Having organized, hosted and led over a dozen student foreign exchange experiences in my career, makes me think about how to bring that excitement, adventure and connection to the culture of what I’m teaching in the classroom. Nothing can match the impact on the 15 years olds as they ride away from the airport with their new host families, one at a time, with saucer eyes. Instantly plunked into the life of a same-aged-peer in a foreign country, exchange students have that sweet-spot... that 360 degree view of the language and culture.
Clearly not every day can my students be heading off to a host family in Latin America, but they can be taken on a journey toward cultural competency right from the classroom. Investing the time to read a novel as a whole-class can rival the exchange student experience and open up incredible avenues of cultural insight. Moving slowly and taking advantage of every tidbit of the story, being sure that 100% comprehension is being met, brings those tactile, sensory experiences of the main characters to the students’ emotional core, allowing them to identify with the characters through common
experiences and background information.
For me, guiding my class through a leveled reader transports us to a unique location and gives me the spark I need to make it real. Expanding on the sights, sounds and smells embedded in the story’s location, and immersing students in an engaging story, allows us to fully take part in the adventure without leaving the classroom.
Like a trip to an exciting new destination, a good tour guide will keep the group together, losing no one and leaving no child behind on the road to language acquisition. The guide will point out things that students might miss, and encourage conversation about the experience of the story. The closer and closer students identify with the characters, they begin to see life through the
cultural lens of the people in the story; understanding their choices, attitudes and reactions.
Being certain that all students understand and deeply understand every step of the journey, allows the cultural viewpoint of people and places to surround the classroom... and for cultural nuance to organically become part of language acquisition.
Engaged in the adventure, connected to the characters and immersed in the sensory imagery of the story location is the sweet-spot where language acquisition explodes.
- Virginia Hildebrandt
MittenCI 2018, 377 teachers from 16 states, gathered together in Saline, MI on the weekend of April, 20th. It was an incredible weekend, with many returning attendees from 2017 and many brand new to the world of teaching for proficiency. How did it happen and why? What keeps people coming back to conferences like this? Read on for the answers to these questions, a sneak-peek at some behind-the-scenes Mitten info, and a hint about some of the exciting things we are working on for next year!
MittenCI started as a glimmer of an idea, when Kristy Placido and I spoke about the lack of Comprehensible Input training in Michigan. The conference became a reality when Beth Gregones and I decided that we needed more training to help our district transition from legacy teaching (with textbooks, vocabulary sheets, and grammar rules) to the Comprehensible Input (CI) style of teaching. A few teachers in my district had been to multiple trainings, but most had only had a single TPRS training with Blaine Ray. If you have made the jump from legacy teaching to CI teaching, you will know what a challenge this can be; and how training with experienced teachers can make all the difference in the world to your transition. The problem was that our district did not have the money to bring in the big name trainers. The only way Beth and I could make it happen was to bring the trainers in at no cost to our district. The only way to do that was to host a conference. Saline agreed to give us the space for free, if we could bring in the trainers (if you build it, they will come).
Beth and I had no idea what we were doing when we first started working on the conference. We started by asking Carol Gaab, and Kristy Placido of Fluency Matters to join us; to our shock, they said yes! From there we quickly added Dr. Bill VanPatten, Carrie Toth, Tina Hargaden, Justin Slocum Bailey, and many other incredible talents (both local and from far afield). We emailed teachers across the state, begged the high school culinary instructor, Chef Musto to make us delicious food (priorities), and agonized over decisions like what kind of name tags to order. Not only did we do this at the end of the school year (when we both had a million projects going on for our actual classrooms), but we also did it for FREE. That's right, for free folks. Saline let us have the space gratis, but we were not allowed to pay ourselves. So Beth, myself, and our dedicated language teachers worked like crazy people to make it happen! Going into the first day of the first Mitten conference we were not sure we would hold another conference. It was an insane amount of work, and we were completely exhausted.
