Thursday, April 5, 2012

Creating Language-Seekers: My Recent Journey Through Where Are Your Keys

Not so long ago, Miriam and I were given the chance to attend a workshop over Where Are Your Keys and, even more exciting, the chance to pick the brain of WAYK creator, Evan Gardner.  Miriam has already posted her thoughts and experiences concerning both the workshop and using the method in her own classroom.

I have held out posting over Where Are Your Keys, partially because Miriam has already posted about it and partially because I had not had the chance to really apply what I've learned.  I would have only been able to reflect Miriam's experience and Evan's advice, and had nothing of my own to add.

However, I got the chance to start a class fresh only a few weeks ago.

In addition to teaching Latin I and II, I get to teach a rotational 7th grade class that changes out every nine weeks.  It's bittersweet--I am always sorry to lose my current class, but always excited to start anew and usually take the chance to experiment on the new class.  Since I was dying to see WAYK in action, I took the opportunity that this newest class change offered me.

I have been honored by Aaron Myers, author of "The Everyday Language Learner," with a guest post on his blog.  It begins my WAYK journey and gives an overview of the method.  I recommend reading it first, then returning here to see how I take a method based in small group instruction and apply it to my 25-30 student classes.

Because that was my only hesitation, once I had the chance to experience WAYK at Evan's hands.  The method is intended to create layers of students and teachers, at varying levels of linguistic skill, and really is not meant for classroom use.

Luckily, I've had Miriam's example to help me, as well as her encouragement.  As I've gotten more experience teaching, it can be surprisingly frightening to try a new method, and I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that the first day with my new 7th grade class I stalled as long as I could (introducing myself, my family, my teaching, Rome, Latin, mythology, and anything else I could grasp at) before finally diving into the language.  The thing about that fear, though, is that it only leads to one thing: stultification.  Teaching is not just about imparting information and skills to students; it's about self-growth, personal discovery, and modeling learning for your students.  I refuse to languish in the safety of my known methods--so I continue to learn, experiment, and take chances.  Even when I surprise myself with previously unknown weakness.

This method does require preparation.  At least at first, at least if you don't already know American Sign Language (as I don't), at least if you want to set yourself up for success.  Once you get moving, though, there is also a level of freedom that I haven't known before with any other system of language learning.

First Steps
To prepare for my first few days of Where Are Your Keys instruction, I found an iconic image of a family (the Simpsons in this case) and of a cat, dog, and mouse (Tom, Jerry, and Spike--and the kids knew them!).  I also learned the signs for "What is (that)?", "mother", "father", "son", "daughter", "baby", "cat", "dog", and "mouse".  Miriam had told me that her students ran through eight words in one day, so I wanted to make sure I had enough to teach.

After stalling, on the first day I began by teaching students "slower" and "full".  It was important to me that my students have the chance to tell me if things are moving too quickly for them and they can't learn any more.  I then taught them "copycat" and "three times", all of which are WAYK techniques that help to organize the learning process.

Finally, we got to the words.  I showed the picture of the family and had them "copycat" me by repeating everything I said, both questions and answers.  They also repeated all of the hand signs I used when I spoke.  We did each family member three times and then began to cycle through a set of questions and answers--here I fell more into my TPRS training than Where Are Your Keys, but I still modeled answering each question in complete sentences.

The question and answer pattern is as follows:
What is this? (Quid est?)
This is a mother. (Mater est)
Is this a mother? (Estne mater?)
Yes, this is a mother.  (Ita vero, mater est.)
Is this a baby? (Estne infans?)
No, this is not a baby. (Minime.  Non est infans.)
Is this a mother? (Estne mater?)
Yes, this is a mother.  (Ita vero, mater est.)
What is this? (Quid est?)
This is a mother. (Mater est)

The point of course is repetition.  Using full sentences and speaking with the movements help students produce the language more quickly than any other method I've used.

After students had a comfort level with each of the family members, I ended "copycat" and started questioning them so they could answer me themselves.  Since we had practiced answering in complete sentences, they naturally fell into that pattern, and even though I was asking them questions over different pictures and requiring different answers, we had spoken every possible answer at one time or another, so there was little stress over answering my questions, even though I wanted complete sentences.  Any pauses resulted in moving the hand first--then lips would follow.

My 7th grade students get "full" (get to the point they don't feel like they can take in any more information) after about 4-5 new items.  Also, when you're just starting the method, students can get full pretty quickly because they are learning more than just the new words--they are learning a new system of thought and new expectations.

We actually spent the second day just reinforcing the family words.  Then we moved into "dog", "cat", and "mouse".  At this point, the basic format of class was fine, but a little tedious.  My students needed a change of format.

Where Do I Go From Here?
This is where Miriam has already been paving a road for me to follow.  She decided to create small groups, and, inspired by the fact WAYK also seeks to create students who can teach, chose student leaders to help their groups acquire new vocabulary.

I asked students to let me know if any of them would like to lead a group themselves, and had five volunteers--exactly the number I wanted--come to me after class to give me their names.  The next day I brought in a print-out of the family and animal images we'd been using in class and handed a copy to each group leader.  I also reserved a copy of two new images--images of the actions "punch" and "eat".  The class received instructions along these lines:

In a couple of minutes, I'm going to ask you guys to get into groups.  Each group has a leader, and the leader is going to take you through the exercises we've been doing in class.  When you guys really have this down, your leader is going to come to me and learn new words.  Then your leader is going to return to you and teach you those words the same way we've been learning words in class.  As long as you guys show me you can do well in your groups, I'm going to let you choose your own, because I want you to choose people you can learn with.

