Amy & Gisela’s great Elementary Spanish Classes

Minneapolis part 2: I got to see Amy Roe and Gisela Schramm-Nagel’s elementary Spanish classes.  These are two master teachers and I sure learned a ton.  Maybe others can too.

They teach at a ritzy private school (literally every car in the senior students’ parking lot is a $100,000 S.U.V.) and have short (30 min) classes with about 10 kids/class.  First, Amy:

  1. The kids come in and she says hola, ¿cómo estás? etc etc and they can all answer
  2. Today they are learning weather.  She projects a picture of a tall grumpy bald man and his dog.
  3. There are a few Spanish words on the screen (está lloviendo, hace frio etc)
  4. She gets a kid to be Mr Grumpy (Señor Marrero) and every time she says his name he has to go “bah!”
  5. Another kid wants to be the dog, so she kneels down beside Señor Marrero (who starts petting her!  ha!)
  6. She says a sentence or two, and then asks the kids a question or two.  The sentences are things like “it’s cold and Señor Marrero is not happy (BAH! yells the actor).” She asks simple Spanish questions like “does Señor Marrero like the cold?  Dos his dog like the cold?”
  7. The class is input-focused and the kids are all following along.  Everybody wants their turn acting and all are quite good at it and at hamming it up.  I saw every kid answering every question.
  8. At one point she said something like “do you like the cold?” to the dog.  The dog said yes.  Then she asked me, and I answered slowly, and then I asked a few of the kids “do you like ____” and they said yes/no.
  9. She also put pictures of weather on the screen, and asked questions about that.
  10. This class went by really quickly.  As soon as a kid fidgeted, she switched actors or activity.
  11. At the end the kids lined up and she has a routine (using Spanish) where she says “who is the first?  who is last?”

She was able to be in Spanish most of the time, the kids were engaged (and understanding), and went s.l.o.w.l.y., she pointed and paused, etc.  It was high input, fun and comprehensibility.

I next got to observe Gisela.  she has Grade 1s so they cannot yet read (though they know their letters).  I have never seen a C.I. class where kids could not read so I was excited.

Gisela’s main trick is to have a ton of routines in Spanish.  The kids follow the routines, so basically they are doing T.P.R.: they hear a command in Spanish and do an action. So they come in, and she says (in Spanish) “sit down please” and “watch me.”  (By the way literally every word was in Spanish for the whole class)

  1. She spent a minute or two on the weather (she had pictures on the screen).
  2. She then got the kids to sit on the floor on a big circular rug with emoji faces and Spanish the matched the emojis.  So the smiley face had a estoy feliz beside it.  She asked them how they were doing and they all answered in Spanish.  She later told me she had never “taught” them these but they had basically picked them up by osmosis.
  3. She then did this suuuper-cool activity to do with jobs and parents.  She held up a picture of a doctor. She asked “who’s Mom or Dad is a doctor?” and little Johnny put up his hand.  Johnny got the doctor pic.  Then she said “who has a businessman/woman in their family?” and another kid put up their hand.  Then, she said “Ok, who needs____” and held up realia.  So the doctor needed a stethoscope, the fireman needed a hat, etc.  The kids “collected” realia.
  4. Eventually each kid had a picture and at least one item belonging to that picture.  Then she asked questions like “who has ____?” and “who is a ____?”
  5. There was also a ton of “filler” Spanish going on, like “con permiso” and “ven aca” etc.
  6. For leaving, they all had to line up and she had a bunch of questions and commands for them:  who is first?  where is the door? etc.
  7. At one point she was asking ages and one kid didn’t know how to say “seven” so she said “figure it out” and he did by scanning the room and finding the #s 1-10 chart.
  8. Another thing she did: her room is labeled with all the masculine things (e.g. el escritorio) were red and the feminine things (e.g. la puerta) were red.  But Gisela doesn’t “teach” gender.  It just shows up in the input.

This class like Amy’s had lots of engagement, variety, movement, etc.  Gisela was able to be in Spanish basically the entire time.  The kids were clearly understanding everything and she managed without any written input (although some of them clearly had figured out the basics of reading and sounding out letters in Spanish).

Both classrooms had some Spanish (e.g. #s etc) on walls but the rooms were not Spanish-overloaded.

The two ladies are in the process of giving their elementary Spanish program a makeover and are in their 4th year of 100% comprehensible input.  When I asked how it was working, they said that the middle-school teachers (who had just received their first batch of C.I.-taught kids) were delighted because these kids had two things:  solid command of the basics, and a good “feel” for the language.  The ladies are not focused on output (although the kids are able to say a fair bit) and deliver loads of interesting input.

We talked about “what should an elementary curriculum look like?” and the suggestions only I could think of were:

  • it should start with the “super 7” verbs:  to be, located, have, want, like, go, need
  • it should use unsheltered grammar
  • whatever kids found interesting would be good subject matter (even if that meant lower-frequency vocab)

But I didn’t have much to say– the ladies are the experts and know their stuff.  I also wondered about speed.  Both are speaking at what sounds like adult speed.  They said they knew they should be slower, but said it felt “boring” to slow down.  But we all agreed that it was amazing how much the kids had picked up (especially the grade 1s, who had almost no written support for their Spanish).

I was reminded of a recent Ben Slavic post, where he describes observing the brilliant Mandarin Chinese teacher Linda Li.  He saw her 2nd year kids spitting out perfect Mandarin sentences.  When asking her how they got so good, she said “I am convinced that the reason these kids can speak and write like this is because of all the input over the past year in level 1 and now up to this point in level 2. I NEVER make level 1 kids speak or write. It’s all input at level 1.”

This is well worth thinking about: you do not need output to develop fluency.  Li showed it, so did Amy and Gisela.  The aim of language teaching is to build mental representation:  gut feel for what sounds good, and understanding.  Everything– everything— flows from that.

Anyway, Thanks to Amy and Gisela for a very interesting chance to watch elementary c.i.


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