31 March 2011

Dismantling Myths 2 and 3: Learning about language and its cousin, Grammatical Terms

If you don't know what I'm talking about when I say this post is about dismantling myths, go back and read this post.

Photo by T. Hart

Myths 2 & 3:
2. Learning about language is enough (Or, "I don't have to speak the TL in the classroom").

and its cousin

3. Grammatical terms are actually helpful in language acquisition (or, "How will they know what it is if I don't call it subjunctive by reason of indefinite antecedent?????")

Here I have to put in a plug for a post I wrote called A Case for Avoiding Pet Grammar.

We language teachers are good at learning about language. Most of us thrive on dissecting and diagramming and explaining. I wrote a syntax paper in grad school on why Spanish prefers the inverted verb-subject order in clauses that are syntactically not questions but semantically imply questions, and thus why we have those pesky accent marks on question words that are part of a declarative sentence. Do you understand that? It doesn't matter. Because what matters is you know how to ask a question. And you can say "I don't know where my book is." I loved writing the paper and felt like it answered a question no one else had addressed, that had plagued my grammar-loving mind since college, but my paper floated off into the abyss of Dr. Stan's desk and hasn't affected anyone since.

If we're really going to foster proficiency, we've got to dispel this myth. I think it may be the one that stifles the classroom most of all. It stifled my classroom for three years, and I didn't know why, until I went and read all the research that says that communication and meaning are what fosters learning and memory (insert plug for Brain Rules and Cathy Doughty and Mike Longhere).
But we don't believe this and we don't practice it. Elementary teachers know it. We know that it's useless to drill second-graders in conjugations. To use phrases like 'present progressive.' We think that just because middle- and high-schoolers (and adults) have attained a certain level of linguistic and meta-cognitive awareness that explaining grammar to them will produce proficiency. It makes sense, right? I tell you present-tense first-person verbs end in -o. Now you're going to be able to speak them all, right?
But this isn't what happens and if you've been teaching long you know it. You know that except for the ones with the most aptitude in linguistic intelligence, your students will still write and say "yo comer."
Guess what? If you teach language for communication, your students might still say "yo comer." My bilingual two-year-old says "yo comer." She also says "wanna hold you" when she wants me to pick her up. Why? Because she's heard "Do you want me to hold you?" and this results in someone picking her up, and she's parroting the language. Her brain hasn't reset the parameter to change the sentence yet. And when they're two, it's cute. But when they're 12, it's a disaster, points off, failed quiz, why aren't they getting this?!
Because this is our mistake- Look at this comment I found on Madame Techie's (@bselden)great post on a project with VoiceThread:
"There are certain basic skills that have to be aquired [sic] first by drill-and-practice (which the kids claim is "soooo boring")."
Based on many textbooks (who is writing these things?!), it seems that their authors and publishers have the same philosophy.
No. No. No. Unless that comment is about math or something that is so not language, it's based on a series of mistaken assumptions. Language is not stored the way math and history facts are. It's not retrieved in the same way. It's not processed the same way. So why do we think it'slearned the same way?

Want to push students toward higher proficiency? I'm tempted to just say "start speaking the TL in the classroom, require students to do the same, and involve them in communicative activities instead of textbook drills." But I have to remember that this is a journey that can fall completely flat if you just jump into it. If you don't know how to speak TL in the classroom with high levels of comprehension, you will frustrate everyone involved. Instead, here's what I recommend:

1. Read everything you can find, books, blogs, news, whatever, on TPR Storytelling and other communicative methods that can help you rethink how to speak TL in the classroom so that students comprehend and demonstrate comprehension (I have some links on the sidebar that will help you get started). Come up with an "I don't understand" signal for your students (like making an X with their index fingers or arms) and test the waters of speaking more TL.

2. Ease yourself away from your textbook by asking students to do motivating activities involving cultural questions, authentic sources, and technology. For example, investigate what high school is like in Argentina, watch some clips of Patito Feo, put relevant photos from Tag Galaxy into a VoiceThread, and then video students giving a 2-minute comparison of your school and Argentinian schools. Even better, try to contact an Argentinian school to set up an email communication and even Skype (we are very excited about Skype-ing with our Honduran counterparts today for the first time).