Why did we do it again? And why do we already have a date for 2019? Because of all of you amazing teachers out there. The joy in the halls was palpable. There were teachers literally crying tears of joy. They had never heard of this method of teaching, they wanted more. More training, more camaraderie, and more Mitten. Our conference started as a way to get training to our district, but it was clear from the first day that it was so much more than that.
Before we crawled home on that Saturday, we had already decided to do it again. Teachers coming together to support each other, and grow together is one of the most powerful things I have ever experienced. The power we have when we work together, and support each other, can literally change the world. What could be more important?
You may be wondering, where is the description of the sessions and other great takeaways? The truth is, between organizing, teaching two language labs (see a video of one of them below), and running a session on Bad Unicorn, I was not able to attend a single presentation. I did find a few great blogs about other sessions though, and you can check out one from Sarah Breckley here; and from Señorita Glasbrenner here. You can also see a great video of what the conference looked like with Darren Way below!
Want a hint about the upcoming Mitten conference? We will have 7 presenters on Friday next year AND our keynote is the incredible Dr. Krashen!
Why throw a conference if you can't even take advantage of the learning opportunities? Because it is bigger than any one teacher, or one school. This is about changing our profession, lifting each other up, and changing the world.
"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." - Nelson Mandela
For teacher appreciation week, I posted my 'Teacher Stats' on Facebook. I realized that over the course of my career I have connected with over 4,000 students. Each student is a chance to lift a child up, to teach them another language, to teach them about the differences between local culture and new places in the world, and most importantly to teach each child how we are all the same in our basic need for love and understanding. If we can teach children to appreciate the differences, but also to see the connections between themselves and the rest of humanity, we as teachers, and as language teachers specifically, have a chance to change the world in a way that no other profession can.
We can only do that if we support each other and grow together. This is what Mitten was and will be about, and I hope that you can join us at ACTFL at the CiPosse booth, at our house at ACTFL for salon-style after hours conversations, or at one of the amazing conference opportunities below. As a teacher alone, we can make a difference, but as teachers united, we can change the world.
Upcoming Training Opportunities:
NTPRS: July 9th- July 13th
Comprehensible Cascadia: July 10th- July 12th
IFLT: July 17th-July 20th
Express Fluency: August 6th-9th
CiMidwest: October 5th-7th
ACTFL: November 16th-18th
MittenCI: April 26th-27th
I hope to see all of you amazing difference makers at a conference soon!
Erica M. Peplinski
Have you failed at anything lately? Last year I didn't succeed in one of my major goals. I attempted National Board Certification, but did not pass. OUCH! That was a major blow, and the first time in a few decades that I was unable to attain a professional goal I set for myself. After I had turned in my work, but before I knew the outcome, I attended a conference in Bethesda, MD last summer. I was changed by that conference in unexpected ways.
See all the times I used the word ¨I¨ in that paragraph? I, I, I…..Teaching can be a solitary profession. Even when we are working with other teachers, World Languages teachers can feel alone. Maybe you are the only one in your department, or the only one teaching your language. Maybe you do not see eye-to-eye with your colleagues. There are many reasons why you may feel alone sometimes. For me, it is a tendency to want to do things myself and not to rely on others that sometimes leads me to do things alone. When I was working on NBTC, I was the only teacher in our cadre who was a World Languages teacher. That, plus my natural inclination, led me to try to complete my components mostly on my own. (I hate asking for help.)
Back to that conference. I took two precious summer days, a couple hundred bucks, and my professional BFF and we headed to the CI Liftoff summer conference. It was phenomenal to spend time with two of my favorite CI mentors, Tina Hargaden and Ben Slavic. I learned a lot at that conference, but that is not what this blog post is about. After I came home from the conference the real magic started. I joined a professional group on FaceBook, I started having collaborative relationships with other members of the group, and I started moving forward on projects dear to my heart. Finding the right Professional Learning Community is an important step in professional growth. That does not always happen in your school building.
