Loosening the “Teacher Grip”

As teachers, we want to control all the things the students are doing. It is in the nature of our profession to create perfect students who do things exactly as we tell them and give us answers that are exactly what we are expecting, but that’s not how kids work. They want to do things their own way and be individuals. If our grip is too tight, if we don’t allow their individuality, creativity, and ingenuity to shine through, we might turn off the students to learning and acquiring languages altogether.

Letting go and letting them 

(I heard this phrase somewhere (probably from one of you awesome teachers on langchat) and it stuck with me. I wish I had come up with it but I can’t say that I did. If you know who came up with it, please feel free to let me know.)

Lately, I have found that my students are getting a little tired of the standard storytelling format. (Maybe not so “lately”) They know what’s going to happen, they have a good working knowledge of the high frequency verbs we’ve been circling for years. They are ready for something new, but what?

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So You’re Thinking of Presenting At A Conference

I have a colleague and very good friend who asked me about my presentation at the SCOLT conference in Orlando (see this post). Her main question was, “How did you get to do that?” It’s a question I have gotten from lots of people since my first time presenting last year (see this post).

Attending and/or presenting at a conference is a great experience for any teacher at any point in their career. I have made friends and met colleagues that I would not have otherwise met. I have also met people I have only spoken with online through #langchat or other social media. When I met Laura, Keith, and Megan, I was completely star-struck. But the thing is, they’re normal people who want to be the best teachers they can be. Just like the rest of us. So come out to a conference and see what it’s like, then try and submit a proposal. The worst thing that could happen is they’ll say no. Last year, ACTFL rejected a proposal for a presentation. It was not very nice to feel the rejection, but at the same time, now I know what I need to do differently to maybe present there next year.

So What To Do?

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SCOLT 2017 Presentation

Below is my working script for my presentation at this year’s SCOLT conference.

The title of the Presentation is:

We Don’t Learn Anything Anymore: Moving Away From a Grammar-Based Curriculum

One note: There was a question about what I meant by Grammar-Based Curriculum. To clarify, I’m talking about curricula that are directly tied to a textbook and that follow the grammar points as presented in the text (only present tense first, then past tense, then direct objects, and students are not made to use any of these forms outside the order of the text.)

The Powerpoint presentation that goes with the script can be seen here.

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A long hiatus…

It’s been a while. It’s been time to decompress, time to focus on the art of teaching, time away from the hustle and bustle of all this language teacher blogging stuff. The irony, of course, is that I took a bunch of time away from the blog and from #langchat right after writing a post about starting a blog.

I still think you should start a blog, btw.

Personally, I needed time away. I was feeling uninspired and burned out. It happens to everyone from time to time. I feel like maybe I have written that phrase too many times on this blog, but it happens a lot. Don’t let anyone tell you they don’t get burned out, because they do. Everyone deals with it differently and that’s ok. Some people jump deeper into what they’re doing. Some people change what they’re doing and start from scratch again. And apparently, when I get burned out, I turn it all off and walk away.

But now I’m back and ready to share. What’s bringing me back is my SCOLT 2017 presentation. I will be talking about what to do when you move away from the textbook. Think of it like the sequel to what I spoke about last year.

I’m back in the game and ready to get back into the swing of it all. Seeing old friends at the conference like Laura and Fran (and meeting some people I feel like I’ve known for years but have never actually met in person, like Megan and Keith), and meeting new people with different perspectives and ideas has reinvigorated and inspired me. Seeing presentations from people whose work I have followed and admired for years is so encouraging. Thank you to all who are presenting or who have presented and keep inspiring us!

The Trouble With Translators

I have a confession, something that might shock the other language teachers out there: I like online translators, especially Google. I think that (when used correctly) they can be great tools. They can help students to understand difficult passages and they can help them to double check their own work, among a host of other useful purposes.

But as much as I like them, I do have an issue. It’s not that I think that they will steal my job as a language educator and it’s not that I am afraid that the students will “cheat” by using a translator and try to pass off the work as their own. The biggest issue that I have with translators is that I don’t have any desire to know what a translator knows. On the other hand, I NEED to know what my students know.

Some context:

My Middle School students are currently working on final exam projects. The project: write a story in Spanish. Narrate story over an original animation created by you and a partner in class. Record and edit on iPad. Present completed video to class. Get good grade (because it has been labored over and corrected as much as is needed to be as near to perfect as possible).

The students work on rough drafts in class and turn them in when they are finished. Then, we can work together to correct them while everyone else works on the art and/or filming of their projects. The idea was beautiful: I will have a document of what the kids can actually do on their own in the rough draft and I will have a corrected copy for them to present and save for posterity.

But…There has been a problem. Several of my students are chronic overachievers. Normally, this is a good trait for them to have. They are discerning in their work and they don’t turn in work that is in any way incomplete or imperfect. They turn in quality work each time. They also are VERY nervous about turning in work that is not perfect. This leads them to do something that can be considered cheating in most professional language teaching circles: writing in English and translating with an online translator.