3. Reevaluate your vocabulary lists. Are you giving students real language? As in, can they use 'me hace falta' instead of read hacerle falta a uno in a vocab list? As frequent, interesting words come up in authentic sources, why not replace words?

4. Rethink your assessment. What are you assessing? Student recall of translated, discrete words? Does your assessment really test communication? How can you adapt it to do so? What is performance-based assessment and how could you incorporate it?

Most of all, remember that any journey toward more communicative teaching is a journey toward proficiency being accessible for all students, not just for the ones who, like us, are "good at language."

29 March 2011

Activity 1: Cuento poco a poco

Telling a story by categories

photo by flamingoo

This idea came from a session at CSC on theater that was generally so awful that I left halfway through. Really, it was so bad it was painful. But, I came away with this activity that I thought I could make work in my classroom.
In "Cuento poco a poco," I use the fruit machine chooser to randomly choose a student to start. Then, the student has to begin a story with something from the first category. So, if it is 'things that are blue,' the student may say, 'En un planeta azul vivía un mónstruo' or something else according to his/her ability. Then the next student picks up the story by adding a detail from the next category. Make sense? These are the categories I started with:
• Cosas que son verdes
• Un sonido extraño
• Cosas que son cuadrados
• Cosas que son altos
• Una acción inesperada
• Un pariente
• Un hábito curioso
• Una persona en un show de televisión
• Un fin triste

The first time we did this, I found an unexpected benefit: the first time around, some students added a random detail that seemed disjointed and didn't actually further the story, like "the monkey had a grandfather who was a giraffe." So I explained that students should incorporate all the details together to make a coherent story. It made them listen to each other more and use other students' details to come up with a logical continuity. Sounds like subtle AP practice to me. :) We changed random words to whatever they wanted (green to red, tall to fat, sad to tragic, etc.) and began again, with a different student starting.


23 March 2011

(Trying to) Make learning fun

What happens when all the fun goes out of learning language?
The students disengage. Learning doesn't have to be entertainment for entertainment's sake, but I'm learning that if students aren't engaged in learning, they see it as hard and not just boring--the opposite of fun.

Hi, my name is Sra. Cottrell and I am not a fun teacher.
Whew, feels good to get that admission out there. I am not one of those teachers that relates so well to teenagers (I didn't relate well to teenagers when I was a teenager), that's super-approachable, that always makes the learning relevant and fun and feel effortless. I am boring, busy, distant, and sometimes burned out on creativity.
Never did I feel this more than in the past couple of months, particularly in a LangChat about games and at the Central States Conference in early March. I came away from both of those with my head spinning with ideas of what to do to up the engagement in the classroom in fun ways.
Now, some of these ideas were very bad. Particularly as I read through Brain Rules, it stuns me that in spite of continuing research that says that attaching meaning to information is what makes it stick in long-term memory, and the first few moments of learning are the most crucial for how the information will be remembered, and meaningful repetition is what cements information, we still break language learned for the first time into discrete parts and drill it incessantly separate from any meaning. Some of the most successful (in the eyes of the field) teachers I know, who would claim to be very communicative, still advocate 'games' that drill verb conjugations or drill vocabulary connected only to translation and to no meaning at all.
But... even good games based on bad theory can be tweaked, or so I've found. I took some of the ideas and tweaked them to try to keep them communicative. Keep me accountable and let me know if you can make them more so.
When I got back from CSC, I had a week without my AP class because they were on their senior trip. I took advantage of the time to put my ideas into a cohesive plan and make a poster listing all of the options for our new activity:

I've added two since I took this picture: Descríbemelo and Trabajos.

I told the students that we would do one of these for the first ten minutes of every class. This is one of the things I love about teaching without a textbook and with performance-based unit-end assessments. It gives the flexibility that we have been able to implement this for two weeks without hurting our progress in the curriculum. Also, it forces me to do something in every class that I think a majority will find engaging, without spending too much time on it beforehand.

As students are coming into the room, I copy/paste the options into this random option picker:
So the fruit machine picker chooses what activity we will do. If the activity requires a person to start, I copy/paste a roster and choose that person. If it requires a word or phrase, I copy/paste the options and choose that. Then I set the timer at 10 minutes and we begin.

Look for more posts in the next few days to explain the options. Maybe something will sound like a fun activity for your class.