As teachers, we want to control all the things the students are doing. It is in the nature of our profession to create perfect students who do things exactly as we tell them and give us answers that are exactly what we are expecting, but that’s not how kids work. They want to do things their own way and be individuals. If our grip is too tight, if we don’t allow their individuality, creativity, and ingenuity to shine through, we might turn off the students to learning and acquiring languages altogether.
Letting go and letting them
(I heard this phrase somewhere (probably from one of you awesome teachers on langchat) and it stuck with me. I wish I had come up with it but I can’t say that I did. If you know who came up with it, please feel free to let me know.)
Lately, I have found that my students are getting a little tired of the standard storytelling format. (Maybe not so “lately”) They know what’s going to happen, they have a good working knowledge of the high frequency verbs we’ve been circling for years. They are ready for something new, but what?
My plans used to be very specific and structured. They were engineered to the nth degree so that there would be opportunities to complete all the goals I wanted for the class. Every once in a while, though, when kids were particularly squirrely, I would have trouble getting to everything. The idea of not completing everything on my plan scared me. I was not a great improviser. But at the same time, when I allowed myself to be led in a different direction, I almost always was happy with where we ended up. When I followed the students down the rabbit hole of whatever topic they wanted to discuss (always related to what we were talking about originally), I found them to be more motivated and more apt to speak up in the TL.
Then, I had a realization: If students want to talk about something I wasn’t planning on and they are keen to do it in the TL, why should I stop them? Is it something that we can discuss in the target language? Is it something that we can discuss or work on relatively easily? If so, then I say we talk about it. It might not be in the plan, but that’s the essence of “Letting go.” For example, when discussing likes and dislikes, I might not want to discuss current movies, but if that’s where the kids want to take the conversation, should I squash an authentic and interesting conversation topic just because it’s not in my plans? 2 or 3 years ago, I’d say, “yes, we can talk about that on another day when I’ve planned for it;” but nowadays, I’m much more inclined to follow where the conversation leads and guide the discussion rather than force the students to talk about something they don’t want to talk about.
Just because we know what interests us doesn’t mean that students will automatically want to learn those things. We should present these things along with keeping an open dialogue about what the students are interested in. The idea is to let go of control over what the students are doing, to let them guide the conversation by following their interests. It’s more natural as a human.
When I ask them, the one thing the students say that they have the most trouble with is communicating with other people in the TL. So instead of continuing to fight against what they really want by saying things like, “Well, you’re not ready” or “You don’t have the communication skills for that yet,” I have decided to give them the skills they need to accomplish what they want.
As teachers, we know what our students need more than any third party curricular program. We know what our students like and dislike and we know what works for them, even if that means completely different approaches from class to class. We need for the students to buy into what we are teaching; they need intrinsic motivation to continue. This means that sometimes we have to give up what we were planning and let the kids lead the way (in the conversation and always remembering what we’re trying to teach them in the unit, of course!)
For example, I like to use PQA with new vocabulary. Lately in the intermediate grades we’ve been talking about describing ourselves and what we like/dislike. The textbook has some vocab and lots of exercises for the conjugations of the verbs Ser (to be) and Gustar (to like, basically). Instead of using those, I take the vocabulary that the students are interested in and we talk about it. I have added in vocabulary for Favorite, Prefer, and Great/Terrible. These words aren’t in the chapter, but rather they have come up in our conversations.
The logical next step from here is to have the students talk with each other. There can only be so much buy in when the 30 students wait to talk to the teacher one by one. With structured performance activities (more about “performance” activities later on), my novice mid and novice high students can begin to use the language chunks in their heads and parrot them back to their partners. Some can start to play with word order or use more specific vocabulary we’ve talked about before. In other words, they can start to experience something akin to speaking to people outside of class.
By it’s very definition, classroom conversation is not the same as the real thing and has to be contrived and supported by the teacher. In the real world, they won’t have a lifeline, they won’t have lots of scaffolding activities before the real deal, and they may not be talking to someone they know. Our classrooms become a safe space where we can give them the support they need before we let them do it on their own in their own lives.
If we let them struggle and speak in broken, incorrect language, we offer them a glimpse of what it will be like somewhere else. Hopefully we can instill in them skills to fall back on so they can make meaning with another person. Isn’t that the main goal of a language class?
Motivation Through Challenge
I have seen much more motivation with this type of teaching vs what I was doing before, which was: PQA, review new vocab, ask story, act out story, read story, students re-write or illustrate story. At the same time, I have seen a lot more struggling. The students are now much more challenged than they have been and are having to struggle to make meaning. While it pains me to see them confused (and it annoys me everytime they ask me how to say the random and ridiculous things they come up with), I know it’s all for their improvement as language users.
I have also seen students who have fallen far behind because of feeling like they can’t do it. These are the students who struggle with self esteem and who need the motivation of more structured activities. And w can’t leave these kids behind. It’s important to remember that challenging students is important for motivation, but making them feel successful is even more so.
Now, I’m not foolish enough to think that what I’m doing now is the thing to do and I should give up all I’ve done before. Instead, what I’ve learned and what I hope to advise other teachers to do is to mix it up. There is no one thing individual method that will get students to acquire language. There are so many things that they can do and that can help them do different things. Storytelling is a great tool for introducing vocabulary and putting it in context. It’s a great way for students to get lots of comprehensible input, but it’s just the beginning. Students need to do more things and they need to start moving out of the rut of listening if they are going to do anything with language.
At least that’s what I’m seeing now.
If you look back at previous posts, you’ll probably see some examples of where I say, “Now I’ve got it all figured out.” And that’s just plain not true. I might think it’s all figured out, but I don’t. I’ve only found something that has worked for a little while. And after a little while, I’ll be looking for some other kind of activity to engage the students.
And that’s where letting go and letting them comes back into the discussion. By loosening my grip on the curriculum, I can still hit all the required standards while keeping students motivated. I can still have students do activities that allow them to hit all modes of communication.
At home with my own children, I try to teach them or tell them how to do things “the right way,” but they don’t always follow my advice. They want to do things their way, so I let them try it (nothing unsafe, of course). They need to experiment and find the right way to do things. Sometimes they come up with the way I’d do it, sometimes they struggle and get frustrated, and sometimes they do it in a way that I’d never think to do it that is better.
It’s the same with students at school—I can give them anecdotes, for example, about how not practicing effective study skills came back to bite me in college, but sometimes, they’re not going to listen. They are teenagers. People say teenagers think they know everything and that sentiment is completely true. We need (as many much smarter and more important people have stated) to let them fail…sometimes miserably. If we cushion them from the discomfort of being unsuccessful, then they won’t learn how to deal with those same feelings in the real world.