I just finish the first week at my new schools. It's also the first week of the middle school program for the district, as there hasn't been one previously and I am the sole teacher responsible for rolling it out. For almost every student, it's their first time ever taking a Spanish class. And for me personally, it's the first time I'm doing a curriculum like this and the first time I've tried to teach the way that I've committed to teach this year. And it's not just one new thing - I changed nearly everything. To be honest, I almost felt like a first-year teacher in my first class ever.
AND IT COULDN'T HAVE GONE BETTER!!
I'm amazed. I'm floored. I can't believe this is so easy, and I can't believe what the kids are doing - with less than three hours of instruction. I feel like the heavens have opened and the bright twinkling lights and harmonious music of the heavens are shining down on me and my class, inspiring me and the students all at once to be amazing at teaching and learning Spanish and enjoying it. Even after just one week, I've received multiple messages from parents (and even been approached by the students themselves) telling me how much the kids are enjoying class and that they're impressed by what they're already learning retaining.
Ok, now that I've gotten the emotion out, let me back up and tell you exactly what led to this. It's like the perfect storm - of awesomeness in language teaching.
First, let's start with something very concrete. I finally went desk-less. I couldn't do this before since I also taught AP Psychology and frankly didn't have anywhere to put the desks that I already had. However, when I came to my new school, I ran going desk-less by my admin (both of them). I'm was sharing my rooms at both schools, but one was able to find me a new (albeit small) room and said he could take all of the tables out. I took him up on it. The other one said just to work it out with the other teacher (luckily it's for health/fitness, so I actually only share my room half of the time). Both were very supportive. And, with no status-quo or expectations for what the Spanish program would be like, it was the perfect opportunity to throw something new at students. Of course, being middle schoolers, they were very excited about this idea at open house (parents were intrigued as well). One quick kiddo asked, "So if there aren't any desks, will we be doing worksheets?" When I told him no, I got a full fist-pump with "YES!" Great way to build anticipation! I was a little bit nervous about classroom management, but after one week I can honestly say that the management has been better now that the desks are gone! Every student is facing me on the front row (my students are arranged in a circle, so there's only one row) with nothing in their hands or laps to distract them. They are all accountable. I'm moving around the room constantly - it's now my stage to work! I have instant and frequent proximity to every student. I see every student with a quick glance around the room, since no one can hide. And they can all see each other, so they are all part of the action, whether it's coming from me or from another student. It's AWESOME!
Finally, the curriculum. First, I need to clarify what an "emergent structure" is. It lives somewhere between establishing language targets (meaningful structures that students are focused on learning) and non-targeted instruction (communicating in the language with no specific targets). Essentially, the targets "emerge" from the students and the class environment. Rather than establishing pre-planned targets, what the students want to say become the targets. The students themselves literally become the curriculum, and it's highly engaging as well as lowering stress because students are no longer focused on "learning" the language but rather creating meaning from it and acquiring it. The high-frequency words will emerge over and over again simply because they are that: high-frequency words. It's natural for them to emerge from any communication in the language. So, how did this work in my class?
First, I established a few key words that I would use to get kids going. This week, we started with "¿Cómo te llamas?" (What is your name) along with "me llamo" (My name is) and "se llama" (His/Her name is) in order to introduce ourselves. Later, when describing a character, we added "se siente" (he or she feels), "vive en" (He/She feels), "es" (She/he is), and "hay" (there is/are). This was all that I had planned along with some key CI-activities in this order:
- Class function words - Usually, I teach about 20 words intentionally at the beginning of the year that are the words I use to tell students what to do. However, since these words come up frequently in class on their own, I decided to use them as "my" emergent structures. And wrote them down as I needed them. So, words like necesito just came up on the word wall, and now they are there for us to use for the rest of the year.
- Circling Kids (aka Circling with cards) - Kids create cards with their names and drawings of an activity they enjoy doing. I engaged in PQA and Circling using these cards. From this, we got words like juega (plays, plus a variety of sports), bien/mal (well, badly), nada (swims), come (eats), duerme (sleeps), va de compras (goes shopping) and mucho/un poco (a lot/a little bit).
- Word associations and TPR - We started day 2-4 with creating word associations and TPR actions along with practice (including closed eye assessment) in order to review and help students remember the words.
- One Word Images - We create an imaginary objects and added details to them using the words students had come up with. I pulled my questions from words already on the word wall, adding only a few minor words to the word wall in order to clarify our descriptions of the objects.
- Reading - Using the stories created from the One Word Image plus any important word-wall vocabulary that I forgot to include, I simplified and adapted Ben Slavic's 21 reading steps down to four: First, I read (students listened and followed along without checking the word wall, then showed me how much they understood by showing me fingers 1-5). Second, pairs read (one partner translated a sentence of the story while the other checked the word wall and verified the translation, then switched roles for the next sentence - I could go on and on about the insights I gained from this valuable cooperative learning activity, but I'll save that for another post). Third, we did a choral reading, verifying student understanding. This was my biggest WOW moment, as every student confidently read out loud with the class - after less than three hours of total instruction! Finally, if there was time, I showed students the artist's illustration and read the story while students simply processed the information, and we did a "post evaluation" to compare to the first evaluation. One class even went one step further and did a "serenity reading" (aka Ben Slavic's sacred reading). I was so proud of what students could do!