It is no easy thing to be a language teacher in transition. If you started your career teaching language in a traditional way (grammar focused, textbook led, communication light to non-existent), you will always be transitioning. Old habits die HARD. The longer I teach and the more I learn about how to teach language properly, the more layers of ineffective practice I have to keep peeling back and off. If I shed any more I might be going to work naked!
Well, not really.
All school years present their challenges, and looking back on this year I can say with confidence I know the reasons I was having such a hard time, and even better than that, what I can do about it in the future. The answer to both of those mysteries is this: MORE INPUT.
I will tell you that I had to learn this lessons in such a strange way. It was hard, and yet easy, too. This time the learning for me was a like a battle because I struggled the most with identifying the problem my students were having. We would have such a hard time on any day that the lesson was based upon input. I would work my tail off giving input, and they would just stare at me like a freak hybrid animal in the restricted part of the zoo. There were even days that I would get mad at them for just being so passive and non-responsive. I couldn't figure out why they would behave that way if they had come from level 1 classes in the same district and from classes using the same curriculum. It hit me like a ton of bricks while I was driving one day (driving and showering seem to be inspirational activities for me). My a-ha moment was realizing their teachers had all been new: new to teaching, new to the program, new to the school, new to EVERYTHING. For no fault of their own, those teachers not only didn't know how to teach in the target language, they didn't know how to teach students to learn in the target language. That training in level 1 classes is equally important to the content presented to them. I thought once I had the problem figured out things would get easier, but that hasn't proven true. You see, what has happened now is many of the students who came from those newbie teachers' classes don't believe that target language teaching works. They don't see how input and their responses to input grow their own language skill. They don't know what to do to make sense of text input. So, what do they do? Resist or shut down. I even have one particular student who argues with me about instructional strategies. Needless to say we are all just trying to survive the year. I do confess that being human, I war with myself between being mad at them and wanting to throw in the towel versus remembering that they cannot help what their learning experience was last year. My biggest mistake was assuming that they were taught the way I would have taught them if they had been my students.
Today, I am grading their most recent writing assessments and making notes of the general, across the board feedback I need to give my students. Even now I find myself battling feelings of frustration as I read paper after paper in which the student writer cannot tell the difference (after 2 years of instruction) between present and past or worse, first person and second person verb conjugations. In my head I know they would have better control of this had circumstances been different, and had I figured all of this out earlier in the year, but the traditionalist teacher in me is banging her figurative head against a brick wall right now.
The good news is this: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Yes, I have had a break through. I am almost nervous to even write it out because I am quite embarrassed to be this far along my journey only to have the epiphany I have just had. PLEASE DON'T JUDGE ME for this. Just before I picked up my computer to log into my blog account to blog this very post, I was grading a student paper that flipped the switch for me. At that moment, looking at the first person verbs he was using to talk about a second person subject I realized that the majority of my students just haven't had enough input. I also realized that the input they have received wasn't as effective as it could have been because they weren't trained what do do with it. Add to that, something that seems to be completely unrelated to this story, but that has served as the glue that stuck all of this together for me: El Internado.
I know what you are thinking. You are probably wondering where the heck this post is going, but let me explain a little.
About a month ago I came down with the flu. It was a Friday night, and I was running a low grade fever, but not feeling puny enough to pass out, so I turned on Netflix and decided to give the Spanish telenovela, El Internado, a look. Six seasons and seven episodes in one month later, I know that my Spanish is improving and my speaking confidence is sky high, but not because I have been speaking Spanish to practice. It is all because I have been watching El Internado in Spanish with Spanish subtitles to help me with the more challenging parts. One of the benefits of watching this dang show is that I know a bunch of new words, but better than that I can confidently speak using the imperfect subjunctive for probably the first time in my entire Spanish-speaking life. No really. That's no exaggeration. I know exactly when to use it, and the only thing I have to think about is conjugating the imperfect subjunctive verb correctly. Other than that, I HAVE GOT IT, and I have got it because of input.
Here's what I now KNOW and OWN:
The way my students and their struggles plus my El Internado input tie together is this...
1. Input teaches language learners what language chunks MEAN in a way that...
2. The learner understands and starts to feel confident enough to use those language chunks herself, but...
3. The learner needs a little guidance on how the variable part of that chunk should be formed...
4. But only enough to say what she wants to say. So, more input is needed to...
5. Provide her examples of other verbs in that language chunk, and then...
6. She needs opportunities to practice or process that language chunk herself, and then...
7. When the teacher sees confusion arise due to miscommunication, more input is needed to...
8. Demonstrate the difference in the messages the language chunks are sending.
I also now better understand that a language learner's ability to process input and grab onto new language chunks is expedited by how well they were trained to process input in those early days of L2 learning.
My students don't know the difference between first, second and third person because they haven't seen enough meaningful input on those things. They also are having a hard time with present versus past for the same reason. They are having these problems because they came from teachers who didn't know to do it, and they have a teacher now who didn't know they didn't know, and neither did they.
The hard part now is that I only have 33 more days with them, and really that translates to about 25 teaching days due to state and AP testing, assessment days and semester exam review days they all expect. I have to really think about how to use input in a way that really benefit them, but that they won't resist. THAT is especially hard since curriculum-wise we are at a point in the year in which they are suppose to be able to read text that includes present and the past tenses. I don't think coasting is in the cards for me this spring.
At least now I know what I know.
Happy Coaching and Happy End of the Year Countdown!
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