What was my best-ever day of teaching languages?

I walked into class with my cup of coffee and all the kids said “¡Hola!” in unison. I then told them to get out their ¡Juntos! workbooks and turn to their homework, pages 89-93. I then asked them to read their answers– from fill-in-the-blanks exercises– aloud, one by one.

“The boy walks to the park,” read Nuvjit.
“We walk to school,” read Stella.
“I walk to the store,” read David.
“They walk to the movies,” read Akhtar.

We read another thirty or so sentences together. What was awesome during this homework review was, first, the kids were all listening intently to each other– because the homework was really interesting, and second, the kids all got every answer right, and third, all the kids had done their homework, again because the homework was super-interesting.

Then one student asked “why does the verb fartear have the irregular present tense first person plural form farteámonos?” The class, intently, listened while I discoursed about accent patterns and the need to preserve syllabificational rhythm across transformational grammatical matrices. I told them “we say farteámonos rather than farteamos because that accented á is a simple grammatical marker that indicates a collective wish and recomendation to do something. So vámonos means “let’s all go!” and “farteámonos” doesn’t just mean “we fart,” but rather “come ON, people, we have some farting to do, so let’s DO it!”

Grammar lecture over– and absorbed into their long-term working memory– we moved, with no distractions, on to conversational practice. I had devised a fiendishly clever way to get them to practice the imperfecto verb tense, which my textbook was forc– err I mean, suggesting, I teach with the theme of childhood memories. So, I had the kids interview each other about their childhood activities. It was awesome! They asked each other questions like “when you were a toddler, did you used to play with dolls?” and “did you used to like sleeping?”

The kids worked at this– speaking no English, switching partners quickly on command, correcting each others’ mistakes, asking for more detail, not glancing at snapchats or texts– for fifteen minutes nonstop. They were so into this activity they complained when I said “we have to move on.”

The rationale for the talking activity, by the way, was communicative. In the communicative language teaching tradition, we use real-world language to bridge information gaps in order to learn the language, because– as is obvious when you look at toddlers– they learn speech by talking.

Next up was our cultural vocabulary quiz. As part of our imperfecto— err, I mean, childhood memories, unit, I had devised ANOTHER fiendishly clever plan. We were going to

A) pretend each of us was from a different Spanish-speaking culture
B) pretend each of us had grown up in _______ attending local festivals
C) write about our memories about attending these festivals.

(At this point in class, Holden, who frankly is always a truculent and reluctant student, and the only such student I have, said “Señor, these are fake memories of things we don’t understand” and I said “Holden, turn that frown upside down, show me some grit, and remember that I am trying to make grammar fun!” which had an immediate and transformative effect on Holden. “Gosh,” he said, “you’re right, I really should be grateful for the chance to learn the names of Chilean and Salvadorean Easter celebrations. Can I have five minutes to go over my vocabulary list?”)

I thought to myself, these kids are so good I should relent, so I gave them five minutes to study their vocabulary lists. This unit had relatively little vocabulary– only about seventy words, some of which were festival names, and others just extremely useful (some of those words were “to hang lanterns” and “to make papier-maché animals” and “to clean the streets of garbage the night after a festival”). Now, while 95% of my students love Spanish, there is always the off-chance that they will not, of their own accord, learn the vocab at home, on their own. So what I do is, I give them a vocab list (all Spanish) and they take it home, look the words up in the dictionary– because a) that’s how we learn words and b) it’s fun– and then memorise these lists. Then, they get a quiz, for marks, and I have found that fear of getting a low mark is an amazing incentive for the kids to memorise their lists of words.  As my favorite administrators like to say, “the accountability piece ensures compliance.”

In this way, I hold the students accountable for their own learning. Also, I do this cool thing: I post the marks on my classroom wall. In this way, the kids see each others’ marks, and know who’s smar– err, I mean, studious– and who’s not. I firmly believe that if a kid sees themselves getting a low mark, they say to themselves “thanks, Profe for reminding me that I am not as sma– err, I really think, studious– as others. Now that I know how much I sucked on my last ______ assignment, I feel good about this clarity. This low number is good feedback! I want to improve!”

