How This Class Has Changed, Reaffirmed and Motivated my Teaching
This class, Methods of Teaching Foreign Language, was my first education class. I took a crash course before I started teaching for my alternative certification, but over the last 5 years I have mostly figured things out at I went along. My teaching path has had its pros and cons, much like the difference perhaps between learning a foreign language in a classroom setting versus informally in a foreign country. I have come to understand second language acquisition better, as well as myself and my teaching, throughout this course. I will discuss some of the specific ways my teaching has changed, the specific methods and materials I have already or will incorporate into the classroom. The overarching message, though, that I have come away with is that my teaching will be more effective if I am always conscious of and striving towards meaningful use of the language. Also, if I let the students have more control over their learning, they will always exceed my expectations and go beyond my basic requirements.
I am an overachiever and a perfectionist, so in the first few weeks of this course I was completely overwhelmed. I felt like everything I had been doing in the classroom up to that point was based on ineffective teaching methods and teaching too much to the textbook and the test. I have since realized I am on the right track or close to it, especially considering I was not an education major, and that, unlike many teachers, I am open to growing and changing. When I learned more of the practical applications of the theories in Lee and VanPatten’s book and the UT website, I saw that I used a lot of the methods already and just need to tweak and innovate my teaching. It was a relief to know I did not need to start from scratch.
One if the first things that struck me was the first chapter of Lee and VanPatten’s book on the Atlas Complex. For a long time, I took on most of the learning responsibility in my classroom. This basically translated to the students only relying on me to have all the right answers. Each year, though, I have leaned more towards handing the learning responsibility over to them and letting them make their own mistakes and successes. I am not afraid to admit to them when I do not know the answer and we look it up together or they figure it out on their own. I do not correct their homework and tests—we discuss it as a class and they grade their own work (this method makes for more opportunities to cheat, but they are still learning from their mistakes and I have noticed that they actually grade themselves more harshly than I would). They do a lot of practice out loud in pairs and they try to figure things out themselves or ask each other for help before they come to me. I think there are still times when I fall into the Atlas role, or the kids put me there, but this class has convinced me to stay away from that role as much as possible. I still believe what I said in my first reflection—that the motivation and sense of responsibility needs to come from within the student to make learning most effective.
The element that was stressed from beginning to end, in class, in our sources, in every topic, was meaningfulness. Whether input or output, listening or speaking, reading or writing, beginning or advanced, it had to be meaningful to be learned. This may seem obvious, but it has had the biggest impact on me and forced me to evaluate my classroom activities more closely. It is embarrassing to admit, but I was not using the target language enough, so now I only teach new vocabulary in the target language. I also try to spend more time on input before moving to output with some of the types of activities in chapter 7 of Lee and VanPatten—binary activities, surveys, etc—instead of expecting them to produce the language right away. I also try to move away from the practice exercises about “Juan y María” and have my students talk more about themselves. The activities with the most meaningfulness in my class are my students’ projects. Every six weeks they have to do a project that usually combines all the skills they learned in each unit: a brochure about the advantages of learning Spanish, a PowerPoint of their likes and dislikes, a family tree and a map of school with their daily activities.
Another element that falls into the meaningfulness category is listening. Before this class, I had never thought about how much is involved in listening. The last project my students did was an oral interview with me, and I was a lot more lenient on grading than I would have been before this class, because it really hit me how many processes are involved in listening to, comprehending and responding comprehensibly to my questions. I was also more lenient because I realize now that meaning is more important that form in the long run and I would rather they make mistakes than be too afraid to say anything. I know now that my students need a lot more input in this area, so I have found some great sources for them to hear more varieties of the language and get more practice. The source I started using as soon as we discussed listening is a website by Dr. Kelm, who did the UT segment on technology, that has native speakers discussing relevant topics (http://www.laits.utexas.edu/spe/index.html).
Finally, the key element of meaningfulness that came up throughout the class was text-based learning. At first, I was stuck on seeing text as only something written. I have changed that mentality and added more authentic listening activities, and will start adding more video activities. As far as written text, text-based learning has really made me aware of how meaningless the text is in my textbook. The dialogues, vocabulary and stories really would not help the students in a real-life situation. So my biggest task is to find more meaningful dialogues and recreate or expand the vocabulary to include more culture-specific terminology and try to find better tools to show them in context. In the second semester, I usually dedicate one day per week to reading this book made for Spanish learners. I am still going to have reading days, but I am going to have my students read more authentic texts. I struggled with the idea of how difficult it would be to find texts that were relevant to the specific unit we were on at the time, but I decided that any authentic reading that is simple enough will touch on something they have or will learn; or, even better, bring up new topics and discussions. Above all, I have learned that whatever materials I use need to be rich enough to interpret and illicit high levels of thinking and discussion. Anything simplified to the point that all meaning, pragmatics and culture have been stripped away is not worth reading.
