Kids are like Puppies
Last year, I had the pleasure of attending Connie Navarro’s presentation entitled “Kids are like Cows.” (Of course there is a story to this title, but for that, you’ll have to talk to Connie.) I would like to add to Connie’s insight in saying that kids are also like puppies. Yes, they’re quite adorable, but that’s not what I mean. Kids are like puppies in that they need to be trained and retrained to achieve maximum success in a classroom. Does it take work? YES! Does it take time and energy? YES! But, is it completely worth it? YES! I would venture to say that the most important thing that you can do in a language classroom is to train your students to follow your routines and how to act so that they are able to acquire language.
In training students, one must know the goal (teacher speaking 90%+ in the target language, students actively listening and demonstrating comprehension) and common challenges to achieving this goal. Most mornings, one of my challenges is what I would call under-engagement, meaning a lack of energy and/or apathy. Imagine an 8 AM class of 33 preteens who’ve been up half the night doing homework, texting, and watching YouTube videos. I try to see their under-engagement as a fun challenge. I know that my classroom can be a positive, energetic way for them to start their day, and I work hard to prohibit my energy from dropping down to their level. Rather, I want my enthusiasm to be contagious and for students to leave my class feeling better than they did when they entered. One way that I do this while working toward my goal of students demonstrating comprehension is to incorporate lots of movement into class. After starting class with Lectura Libre (Free Reading, my interpretation of FVR) and a 2 minute Do Now prompt, the next part of my daily routine includes asking students how they are, putting away books (by dancing in a conga line), and doing gestures. The part of this routine that I want to highlight is gestures. Every single day, students stand up and demonstrate gestures as I call out verbs in Spanish (When teaching new verbs, I also teach students the ASL gesture for the verb as a support for comprehension). I project a slide on my Promethean board that includes all the verbs we have learned, and when we start a new unit, I add those verbs to the slide. We spend 2-5 minutes every single day doing gestures for a few reasons. One, it gets students’ blood moving and brains working. Two, it is a great way to continue recycling old vocabulary and check for comprehension.
I have a deskless classroom which allows students to move around more easily, but even with desks this part of class is still achievable. Students can stand in the aisle and show gestures with ASL signs rather than demonstrating actions using their entire bodies. To keep the gesturing interesting, I change it up slightly depending on the day and the mood of the class. I might throw in a command in Spanish to run in a square, hop on one foot 5 times, dance in a circle, or sit on the floor. On some days, I focus different forms of the verbs (students point to the subject before gesturing the verb for example “Yo quiero” – point to yourself, then show the ASL sign for want), I include classroom commands (write, draw, turn on, open), or I ask for a student to be the “teacher” and call out the verbs.
I know that getting high schoolers to stand up might feel like a monumental task, but when it is part of a daily routine, the complaints and resistance truly diminish. I love to take on an attitude of complete indignation that a student would even question that we are doing something and to say “this is just what we do!” I almost act confused that they would question it, and that goes pretty far in getting students to play along. Another way that I have success with gestures is through my relationships with students. I let them know that when they are sick or having a terrible day, they should tell me before class starts, and they can sit down during gestures for that day. I have a couple kids who do this once or twice a month, and it works. I also offer the option of writing each verb in English on a sheet of paper if they don’t want to gesture, but usually that is too much work, and they just do the gestures. I offer all of these options so that gestures are a positive part of class. I never want to shame students into doing them. I give them choices because more often than not, they eventually follow the routine without my prompting. Sometimes that takes days and sometimes weeks, but I try to keep it positive.
With some classes, it doesn’t hurt to carry around a clipboard and make notations of who is doing the gestures to count as part of a participation grade if that helps with motivation. Finally, I’m a big believer in letting students know “the why”. I want them to know why we’re doing things. During the first month or two of school. I’ll pause for a moment in gestures and explain, “Wow! I can really tell that you are internalizing these words when I see you gesturing!” or “I can tell that you’re learning the words better when you immediately do the gesture without needing to look at the board!”
Another way that I battle under-engagement is with the topics that I discuss in class. Teaching with comprehensible input strategies allows me to talk about things that interest my students, including their lives. I ask them how they are and why daily because their lives are interesting and important! The vocabulary used in asking and answering is high-frequency and requires repetition. This also gives students a chance to practice circumlocution. In terms of training students for this part of class, I teach them to listen to each other. I expect them to track the speaker and listen with their eyes and ears. I hold students accountable for what their peers say and ask comprehension questions throughout this part of class. This also shows students that I care about them and helps me to build my relationship with them. Just this week, a student who has a difficult home life, tends to struggle at school, and rarely raises his hand in class volunteered to answer the question and shared, in Spanish, why he felt bad. While it was hard to hear because I want to protect all my students, I love that he feels comfortable enough with me and the class to share. Additionally, teaching with comprehensible input strategies is impossible if students are not actively listening and doing their part of the work, and students are more likely to listen to teachers that they care about.
As a middle school teacher, a huge part of my job is to teach students the skills that will lead to success in high school and beyond. I also want them to acquire Spanish, a love for languages, and a passion for learning. By building in positive classroom with clear routines and expectations, I hope that the success they have in my classroom will transfer into their future.