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