Grammar has been one of the most frustrating topics in my work and in this class. As Dr. Rings pointed out, grammar starts wars. It is not that I disagree with the things we have read and seen about implicit rather than explicit grammar teaching, particularly in Lee and VanPatten. The problem is that teaching grammar without outright teaching it is difficult within the time constraints of the school setting; it is difficult to go against the grain of typical foreign language teaching standards. I also disagree with Lee and VanPatten’s argument for “learning like a child”. As I said in my blog, adults think and learn differently from children. The main problem in that argument, though, is that we do not stop our language learning in our first language once we know how to speak. You may become fluent through immersion in a foreign country, but just as with your first language, you will eventually have to perfect your academic skills.
Dr. Salaberry’s segment on grammar was more lenient and I would tend more towards his view of grammar instruction. Based on our readings and discussions, I have made some modifications in my classes. We still talk about grammar explicitly (and I still use verb paradigms), but before that we go through simplified examples (as both Lee/VanPatten and Dr. Salaberry suggest) and they come up with their own rules and deductions as a class. I have been debating this a lot and I think that it is possible for my students to succeed on the state exam without explicit grammar instruction and that I could do away with the grammar sections in my textbook. I would not have time to create all new lessons and methodologies, so until I find a resource or textbook that can help me teach grammar a better way, no radical changes will happen. I am thinking a lot more about each grammar point and about how and why I teach it, though, which is already producing an improvement.
One of the areas I realized I excel in teaching is that of culture, as well as that of pragmatics, which I think is closely related to or a subcategory of culture. I love teaching grammar and linguistics for my own nerdy reasons, but culture is one of the things I find most joy in teaching because it offers the opportunity to truly change the students. Language class is an opportunity, more important than anything else, to mold students into more understanding, sensitive and accepting citizens. Linguistically as well as culturally, it makes them evaluate their way of life, by giving them something with which to compare it. From the beginning, I have always taught much more about culture than is required, but I noticed I have started to move away from it a little because our class time got cut by about an hour each week this year. This course has made me see how much culture (both “big C” and “little C”) is embedded in what I teach and how that brings meaning to and needs to be the focus of everything I teach. It has also made me start thinking about how I can teach culture in the target language. Ultimately, my passion for culture has been renewed, because my belief in its value has been validated.
In this self-evaluation of my teaching, I have once again recognized how blessed I am to work at my school. Despite the fact that I work for Dallas ISD and all the things that working for a huge public school district implies, I have the best students possible. I work with all girls, all gifted, and all applied to be there. I work at a school with mostly overachievers; where I can teach them concepts that will not be tested and they will still pay attention and take notes; and where, if I give them a “free day” because most of the class is out on a field trip, they will ask for extra Spanish work to get more practice. I need to keep that in mind and not limit their achievement. They need to always be challenged, and the district requirements are well below the abilities of my students.
However, working with gifted, high achievers makes me curse the man that first suggested “teaching to the test”. I agree, you should be open with your students about your expectations and what you want them to accomplish. Yet, teaching to the test, at least in Texas, has lead to No Child Left Behind, which really means “keep everyone at the same level, as low as that level needs to be for everyone to ‘succeed’; and teachers, your pay will be based on your kids knowing this very specific, though minimal, information; oh, and we are going to test your students so much that there is not any time left in the school year for anything extra you may deem important.” A standard set of minimum requirements might be necessary to keep low performing students and teachers accountable, but it holds back and limits gifted students and teachers. It is probably more likely, though, that these state standards are holding back and underestimating everyone involved.
Overall, this course has made me evaluate my teaching—the good, the bad and the ugly of it—and renew my purpose as a teacher. Just the fact that I am now more aware of what I am doing in the classroom is a huge step in the right direction. Whether the activity involves listening, speaking, reading, writing or culture, the common, indispensible element has to be meaning. This course has forced me to face the question, “Why do I teach?” and begin to answer it. I know I do not teach just so my students pass the test, although it is easy to fall into that rut. The answer to that question, so far, is that I teach: because I love my students and feel like I can make a difference in their lives; because I love languages and want to share that love; and because I want my students to be inspired by the things they do not yet know or understand. Hopefully, that inspiration will lead them to study more about other languages and cultures by choice, and if not, to at least have more insight about different ways of doing and perceiving things and more respect for others.