After our quiz– where I read vocab items aloud, the kids wrote the Spanish, and then the English– it was time for something even more fun than assessment: a listening activity! I played the DVD of a Spanish youth talking about his memories of attending Day of the Dead celebrations and the kids listened and chose the right answer on their multiple gue– err, I mean, choice– sheets. We marked their choices. All of them got 10/10. Then I asked them to translate the sentences into English, and, oddly, despite their high scores, none of them could explain what the sentences meant, so obviously I told them that, for homework, they should use their verb tables and dictionaries AND NOT GOOGLE TRANSLATE to decode the sentences.

I still had thirty minutes of class time, so I thought, let’s work on our portfolios. The kids silently got their folders, pulled out the many assignments they’d stuffed into them, and looked up on the board, where I had projected the Common European Framework for Reference criteria which describes the criteria for various levels of language learning from 1 (beginner) to 6 (advanced native speaker). I firmly believe that we can and should use these criteria to guide our instruction. For example, one of the criteria for Level 1 is that a learner can “introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has.”

So, I had backwards-designed a unit where the kids learned to say and ask about things such as “what is your name? My name is…” and “where are you from? I am from …” After spending three weeks practicing these expressions, I was confident that my students had both learned these items and had fun doing so. Anyway, I asked the students to get a recent piece of work– a paragraph, a culture report, a written dialogue– from their portfolios and look at my feedback, and reflect on how they could improve their performance.

The room was both totally silent and yet vibrating with energy.

One by one, the kids came up to me with questions. First up was the formerly-reluctant Holden. “Profe,” he said, gesturing at a worksheet that I had graciously given detailed, pink-ink feedback on, “I take it from your feedback that I am having a problem with adjective position. Could you explain that to me?” I then gave Holden an explanation of the rules governing figurative vs literal denotation with Spanish adjectives and, after thanking me, he went off to revise his worksheets.

Next up was Nuvjit, who said “how can I raise my mark?”

I looked at her work and said “review your irregular preterite verbs, memorise transition words for compositions, avoid Anglicisms, and review the rules for use of written accents.” Nuvjit was grateful for this advice. And why wouldn’t she be? She was being given clear feedback with which to improve her learning. She sat down at her desk, pulled out her grammar notes, and, as her lips silently formed Spanish verbs–traje, traje, traje— a grin spread across her face.

I had noticed that, since we started out childhood memories unit, the students had all forgotten their preterite verb endings, and had begun putting the imperfect endings onto all their verbs. As reluctant as I was to believe it, I began to suspec that I had made a mistake in my teaching of the preterite. But it only took me a few minutes to realise where the problem actually lay: with the students. I had lectured on grammar, made– err I mean, asked– them to practise speaking, worksheeted them, made them memorise verb endings, and listen to the CD dialogues. I had, in other words, done everything a good languages teacher should do to teach kids language. So that they had not learned to conjugate the past tense was clearly their choice.

The remedy was clear: more talking, more worksheets, and more explanations.

As I watched them beavering away over their portfolios, I thought, THIS is what learning about a language should be.

When the bell went, the students commented “what? already!?!” and reluctantly packed up their worksheets, workbooks and textbooks. Another day, another grammar rule learned about and practised. Soon my seventh-graders began streaming in for their beginner Spanish class. I love these younger kids– so fresh-faced and energetic and eager.

My favorite, a kid named Suzy, said “Profe, can we do some worksheets today, please?” and when I said “yes, of course,” the class burst into applause.

And then my wife was shaking me awake. “Chris,” she said, “it’s 7:15, sorry to interrupt your dream. You had hugest grin of all time on your face. Must have been great.”

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6 comments

  1. oh no you didn’t…..

    Reminds me of the follow-up to the Dallas TV series, Who shot JR episode–turned out to be a dream, even though I would label yours as a pesadilla.
    🙂

  2. Reblogged this on senorfernie and commented:
    If I’m not careful, my blog will consist solely of Sr. Stoltz’s posts. His work should be required reading for all language teachers interested in CI and TPRS.

    I used to do all the things he describes and expect it to work. It shows that if we really take a step back and evaluate grammar-based methods, we will see how unnatural it all seems.

    Someone once defined insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same outcome. Hopefully posts like this will reach lots of teachers and shake them out of complacency. While it is difficult to make a big curriculum change, it is absolutely worth it when we see students making real gains in acquisition and proficiency in a new language.

    1. LOL. I actually used to do all this stuff. And yes textbooks are that bad…I’ll publish a thing shortly on how bad Communi-Quete (canadian french program) workbook is. I mean you can’t make this up it’s so bad.

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