Teaching Reflections

What I’m Learning in Grad School: Is this really communicative?

My grad school  reading this week is a chapter from the book Making Communcatice Language Teaching Happen (Lee & VanPatten, 2003). I’ve read about 15 pages of it and can already tell I’m really going to enjoy it – I was reading over my coffee before school this week. 🙂 My assigned chapter included a unit plan template: present vocabulary with comprehensible input, do a listening input activity, do a reading input activity, then do output activities. This clicked with me – basic as it is, it’s a fleshed out version of the “input before output” mantra that I think will be helpful for me to keep in mind.

A big challenge for me this year is curriculum. My teaching philosophy is “teach for proficiency with comprehensible input and authentic resources” but my curriculum is decidedly grammar-driven.  This quote from chapter 4 is ringing true with me:

The point, then, is that topicalized or contextualized grammar is not equivalent to a communicative or proficiency orientation. True communicative- and proficiency-oriented instruction cannot be grammar driven. Moreover, in many cases a communicative goal cannot be equated with (or reduced to) a particular grammatical item. In those textbooks  in which communicative goals are apparently equated with grammar, the linguistic tools provided might not be what is needed to realize the stated communicative goals. What is evident from the preceding examples on daily routines is that the stated communicative goal is actually window dressing for a pre-determined grammatical point; communication is at the service of grammar rather than the other way around. 

“Window dressing for a pre-determined grammatical point.” BAM. That is how I feel about my Spanish 2 curriculum and our current march through the preterite. It’s rough. Anyway, my curriculum and final exam are what they are, and can’t be changed for the time being. As I teach this year, my goal is to inject some life into these textbook units with a few communicative goals, comprehensible input, and authentic resources and share share share with my colleagues – an add-on approach, like for healthy eating…add on the good stuff first, then work on cutting out the bad stuff later.

So, in the spirit of sharing “the good stuff,” here are a few things that have been working for me lately:

I’ve been working on doing “comprehensible input” class discussions. These work great for introducing and practicing vocabulary. I throw up some pictures on the board, start making some statements, and ask about 8,000 questions. I have students raise their hands to answer questions, and track participation with Class Dojo. Sometimes I get a student to help me with assigning points, but I’ve found that I can keep up with it if I use the “award multiple” button. Every week or two, I assign a participation grade based on part on Class Dojo points. I have it weighted quite low – a tenth of a regular daily grade – but the fact that my students know they are being tracked has done wonders for our discussions.

In Spanish 2, I’ve just started Realidades 2 chapter 3A – places around town, errands, irregular preterite, and direct object pronouns. I checked the teacher’s guide for the chapter as I was planning, and it had some great suggestions for how to present the vocab with input! I followed the suggestions and started with the place vocab. I gave students clip art copies of the pictures to cut out, and projected some pictures on the board. On Day 1, we talked about (and by talked about I mean made a few statements and then asked 8,000 questions) what time each placed opened and closed. We would pause and I would call out a place and they would hold it up (you could also do this by calling out the activity you do at each place – Cobré un cheque, compré champú, vi al médico).  After that, we pasted the pictures in our interactive notebook and copied relevant phrases next to each picture. On the second day, I projected the places on the board and stuck a little stick figure guy up with a magnet. I asked, ¿Dónde está Paquito? ¿Por qué está en el banco? and so on. In my 4th period I asked a student to time how long we good go without speaking English (gracias Melanie!) it turned AWESOME all of a sudden when I asked ¿A quién envía su carta?  And of course it was for his girlfriend, and a student commented bonita, and I said no no, she’s ugly, but smart and funny and RICH! And so we added her to the story, in the consultorio of course, getting her teeth fixed! And when Paquito needed money, did he go to the bank? No! He went to the consultorio and asked his girlfriend! As soon as our discussion turned into a story, engagement shot through the roof. #success

In addition to vocab practice, I’ve used this format – CI chats with participation points in ClassDojo – for weekend chats (preterite in CONTEXT!) and most recently to give opinions on our weekly songs. I gave students a copy of the first side of this “Eres el juez” activity from Sharon Birch. We went over what the phrases meant, then listened to clips of several different songs. I can’t tell you how much fun this was – my students were excited to tell me their opinion and hands were up as soon as I stopped each song!  I also made a Quizlet set of the phrases so I can review quickly before our song next week.

It is important to me to maintain a good attitude – I don’t want to be a teacher who blames it on my students (“they’re so unmotivated”), my standards (“too vague”), my textbook, my colleagues, or my district-mandated final exam. As the teacher, I’m no robot – I’m a creative force with a head full of knowledge on how students acquire language, and it is my job to find a way to marry best practices with all the challenges of my particular situation.



2 thoughts on “What I’m Learning in Grad School: Is this really communicative?”

  1. Great ideas for comprehensible input. I just started teaching the preterite tense, definitely will use the weekend chat idea! Do you have any resources for Ch. 3A?

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