Month: May 2016

Do You Even Lift? S.L.A. and Free Weights

Part One: The Basics

weightlifter_1216621c

My Mom– who at age 75 is still ski-touring, mountain biking and hiking, and is doing a three-week non-sag cycle tour in Quebec this summer!– is my stay-healthy role model.  Thanks to her, I’ve always been interested in– but lazy about– general fitness.  I’ve always thought, I hate fitness and training, but I like climbing, hiking and cycling, and acro yoga.  Through years of activity, and recent discussions with athlete Will Gadd, I’ve learned a few things about fitness– for anyone, not just athletes– which we can boil down to three things

  1. Everybody should have basic cardio fitness.  A total of 60 minutes a week of sweat-inducing heavy breathing will do it.  You can do this in fancy running gear, or in a gym, or in your living room, skipping.
  2. We all need functional strength, i.e. the ability to lift and move things.  This can be done in about 50 minutes/week, in a gym or around the house.
  3. If you have basic cardio and strength, you can easily pick up anything else
  4. You may much later want some feedback to improve yourself.

On recommendation of one of my partners, I tried Pilates last year.  It’s a set of exercises that stretch and work various muscles, and also aligns various bits of anatomy.  I did it for a few months.  I found it worked– it sure targeted specific muscles, and I got better at the exercises– but it was boring as hell and I did not see any overall fitness or strength gains.

And then I read this article about fitness. And started lifting free weights: squats, bench-presses, vertical presses, power cleans and deadlifts, five sets of five each, twice a week, after school in our weight room.  I’m not trying to gain in size (that’s bodybuilding) but rather in functional strength.  My total weight room time is about 50 minutes/week.

The results have been remarkable (for me).  All my weights have gone up.  I also feel much more stable while on trails and on the bike, and I can “do” more stuff, like carry a week’s worth of groceries with one arm and a climbing pack in another.  I’m not much of a hiker– hiking is the boring warm-up on the way to the base of the climb– but now on trails, despite me never “training” by walking or running, my legs are waaaay more solid.  Although my weights are up, I am not feeling much bigger. I feel “connected” to myself in a way that vaguely resembles a post-yoga feeling but stronger.

I thought weights would be boring, but oddly I am not bored.  The post-first-set body buzz is killer, and since I am rotating through the various weights and it only takes about twenty-five minutes, and I blast music, so I am not bored.

Bottom line: basic cardio fitness, and then weight training make everyone healthy, and make it much easier for us to acquire other activity skills (climbing, tennis, paddling, etc).

Can you see where we are going with this?  

a. The basic cardio of language acquisition is oral input and reading in any language.

The person who can’t get their heart rate up won’t benefit from any activity-specific training.  But the person who can get the heart and lungs cranking can do/learn other stuff.  Yes, you can lift, or play tennis, if you’re a two-pack-a-day smoker…but you can’t do it very well, and you sure won’t make much progress.

If you get basic spoken (or recorded) comprehensible input, and you read in L2, you are going to be able to acquire a ton more language than if you don’t.

b. The strength training of language acquisition is whole language, not “exercises” and “practise.”

Free weights, as Mark Rippetoe argues, effectively train the whole body, because all bodily systems work– and must be trained– together.  A squat fires basically every muscle from the shoulders down.  A vertical press engages everything from the waist up.  Balance, co-ordination, big muscles, small muscles, tendons and ligaments: all are working together, the way the body is meant to.

In terms of method, Pilates (or exercise machines) are to fitness what the textbook is to language learning.  It breaks movement down into components, you “practise” each one, and your individual “skills” get better…even while the overall functional fitness gains are minimal.

Free weight lifting is the comprehensible input of fitness.

Bill VanPatten (1998) also notes that “[a] reading of the literature on second language acquisition and use suggests that communication is not the result of learning discrete bits of language and then putting them together. 

