Saturday, June 14, 2014

Reflections SY 2013-14

This has been a year of tremendous activity, and lots of the areas where I've been spending most of my time have nothing to do with teaching or learning.

First, to get it out of my head and onto someplace I'll be able to find it again, my colleague Beth asked me a few days ago what I know about layered curriculum.  She asked me because she wanted to look into it, and I have strong opinions about almost every new buzzword that comes up.  I don't know anything about layered curriculum.  The way Beth described it makes it sound very much like what I think standards-based curriculum is: you have a learning goal.  You identify some core of knowledge (vocabulary, usually) that you have to have in order for any higher learning to occur.  You identify the learning target, which is some higer thinking about the standard.  Then you identify the next step, the bigger objective, something that uses the knowledge in a new way.  Again, I'm filtering her description of layered curriculum through my prior knowledge, so it may be that I don't understand any of it.  I might look into it for next year, though.

This was my first year of all TPRS, all the time, with no other considerations.  I can attest to its power.  All of my students--ALL of my students--are doing much better on much harder assignments than they had before.  All except a few are comfortable answering 10 questions about any reading assignment I care to give them, within reason and with proper scaffolding.  The main keys I'm taking away from it are not so different than other sorts of curriculum design: know what's essential, know where your students are in the process, know what their next step is.  The main difference is in the primary method of instruction and the degree of expertise.  Once you've stripped down absolutely everything non-essential, you only have a few things that you have to know, and you need to know those to the point of automaticity.  Because what you're learning is not a set of facts or a process for
organizing information, but a whole new language, you need 75-80 comprehensible exposures to a new word in order to internalize it.  (I suspect that this has ramifications for content instruction, too.)  The hard part for an instructor is to make this not just interesting, so students don't disengage, but compelling, so they actually want to know what happens next, badly enough that they'll work through the ambiguities of the language.

 Working on that principle, it is much easier to stay in the target language for big swaths of class time than it used to be, and it's much clearer when to move on and when to back up.  Once I knew what I wanted the students to learn, I could use the materials that Blaine Ray's excellent on-line

I learned a lot of the limitations of the method, too, at least as I currently practice it.  There are a number of them, and I might go into some detail about them presently.  But it basically all boils down to 1.) a lack of preparation and 2.) a tendency to fall back on old ideas, although not in the way I expected.  As far as preparation, I'm definitely going to spend some time this summer mapping out exactly which vocabulary words and structures I want to teach, and in what order.  I envision a calendar, each with one phrase on it, and that will be the phrase we focus on that day.  Somewhere in my literature I remember seeing something that suggests 3 structures per 2 days is a good, ambitious, but attainable target.  I think I'll stick to 1 per day, though, at least at first.  This preparation is important for two reasons.  First, I found myself re-hashing sturctures my students had long since mastered, and not adding anything new.  I wasn't hurting anyone, we were still spending class time speaking Spanish, so it was still better than working on handouts.  But we weren't moving forward as efficiently as other sources suggest we should have been able to.  Second, I also found myself trying to circle every new structure in Blaine Ray's "New Mini-Stories for TPRS" and "Pobre Ana."  This meant that I wasn't circling any one structure enough times.  Knowing what I'm going to focus on that day will help me get in the repetitions that I need.  It also suggests a host of supplemental activities that I can have the students do to work more with a given structure; more about that once I've figured it out better. 

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