Experiments, Failed and Otherwise

Sometimes I question my grand experiment, that is, the whole story behind this blog. I know others out there can feel a lack of confidence bred by the daily grind of school life, the inability to step outside of our own routines and see through new eyes. Sometimes I want to just go back to how it used to be – books, worksheets, quizzes; surely that would make daily life easier. No more running around, no more loud kids to settle, no more thinking on my feet to adapt to whatever the kids decide they want in the story. It would be easy-street.

TL;DR – I stopped my current 4 year long experiment to conduct another experiment: Going back to the book…It wasn’t what I was expecting.

The Dream of Laziness

If there’s one thing I don’t like about my job, it’s that I have to be on all the time: I can’t be lazy. I can’t plan lessons that teach themselves and get the chance to teach on autopilot. I have seen other teachers whose instruction looks like that: effortless, easy, no problems and no stress.

Realization 1: I was naive to think that there wasn’t a HUGE amount of work that goes into making that classroom environment and I was willfully stupid to believe that I could be lazy and successful at the same time.

I hope that I don’t offend anyone by saying that working from the book is what lazy teachers do, it’s just that when I wanted a break so I could be lazy, it was the path I took and it ended up being a LOT more work and stress and heartache than I had bargained for.

So, I did something that I am not super proud up of; something that I have talked about moving away from for years; something that in the back of my head, I knew would fail, but I thought to try anyway; something that I was considering not telling you about: I went back to the book.

A little background: If you look back through the posts on this blog, you’ll see that a good number of them have something to do with the kids losing interest in the stories I use in class that help them to acquire Spanish. They get sick of the formula, they are acquiring at different speeds, they are bored with the idea of listening to and then reading stories…The list goes on. I was getting exhausted trying to find new things for them to do to keep them interested. I teach the same kids from k-8, so I have to have a huge toolkit of activities if I’m going to keep the kids engaged.

But this time, rather than look for another new technique for providing CI or tweaking something myself to create something new, I went a different direction: I went back to the book.

  • It has a Monthly Unit Planner!
  • It has all the activities built in!
  • It has worksheets aligned to each chapter!

I said to myself, “All I’ll have to do is explain grammar (something I like to do) and make copies and they’ll learn everything!” I knew they might be bored, but they’d be engaged with the work. Additionally, based on SLA research, I knew they wouldn’t acquire much, but I excused myself of this by saying to them (and lying to myself), “You’re at the point where you have enough in your heads to do basic speaking and writing, now it’s time to focus on accuracy, so let’s learn some grammar rules!” 

I then proceeded to spend a month teaching straight up grammar to novices. There were drills, there were practice activities, there were charts and notes and diagrams; it was just like old times. I geeked out about grammar rules and exceptions and what I call “Indirect Translations” (like how “me gusta” means “I like” but translates to “it is pleasing to me”). The kids copied notes! The kids did fill-in-the-blank activities! They were silent while working! It was all I dreamed of…until…

It started off going well: I was making copies, I was spending 2 minutes before class choosing which activities to do, I was not giving much thought to acquisition or what the students’ proficiency level or comprehension levels looked like. It was great, I was living my lazy dream…UNTIL I got to the end and realized what the seeds I had sewn grew into: I had disinterested students who were acting up and acting out, I was struggling to collect worksheet assignments because they had no interest in doing them. They knew they were going to get bad grades, but that wasn’t a good enough currency for them. Nobody had a deep understanding of anything. In all honesty, many of them didn’t even have a shallow understanding of anything we had talked about. They had copied notes, they had diagrams and translations and verb ending charts, they had all they needed to succeed in completing activities, but they were not putting it all together. Was it a lack of interest? Did I do a bad job of teaching the grammar information? Had I shot myself in the foot by being exciting and silly all year and now they were completely averse to book work?

Realization 2: In a COMPLETELY UNSURPRISING twist, my experiment in going back to the book has led me exactly to what I already knew: CI works and in the long run, investing time and energy into CI yields kids who are interested in the language and able to understand and use much more of it than those who learn grammar first.