Language learners need big meaning chunks– meaningful sentences as part of conversation or description, which are in turn part of stories, etc– to acquire the language.  The “stuff” of a language– vocab, grammar, pragmatics, semantics etc– can only be acquired by exposure to “whole” input and can not be developed by “practising” various “skills.”  Sure, students will get some incidental benefits from worksheets or textbook exercises if they are attending to meaning.  Kids often don’t, though.  The worksheets I see kids copying in the morning don’t suggest kids are doing anything other than making the teacher happy.  And Bill VanPatten notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously  lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once.  They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time” (2013).

You might be the one in twenty people who can assemble textbook fragments into something like language– and you might enjoy practicing and getting marks for your various “skills.”  But you would get more out of good interesting comprehensible input, and most people do get much more from C.I.

So…let’s get into beast mode and get swole!

(Totally random side-note:  Doctor Stephen Krashen was once a champion weightlifter!  He weighed 181 and incline-pressed 285 💪💪)

Part Two: Planning and Feedback

So…what can athlete stories tell us about the language class?  Do planning and feedback work in a language classroom?

Other than a teacher clarifying what was said/written, feedback does nothing…because it comes via conscious awareness, and language is processed and stored in the implicit (subconscious) system.

Planning, i.e. organising sets of vocab and grammar “rules” in a sequence (what textbooks do)  doesn’t work very well, mainly because it is the brain, and not the teacher’s or student’s desire, that controls what gets acquired (see this).

Now, here is an interview with top climber Chris Sharma.  Sharma, who has done routes that only two or three people in the world can do, has never really trained.  To stay in shape, he climbs a lot.  But then he hit a wall trying to climb a route called Dura Dura graded 5.15c (imagine climbing 30 meters along a 45-degree overhanging wall, using only one fingertip per hand, and one foot at a time!).  He tried and tried, and failed and failed.

So, for the first time in his life, Sharma went into a gym and trained.  Circuits.  4x4s.  Hangboard workouts.  Weights.  Structured rest and recover, mesocycles, the works.  And…filmed feedback.  His trainer Paxti videotaped Sharma trying moves and sequences, they watched them, and Sharma was able to adjust body position, timing, foot position etc.

He eventually climbed the route (after Adam Ondra got the first ascent).

 

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The Wayback Machine

I was recently at a conference and thought, OK, I should go see what the Intensive Language teachers do, nd went to a workshop called something like “Get Your Beginners Talking!” Every language conference I’ve ever been to has a workshop like this. 

Here’s a part of a handout:


And here is what the kids would have handed out to them:


This is a classic “communicative” activity: it wants people to use the target language to bridge information gaps as a way to acquire the target language. 

So…what do the research and our classroom experience say about these activities?

1. Speaking “practice” as the exercise suggests does not improve aquisition.  We’ve heard this from VanPatten, Krashen and of course Kirk (2013). 

2.  Feedback– in this case on pronunciation– does not work. There are two main reasons for this:

  • You can’t produce language in real time while self-monitoring to make sure you are using the feedback correctly (Krashen). 
  • Conscious info does not end up in the implicit linguistic system, as VanPatten notes (see this). 

As BVP puts it,

3. This turns the teacher into the language police.  Someone asked the presenter “do they ever speak L1 while doing this?” and they answered “yes, I have to keep an eye on them.”  No fun. I personally find using L2 with other L2s “fake” feeling…and I’m a language geek. 

4.  In terms of personal interest, we have a problem: what if Johnny likes playing with dolls, and doesn’t care that Suzie is really interested in playing Grand Theft Auto?  What if these are low-frequency words?  If these are the case– and they usually are– the amount of vocab that the kids hear that is repeated is going to be minimal. If I hear about 15 different people’s 15 different activities, I am getting less input per item = less acquisition. 

5.  The junky output becoming impoverished input problem among L2s is here unaddressed.  

6. The repetition would be boring. In the presenter’s example, a classic beginner question is do you like to _____? and kids have to answer Yes, I like… or No, I don’t like… This is going to get old really quickly and of course it would be more natural, easier and faster just to use English. 

Anyway…the wayback machine took me to activities that I have never been able to make work. However as they say, your mileage may vary. 

I’ve been able to ditch 95% of output-focused activities, and– thanks to the ease and power of comprehensible input– I have ironically managed to build better speakers by avoiding making kids speak. Go figure. 

