Be a doer! Be unconventional!

By Jon Hinthorne

I remember my first professional development day in 2007 like it was yesterday, when our Principal and two teacher leaders led us through an Understanding by Design workshop.

“Don’t try to implement all of this tomorrow!” they said to us to try to get us to not be overwhelmed by the new methodology we were learning about. Grant Wiggins and Jay Mctighe are noted leaders in the education field around this Understanding by Design framework. It certainly made my planning of units and lessons more purposeful and connected to authentic learning experiences for my students. Begin with the end in mind is such a powerful mindset when planning out units and lessons.

HERE and HERE are two online planning tools to help you plan effective units and lessons using Understanding by Design (UbD) and making awesome performance tasks.

While I love UbD and that training that day was monumental in helping shape how I plan my projects now in Project Based Learning (PBL), I think those trainers that day had it both right and wrong.

Sure, take little “bites” of entirely new methods of teaching you learn about and like. But, don’t be afraid to jump right in and go full speed ahead with things you absolutely love!

This was my experience three years ago! I attended the California Language Teachers Association (CLTA) annual conference in the Los Angeles area in 2017 and that conference changed the way I taught probably forever.

I was sitting in a training I had chosen as a default because I needed to choose one in a rush and the training was not what I was seeking at the time. I got up politely and left the room to find another place that might offer a tool or method more related to who I was as a teacher.

I walked the hallways and scoured the conference app and was not finding anything; when all of the sudden, I saw a room that was literally overflowing.

Of course, when you see a room like that at a conference you know what is going on inside the room is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And boy was I right.

I found the last seat in the lecture hall and weaved my way into the seat. I looked at the people to my right and left to say hello with no real acknowledgment. It wasn’t because I was uninteresting or they were being rude; it was because the training was that good. They were entranced by the training and I shortly became equally so!

The trainer, Alina Filipescu (Middle School Spanish Teacher in Yerba Linda, CA), changed my entire teaching paradigm upside down over the next two hours. She led the training with this video of her 8th grades in class. It is a must watch!

I remember turning to the guy to my left and telling him that I thought it was fake. Why did I think that? Because the students were producing comprehensible output that was light years beyond anything I ever saw my own 8th graders produce! It had to be fake, right?!

Wrong! It was real.

The next thing she did was describe how she got there one step, one method, one strategy at a time. Quickly after strategy one, I ripped open my computer and took down notes like I was receiving the plans to turn anything into solid gold.

The next part of this blog post explores three of the strategies she showed us:

Strategy #1: Lose the textbook!

Now I know what you are thinking. My colleagues and school would fire me if I did that! And if that’s true, then don’t do that. Keep your job. That’s important. Alina had an assistant that day (who’s name I didn’t write down unfortunately) that actually took the textbook he is supposed to use and chucked it across the room as he yelled to us: “Break your grip of this as your ‘Bible’ in your classroom!” (Or something along those lines…)

The idea around this strategy is just to stop measuring success by how much you cover in a textbook. And he’s right! The moment I stopped slugging through the textbook and working in lockstep with the other Spanish 1 and 2 teachers in my school/district, was the moment I and my students started actually enjoying our class!

Of course, I use the text as a guide for vocabulary and language structures as well as sometimes some leveled reading and listening activities. However, the less I focus on getting to X Chapter by X month, most passionate and engaging our classroom becomes.

Strategy #2: Get rid of desks!

Ironically, if we go back to teaching in a classroom, I have no choice but to return to rows of desks, but I will describe what I got to do the past three years.

Alternative seating is sweeping the nation and its schools. Schools and teachers are spending millions on comfortable seats and alternatives to the rows of desks that plagued our schools for the past century. I jumped on the train too! I pushed all my table desks to the outside of the classroom and established a few seating arrangements that made more sense for us as a community of learners in a world language classroom.

We cycle between three formations. The first is an amphitheater arrangement with three semi-circle rows that hug the front of the classroom and are divided by a center aisle for me to walk down. This one is our default. The second formation is what I saw in Alina Filipescu’s classroom. Students divided down the two sides of the class facing each other. The last formation is my project work day formation. This is where I bring out the desks and allow students to situate themselves in groups or individually depending on what project needs they have.

So now I’ll tell you what we do to have students write. If students need to write, we have a class set of whiteboards. I like these ones! They write when they need to. If they want to keep their notes they can take a picture of the board at the end of the class or at a break. And they do! And if a student absolutely needs to use their computer or paper for notes, of course they may.

Strategy #3 — Password

Strategy Attributed to Alina Filipescu & Bryce Hedstrom

This one is the best strategy of all.

Basically, students have to say/use a high frequency word or phrase to enter the room each day. Each student enters the class by using the password of the day either by itself or in the original language that they come up with.

I have created a ton of passwords along the way and encourage you to do this in a Spanish, French, English, or any other classroom as it adds fun and language production all in one.

I level the passwords by Spanish 1 and 2 (as those are the classes I currently teach).

The phrases are usually not ones included in a textbook, but rather are phrases and words that occur in everyday speech. For instance, “Gracias, muy amable” (thanks, very kind) is a great Spanish 1 phrase we learn early on. Any time someone does something nice in the class, the whole class then erupts in saying “¡Gracias, muy amable!” Another one is “Gracias por enseñarnos” (thanks for teaching us). This encourages gratitude and models that people usually thank others for giving them things like knowledge or skills as in a school/classroom.

Each password is written on a placard and laminated. When the class discussion is going on, a student volunteer holds each password and is responsible for finding times when they can use the word or phrase throughout the class. When they find one, they stand up or erupt in saying that phrase out loud. The whole class then repeats after them and usually laughs or smiles too.

At the end of the year, students vote on their favorite passwords throughout the year.


It is so important to push ourselves as educators into unchartered waters, not to overwhelm us or burn us out, but because it keeps us engaged in trying new things. Our students deserve this and actually thrive when we are doing this. We may fail at the start of trying new things; heck, we probably will fail a few times as we calibrate using a new strategy. We must continue to blaze a new pathway and be a doer and not a rinse-and-repeat teacher.

Jon Hinthorne is the founder & host of the An Unconventional Teacher podcast and a high school Spanish teacher at Central Coast New Tech High School, Nipomo, CA.

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