One day this winter, I found out that I had not achieved NBCT. At the same time, teachers across the country were finding out the same outcome, or deciding that they would join the next round of teachers attempting this certification. This inevitably led to discussions online in several different professional groups to which I belong. The most warm and productive discussions came about with members of the CI community. Another teacher and I were working on the same components and a third member of the community agreed to mentor us. Justin, Kim and I formed a Mastermind.
The idea of a Mastermind has its origins with Napoleon HIll, who conceived of the idea for people in the business word. The group is intended to assist you in overcoming obstacles by harnessing the collective wisdom of a group. In our context, it is a group of like-minded educators meeting at intervals they decide- taking up each other's burdens, sharing ideas and connections, and confronting challenges together. People rave about the effectiveness of these groups, and I can attest to the energy that flows from sessions of our Mastermind.
In our Mastermind group, Kim and I have both found the kind of mutual support, feedback, and encouragement to achieve excellence. I look at the level of work I was able to achieve on my own last year, and I can see tremendous growth when I compare it to the work I am doing this year. Justin is the more experienced member, and the leader of the group. He is able to gently guide our conversations, provide constructive criticism, and cheer us on. I know that in the future I will want to continue this collaborative work and form other Mastermind groups where I can work with other groups on other goals.
Don't let geography, your working conditions, or your mindset stand in your way. You can find the like-minded colleagues you need to help you achieve your goals, reflect more deeply on your practice, and be the cheering section you need. We know that it takes a village to raise a child, and it might just take a Mastermind to raise a teacher.
Where do you look? Check out professional groups on FaceBook. Search for blogs, twitter handles, and accounts on Teachers Pay Teachers. Still struggling? I am happy to help. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will see if I can put you in touch with the right group of teachers. You can form your own Mastermind and start to see the positivity flow!
- Nissa Quil
If you walk into my classroom, you’ll first notice a big empty space. No desks, no chairs. Well, if you look carefully, there are some chairs stacked in the corner. But, for the most part it’s empty space.
If you were to observe a class of students, however, the movement is actually the first thing you would notice. Really, how often do you see students and teachers jump, move around like animals, skip, or create the pegasus you see above? Depending on the day and level, movement can be integrated throughout the entire class period.
The empty space allows for movement and the movement supports community building, establishing a target language environment and helps me deliver comprehensible input to my students.
Here is a quick list of how I use movement in our Spanish classroom:
1. Attention/Classroom Management & Brain Breaks- I use movement to help students focus. This has two parts. I will call out a movement that will 1. help students to focus and 2. allows the me to easily see who is listening.
For example, we may say hands up, touch your head, jump or stand on one foot. Doing whatever movement is called out helps students to realize directions are coming up and the teacher can easily see who heard and is listening actively.
A movement is also used when we see that students are fidgeting or losing focus. When I look around the circle and see signs of checking out, I quickly bring a movement into class to get the blood flowing, the mind focused and back to the topic. Annabelle Allen describes this well in the Inspired Proficiency Podcast, episode 5.
2. Pairings and Groupings/Community Building: We have students move around the classroom a lot in order to interact with different people. I may have students move across the class doing different actions and when they move to a new spot they are new near people with whom they can talk.We may also ask them to make a line in order of their height or how many hours of sleep they got last night and this also gives us a new order to pair and group students in. We may have them dance around the room and when the music stops they have to create a group of three as quickly as they can. There are countless ways that open space and movement can allow for students to interact in many different configurations throughout a single class period.
3. Play! Movement is fun. We infuse our classes with play through movement that takes students out of their comfort zone and just gives them the freedom to be silly, to be kids. Sometimes we move like crabs, jump on one foot, paddle a canoe with a friend, move like a spy or create a train with the class. This might seem silly…. Well, it is! But, as I narrate in Spanish and they feel what the words mean with the movement their bodies make, it’s not only fun but also a great strategy for maximizing comprehensible input.
