Saturday, October 4, 2008


As Euler walked through Konigsburg, tracking in his head the number of times he stood on each island and each shore of the river Pregel, trying to make sure he only crossed the bridges once on any given trip, and in the process inventing graph theory, it's fair to wonder if he noticed the flowers blooming, or the play of water on rocks in the river flowing beneath the bridge.

This is the third year I've been working in my current position. After three years, I thought, I should notice significant start-of-year prior knowledge in Spanish from my high school freshmen--after all, I've had them as middle schoolers for two years before this, and most of them have had other Spanish teachers before me. I was a little disappointed this year--I know my middle school curriculum and instructional strategy are not as strong as they should be, but the pre-tests were pretty disappointing. It seemed like I was only teaching the students who were good at or interested in learning languages.

But on Thursday, we had a video watching / listening activity, not always my students' favorite thing. But they did an excellent job of listening actively, trying to understand using context clues and prior knowledge and all the listening strategies I'd taught them up to that point. After we were done, one of the students, a very intelligent student whose favorite class is not Spanish, said to me, "I've never understood before what people meant when they said, 'I can UNDERSTAND a language, but not speak it.' It just didn't make any sense to me. But after this activity, I do. I understood almost everything in the video, but couldn't repeat anything more than a couple of phrases of it."

I don't know if I properly expressed to this how overjoyed I was to hear this. I know that I tried, but there was a lot I didn't tell her. I wanted to tell her about the silent period of language acquisition, comprehensible input, and all sorts of great theory that comes into play when someone learns a second language. I wanted to tell her that she's doing something right, and that maybe that means that I'm doing something right.

I think all I managed, though, was, "YES! ¡Excelente!" And, really, in the face of the level of metacognition this student demonstrated, in the face of that much learning, in the face of so much happening exactly right, this was a sadly inadequate response. But I hope she knows that it was a huge step forward for her, and a great breath of fresh air for me as her teacher.

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