When I started my teaching journey sixteen years ago, I knew a few things. I knew that I didn’t want to teach the way I’d been taught. Not just Latin, but overall. I had a few shining exceptions, but I had spent my career as a student watching the few who were like me privileged and elevated at the expense of the majority of students who just weren’t made for the cookie-cutter factory school scene.
I also knew that I wanted to communicate with teachers in other areas, especially among my department (i.e., foreign language) and the special education department to make sure I was offering the best and most modern teaching methods to my students as often as possible.
Finally, I had heard about and experienced a tiny excerpt from a language method called TPRS, demonstrated by the inimitable Jason Fritze, and I was sold. In three hours I was able to speak more Spanish than I had been able to speak after three semesters of college Spanish. So I knew I wanted to learn more about TPRS and learn how to use it in my classes. I felt like it was the key to teaching all kinds of minds.
Here’s what I didn’t know. I had focused on the concept of teaching to all kinds of students and all kinds of minds—that was my starting point for my entire teaching philosophy—but I hadn’t yet realized that all kinds of students and all kinds of minds was more than intellectual. I figured out when I was a kid that “smart” was a term that really didn’t mean much to me; it was used to define kids who learned a certain way that society seemed to value, but I found there were a lot of people I had really deep, meaningful, and useful conversations with who weren’t “smart” and were often considered “stupid” by societal definitions. Even worse, these other students believed these categories they’d been put in and considered me intellectually superior just because I was “smart.” So I was already seeking a betterway to do school long before I even knew I was going to be a teacher.
However, I didn’t yet know that some of these categories were also culturally tied. That has been a major part of my growth over the past sixteen years. When I became a teacher with the things I already knew, I hit the ground running, reading Krashen like he was going out of style and attending a training called All Kinds of Minds that focused on the different ways students can struggle with learning. It wasn’t until a few years later that I read Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty and began thinking about the possibility that some of the behaviors that I considered inappropriate could be socio-economically based and within that socio-economic context not only not inappropriate, but even
positive and supportive.
It has taken even more years to understand that all kinds of minds are more than just intellectual—they are cultural, medical, and socio-economic. Students come from backgrounds that shape how they learn just as much as their mental propensities.
And the amazing thing is, TPRS is still relevant. TPRS, and, more importantly, Comprehensible Input, allow me to teach to all kinds of minds. By focusing on live, comprehensible input instead of memorization and homework, I help both students who have processing difficulties and those who have after-school jobs and obligations. By taking the time to make sure my classes are compelling and full of material that reflects student interests and cultures, I reach students who usually have difficulty making deeper connections between concepts both intellectually and personally. By caring about my students, their lives, their worries, their fandoms, and their passions, I regularly demonstrate to students that no matter whether they look and act exactly like me and love the things I love, or have completely different backgrounds and interests, I am there for them and they are important to me.
This is why for fifteen years Comprehensible Input theory (or some form of it) has been my primary focus. By following the basic tenets of CI—Comprehensible, Compelling, and Caring—I am constantly reaching out to all kinds of students and all kinds of minds.
Check out the Vlog from Craig Klein below!
There’s always a story and this will forever be my favorite student story to tell. I’m certain you have one similar. And that’s what this post is about: the student story. Or, more likely, the students’ stories. Maybe this
tale will serve as a sweet reminder.
The last autumn that I was teaching, Anthony was new to my class. Though the rest of the students on that roster and I had already spent the previous two years together (by design), seemingly, there should have been no new-to-me students in that class, but there he was. Already feeling out of place, when Anthony did participate (rare), he did so in English and not the target language. And what he contributed was full of snark, with a side dose of humor. He was not picking up what I was throwing down, and I wanted to make sure to “have a chat” before it was too late. One day I pulled him aside and simply asked him. Nicely. I asked very nicely. “How are things going for
you?” Thinking I was asking him about class, his reply was simply, “I totally suck at Spanish.” I banked on the kid’s sense of humor when I responded with, “Yeah. Besides the obvious, what else is going on?”
We laughed. A lot, actually.
And from there we made a plan. Nothing formal, but a plan nonetheless.
The “how” we decided to proceed in class is completely secondary - maybe even tertiary - to the “why.” That day, I listened to the less-than-Reader’s Digest version of Anthony’s history with Spanish because he needed to tell me. He needed me to know that he felt that he “sucked” at Spanish, but more importantly, he needed me to see him. As a person. To hear him, and all that comes with that.
So, while you are knee-deep in rubrics and standards and all sorts of other pressures, remember the young humans in your charge. They want to know you as much as you (hopefully) want to know them. This article, Improving Students Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning - common sense more than anything else, outlines how teachers/learning leaders can further help students develop socially, at
a time when they may be challenged with a myriad of other issues.
Language exploration invites/allows/encourages errors. A perfect petri dish for kids who might be programmed in “perfection” being the only way. And the connection with an adults who allows such imperfection: priceless.
All pedagogy aside (mostly because I can’t quote or reference any), language teachers are in the unique position to pay close attention to the humans in their classes. While some might argue that the acquisition of the language is more important, human connection needs to come first, lest there be no want, willingness or wonder to create the unfamiliar sounds and phrases. Human interaction begets language and vice versa.
Seemingly, at least in Anthony’s eyes, those are the lessons that stick with the students most. This post is not new and not news. Just a reminder about the human element of teaching, but especially language leading. Anthony went on to graduate, was accepted into a college and received a sizeable scholarship for his efforts - and he thanked me. No, he still really can’t put too many words of Spanish together well, but that doesn’t stop him from trying, and that is the very best part of this tale. Surely you have an Anthony story. Please share. And if you don’t (yet), you will.