Sunday, October 21, 2012

Changing everything

I think I’m a pretty good teacher.  Most of my students like my class.  Most of the ones who don’t, don’t for all the right reasons.  “He speaks Spanish too much,” “he does something EVERY DAY,” that kind of thing.  Barring extenuating circumstances, all of my students leave my class a little better at Spanish than they came into it, and on my best days, they leave a little better at life, too.  So when students come back to me after a long break, or even a long weekend, and say, “I don’t remember anything,” I just sigh.  For a while, part of my solution to that was more homework.  Now, of course, what I hear is, “I don’t remember anything.  And I didn’t do my homework.”  So I’m always looking for better ways to make thinkgs stick. 

To that end, I went to a training on Friday for a world-language teaching methodology called Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS).  It blew my mind.  For non-language teachers reading this, hold on for a little while--there’s a little bit of education theory at the beginning, but this isn’t really an article about pedagogy.  It is about change and professionalism and being scared.  It’s also a little bit about faith and whatever the opposite of faith is--doing the impossible because you’ve been shown how and why it works.

I have a pretty straight-up communicative language acquisition methodology.  That means that I think the underpinning of good language instruction is comprehensible input: you have to give learners examples of the new language that they can understand.  You then repeat this process ad infinitum.  Whatever level your students have, you speak to them just a little bit beyond that level.  My rules for providing comprehensible input are these: 

1.)  Give students examples of key vocabulary in lots of different contexts: visual, audio, read, written, spoken, heard.  That will give them a variety of hooks for their learning to latch on to. 

2.)  Value comprehension above production.  Babies get to listen to a language for 3 years before anyone expects them to do much more than grunt.  We educators don’t have that long, but we can still be mindful of the way the brain learns. 

3.)  When you do ask for production, making oneself understood is more important than grammatical correctness.  Verb conjugation charts and grammar lessons and noun-adjective agreement and subject-verb agreememt are important aspects of the language, because they make communication easier and better.  But in terms of speaking, they’re less important than getting the main idea across.

4.) Above all, translate as little as possible.  As little as possible, for me, turns out to be like one word in forty.  Draw a picture, act it out, dance, show a video or a cartoon clip or a song, anything you have to do to get students to understand WITHOUT telling them the English meaning.  The brain creating meaning is what language learning is, so the key to language learning (so my thinking goes) is to have the brain creating that meaning for itself. 

TPRS starts with the same base assumption: language learning only occurs when the brain creates meaning out of new language.  It then flips it on its head.  It translates absolutely everything.  You don’t introduce a new word without telling a student what it means.  The theory is that having to create new meaning is more work than the brain needs to do, and it gets in the way of REAL language learning, which is processing the meaning over and over and over until it becomes natural.  Instead of becoming a crutch, the translations become a spring board for creating meaning, which happens by processing a small amount of language (say, one sentence) in a lot of different ways, over and over until it is automatic.  Blaine Ray, the presenter at yesterday’s conference and the first developer (I think) of this method, likens it to practicing the piano rather than learning grammar, or even learning vocabulary.


The differences between what I think works and what I saw on Friday are subtle, but profound.  Apart from the differences of view on translating, there’s an issue of vocabulary.  I try to cover a vocabulary set--people in school, buildings in town, the doctor’s office, for a total of 10 to 20 words--with accompanying practice activities every 2 or 3 days.  In a school year that averages out to about 3 words a day (not including verb conjugations), for a total of some 500 words the students know well, plus some 1000-2000 extras that they’re expected to understand but not be able to produce.  (Those numbers are arbitrary and based on personal experience, not research.)  TPRS promises that at the end of Spanish 1, you will know 150 words.  The good news is that they’re the most commonly occuring 150 words in Spanish, and you will know them like crazy.  There are other important differences, like the role of students in the class and what it means to be proficient at a language, but I need more time and experience to process those.

Here’s the upshot:  TPRS is EXACTLY in line with my learning goals.  It gets the job done.  Students understand Spanish, they speak Spanish well.  After two 30-minute practice sessions, Blaine had a room full of new learners reading a 1-page story in German.  By the end of Spanish II, his students were taking the AP test and having success on it.  It’s creating language learners.  However, it cuts directly across the grain of my thoughts on how to get it done.  The question then is this: Am I a good enough teacher to do what is demonstrably best for my students?

The question of course answers itself.  But it is MUCH scarier than I would have guessed.  I consider myself a professional.  I learn new teaching techniques all the time. I pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t and change my instruction accordingly.  I try really really hard to synthesize seemingly contradictory best-practice theoretical requerements.  But this--this is a whole other kettle of fish.  Adopting a straight TPRS curriculum will mean all of the following things.

1.)  My curriculum work over the last seven years will be essentially meaningless.  The TPRS curriculum is based on acquiring the vocabulary most useful in most situations, and not at all about mastering communicative tasks.  My learning goals and practice activities, my carefully constructed classroom management system designed to encourage respectful student interaction in Spanish, all of my work to adapt Marzano’s framework to a language class, all out the window.  And just when I was starting to get it to work well.

2.) The state standards--a list of some 70 things that a student is expected to do by the end of Spanish II--are essentially meaningless.  The standards which I thought were central to learning--the interactive-mode standards--are actually the least important.  All of the culture is going to change, too, and I have no idea how.

3.)  I’ll have to start TRANSLATING.  I cannot emphasize enough how big a change in thinking this is.  I imagine this is how hard-core Catholics felt after Vatican II.  That is not in any way hyperbolic.  I’ll have to accept that what I’ve always thought was best, isn’t.  For the benefit of my current and future students, I’ll have to accept that I did less good and maybe even some harm to my past students.

4.) There is so much uncertainty.  The uncertainty is not in the numbers, nor in my personal experience, but in dedicating myself to a whole new way of doing my job.  Waking up tomorrow morning will not mean the same thing that it did on Tuesday.

All of this change and personal discomfort, and for what?  Is what I’m doing so damaging that I can’t keep doing it?  Some of my students are very good, and they’re not always the best students.  So, back to the question: Am I enough of a professional, enough of a teacher, to change everything, up to and including the questions I ask myself about my day’s progress? 

The question answers itself, really.  I’m going to try to look at a different way.  I now have a methodology that I hae seen work, with enough step-by-step elements to it that I can do it consistently, and enough flexibility that I will still have room to react to my students’ needs.  That sounds like a good day's work to me.


Audrey B said...

This summer after our work with Annette I felt a little the same way (but my methods weren't nearly as well-thought out as yours! :) I was read to start my third year and finally felt like I knew this stuff, and now I have to change assessments and therefore what and how I teach. No, I wasn't doing any harm to my students, like you said, but I could do better. So it's been work again, but I find myself having one of my best years yet. I encourage to jump off that ledge (metaphorically) and continue to teach that "crap"! :D

JohnCosby said...

Thanks for the reminder, Audrey. I had a different take on the work we did with Annette: I felt like someone who was lost and just found a familiar landmark. There was still a ton of work to do to get home, but at least I had a clue how to do it. (I was not terrible at teaching English, but I wasn't very good, either.) I'm glad it's working for you! We worked really hard on those assessments and the unit plans and whatnot, so it's good to hear that it's making a difference.