How Do I Assess and Evaluate Speaking?

A teacher asked on the Facebook group “How do you assess speaking?”  Responses were basically, “try using one of various apps” (i.e. Google Classrooms, KaBlaBla, etc).  Lots of people want to use tech to do it.

Contrarian here:  save yourself time, and don’t bother…you can accurately, quickly and easily assess speaking with zero tech.

But let’s revisit the basics before we go on:

  • speaking does not improve language acquisition.  The act of talking is not like practicing music or baseball.  The real driver of speech is aural (and written) input.
  • Teachers need a life.  I for one refuse to spend an hour per class listening to students’ prepared recordings of prepared questions.  The kids have better things to do, and so do we.
  • The only speech we should assess if we want to see what the kids have acquired is spontaneous and in-the-moment.  If you want people to learn a language, then by all means let them plan, rehearse, etc…but don’t confuse this with acquisition, where we see what is “wired in” and gut-level, below– and beyond– the conscious mind.  Most of the ed apps I’ve seen are similar:  teacher records their voice asking question or saying prompts; kid listens, decodes and responds and records their answer for teacher to mark.  This kind of “planned” or “reflected-on” communication doesn’t really assess what they have acquired.
  • Feedback doesn’t work.  You can explain, correct, suggest, etc till the cows come home and it won’t make a difference in how well the kids speak.  Only input can really change that.

So how do I assess speaking?

First, every time a kid opens their mouth and uses the target language in class– to answer a question, to add to a story, etc– you are getting perfect feedback about how well they speak.

So with my 2s…Aashir can say– and understand– a word at a time max.  Simrowdy can answer any question and talk at length about anything.  Sadjad extemporaneously comes up with good entire sentences when adding to a story.  Janelle is like Simrowdy.  Daniel will– and does– say anything but has some verb etc issues.  Kevin never talks, but when he does, it’s perfect.  I could go on.

Second, the point– to me– of assessing speaking (as with anything else) in class is to see what the kids do not understand and where they need more input.  This is why we track barometer kids and choral responses.

Third, I don’t play “gotcha.”  I test what I teach.  I use vocab they know, and when using objects, pictures or people, I make sure the kids have the vocab to describe them.

Fourth, I don’t assess speaking for Level One students.  It makes them anxious, and it is time taken away from input.  I assess– i.e. attach a number to– kids once, at the end of Level Two.  I do only what you would do speaking in real life:

  • ask them questions and have them answer
  • have them ask me questions (and I answer).
  • describe something– a photo, an object, another kid in the class

No presentations, storytelling, memorisation, etc.

Here’s my rubric:

For a mark of 3:

  • I can in detail discuss myself, my social and family circle and my activities and interests, and i can describe things.
  • I make minor mistakes that do not affect meaning, and I can speak fluidly.
  • I understand all questions and I come up with my own.
  • I can fix conversational problems or I don’t have any conversational problems.

For a mark of 2

  • I can discuss myself, my social and family circle and my activities and interests, and I can describe things.  There are some gaps in what I can say, and sometimes I provide little detail.
  • I make enough mistakes that meaning occasionallyu breaks down, and I can speak but not quickly nd fluently
  • I understand most questions and I come up with some of my own.
  • I sometimes fix conversational problems.

For a mark of 1:

  • I can  discuss myself, my social and family circle and my activities and interests, and i can describe things, but I can’t do so with much or any relevant detail.
  • My mistakes affect meaning, and I generally don’t use sentences.
  • I don’t understand all questions and I have trouble coming up with my own.
  • I either don’t know when there are conversational problems, or I don’t bother fixing them.

“Conversational problems” means not understanding, and “fixing them” means asking for a repeat, etc (i.e. not just bobble-heading along).

This rubric will generate numbers from four to twelve out of twelve.    I’ll generally show them a pic on the iPad at some point, and have them describe that, or have them describe a kid in class.  it takes about 4 minutes per kid to do this.

If the kid bombs, they can come back in after school and re-do it.

Anyway, there’s my thoughts.

