Saturday, September 27, 2008

What drives what we teach?

"Why, Señor Cosby, the curriculum, of course," cry a thousand aggrieved administrators and education specialists. The curriculum is a document (or probably several documents) which outlines the learning objectives of a particular course, and it does this in various levels of specificity. Importantly, it leaves specific implementation unaddressed, so teachers can implement a lesson plan that best addresses their students' needs and fits their own teaching style. It addresses the goals of the class, what the students expect to be able to do at the end of the class.

Where it all falls down is the "specific implementation" portion of that. Most teachers and classes have a textbook of some kind. We're smart enough and we've been trained well enough that we now know that textbook /= curriculum. Even so, I (and I'd guess a lot of other teachers) still turn to my textbook first when I have no idea what I should do the next day. I have my curriculum document, a list of the 65 learning goals per her class, which I tweak, realign, and try to implement more fully during the summer. I create unit plans, with learning goals and assessments and teaching strategies. I make weekly lesson plans during the week. And through all this process, I use the textbook as a place where I can steal materials from and then rip them apart and re-assemble them in a way that actually works. But when the chips are down, and my three-tiered planning system fails to take something into account (and yes, like all teachers, I make my plans knowing that they won't work), and everything falls apart (I plan on this happening most weeks about halfway through Wednesday of any given week), I grab my textbook and pick bookwork activities out. There are any number of problems with this.

Grammar-based fill-in-the-blank activities have been shown to be not a very good way of teaching Spanish at all. Vocabulary-based drills--a sentence in Spanish with a key word missing--are better than grammar-based drills, because they provide input and modeling as well as making a student utilize newly acquired vocabulary. The vocab sentences are like Spanish crosswords, only they look like what we think homework should look like. However, it takes no analytical ability at all to see that, in my particular textbook, two pages of grammar instruction and mechanical practice exist for every one page of vocabulary practice. And that's not even counting the supplemental materials, where the ratio is closer to 3:1. In deference to the "communicative methodology" craze sweeping the nation, my textbook has taken all the practice activities that used to be plug-and-chug writing activities and turned them into speaking activities. Same basic formulation, different communication skills. Still not so good. So the first failing of my textbook is that it dedicates too much space to pedagogically flawed activities.

The way the students interact with the textbook also leaves a great deal to be desired. It's as if the textbook is the embodiment of school work. We now have a lot of format options for activities of all kinds--we can make activities on Moodle, or turn them into whiteboard activities or overhead transparency activities or board games, all with relative ease--and while the students still know that they're doing work, it seems to feel less onerous. But pull out the textbook, especially first thing, and the students know that they're in for a day of what my high school Spanish teacher referred to as gruntwork. [Interesting mini-study idea: Take a textbook project. Give it to the students in 3 or 4 different formats, including straight out of the text. Compare completion ratios and success rates. Control for instructional strategy and classroom management issues.]

But because I'm a big-idea type of guy, I have a more fundamental reason for distrusting my textbook, and that's that textbook companies are sort of the devil. In his article "The Muddle Machine," Ansari (2004) takes down the textbook industries in a number of areas, including the way pedagogical philosophy is artificially tacked on as a marketing ploy, the manner in which materials are recycled from other textbooks, and the way textbooks are designed to sell lots and lots of copies and Texas and California, which leads to an almost-uselessly homogenized blend of content. The way that textbook companies operate guarantees that any particular textbook is not going to be as useful as it should or could be, because there's no overhead in a book serving any particular interest. I understand that textbook companies have to make money (and there's a LOT of money in this publishing model). I get it. But I also have to be aware that the textbook companies are motivated by something other than my students' learning.

But for all of this philosophical and practical objection to my textbook, it's still my go-to source for gotta-have-it-now classroom content. My units for my high school Spanish I and II classes are more or less tightly tied to the units outlined in my text. I use the vocabulary lists from the text as my core vocabulary lists, and add or subtract vocabulary as necessary. I present grammar content in the order it comes up in the book, plus or minus a couple of days. (I think it's crazy, f'rinstance, to teach a student to describe where they're going before teaching them how to say where they are.) If the curriculum is the bedrock of the instruction, then my text is the foundation of the house. If the curriculum is the map to the finish line, the textbook is the schematic for the car that will take us there. And as much as I struggle against this professionally repugnant and pedagogically flawed state of affairs, turning to the text comes so naturally.