4. Comprehensible Input
The open space and movement allows for me to act out anything and for the students to play along. When we all use gestures and movement with the target language, and THAT keeps me accountable for keeping it all comprehensible. If students don’t move the way I say, I know I’ve said something that’s too complicated. I explain games, tell stories, ask and answer questions, describe movies and pictures, all in the target language, all with students interacting and moving and eventually talking.
We definitely take movement to the extreme in my department. And of course, I don’t think everyone has to do the same. But, I would challenge you to think about how much your students are moving and whether adding some of the movement I’ve described might enhance the amazing things you do in your classroom already. If you want to talk more about this, comment below and I can discuss it on the Inspired Proficiency podcast.
- Ashley Uyaguari
Picture the scene: a high-school classroom, a rainy Friday afternoon in late April 2008. 25 or 30 students in that last-period Latin II class are attempting -- not very successfully -- to focus on an activity that they usually enjoy. After 15 years teaching in That Particular School District, I have a pretty good idea of how things “usually” work, and I’m trying -- not very successfully -- to ignore a sudden flash of intuition: what “usually” works is no longer working.
“You guys look so sad. What’s up?” I finally ask. And they tell me: “We just hate textbooks. We hate everything about them. The readings are contrived and stupid; the characters in them are flat and dead; the grammar explanations are dumb; the exercises are ridiculous; the things about culture are obviously too simple.” The floodgates opened, and as they listed their objections, I realized something important. They were saying what I had been realizing -- not just about That Particular Textbook (which, to be fair, is a “good textbook” as textbooks go), but about the relationship between pre-packaged learning and 21st-century learners.
“We hate textbooks, but we like this class,” they told me. “We really like it when we make up stories together -- when we make better characters and better stories and better situations. Couldn’t we just do that?”
Yes, we could do that. Yes, we should do that. And they had some very specific ideas about how we should do that -- ideas that are important when you’re dealing with a “not dead but immortal” language, ideas that have been influencing my work with engaging CI in Classical languages for a decade. “Great stories,” they said, though not in these exact words, “make you think about great questions. Stories and Questions are key.”
As we built great stories and great questions together, and as I learned more about Stories and Questions, I realized there’s a particular rhythm of questions that I follow, whether I’m building a story with language learners, designing a workshop or conference session, or talking with someone who might want to work with me. The questions are important, but so is the order, and this is the order that has worked best for me:
I think of the CI techniques that Justin Slocum Bailey listed last week as a beautiful toolbox filled with beautiful tools, and I’m reminded of a great quote from my friend (and fellow Latin teacher) Jason Talley, who once said
Tools are how we solve problems. What is the problem we’re trying to solve here?
On that April Friday in 2008, it turned out to be a “Who and Where” problem. My students and I had a shared Why (purpose) and What (desired results): they wanted to learn Latin, understand Roman culture, and be able to read and understand “real things that real Romans really wrote.” But the “Who” and “Where” of That Textbook’s authors were so different from ours that we couldn’t use That Textbook as an effective tool. We had to build characters and stories together instead -- characters and stories that ultimately grew into “this little thing” and took me on a journey I never would have imagined. But your students aren’t mine, and we may or may not share a Why or a What. “One size fits all” doesn’t work for clothes, and it works even less well for language acquisition.
If it seems like you’re “struggling with CI,” or if it seems like your students are “resisting” or “getting stuck,” try working through those questions in the order I listed them. Struggles, disconnections, and stuckness are usually symptoms -- symptoms of a disconnect between your How and at least one of those other questions. Find the disconnect, and a solution will probably be obvious. And if you can’t find a solution alone, don’t worry: there’s a whole Posse out here, ready and waiting to help.
Yes, CI Posse refers to a bunch of people who support each other with energy and ideas for ecstatic language teaching. But the word posse also means "to be able," and the name CI Posse draws on that: It's a declaration that we can do this and that you can do this. In fact, this work is so doable that you can get started anytime, and doing so just might make your life easier and more enjoyable.
