Thursday, May 29, 2014

Four Days of Comprehensible Input: Day 2

So I was contemplating this post while I made dinner for my family tonight (a job I only take on during the summer--my kind husband feeds us during the school year because he seems to think nothing but hamburger helper and sandwiches is unhealthy) and I realized that comprehensible input is like a gazpacho.  Actually, to be clearer, it's not.  It's like cooking.

You see, I was making a gazpacho because summer is also a time that I like to try new culinary things, and I've never had gazpacho before.  Gazpacho is one of those things I would have never tried to make when I was younger and didn't know how to cook, because it sounded so fancy that I knew it had to be difficult.  Yet it's not.  I basically chopped some well-balanced vegetables and blended them up with some spices.  It tasted great and has now been added to my repertoire of summer recipes.  I'll use it when the right opportunities crop up.

This reminded me of learning to cook.  My husband did not marry me for my cooking ability.  At the time we married, the agreement was that he'd cook everything (for our survival's sake) and I would clean the bathroom.  And we were satisfied with this arrangement, because he liked to cook and I viewed the process of creating recipes as something akin to magic.  I did not know how to do it, how others did it, or how someone could ever cook on his or her own.

I promise this is relevant.

Learning to use comprehensible input, if you haven't used it in your class before, is like learning to cook.  I know this more than most people I know, because I didn't really learn to cook well until I was an adult.  Watching or hearing about the practice can make it feel unattainable at times, like the magical ability to create a new recipe.

But the key to learning how to cook is finding one recipe to really learn and understand.  Get to know that recipe, how it works for you, and learn how to change it to suit your personal taste and needs.  That first step opens the door to understanding all kinds of recipes and foods, and soon you find you don't need recipes except when trying something new, adding new understanding to your collection of resources.

The best first step with starting comprehensible input is the same.  Miriam and I have posted many different comprehensible activities, theories, and starting points on this blog.  Pick one.  Go to a workshop, and pick one thing.  Read other blogs about comprehensible input. Pick one method to bring to your classroom.  The important thing is to ease your way in.  Pick one thing, one way to change the way you teach in your classes, and perfect it.  Get to really know it, really understand it.  Get comfortable.  Then, when you're comfortable, when you know how to take this one method or activity and make it yours and suitable to you different classes, pick another.

The great mistake that is made, often and repeatedly, is to try to adopt a new approach wholesale.  To take everything someone successful does and assume that if you do the same thing you will be successful.

But you are you, not that other person.  You need to find out what works for you.  So pick one thing.

This morning we began with Bob's testimonial.  Bob has been my friend for a while now, so I am familiar with his story, but it is another great story of a teacher who came to teaching via an indirect path and found out that it was his passion.  However, he'd only learned Latin one way--by memorizing charts--and that was how he taught his first Latin students.  His greatest frustration at that time was his retention rate.  Students did not continue to Latin III when he took over the program.  He had 0% retention.

It wasn't until he experienced learning a new language (Spanish) in a comprehensible way that he realized that perhaps his approach to teaching Latin could be different.  He wanted to bring this approach to his own classes, but had never spoken Latin before.  So he picked one thing.  He chose classroom management statements, things he said every day that he could prepare ahead of time.

From there Bob attended immersion institutes (the only way to get immersion as a Latin teacher), worked on improving his Latin, and slowly brought new ideas, new techniques, and new methods into his classroom.  Now he teaches Latin in Latin, carefully and comprehensively, but he did not begin that way, nor did he just sort of suddenly decide to only speak Latin and it was easy for him.

I know that sometimes these new techniques can seem like gazpacho would have seemed to me years ago--something too hard, too fancy, impossible for someone like me to do.  But if you take the chance, try something you think might be hard or fancy, you might find out that not only is it easier than you thought it would be, but you actually like it too.

Bob's current high school, the same high school I now work in along with the beauteous Caroline Miklosovic, now has a retention rate of over 60% for Latin; over 60% of the students who begin with us at Latin I continue through Latin IV.  It's a phenomenal number, and one we'll continue to try to increase.  It is also a great reflection of the difference comprehensibility in the classroom makes for the students there.

Classroom Management

Our focus for whole-group learning today was classroom management in a CI classroom.  The first thing that Lauren discussed was building rapport with your students.