I wonder what would happen if, for a week, for a unit, for a year, I refuse to use the textbook at all....

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Procedures and structure in the World Languages classroom

Everything I've read ever suggests that the single most important element of classroom management is to establish and teach procedures consistently and well. (Wong & Wong 2005, Marzano 2007, Flannery 2008, and an e-mail I just got from the State Education Association illustrate the point, but I'm pretty sure that that's far from exhaustive.) It's an aspect of teaching that I've had to get a lot better at in my classroom, since I'm not inclined by nature to be procedures-driven.

At the same time, communicative language theory suggests that you start speaking the target language immediately and more or less constantly (Lee & Van Patten 1995, to name one). The act of a student understanding a language they're learning is referred to in the literature as "comprhensible input," and its importance in the language classroom cannot be exaggerated. The mor of it, the better. This is an aspect of my job that DOES come naturally. I love speaking Spanish, and to be perfectly frank, I like the sound of my own voice.

However, I've always had a problem with these two key elements of my job, because they seem to come into direct conflict with each other. I base a lot of early-stage language education on playing off of prior knowledge--my students know that they're students, they know I'm a teacher, and they know they're in school. In the younger grades, that's 4 sessions worth of lesson plans, after you get done adding songs, pictures, TPR activities, and the like. Even for the 1st-year high school students, that and peripherals make for a good chunk of vocabulary acquisition. But procedures require great precision and absolute clarity. In order for a procedure to be effective, a student has to know when, where, how, and WHY. Beginning-of-class procedure doesn't work for coming back from a fire drill. In the same vein, if you're making up procedures as you go along, students are (rightly) going to think you're asking to jump through hoops; besides, the next day, I never remember which procedures I said were in effect. This is the antithesis of a procedure, it's the whim of a dictator.

So, marrying these two practices suggests that from day 1 a language teacher should teach procedures in the target language. But the chance for miscommunication in such occasions is great, and the consequences include misunderstood, misapplied, or ignored procedures. This as good as plunges a classroom into chaos. (At least, it did mine.) Another potential solution is to teach mostly procedures in English with some Spanish content instruction. This feels like a splitting-the-baby solution, one that satisfies neither the need for good procedures nor communicative theory. It's failed to work for a long time, though, so it's what I went with this year. We're two weeks into the school year, and my high school students seem to be pretty okay on the procedures, as well as on the smattering of Spanish we've covered so far. (I'm thinking about my Spanish I students here.) Not an ideal solution, but an okay stop-gap measure so far. One could, I suppose, simply ignore one beginning-of-the-year obligation or the other, but that sounds like the makings of a hard year.

A related subject to this is the level of structure during instructional time. I have boardwork at the beginning of class and I try to have an assessment on the lesson at the end of the class, but what happens in between varies wildly--instruction? practice? speaking activity? listening activity? vocab?. I imagine it's the same with other teachers, that it isn't simply my disorganization biting me in the tail yet again. Ideally, in order to maximize comprehensible input in Spanish, my students should know what to expect every minute of the day before the tardy bell rings. My plans are thorough, but they're not prescient. So balancing structure and comprehensible input again seem to come into conflict. It's an issue that I've noticed, but I haven't thought a lot about it yet.

I don't think that I've read anything that addresses this apparent contradiction. I'd hoped to acquire a copy of the ACTFL's Keys to the Classroom, a book designed for new World Language teachers, to see if the pros had any suggestions. So far, no dice. If anyone in the real world has seen anything like this, or otherwise has suggestions, I'd appreciate hearing them.

Works cited:

Lee, J., and VanPatten, B. (1995.) Making communicative language teaching happen. McGraw-Hill.

Wong, H., and Wong, R. (2005.) The first days of school. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications.

Flanery, M. E. (2008.) "When the ship sails adrift." NEAToday, 27 (1), 30-31.

Update: I just looked at the program for the State World Languages Association conference coming up one month, and there appears to be a session that strives to resolve the very conflicts I mention above. More about on this after the conference (assuming I can go).