C.O.F.L.T. Conference Reflections

The energy-loaded Tina Hargaden, vice-president of the C.O.F.L.T. in Portland, organised a conference and I got to do the T.P.R.S. part of it– a one-day workshop with German storyasking demo, reading, Movietalk, Picturetalk, method explanation, Q&A, etc.

To say I had a busy weekend would be an understatement:  work Fri, drive 7 hours to Portland (through Seattle traffic, its own special Hell, thank you NPR for making it bearable), have a beer and talk shop with Tina, sleep like a baby at the Kennedy School Hotel (a high school converted to hotel– awesome– “fall asleep in class” is their tag), do presentation, drive back to Canada, time change, it’s now 1 AM, sleep three hours, get on plane to Cuba…where thank God they have mojitos  and overhung limestone rock routes.

Anyway, we had the most people of any workshop at the conference (almost 30) and Tina told me that we were the only room where people were regularly laughing.  There were a bunch of Chinese student teachers doing their degrees in Portland, a few TPRSers who were in for a tune-up, and a whack of curious rookies.

So I got my evaluations back.  You can see the COFLT 2016 Stolz TPRS feedback forms if you want to see how awesome I am 😉 and how much Oregonians appreciate their gluten-free, salad-based, vegan or organic meat, locally-sourced artisanally-cooked dishes, etc 😄.  But mostly what is interesting in the comments are the themes that recur.

1.  A lot of people said they really appreciated the German demo aspect of the presentation (an idea I got from Blaine Ray).  People wrote along the lines of “it was great to experience what it is like to be a student.”  I remain convinced that the only way to make any language-instruction method convincing is to teach people part of a language they don’t know.  It is so easy for us to forget how tough it is– even with good C.I.– to pick up a new language.

2.  Recognising that, and because we had some native Mandarin speakers at the workshop, I asked participant Yuan to teach us some Mandarin (Blaine Ray also does this).  She parallel-circled two sentences:  Chris climbs mountains and Tina drinks beer

  
This put me into the students’ seat and it was enlightening.  I noticed two things:

a) I needed a LOT of reps to remember the Mandarin, and I was glad Yuan went s.l.o.w.l.y.

b) Mandarin does not seem very difficult.  No articles, verb conjugation, etc, though word order seems crucial.

3.  Most people wanted more time with T.P.R.S. (or even me as presenter).  There seems to be a need (in OR and WA) for more C.I.-themed language workshops.  Luckily, Tina Hargaden and C.O.F.L.T. on it and there will be a conference Oct 13-15 which will feature Steve Krashen, Karen Rowan, etc.

4. I talked to another presenter who had a workshop called something like “using authentic docs to design authentic tasks for authentic assessment.” He did some explaining and I wondered two things:

a. What do you actually do with the info from an “end of unit” assessment?  If Max and Sky do well, and Rorie and Arabella terribly, now what? How does that info shape your next “unit”?  I guess if you want a number, awesome, but numbers help neither teachers nor students. 

b. How much energy is a teacher productively using when they design #authres-based activities for assessment? I mean, most #authres don’t use high-freq vocab and are often more of a guessing game for students.  

As I talked to this guy, it struck me that you would get a lot better assessment with exit quizzes for reading & translating, and with comprehension checks along the way– especially with what Ben Slavic has called “barometer kids”– so that, in the moment, you can provide more input for what the kids are misunderstanding. 

5. Laughter matters. Laughing bonds people, lightens any mood, is a brain break, comes from when unexpected ideas are conjoined, etc. So I am glad that we got to laugh at our workshop (yet another practice that Blaine Ray is all about with his dancing monkeys and girls without noses). 

6. There were some experienced C.I. teachers there and I was super-stoked (sorry I can’t remember names). These folks asked good questions, and they often said “well Chris does ____ but I do _____ instead.”  Which teaches us that while there is a basic C.I. recipe– use a story, limit and recycle vocab, have people read the story, add images and short films for more vocab recycling– there are many cooks with a panoply of flavours.  Also,  the experienced people generated great lunchtime discussions over craft organic artisanal salads and quinoa vegan quiche 😉. 

So, thanks COFLT and Tina for a great opportunity for all those language teachers. Their Oct confernce will rock– stay tuned.