By "do CI," we just mean creating a comfortable environment rich in language that learners understand and want more of. "Oh, is that all?" Actually, it's more doable than you might think, and that's what this post is about. Creating a CI-rich environment is highly doable because it comes down to two things:
1. a set of breakdownable, learnable, practiceable skills
2. acting human
I may have made up one or more of the words in point 1.
When you watch a master teacher, it's easy to suspect wizardry. But even wizardry has its building blocks. The building blocks of teaching with CI are discrete skills like speaking slowly and comprehensibly, pointing-and-pausing at words on the board to give students time to process, checking for comprehension, asking strategic questions, defining expectations for participation, and following up on students' interests and opinions.
You can find guidance on these skills, and videos of people employing them, all over the CI-happy interwebs, including at the bottom of this post. You don't need to implement the skills all at once. Pick one to focus on for a while and cut yourself slack for the rest!
Because acquiring and using language is a natural part of being human, watching a class "do CI" can look a lot like, well, just watching good humans being good humans.
Can you listen with interest? Then you can do CI.
Can you ask basic questions about things you want to know or think students might want to know? Then you can do CI.
Can something you learn about someone make you want to ask a follow-up question? Then you can do CI.
Can you use your imagination? Then you can do CI.
This may seem wishy-washy, but it doesn't have to be. While free-for-all conversation can help someone acquire a language efficiently if the total vocabulary isn’t too much and learners are actually attending to what is said, there are lots of concrete, step-by-step, practiceable frameworks for generating target language input and interaction. There is TPRS, invented by Blaine Ray. There is the Invisibles process from Ben Slavic and Tina Hargaden. There is La Persona Especial, refined for the language classroom by Bryce Hedstrom. There is Eric Herman’s Story Card Magic. There is Free Voluntary Reading, which doesn’t have to lead to interaction with a teacher; it can simply provide tons of desirable input. There is Embedded Reading, developed by Laurie Clarcq and Michele Whaley, which can be supplemented with lots of CI-extending tasks. There is talking about pictures, students' quirky skills, random items, or even just what's outside the window.
However you structure your CI-rich environment, I recommend getting some formal training and coaching in TPRS, simply because that's a great way to focus on and practice a lot of the bite-size skills that make a target-language interaction effective. But you don't have to wait for formal training to get started. Try one of the routines or frameworks linked above, or just ask students an interesting question--"What's something you're good at?" "What's a place you would love to visit?" "Have you ever been bitten by an animal?" -get an answer from a student or two, and see where the conversation leads, remembering to keep things slower than you might think necessary.
Trying something new in the middle of a long semester can be daunting, but you might actually find that it's really energizing. In the last post, Ben Fisher talked about how this has been the case for him, and I've been writing about the energizing power of novelty as part of a series of ideas for boosting peace and energy in a stressful stretch of school.
And remember that you've got a posse to back you up!
PS. Here is a little video of me with a mixed-age group of Latin beginners at Express Fluency 2017. I hope it features both some of the skills and some of the humanness mentioned in this post. If the video by itself doesn't click for you, you can check out this background info and breakdown of the individual skills involved.
- Justin Slocum Bailey
I graduated my teacher training program at the end of 2016, and started looking for my first job as a world language teacher in the spring and summer of 2017. I was so excited - I thought I had done very well in my student teaching and was on my way to having an exhausting, but productive first year!
I got a call from a middle school in a Seattle suburb, and one awesome Skype interview later, I was a real teacher! Finally - all my years of experience in working with children were going to put me in a position to inspire and educate our youth! Bam!
Well, the nerves crept in. The position was a Spanish teaching position and I had majored in...German. And done a summer travel-study program in Germany. And been the president of the German Club. And lived in Germany for a year as an English Teaching Assistant. I had been to a Spanish-speaking country for a total of...six days. And though I had minored in Spanish in college...I was the German guy. Ok - I can do this! I am a creative, hard-working individual. There are MANY resources out there for Spanish teachers, more than for German, for sure! If I flop, it’ll really be my own fault!
