We’re Not Here to Learn Facts…And an announcement about ACTFL 2018

2 weeks in, but really only 1 week in

We’re two and a half weeks into the year, which means that most of my classes have completed a week’s worth of work (I only see the kids 2 times a week). It’s been a very positive first few weeks of school and I’m looking forward to a great year!

As I was preparing for school over the summer this year, I felt a new sense of purpose. I am working without desks now, which opens up the room and will continue to allow students to open themselves to taking risks and using Spanish in class to the best of their abilities.

I want their experience in my room to be positive and I want them to feel safe to say whatever their interlanguage will allow them to. I want them to explore in the language, I want them to express themselves in their most confident way.

Of course, going from a traditional classroom with desks to one without desks and with chairs set up in a horseshoe shape (the kids have started calling it the “squircle” – and I kinda love it!) has necessitated a revamp of the classroom procedures and norms. The procedures are easy enough to teach (put your bags along the back wall, keep your notebooks/binders under your chair), but the norms are a little bit harder.  I have said to them every year that Spanish isn’t like their other classes…but when they used to arrive in the classroom, it looked like every other room and felt like every other room. Fortunately, they can now SEE that Spanish is different.

But seeing it wasn’t enough.

And my constant speechifying about how class is different and they need to be paying attention the whole time just wasn’t enough to get the message across.

Then it hit me. I had a realization (something that happens to me so often I started writing a blog :)):

The Main Goal of Spanish class isn’t to Learn Facts.

It’s a simple idea, but it is powerful. I spoke with them about their other classes, how if they fall asleep in History, they can still read the book later on and learn the facts; how if they aren’t paying attention in science, they can read the book later on and learn what they missed; how if they miss math, they can look at the book later and learn the process to solve the equations.

Then I asked them who played instruments or sports. Almost all of the hands went up. I asked them, “Are you learning facts about the piano (what kinds of tonewoods the piano is made of, the construction of the strings, or the glue used to put the pieces together the whole piano) when you are in piano lessons? Are you learning facts about baseball (the weight of the ball, the exact distances between bases, etc) during practice?”

Of course, the answer is no. During lessons or practice, they are working on the skills they need to do a better job at the game or instrument.

And that is what my class is like. When I tell a story about a cat who doesn’t have an iPhone (one of the stories from the beginning chapters of Blaine Ray’s “Look, I Can Talk”), I don’t really care if they leave knowing that cats want iPhones. I want them to leave having practiced the skills of listening and interacting in Spanish. We can talk about literally anything and if they are following the norms of class (active listening, watching, participating/interacting in as much Spanish as possible), they will build their skill.

The goal of my class isn’t to learn a bunch of facts; rather, it is to build their skill, their proficiency.

(EDIT, 4/2019: The skills they are building in my class are not the same as the skills they use in traditional classes. Traditional language methods (grammar drill and kill activities) are sometimes referred to as “Skill-building” methods. These are not the skills I’m talking about. The skills they are building are those that come with acquisition of the language – listening comprehension and proper and culturally appropriate interaction in the TL.)

The Future: Building AND Learning

I am very excited to say that, after all this talk about not learning, this year’s big experiment will be putting the proficiency building and fact learning together for my middle school students. My students will start learning things this  year! But not in the way you might think. I will be using Martina Bex and Maris Hawkins’s Mundo en Tus Manos series of news stories from around the Spanish Speaking World. Middle school students will build their language skills while also learning about real news from around the world (rather than cats and iPhones-not that there’s anything wrong with that, they are just ready for the next step in engagement and interest). More on that to come!

ACTFL, Here I Come!

I had this basic realization a long time ago, I even gave a presentation about it at SCOLT in 2017.

I am proud and excited and overwhelmed and honored to say that I am giving a presentation on the same topic at ACTFL this year in New Orleans and this phrasing will definitely fit prominently into it. “Not learning” has become the basis of my entire teaching philosophy. I am here to help students build skills rather than memorize facts or vocabulary.


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