Then I directed each group leader to a section of the room and told students they could group up.  If you have taught 7th grade, you will know how magical it seemed: all 25 students were quietly sitting in small groups, speaking only Latin, responding to their leaders.  And enjoying themselves.  I would see a sign from the leader, and corresponding signs from the rest of the group.  And smiles.  When energy began to wane, I moved everyone out of their groups and we went back to whole-class format as a means of making sure everyone learned the words and signs correctly and as a simple way to bring closure to the activity.

This made me wonder, where else could I take this?

Moving the Classroom Outside
I'll admit, after spending a winter cloistered up in my classrooms and wilting, I really didn't need much of an excuse to take my students outside.  But I was also inspired by the freedom I saw when I moved learning into independent groups.  Plus, because of the need for Where Are Your Keys to employ "obvious" objects for discussion (the idea is expressed more thoroughly in my blog post on ELL), I can't imagine anything that could provide me with more obvious objects than the outdoors, with plants, cars, roads, sun, and sky, to start.

Of course, like other activities, this required preparation.  When I fully decided I wanted to take students outside, I had to figure out how many signs I wanted to learn and how best to impart them.  To stall while I figured this out, I did a lesson over emotions (which resulted in some fun ASL--my favorites are "sad" and "scared", but my students prefer "angry").  To keep the concept "obvious" I chose to use the same character in each emotional state so students would be able to distinguish between the emotions instead of focusing on the characters.

By the day of, I had practiced four outdoor signs for our class, found pictures for those words, and of course had them ready to present in Latin as well.  We went outside, we were all excited to be out-of-doors, and we proceeded to work on the words "sky", "school", "street", and "grass".  It was really fun for them--us--to get to really experience the things we were talking about.  From there I gave out the pictures to group leaders (my students have formed pretty regular groups by now) and let them practice the words in small gatherings around the school lawn.  Once they felt they knew the words well, I went to each group and let them "prove" what they know--the leader ran them through question and answers over the new information.  I then handed them a Latin-English dictionary and let them travel around the area and choose words they wanted to know.  Each group had to turn in a list of ten words.  They really enjoyed it, from the freedom to walk around to the freedom to choose Latin they are interested in.

What I've Seen
Since I've started using WAYK in the last few weeks with my 7th grade, I've seen my students greet myself and each other in the halls in Latin.  I've heard small discussion in Latin and students mixing and matching the words we've been using to make their own sentences.  This is all, well, normal in a communicative approach.  However, it's accelerated.  I've only taught these kids for three weeks and they already feel secure enough in Latin to speak to each other in the language even when I don't require it.  One of the girls who was the first to give me the "full" sign is also one who volunteers to lead as well as one who speaks to me in full Latin sentences in the hall.  She is a joy in my class, and much of that is due to an approach that helps her internalize the language and output it as well.

Yes, of course there are those students who are reluctant to sign.  And there are those students who try to get by with just signing and not speaking Latin along with the motions.  There are always students who are very aware of their images and don't want to look silly, or students who really just wish I would hand them a list to memorize and leave them alone.  Those students are few, and I talk to each one-on-one, let them know I require them to try, but don't ask them to be perfect.  Generally they come around, and I don't let them slip by because that kind of reluctance can infect the entire class.

Mostly, I've seen joy.  We laugh together and try together.  I make mistakes sometimes, just like my students, and so it makes it easier for them to join in with me as we celebrate our mistakes while we learn together.  They know I am learning ASL as we go (what a great side-effect!) and that this is a completely new method for me.  I haven't had this much fun teaching in a while, and that's saying something, because I often have fun in my classes.  But the freedom and shared experience I've been able to create with Where Are Your Keys is something different, and worth continued exploration.

Okay, So Now What?
I have a couple of ideas to explore the freedom given to me by a method that teaches students to teach, teaches them to seek language for themselves.

First I want to use the lists of Latin words that students made outside last week.  This will be a great chance to review what we've learned (we're currently on spring break) and for them to explore words that they have chosen and mean something to them.

In their groups, students will choose two words from their lists (more, perhaps, if this seems to be moving too fast or too easily) that they would like to teach to the rest of the class.  I will take them to the computer lab, where they will find out the ASL signs for their words, and then they will work in their groups to learn the words well.  Of course, I will be travelling around between the groups to help them and advise them.  Then student groups will take turns teaching the signs to the rest of the class in a whole-class setting before breaking into new groups that include at least one student from each group to teach the words to each other.  If I'm lucky, I'll learn new words too in this setting.  Lastly, I want another foray into the outdoors for us to enjoy our new vocabulary.

Another thought I've had over the last few weeks is to give students simple Latin books, and after building their vocabulary for the books myself first, let the groups look at the books, choose vocabulary to teach the class to make the books clear, and interpret them visually in some way to help them tell the stories to the rest of the class.  This concept is less formed.  But it's a seed of an idea, and something I would not consider doing before I had used WAYK.

And that's what is exciting to me.  There is so much freedom.  I am not the only person in the room that can offer knowledge.  That changes everything and lets me structure the student-centered classroom I have always wanted to create.


  1. Very interesting method. I'm glad you found a method that is both exciting and challenging for you and your students.

    1. Thank you! I am glad too, and will be sure to post more about it as I learn more.

  2. Rachel, thanks for this full blog post. I've just started watching some of the WAYK videos and trying to get a feel for it. I particularly appreciated your fairly full description of how you implemented this in your Latin class.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I will update as I get more experience (I do have some things to share once school is out). What language do you teach?

  3. How awesome! Is there a video of you or someone else teaching this way in Latin? I'd love to see that!