Don’t Replace, Add

Kids need novelty. 

Every blog from every teacher I follow, every textbook on language teaching, and every bIt of common sense in my head tells me that this is the case. Seven years of experience with the same kids in the same school has proved it. If I do the same thing day after day, year after year, the kids tune out. It is a struggle I’ve contended with since I started teaching: What can I do to keep my instruction interesting and compelling for the kids?

In the past, my answer has been to quit using whatever methods or techniques I’m using and start from scratch. My thought process went something like, “If kids have gotten bored with what I’m doing, I have to get rid of it and find something to keep them engaged.” I started this blog after doing just that. Every time I read a blog post with an interesting or novel approach, I tried it. At the first instance that this method would be great, I threw away what I was doing before (metaphorically) and started with the new thing. The kids and I were itching for something new and I was happy to try everything I could. And it seemed really successful. When I found effective alternatives to grammar-heavy, book-based activities, I happily ditched them. When I learned how to ask a story and circle (TPRS techniques), I gladly did that and nothing else. When kids got bored with the same sorts of stories using the same types of vocabulary, I looked for other things-I tried OWL techniques and non-targeted CI and a host of other techniques.

Ultimately, instead of being successful, it was exhausting. Each different thing burned bright and then fizzled out. And each technique fizzled out a little bit more quickly than the last. What was the problem? Why were these techniques that other teachers use so effectively falling flat for me?

The answer:

I misunderstood the kind of novelty that students need. They don’t need something brand new every time they start to get bored; they need a teacher who has a large toolbox of fun and effective activities. The problem was that I replaced one fun activity with something else and never really returned to the others that the kids had gotten sick of. The problem was that I replaced instead of adding. 

The students didn’t hate the activities that we have done in the past, but they were just ready to take a break. Think of it like this: It would be really exciting to be able to eat ice cream for dinner every night, but in reality if we ate ice cream every night, it would lose its excitement. We would get sick of it. And just like getting sick of ice cream after having it all the time, the kids get sick of things they really like when it’s the only thing they do. 

The trick, then, is to be prepared to do lots of things that are effective and that the kids like. 

That’s my plan for planning this summer (and something I’ve talked about a little bit before): have lots of activities ready to go so that when one activity begins to sag or slow down or the kids don’t seem to be into it, we can transition into something that would be more effective and compelling. 

All they need is accurate input… right? Wrong.

Research shows that we acquire languages through comprehensible input, but what if input was more than simply comprehensible? What if it was compelling, too? What kinds of effects would compelling input have on our classroom teaching? What are some strategies to make input more compelling for our students?

I am super excited to present to you my episode of the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast on “The Compelling (Not Just Interesting) Input Hypothesis” by Stephen Krashen:

The Musicuentos Black Box Video Podcast is sponsored by

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The Musicuentos Black Box Podcast is a collection of media resources developed to make relevant research in language learning more accessible and understandable for teachers. In each episode, the presenter reviews a current article on some aspect of language acquisition research and discusses the inplications that the research has on modern language teaching. More information and all of the videocasts are available at musicuentos.com/blackbox.

Summer is Coming…And It’s Time For A Tune-Up

Summer is usually a time for re-evaluating the work I’ve done throughout the year. In summers past, I have spent the whole time completely re-working the curriculum based on whatever interesting things I find from the awesome blogs I read and teachers I follow on Twitter. This year, though, will be quite different. Rather than reworking the entire thing, I will be working on small parts. The main style of instruction and the things that I will be presenting in the coming year are not going to change very much, if at all, but there are individual parts that need tweaking. Unlike in past years, I will not be throwing away everything I have. I will not be starting again from scratch. It’s a good feeling.

Tuning the Engine (aka Curriculum) Instead of Rebuilding It

The only thing that will be getting a major overhaul is assessment. I’ll spend the summer looking at what worked from the year and what didn’t. There was a lot lacking this year, if I’m totally honest, in the way that I assessed the students’ proficiency. I know that they can write and I know that they can do all right in a very basic conversation, but I’ll be using the time off in the summer to find ways to really figure out what the kids are able to do with their language. 

My goals for the summer are to figure out the best ways to incorporate proficiency assessment. I have the Can-Do Statements and Standards and everything else I will need to build better rubrics and informal assessments. I need to have more than just a gut-feeling about where the students are. I plan to know very well where they are. If I had to break down the students by proficiency level, I’d say, broadly:

  • Novice-probably about 65% of the students
  • Intermediate-Probably about 30% of the students
  • Advanced-around 5% of students

But I have no way of really knowing. That’s where proficiency assessment comes in. Hopefully by this time next year, I will have a much better idea of where the students are. This is my goal and I will be working through the summer to figure out the best ways to find out.

Confidence

This has been the year of results. Kids in middle school could sit down and write stories from scratch.  4th and 5th graders were writing bullet point summaries of stories that we read in Spanish. They had never been able to do this before. CI instruction methods are a completely different approach to learning a language (not learning, acquisition). The fact of the matter, though, is that regardless of what the classroom looks like (hectic, chaotic, silly), the kids can speak so much more and understand so much more than they could in past years. It’s kind of staggering. (And I’m not even very good at what I’m doing…I can only imagine what it will be like after a few years more practice!)

There were so many great things about this year, but there are so many ways that they can be even better. These results are confidence-boosters. As they say, success is the best motivator. This year, more than any other, I am feeling very successful.

The Key: Find What Works for You

Maybe all this confidence is getting to my head, but I feel like I can tell you what the key to success and confidence in the classroom is: Find what works for you. If you are having trouble with your curriculum, think about ways to change it. Go to a conference, attend a webinar, chat with us on Thursdays and Saturdays during #langchat on Twitter. This answer seems obvious, like a cop-out, but if you really think about it, usually the simplest answers are the best. That being said, it is a simple answer, but an incredibly hard task. Be open to new things and make sure that you have fun. If we aren’t having fun with our work, why do it? I found TPRS and I have run away with it. It has been a home run for me and my students’ success. It won’t necessarily work for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something out there for everyone.