The first day is a blur now, but I remember my first class coming and wondering, “will I be able to speak to them in Spanish the whole time slash at all?” (I did it, phew. What did I even talk about? I can’t recall.) The students went home and there I was, alone in a little room that was now dubbed “mine,” with little idea of what to do next. Okay...I’ll just follow what the textbook thinks comes next! And try to throw in some of those fun, interactive activities I learned about in my program! And browse Pinterest for MORE new ideas!
There are so many ideas out there. Blogs, Pinterest boards, well-meaning colleagues, negative colleagues, district coordinators, other teachers who don’t even teach language who took a language class one time twenty years ago, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, books, instructional video series, YouTube...there are just a million ways to do any one thing. Teach a language? Goodness gracious. Not to mention, if you shop on Teachers Pay Teachers, everyone else’s materials are BEAUTIFUL and look like they were hand-crafted in a giant, beautiful library by angels and the ghost of Socrates.
Before I started teaching, I thought to myself, “I’ll never show a movie in class as a stalling technique! I want to be up there, teaching, every day! No cop outs!” But the heads going down onto desks, the figuring out differentiation for six classes a day, the four preps, the days where I spent 12+ hours at the school looking for materials online, the wondering if it was fair or right for me to be a Spanish teacher when I felt I knew so relatively little….it all began to wear on me. The beginning of November seemed like the perfect time to drag out The Book of Life over a couple days...in all my classes. I thought to myself...is this it? Is this all there is?
A conference presenter turned me on to the CI Liftoff Facebook page, and through it, I started learning a lot about how teachers were delivering comprehensible input in their classrooms, every day! What? My level 1 students only know some weather phrases (sometimes...well, some of them), some greetings, the numbers (sometimes), me gusta phrases...how do these language magic witch people just make these kids understand day in, day out, without planning every single word? Devilry, I say!
So I read some more, watched YouTube videos of teachers working their classes like Vegas MCs, took tons of notes, thought aloud with wild enthusiasm (usually to myself), until one day I said, okay! This is it! LET’S DO THIS!
Again, I don’t know what exactly I even talked about the day I “decided to go CI,” but I knew there was a hunger there. I could not, would not stop. And, magically, I started learning things about my students that made me feel like I was connected to them, and actually knew their lives.
And it reminded me: though I had not lived in a Spanish-dominant country, I had learned my Spanish and practiced it in a country with a huge population of Spanish speakers. To me, learning Spanish represented building closer relationships with my Spanish-speaking neighbors, colleagues, strangers I ran into when they needed help, when I needed help. It was about speaking to the hearts of people in my community. And that connection was sparked again when I started to speak slowly and comprehensibly to my students, making their lives and interests into our curriculum. It felt like a loving tribute to all the times I or my conversation partner had made the attempt to connect in a tongue not our own, and we both smiled and understood, even if we didn’t say all the words right.
So I kept learning, I keep learning. And the more that I learn, the more that I see that it is not about building a huge repertoire of “activities” that expands every time I log onto Pinterest. It is really only about speaking slowly and using my body and voice so that students understand and can be understood. I look into my students’ eyes, and I feel connected, joyful.
I sense now that my career will not be an endless drudgery of activities and exercises, but an endless expansion of my ability to communicate and connect with other people. I will get better at literacy activities, I will get better at speaking comprehensibly, I will get better at classroom management specific to this discipline. But - how wonderful - doing this will mean meeting tons of really cool young people and learning about their unique, beautiful lives.
I thought about quitting for a while, but not anymore. Too many good stories to hear.
- Ben Fisher
So, grown-ups, think about it. How long do you wait before swiping right, or left, or wherever you swipe to reject someone whose vibe you’re just not feeling? Probably like two point one seconds. If that. Or how long will you stick with a Netflix before pulling the plug on a boring Flick? If you are like me, you have come to expect to be engaged, entertained, wowed, and NOW.
