This Year’s Main Lesson: Every Kid Has the Potential

Update

And we’re back! I have had a great spring break-went on vacation to DC and ate some of the best food I’ve ever eaten and then I got home to FL and went immediately to the NCEA conference in Orlando with my whole faculty team and learned about all kinds of new things to use in class. Unfortunately, not many of the sessions were specifically for teaching Spanish, but I was still able to get a lot out of the general education sessions (brain-based learning/memory strategies, talking about “Hot Topics” with kids if/when they come up, etc).

Spring Break = Time For Reflection

School starts back up on Monday, 4/13 and then it’s a mad dash to the finish line on June 3 (last day for the kids). This time away from the classroom has been a great way to recharge my batteries and it has given me some time to sit back and reflect on the things that the kids have achieved this year. Over the last few years, I taught using more traditional methods-conjugation tables, straight-forward grammar instruction, rule memorization, etc-and I found it boring and difficult for me and the for the students. They didn’t know any better, but I knew that it wasn’t working. The best of them, the ones who are the most motivated to study every night, could do a pretty good job of memorizing everything I taught them and could regurgitate it on a test, but they couldn’t communicate and they couldn’t understand.

This year has been completely the opposite. I’m 99% sure if I gave the students a grammar test after these last 8 months, they wouldn’t do so well. But when I give them a writing assignment in Spanish, I can get 10-20 good sentences in Spanish from kids as young as 4th grade! I couldn’t get last year’s 8th graders to do anything near that.

Of course, I must note that this is not the previous year’s 8th grader’s fault. It’s my fault. I was not getting their best from them because I was not teaching them the best way. They all had the ability. This year’s improvements are testament to that.

I will use some examples to show you what I mean. All students’ names have been changed, but what they have been able to do is absolutely true.

Simon

I have a student named Simon. He has some issues and when he started at our school in 6th grade, he was pulled out of Spanish class to work with our ESE/Resource teacher. He didn’t have one Spanish class in the 6th or the 7th grade. This year, we lost our resource teacher and Simon came back to Spanish class. Since everyone was starting with more background in grammar, Simon was nervous. I was nervous for him, too, but I made sure to build his self esteem and I gave him modified assessments (write the summary of the story in English instead of Spanish, draw the story instead of tell it, very simple things like that). After the 2nd story, he was able to summarize every detail. He couldn’t do it in Spanish like the others in his class, but he had basically never had a Spanish class before. It was his work that I used to drive the point home to administration that this is the way to go. They agreed and I have used CI methods, specifically storytelling, ever since.

My class is the go-to class for pulling students out for other activities/resource classes. Some students leave my class for extra reading or math practice, some students leave to go to speech therapy, but whenever they come back, they are able to pick up what we are talking about and understand. I don’t get the same output that I get from the students who are with me in all of our class meetings, but they get it.

They understand.

They are able.

They all have the potential.

What I Have Learned From Using CI

It has been an eye-opening experience for me. Students who are written off as “lazy” or “unmotivated” do their work for me and they do it well. They show me just how well they understand. One student who won the Spanish award this year has low grades in every class, but he shines in Spanish. He used to have a low grade in my class, too, but this year has been a huge improvement for him. Other students with middling grades are able to excel now because I teach for comprehension rather than for memorization. I can have basic conversations with kids who never were able to talk in Spanish with me. I’m just amazed at how well hey do.

And I’m nervous for them, too. When they leave our school and go to high school, they will probably not have a teacher who uses CI methods. They will go back to memorizing verb endings and reading charts about indirect and direct object pronouns and learning songs and acronyms to memorize rules about when to use por/para or ser/estar or preterit/imperfect. I hope that I am not being insulting to those teachers who are reading this who use those tools, but I have never been able to make them work for me. My whole approach now is based on the absence of those techniques. I teach them like they are babies; that is to say, I don’t “teach” them at all. I plan out what I want them to acquire and I focus on those things and I tell them to pay special attention to certain words/phrases, but I don’t have them copy vocab (unless they want to) and go home and memorize it. We don’t teach babies the grammar of their native language until they are able to speak fluently, so why do we teach that way to older students.

That being said, grammar definitely has a place in the Foreign Language classroom. My opinion is that we should put it towards the end. Traditional programs put conversational Spanish in the upper level classes. I think we should switch it around: learn to communicate first, then worry about rules.

Learning Like a Toddler

Think of it this way: I don’t sit with my toddler sons and make them memorize subject and object pronouns. I have never taught them the difference between Me and I. Ever. That is one subject of conversation that has never ever come up in their few years on the Earth. And yet they are both able to use I and me correctly 99% of the time. My oldest is 4 and my youngest is 2 and they both have acquired that “I” is a subject and “me” is an object. Neither of them says, “Me hungry” anymore. Neither of them says “Give it to I” and they fight over the same toys all the time. They have both said things wrong before and they still do, but I don’t do a lot of explicit correction and I don’t scold them for using the words wrong.

But they still have been able to change the way they speak so that they are accurate and comprehensible.

My sons are learning naturally and my goal is for my students to do the same. If I don’t tell the kids about what’s going on “behind-the-scenes,” they just think I’m telling them a story. My main rule for them is to listen and pay attention. They don’t know how it works, but if they do it, eventually, they are able to just “get it.” They understand what I’m saying with little trouble and produce it themselves with little conscious effort.

I don’t have them all day every day like I do my own children, so I use different techniques that I might or might not tell the kids about to enhance acquisition (targeting specific structures, circling on those structures during a story, repeating the same words multiple times in context).

The Most Important Lesson From This Year

In my first year of using CI methods, the most important thing that I have learned has not been a strategy or a technique or an assessment tool. (I have learned a lot of those things, though, just check the blogs I follow and my blogroll on this page and you’ll see who I have learned them from.) The most important thing that I have learned is something more essential, more significant and it is this:

Every kid that can speak one language can learn to speak any other language regardless of the complexity of the rules or the writing system. Any person can learn a new language.

Try It For Yourself

If you have not tried using CI methods, you should really consider it. Do some research on how to do it and just play around with it. Find a story from this blog or from any of the others you see on my page. Tell it and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, don’t get discouraged; as an instructor at a TPRS workshop told me this:

“A bad lesson using TPRS [or other CI methods] is better than the best day using traditional methods.”

I was skeptical at first, but I’m totally convinced now. CI will change your instruction, your approach to teaching, the way you think about kids, and quite possibly your whole outlook on language and life.

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