Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hard realities, harsh truths

I strongly considered keeping this journal entry away from public consumption.  It's not going to be nice, it's not going to be pretty.  It's going to be more questions than answers, and it's going to end in an admission that not only do I not know what the answers are, I'm not sure where to find them.  It will probably meander through a forest of clichés, get lost in a swamp of self-pity, and just maybe begin to climb the mountain of self-awareness.  If anyone ever read this, it might actually hurt my career.  I've changed my mind, though, for three reasons.  It's possible that somebody might read this and have an answer.  It might be used as a model of reflection, self-awareness, and problem-solving.  Besides, nobody's reading, anyway.

But we're going to start here: My students don't like my class.  They're also not learning any Spanish.

I've taken a lot of courses this year, and they basically have two primary goals related to school: build a positive community of learners (school-wide positive behavior support and MiBLSi), and increase my capacity to improve my students' learning (everything else).  It's become painfully clear to me that teaching is more about what you do than what you know, something I think that every good professional sort of knows already.  To that end, every week or two, I try to add another element I've learned into my practice, work in a new or improved learning activity, or in some other way do something new to improve my students' learning.  One every week or two is a small percentage of what I've learned, but it's a lot more sustainable than trying to pull something new in every day.  But, sustainable or no, good practice or no, my students aren't learning Spanish.

They may be learning lots of things.  I've started working in higher-order thinking skills.  There's an element of social justice and a focus on cultures and comparisons I've never had before.  All of these things are important components of a world languages class.  I try to model civility, flexibility, stay-on-taskness, all important life skills.  I try to have a sense of humor about the world in my place in it.  But they're not learning to speak or understand Spanish.

I've over-focused both on the differences between a language class and other classes, and on the similarities.  It's a neat trick, I know.  Bear with me.  The big differences between Spanish and, say, social studies go like this:  When you leave social studies, you're supposed to know certain things about history and anthropology and such.  Ideally, you've been taught how to think about social studies, and not simply that the Magna Carta was signed in 1776 by Grant and Lee at Woodstock.  (Or whatever.)  But you probably have to pick up those facts along the way in order to compare civil wars.  (Studies show that in the breadth-of-content vs. depth-of-content debate, depth of content actually increases the breadth of content covered.)  In Spanish class, you have to learn how to compare and make connections to languages and cultures, and use these in your communities.  But if you can't perform some basic functions in the language, then you've missed half the content, and the part that most people think of as Spanish class.  So, I've over-focused on the differences by ignoring useful planning techninques--big-picture questions, learning goals, and things like that, in order to build in language-practice time.  I've also ignored the similarities in the need for vocabulary development techniques, but I have a reason for that--middle- and high-school students should deeply learn about 90 content-related words per class per year.  If I wait that long for students to learn vocabulary, they'll never get anywhere.

In the past couple of years, my PD has focused on classroom management issues, and higher-order-thinking-skills issues.  I've not had a whole lot of world language-specific training since becoming a full-time teacher.  I'm not sure how important it would be to have such training--shouldn't I have a pretty good idea of what a Spanish class ought to look like?  Well, in a few words, probably, but I don't.  I loved learning Spanish, would happily sit and do work sheets based on pedagogical theory from the 17th century, thought that watching movies and slide shows and playing learning games were all pleasant distractions from the serious business of learning.  To find that in fact they're an integral part of the learning process, and that failing to include them is one of the more-commonly cited reasons for dropping out of school, means I have little no personal paradigm for a good world language classroom.  Below,  a list of some of the assumptions I'm working off of, and where I feel I rank on those assumptions.

1.)  I am a teacher.  This means I teach students.  My subject is Spanish, but that's almost incidental.  What my students learn from me may well be something other than Spanish, but they should be learning from me.  Since I am teaching Spanish, they should learn things like communication strategies, how to learn vocabulary, how to study a culture and live in it (in certain instances), things like that.  As I alluded to above, I think I'm pretty good at teaching my students other things--it was once suggested to me that I'm more of a philosophy teacher than a Spanish teacher.    This was simultaneously a great compliment (to me--a great insult to actual philosophy teachers), and a heartbreaking strike against my actual job.

2.)  1st-year Spanish classes should be conducted in Spanish, 80% or more of the time.  After that, they should always be in Spanish.  (I don't remember where I got the 80% number.  If I find it, I'll cite my source later.)  I'm not good at this.  I speak maybe 10 minutes of Spanish in a 60-minute class.  That's like 16%.

3.)  In order to run a class entirely in Spanish, the students need to have a very strong sense of community, and an ability to self-direct their learning.  These things do not happen by accident.  I'm not great at this, either.  I've focused really hard on making this happen on purpose, and it hasn't stuck as well as I'd hoped

4.)  Early-level Spanish classes should focus on speaking communication, with reading and writing as support structures.  I do this fairly well, in that we don't do that many writing activities without a fair amount of speaking to go along with it.

5.)  Higher-order thinking skills and social justice are important elements of a world language class.  I'm getting better at this, but I'm pretty sure I'm sacrificing the communication aspect of class to these goals.

The thing is that I'm not sure what I'm not doing right.

Why this post?  Why now?
On Friday, Kris, our teacher coach, observed my 10th grade Spanish II class.  It wasn't an unmitigated disaster, but I think it's fair to say that it was a disaster with few mitigations.  I talked most of the hour, I did it in English, the board work was a review activity that took 15 minutes, we spent a lot of time going over classroom management issues.  I didn't get on to new learning activities until the last 20 minutes of class or so, and even then it was a listening activity.  The students didn't make it any secret of how bored they were.

This isn't the first time that happened, and every time they tell me this, I try to ramp up the next week's lesson plan.  I'm guessing I just don't understand what my class is supposed to look like, or at least how to make it happen.  This is disappointing.  The last few years, I've started the school year very excited to get started on the work.  The last few years, by the time winter break comes along, I'm demoralized, having performed tremendous amounts of work, seen no real benefit in either learning or classroom management, and with huge amounts of work (which should prove useful, but may well not) to do ahead of me.

So Kris has given me a few pointers, and I'm going to try them out this week.  She started out by suggesting I re-think my board work activity.  So we'll go from there.  Hopefully, we can get me doing what I should have done all along.  I suppose it's better that this happened now than after winter break; now I'll have time to implement a few changes and analyze them.  (This blog post took over 3 hours, over the course of 2 days, to write.  It takes some time.  This one was obviously important, but I can't afford to do it all the time.) 

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