02 February 2017

Chill Pill: Things I've decided to relax about as a language teacher

This year has been a year of growth, without a doubt. After the single most successful semester of my teaching career, I decided to start from scratch on almost everything.

I blame iFLT.

Since I'm also on an early college schedule, I only got a week or two to process a lot of really powerful, paradigm-shifting observations before school started back. It's left me without any solid framework this time around. Also, taking on teaching online with a whole new course in a whole new setting has not left me a lot of mental energy to catch up and start rebuilding (AKA blogging).

But that's okay. I'm giving myself a little grace this time, especially in areas that used to keep me feeling inadequate at every turn.

90% Target Language

I learned watching the great Grant Boulanger in action that THE highest priority HAS to be building our students' confidence--in us and in themselves. If they don't trust you first and foremost to provide input that they can comprehend, they will shut down--and rightly so. Also, if they don't trust that they really do know what's going on, they will shut down even faster. And so if at any time I feel like I am sacrificing their confidence to stay in the target language, I switch.

The result has perhaps been less input overall, but a lot more comprehensible input making it through. My kids just seem happier now, and some of the less confident kiddos from last year's Spanish I are now trusting their brains to figure things out in Spanish II. While we're probably around 70% TL most days, what I'm seeing in their daily interactions and assessments is showing me it's working way better than when I was pushing the arbitrary do-or-die 90%.

All authentic all the time

I was already experimenting with TPRS stories when Krashen and BVP convinced me of this one. See, the goal is to get them to intermediate so they can take off on their own with authentic texts and sympathetic amigos. But again, we have to keep their confidence up long enough to get them to intermediate!

I've since come to accept that storytelling is not my forte. Is is, however, Mira Canion's. I need to work on my novel follow-through, but the first few chapters we did get to in Agentes Secretos went over quite well. I could feel the energy of the whole room getting it. It goes back to priority número uno: build their confidence that you'll only ask what they can do, and confidence in themselves that they've got this.

This relaxation has also seeped over into my assessment. Did you know that the ACTFL Can-Dos for listening don't address interpreting anything beyond basic school stuff until conversations, announcements, and school stuff until intermediate?? Ads don't even show up in the examples until intermediate MID! This is another one of those situations where I need to go back and apologize to the kids from last year. Since, I've been recording myself and other sympathetic Spanish teachers for the listening IPAs for novices--because I was destroying their little baby parrot confidence every time I dug up authentic videos to TEST them with before they were ready!

Writing stories

I'm very picky. I demand texts that I can connect directly to the projects I'm working on. Projects are a non-negotiable for me by this point, primarily because I firmly believe everyone needs something real to work up to when they are learning anything. I also pick projects based on what the kids I'm looking at will actually let me get away with. I'm done with projects that fall flat because they're my vision instead of theirs. I'm also done with stories that are shoehorned in to get more input.

Because you know what? My questions are input. Having class conversations related to the topic is input. Needling kids in Spanish about crazy things they do and say is input. Their self-selected personal practice is input. I don't have to bend over backwards trying to come up with a twist after umpteen reps of three relevant structures.


It was MAGICAL watching kids spontaneously tease Sr. Boulanger in Spanish-- after TWO DAYS! That's what I want.

Despite relaxing my stance 90%, I am sold on input being the solution to pretty much every problem. So I'm cool with them just making eye contact and nodding along during class conversation, maybe interjecting a  or no or even a one or two-word response. As long as I can tell they are getting it, I don't need them to be able to give me full sentences. This means I have to have other ways to check if they are getting it, and really building that confidence and taking the time to pause and just ask if they understand takes care of a lot. If I doubt that they really understand, I'll pick someone I think does and have them rephrase what I said in English. The concern has always been that this leads to tuning out the Spanish, but if you are really serving up Spanish they have a hope of comprehending, it will start sinking in.

I am still giving speaking and writing assessments though (although half as many as even last semester). I'm also trying to offer more freedom in what they write and talk about, letting them lead the way on whatever they feel comfortable writing and speaking about (if they can connect it to the current project somehow). I'm not dictating WHAT I want them to produce, just getting out of their way to see what they can produce.

Your turn

I have to tell you, I have been a lot happier as a teacher and a human being since I took a chill pill. Embracing a less-is-more philosophy was the first step, but cutting myself some slack on strategies that keep me--and my students--from enjoying what we do and feeling confident? It's made the whole teaching experience more like what it should be. It gave me more time and energy to focus on relationships and proficiency needs--not enough time, still, mind you. But more.

So my question for you is, what kind of chill pill can you take--or have you taken? Where can you ease up on yourself--or your students--a little so the learning can get through? What can you swallow so you feel like you're really teaching again, or for the first time?

Find what makes you confident and focus on that.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the ahha moment for me and my colleagues regarding the interpretive pieces. We are for sure using pieces too high for them. I also think reevaluating why we are using authentic pieces. They need to be more than just an opportunity for us to evaluate their skills. Ss need to feel compelled to understand them...we need to choose wisely!