This is academically dishonest, true, but more than anything else, it is frustrating. It goes completely against what I have been trying to build all year. I have spent the year telling the kids that they will write in Spanish like elementary school students and that there will be errors and the text will be choppy and unsophisticated. And I have spent the year telling them that this is exactly what I expect for success! This is not only what I expect, it’s what I am hoping for. It shows me that progress is being made. I have seen the kids progress a huge amount this year using TCI methods and TPRS. There is no way that they could have done half the things they can currently do without it. At the same time, their work is messy and filled with errors—the kinds of errors that students going from novice to intermediate usually make.

Translators are great and can be a really wonderful tool, but they don’t replace the language inside a person’s head. Sure, they can (sometimes) produce grammatically correct writing, but they can’t do what a real person can do and that is where they are limited: they aren’t the Universal Translator from Star Trek, they aren’t the Babel Fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide. They are no replacement for a real person’s language use.

For the majority of the students who have turned in work that hasn’t been machine translated, the errors are almost always limited to the following: right word, wrong conjugation/form or wrong translation from the Spanish-English dictionary (side note, my favorite false translation from a dictionary is to say reloj for watch, as in “Quiero reloj una película”-I got this error once when I taught at the college level and I got it once this year and it makes me smile every time and I get to talk about how to use dictionaries for finding translations). These are the errors that the students have been producing all year and they have been steadily improving with more and more input.

When reviewing work, students tend to focus on their errors–they see a lot of different colored ink on their papers and immediately freak out. The fact is, though, that the errors above don’t really get in the way of comprehensibility. I can understand their stories. I am amazed by what they can do, but I have trouble conveying that to them (somehow telling them this to their faces doesn’t really translate into them understanding that they are doing a great job…Middle schoolers…what can ya do?)

Ultimately, I don’t want beautiful or perfect final essays. I want them messy and filled with errors because that’s how the students write. I don’t want them to have great grammar, I want them to be themselves, errors and all. Using translators is convenient and getting help from family members and friends is very nice, but online translators and family members don’t attend my classes.

Not even taking into account the issue of cheating/academic dishonesty, when students allow someone else to do their work, I don’t get a chance to see what that student can really do. I don’t get the opportunity to asses the student’s work, I get to assess the helper’s work. It gives me absolutely no indication of what the student is able to do. And that is the real trouble with translators (both machine and human).

Updates and the Black Box Project

Ok, I know what you’re thinking: my last post was 3 weeks ago and about 2 weeks before that I said I’d be posting a lot more, but I haven’t. I’m sorry for that, but I have a pretty good excuse. It’s been crazy for the last few weeks. School is winding down (or winding up towards final exam projects and then a quick slide down the other side) and will be over in 5 weeks. It has gone by so quickly that I have had a hard time keeping up with and reflecting on everything I’ve been doing.

Along with school, I have been working to put together a presentation proposal for the SCOLT 2016 conference in February of next year. The topic is related to the things that I have been talking about on the blog (not too much more information, though—you’ll just have to come and see me in NC 🙂 ).

On top of all that, I have had one other project that has been taking a lot of time and planning: the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast project.

Muscuentos Black Box Podcast

This is a really exciting endeavor that we’re taking to produce “freely available, easy-to-understand resources that get you the information you need about recent research in how people learn language.  You’ll get it fast and you’ll be able to see immediately how to implement it.  And you’ll get it regularly.” (quoted directly from Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, our fearless leader and the brains behind Musicuentos and the Black Box Project).

I’m working with 4 other instructors and language professionals to produce these videos about current research about language acquisition and teaching methods. We are really excited and can’t wait to get started! If you’re interested in helping us get the project off the ground, go here.

So that’s about it for updates in the world of the fernster…I am not going to call myself that anymore…the name I use now is already silly enough.

More posts to come soon, Promise (and this time I’ll follow through…probably 🙂 )

#oneword – Preparation

I am lucky that I have found a method that fits so well. If you look back through my posts, I have nothing but good things to say about storytelling as a method of language acquisition: it is fun, interesting, motivating (for me and the students), and it’s effective.

If there’s one problem I have with it, though, (and it’s more of a problem of my style than the method as written and presented by the developers of the TPRS method), it’s that it allows me to be lazy…Maybe lazy isn’t the right word, but it’s the best that I can think of. I am not lazy in terms of my time in the classroom, preparing original stories/reading stories from the Look, I Can Talk book, or grading work.

It’s not laziness as much as it is comfort.

I am very comfortable being in front of the room and improvising. I began the year with Circling questions written out beforehand for every part of the story. As I have continued using the Circling method, though, I have pretty much stopped doing that. I have been simply telling the stories, doing a lot of improvisation (I try to let the kids guide the stories as much as is possible), and asking questions as they occur to me.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been working well, but I think it could be so much better. By planning out my questions beforehand, I can make sure that I get the amount of repetitions of language terms that is required for true acquisition. I can also make my stories more interesting for the kids and more motivating.

I can walk in a room with the bare bones of a script and have a good class, but how much better could it be?

My thinking now is that it could go from good to great!