing reading tasks
- Magister P (Lance) has several blog posts that might be useful in developing routines to exploit different resources. Once again, learning how to do these things the first time or two is prep, but then you have a series of things your students can always do even when you don’t prep. Here’s one about no-prep Monday and #teacherSunday and here’s another and really wonderful post listing a bunch of no prep strategies with details.
- Becky Morales recently hosted Sarah Breckley on her podcast Language Latte, and Sarah shared many great low-prep routines for images and videos.
- And if you need low-prep ideas, Justin Slocum Bailey (Indwelling Language) has blogged a bunch about low prep and no prep strategies. You can read his many contributions to the topic here.
As I give you this long list of required reading and planning for supposed “no prep” activities (oh yes, I see the irony), let me reiterate that these strategies only become low prep once you have learned how to use them and students have learned how to do them as part of a classroom routine. So, don’t try them all. And don’t use them just once or twice then give up. That would be a huge amount of work. Pick a couple that you think could work with your teaching style and student population, then commit to making those practices part of your routine. The real payoff to low prep strategies is the benefit they provide over time.
There was one type of low prep activity suggestion in the 1 Like = 1 Answer game that, in my mind, falls into a very different category than the others, primarily because it is truly, completely no prep for the teacher. That activity is free reading.
ProfeHeath, Profe Buccione, Valerie Shull, Dorie, and Justin Slocum Bailey all mentioned FVR (free voluntary reading), SSR (sustained silent reading) or just letting kids pick a book and read. The benefits to students of reading something they enjoy and can easily comprehend are well-documented. Suffice it to say, it’s really, really good for them. If you want to know more about how to create a free reading culture in your classroom, I would recommend two We Teach Languages podcast episodes. First, check out episode 31 with Maris Hawkins. Then, look at episode 97 with Valerie Shull. But, to be honest, you don’t have to spend too much time researching and learning before you jump in. Provide students with options for interesting reading materials that are at their linguistic and cognitive level. Then just let them read. Even if it’s only for a few minutes a week, consistently, and then maybe occasionally for more time when you need a low prep activity to save your own sanity.
If you want to do some free reading about free reading, here are a few resources on the web that you might enjoy:
- Linda Egnatz on Twitter suggested this Education World blog post.
- And here’s an article from the National Council of Teachers of English, NCTE, that I found useful.
- Ashley Uyaguari‘s podcast Inspired Proficiency featured AC Quintero recently talking about FVR (Free Voluntary Reading)
- Looking for free online reading materials? Have you heard of Epic (for kids) and Project Gutenberg (public domain books)?
And if you want to take low-prep in a completely different direction, I can recommend a few more blog posts on the topic:
- consider this presentation on the topic that Sam Finneseth posted on Twitter.
- check out this four part blog series from Steve Smith about lightening your workload: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
There were so many other great ideas in the 1 Like = 1 Answer game, including stations, portfolio work, creating comic strips, and a slew of other L2 learning games and tech tools. Check out the @weteachlang moment to see more answers to this and other questions from the 1 Like = 1 Answer game.