So think about our non-prefontal-cortex-having students. Poor things. THEY grew UP on the Internetz. THEY have even LESS of an attention span than we do. Thing is, though, in class they can't really swipe left or right or whatever direction you swipe in. Because we control their, like, GRADE. And their future. And whether or not Mom and Dad let them get their Xbox back this weekend. And deep down, most of them actually kinda LIKE us. This is the situation for most kids. Most kids will try their best to engage in whatever school plops in front of them, because they know that school is pretty boring, but that’s just how it is and you just play the game and get by and count the hours till you get to get back online or go home and do something that seems real, something that actually engages you.
And then there are the ones who have basically already swiped left out of the whole School System. They got the Industrial-Military-Complex Hex, in the immortal words of Steve Miller. They dropped out without ever being able to turn on and tune in. Many students are beyond having the mental energy to care about their grade, and they do not see our class as leading to a bright future for themselves, and Mom and Dad are not able to be there enough to even have a conversation about their grades. So for those kids, school can seem meaningless. Like a series of disconnected tasks that some grown-ups seem to think is important, but that have no meaning for kids, no reason to engage.
So here we are, teaching a language class, and we have to talk about SOMETHING, and here we are, stuck together in a room with these younger humans, and they keep coming back every day in their splendid post-Millennial boredom, all the way down through the months, through the weeks, the days, every third period, they come back and slouch into their seats, gangly legs and arms and reeking of Teen Spirit, from August to June. So, we might as well learn to get along. We adults might as well learn how to engage our kids. They ain’t getting any younger, people.
What engages kids? Well, that answer varies. From kid to kid and class to class, “engaging” shifts and changes. So it is hard to be like, “Stories engage kids” or “Making characters engages kids” or “Movie Talk engages kids” cause it is so personal, so variable, and anything gets old after a while anyway.
What does not change is the basics of CI: Talk (or provide reading material) so they can understand you (or the text). Talk or read about something engaging. It does not have to be at a Katy-Perry-on-the-beach level of engaging, cause it’s still school, after all, but it has to be more engaging than staring absently at the ceiling tiles or taking the hall pass to get water, AH-GAIN.
What to talk about? Ah, that is where the real fun of being a CI teacher comes in. Here’s our little secret. It is probably truly the reason that we stick with CI and love it so much and find it so endlessly fascinating.
Lean in. I do not want the Social Studies teachers to hear; they will be jealous.
Shh. I do not want the Science teachers to hear. They have to teach about the Periodic Table of the Elements, the poor dears. The state standards say that they need to.
OK, here is the secret.
We can talk or read about whatever we want to, pretty much.
Our standards do not tel us the topics to “cover” like Social Studies or Science teachers. We are teaching THE LANGUAGE. So as long as it is engaging to the kids, we can talk about whatever.*
How do you find out what is engaging to them? Well, one way is to ask them. Yeah, just ask them about themselves.
Have them fill out a name card with something they like to do.
Have them fill out a survey and look for patterns, and talk about those things that lots of kids like, or something that only one kid likes, but is kinda quirky.
Do some Special Chair interviews with some volunteers and learn about each other.
Fill in the class calendar with what is going on in their lives and when something seems interesting, go with it, find out all about it.
Or you can bring them things that make YOU super-excited to share. If you are super-jazzed to bring them some information, they might just get into it, too.
Tell them a story.
Teach them about something really cool or controversial from history or current events.
Show them cool pictures that make you think, or laugh, or feel.
The main thing is to develop a Spidey Sense of when kid are with you and when they are not. This is a different mindset from the average teacher. The average teacher just accepts that they will kind of lose the kids, especially “those kids”. You know the ones. “THOSE kids”. The ones who are “lazy” or “slow” or “disrespectful”. The ones who do not “do school”. THOSE kids.
