Ending the Year on a High Note

It’s already May and this year has gone by in a flash. It feels like yesterday was Christmas break, the day before that I was at ACTFL, and last week it was August. But here we are, with less than a month left.

And what a great year it has been! New friends, new connections, new partners in teaching CI…New conferences and opportunities to tell more and more people about CI. CI is growing, just look at blogger/vlogger Sarah Breckley’s CI Teacher Map. It’s amazing how many teachers there are in our community–it feels less like a movement in the profession and more like a tidal wave!

End of the Year Activities

With days off, Field Day, Field Trips, and other end of the year festivities, I only have 7 more Spanish classes with my 4th-7th Graders and only 4 more Spanish classes for my graduating 8th Graders!

I have a habit of fumbling the last few days of class, especially with Middle Schoolers. Because of my schedule, I usually give my “Final Exam” (a project, writing assignment, or speaking assignment) before the rest of their exams. This means that they are “done” with Spanish with a few weeks left. For example, this year, one group of 7th and 8th graders were finished with their final exam projects midway through April (the other group was done during the last week of April). What to do?

Novels to the Rescue (#notsohumblebrag)

I have one trick up my sleeve, a hail Mary pass to the endzone of the year: Novels. As the final few students turned in their final writing assignments (they work on them in class so that they can avoid the temptation of using translators and getting their work returned to them to redo), I showed them Brandon Brown quiere un perro and told them, this is how we’re spending the rest of the year.

They were skeptical. They had the “Ugh, another thing to do…and it’s reading?!? That’s going to be so boring!”

I was skeptical, too. I had no idea how it was going to go, but I did it anyway.

The big change from my first experience using the novels with my 6th graders was that I wanted this novel reading experience to be completely for their enjoyment. No assessments, no summaries, no comprehension quizzes, just reading together as a class. This is partly because I want them to end the year with a positive interaction with Spanish language, but also because we just don’t have the time for the assignments!

The first day of reading, I told the students to sit in their chairs and leave everything on the back tables. No notebooks, no pens or pencils. They were intrigued. I told them they had 1 minute to look at the book, look at pictures, make their silly comments about the pictures, ask any questions about “What’s going on there?” to which I answered, “You’ll find out when we read it!” (much to their consternation).

Then, it was time to read. I told them they could sit anywhere they wanted in the room-some ended up on the floor, some ended up laying down across several chairs, some ended up sitting on the tables in the back, others in my “comfy teacher chairs” (I have a few office chairs that as I replaced them, I never got rid of). Then we started reading. As I did with the 6th graders, I read aloud and they read along. This time, I had gone through the chapters we planned to read and pre-wrote vocabulary on the board that I knew would be helpful. I had my high-frequency verbs plus 2-3 words per chapter for them to reference. I sat at the front of the room and pointed to/tapped on the board to get their attention every time we got to one of those words. I asked comprehension questions (in Spanish) every few paragraphs and after every chapter, we talked (in English) about inferences they made and what they thought might happen next.

They were more engaged than I have ever experienced 8th graders in May! It definitely helped that I have a student whose name is very similar to “Brandon” and he even kinda looks like Brandon! The other thing that helped was that I gave the characters specific voices. They really loved that and I got lots of weird looks that ended up changing into laughs and looks that showed me that they were understanding.

I have read in many different places that literacy research states that students love to be read to, regardless of their age. I was skeptical of this because of the whole “Cool-Factor” (“Ugh, Mr. Fernie, we’re in 8th grade, we’re too cool for this silly story”). But it wasn’t the case. They were into it, or at least they were conscientious enough to see that others were into it and didn’t disrupt the rest of the class.

There are two main reasons for the success. The first, I think, is that it is a change of pace: there is no academic reason for reading it (in their minds), we are just reading for fun and to enjoy the story. They were hooked because of the discussion about pets and responsibility and they weren’t turned off by the idea of using this novel as a “school work.”

The second is that, both in their minds and in reality, reading a novel in another language is a huge accomplishment.* It is major bragging rights for them. They can go to their grammar-based teachers next year and tell them, “I read a novel in Spanish last year; I need something a little more stimulating than the conjugation charts for the -ar verbs, thanks.”

Showing them that World Language could be more than just a required course

An unintended side effect of reading for fun at the end of the year is that (I think) they are leaving with a different idea of what Spanish class (and any language class) can be. We’re not here to learn about language. We’re here to learn how to communicate in another language. With that goal, they can go into any class and know why they are there. They have a different perspective from students in traditionally taught classes.

It is almost certain that they will have traditional, grammar-based teaching when they leave here and go to high school. My dream for them is that they will be able to see past the linguistic minutia of textbook rules and use what they learn in those classes to build on what they have acquired already. They already have so much momentum built, I hope they use it and find opportunities to acquire as much as they can, whether they ask their teachers for extra reading material, they make a new Spanish speaking friend and work at communicating with them in Spanish, or they demand from their teachers that they learn communication skills beyond grammar rules.

These kids are like family to me. I have known them almost their whole lives: I’ve taught most of them since they were Kindergarteners. I want them to have a focus on communication and demand from their future teachers that they learn how to communicate. They are all different places on their path to proficiency, but I want to make sure they know that they can be advocates for their own language education.

I’m reminded of the quote from an 8th grader (now high school senior) the year I started with TPRS:

“I love that we don’t learn anything anymore.”

I love it too, kid.

Now it’s up to you to keep that spirit alive and raise your voice for yourself: Make sure that you keep building your proficiency and never learn a thing again!**

*I remember the first novel I completed in Spanish, embarassingly late in my undergraduate career, San Manuel Bueno, Mártir by Miguel de Unamuno–I had read some or most of several other novels before that, but that was the first one that I actually reached the finish line.

**Until you’re an advanced speaker, then you can learn some grammar, if you really want to, just like kids do in their native language classes.

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