Teaching well can be draining whether you’re using a book or creating your own content. Building a rapport with students involves being an active participant in their learning. There is no, “You just read the book and figure it out.”

I found myself at a crossroads: Continue drilling the grammar until they get it (which at 2 days a week with a 5 day break between Spanish classes means a LOT of time practicing and drilling the same thing), or go back to my old TPRS style.

So what’d I do?

I went back to CI, of course. In my own head, I feel like I’m doing the students a disservice when I don’t provide them good CI. It feels irresponsible of me to switch back the book. Knowing how effective CI is in their acquisition and not using it is just bad practice. I have seen the light of what good CI does for students and when I use grammar drilling activities, I am pulling the cover back over and pushing the kids back into the dark. I have seen my students make huge leaps in comprehension, proficiency, fluency, and they are confident to provide their own output when we use TPRS and MovieTalk. I mean, the whole reason I switch to it in the first place was that I saw them struggle to remember the grammar “formulas” and use them correctly when I drilled grammar.

The experiment of going back to the book was a total failure, but something did come out of it: I was able to see just how effective TPRS and other methods using comprehensible input are and how positively they affect the students’ proficiency, fluency, and interest in the TL. I got the outside view that I hadn’t had.

***

Of course, the issue of updating my toolkit of activities still needed to be addressed, so I began to use some things I have been hearing about for a long time: Persona Especial and OWI.

Persona Especial

I started that with the 4th grade and the 8th grade. It was more successful in 4th grade. One obstacle I had was that my students all know each other really well because it is a small school, so after we finished with the interview questions that all the kids knew each other’s answers for, we moved into fake personas especiales – they got to be other people: superheroes, athletes, actors, musicians, whoever they wanted. They researched the persona especial information about their new person and presented as though they were that person. We also used the questions to play guessing games-they would pretend to be that person but not state their name, then we would guess who they were based on their answers. This is something we did throughout the year while we were also doing stories. We would spend 10-15 minutes at the beginning of class doing 1-2 interviews and then move onto the next activity.

Persona especial is a very fun activity and it allows one student at a time to be the star of the show, whether they’re being themselves or someone else. The fourth graders especially loved it (although it’s hard to make eighth graders love anything academic, amirite?).

OWI

OWI stands for One Word Images. You can learn about what it is and how it works here and here.

I used this in my third and fifth grade classes and found a lot of success. The kids appreciated the novelty and the larger amount of ownership of what we were creating. Stories have a pretty standard and predictable script, especially coming out of the TPRS book, “Look, I Can Talk,” so doing something that was a little bit less predictable but still very structured was liberating for the kids. They still knew there was road map, but they could take lots of the side roads and explore other ideas and details rather than get into the well-worn path of “character needs something and goes three places to find it and then finds it at the end.”

***

In the end, if you find yourself getting burned out, don’t lose hope and don’t fall back on the old, not so effective, ways of doing things. They might seem easier, but I’ve learned that in the long run, trying to find shortcuts in teaching only leads to a harder path.

That being said, there are many things that you can find to support you – There are so many teachers who have shared their great ideas: Just look at the blogs in the blogroll and the “following” list. These are teachers who give of themselves so that we all have things to use. There is no need to reinvent any wheels or to come up with something brand new from scratch if you’re drained.

 

 

***

 

I started this post with the one thing I don’t like about my job, but the thing I love most about being a language teacher (apart from the kids…and the language…and the constant stream of cakes and pastries in the teacher’s lounge, of course) is the supportive and welcoming nature of my colleagues. I am the only language teacher in my school, which can feel isolating. At the same time, though, I carry the collected wisdom and advice of thousands of teachers with me in my pocket. My colleagues aren’t with me physically, but they are always a few clicks away, whether it’s asking for advice or finding an activity, or inspiration for a unit of study, you are all with me.

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