We want to ENGAGE “those” kids. Those kids are the people we most need to include in the class conversation. (If only for purely selfish reasons…cause if they are let to slide off into disengagement, they can tip the whole class in that direction with their teen sulking, and bring down the energy in your class faster than the Hindenburg tied to the Titanic!). What to do?
Glad you asked.
How to Develop Your Spidey Sense in Four Sorta Easy Steps.
(These steps are not super easy, I will be honest. The require us to get out of our comfort zones, but nothing good is ever truly free and life is lived in the struggles.)
1. Slow down and look at the kids while you teach. Pause between words. Just the simple act of going slower will help more kids engage. And looking at them will let you see if they are “into it”. Do not be scared to stop speaking entirely and let an awkward silence descend on the classroom till the kids are looking back at you.
2. If one or two kids are not engaged, reach out to them with content or with proximity. Either move to be closer to them, or make them the center of attention for a little bit, or both. It is usually pretty easy to compare and contrast a student who is showing signs of disengagement with whatever content you are talking about. So you are talking about Shandra’s upcoming volleyball tourney…ask Markus if he is going. Or, sometimes even better, ask the class if they think Markus is going.
3. If the whole class is giving you a “this sucks” vibe, move on. With good humor and acting as if it is simply time to wrap up the activity, simply announce that it is time for soothing else. The trick is to not look desperate or frustrated. The trick is to get them to expect that you sometimes just move on. (It helps you not feel frustrated if you did not spend a million years prepping the activity that just fell flat…I recommend a No-Prep Approach to CI for this and a bunch of other reasons, including my love of not working outside of class.)
So, you have to have a bank of things that you can move on to. But this blog post is not going to be long enough for that. THAT took a year and over 500 pages to write. And you can get a copy here for $10 off, even. Call it the Posse discount. Heck, I will even throw in $10 from every sale with this coupon code to the “Get the Indy Authors to ACTFL” fund that the Posse is working to raise.
4. You do not have to try to be ONE OF THEM to make your CI engaging to teens. We really cannot be expected to keep up with all the popular culture out there. We are, like, SO OLD. And SO LAME. So, trying to keep up on the pop culture is, like, SO HARD. Cause I am in bed way too early to catch the primest of prime time, and I am far too far down the “I Have a Career” rabbit hole to even have a minute to look up what’s trending in Teen People, and nowadays if it is in Teen People it is probably, like, five memes short of a full load of teen humor. So, what to do? It’s a youthquake, an avalanche of dank memes, and I cannot hope to keep up. Talking about the kids in front of you, and bringing them things that you yourself are interested in, should be enough.
So, what have we learned today? Engagement is foundational. It is equity in action. It is the lifeblood of a proficiency-based classroom. It sets us apart from the other subject areas. And it is easy to do and the less we prep, the easier it actually is. Also, that we are old farts who have no hope of being cool anymore. Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this article and I hope to see you in New Orleans in November at Posse Central!
*To a certain point. Some states and districts have topics added to the national standards. The ACTFL standards do not specify certain topics, but some states, districts, and AP/IB do. So, once kids have a nice cushion of language that they developed from talking about whatever they like, then you can start picking topics that are interesting to you and them, that align with the requirements of whatever program you are in. Some of us have to do this sooner, others later. But if we can align our programs to just work to build a basic mental representation of the language, which is all ACTFL requires us to do, truly the topic matters not. When we do address required topics, we can do it through conversation as well. One thing I like to do is to poll my kids and then discuss the findings of the poll. It is easy to “angle” the poll towards the required content. “What are your top three breakfast foods” or “What are the top three worshippers things about flying/traveling/public transport?” You can also teach content-based units about the topic. Currently I am teaching a unit on Food in the Francophone World, to go with my district’s desire to have kids in first year talk about food. And for required grammar, well, if that is really in your standards or someone is forcing you to teach it, I say check out the PACE model and just teach them the grammar that way. It is the mosts brain-friendly way I have found to do it. And it sure bests trying to squeeze the imperfect tense into every sentence you say in a “spontaneous” conversation!
- Tina Hargaden