Lauren pointed out, and I agree, that rapport is one of the most underutilized and underappreciated methods of classroom control.  With a good rapport alone, you can get most students to do what you ask of them, simply because they trust you--that you care about them, that you are trying to teach them the best way possible, that you are trying to do the best you can for them all around.  Of course, there are still some discipline issues.  Of course, there are students who will still struggle, who are still bringing baggage to class that you can't help them with.  But you can avoid many simple issues if you have a great relationship with your students.

However, there is no reason for a person to simply hope that a rapport grows between himself and his students; building rapport can be done consciously.  The advice I normally give is to listen to students, remember their stories, and ask questions.  Lauren and Bob had more specific advice (that is probably more helpful):
Ways to let students know you care about and are interested in them:

  • On the first day of school ask students: “What is important to you?” “Why does it matter?” (Miriam went into detail on these questions and why they matter here.)
  • Greet students at the door: this is an opportunity to connect with each kid and let him or her know “I see you.”
  • Keep a birthday calendar: when it's a student's birthday, sing, give a card, or do something else to recognize that student.
  • Keep a brag wall.  Students can post articles or news or achievements that relate to themselves.
  • Circling with Balls: I discussed this activity in yesterday's post. However, more specifically, if you focus on two kids per day for two weeks you will get to know all of your kids over time.
  • Personalized Question and Answer: PQA is literally about the kids themselves. That builds a relationship.
  • Offer as an extra credit quiz question: “Tell me something about yourself that I don’t know.” You will find out both great and heart-wrenching information that students haven't had the chance to tell you, all for giving up a couple of points.
  • Send postcards home to parents of particularly difficult students with positive things. This is extremely powerful.
  • Assign jobs for TPRS--this gives students ownership of the class and responsibility.
  • Teaching to the eyes.  If students aren't connecting visually, then you are most likely not creating a relationship with them.
  • Create a safety net for students to use when speaking in the target language. List items on the wall where they are visible to students for them to use when you are speaking if they feel overwhelmed. Essential items:
    • "Yes" and "No"
    • "What does ___ mean?"
    • "How do you say ___?"
    • Gestures for "slow down" or "I don't understand"
Bob took over the classroom management discussion to discuss power relations between teachers and students, specifically the difference between a "power over" and a "power with" relationship, and how a "power with" relationship forces students to take responsibility for their behavior and learning.  Miriam actually did a write up over this concept in her blog post over the no fail classroom.

The conversation then turned to Assessment. Bob pointed out that a grade should be a means of communicating success.  He then suggested that the communication should be fluid and flexible for the simple reason that success motivates.  If a student is able to prove that he or she has improved knowledge in an area, then the grade should reflect that.  Grades should not be a means of behavior control--that is classroom management and relationships.  Bob says he makes it clear in his classes that not being successful is not acceptable.  

So how can he do that?  As his colleague, I can tell you that he breaks his tests into multiple grades in the grade book, based on what each section was checking mastery of. If a student takes a test and fails the vocabulary section, for example, the student can request tutoring and a retest within 48 hours of the original test.  He himself follows the TPRS 80% rule: don't move on until at least 80% of your students have at least 80% of the material mastered. He also offers students a last-chance sort of question on assessments: "What were you prepared to tell me that I didn't ask?" The information they provide can replace a missed question of a similar vein (grammar to grammar, vocabulary to vocabulary, etc.).  

Bob then talked about the power of offering a bonus question, "What is going on in your life right now?" This question has had surprising results for him; there were the normal answers and updates, but there were also deeply personal and unbearably sad admissions, things that allowed Bob insight into student behaviors. All answers received the same credit, but some changed the way he viewed his students.

The next point was to "claim your power as the expert" while still telling students "I am your ally."

Every time Bob starts a new activity, he explains
  • the why of the activity--this is surprisingly effective. I personally always am ready to answer the question if it comes up (it's fun to give a list to a student who for some reason thought you wouldn't know why you do what you do), but this is a nice preemptive step.
  • what we are going to do
  • what is required for success
Bob also offered us the cardinal rules for comprehensible input in the classroom:
  • Establish meaning
  • Point and pause
  • SLOW

CI Builds and Fosters Community

Keith then talked about the natural community that is created simply by teaching in a comprehensible way. He pointed out that traditionally teachers shape their curriculum and classes around a textbook, and that's understandable. It is by no means a disparagement to say that the textbook is safe and easy. He talks about going back to the textbook and what he knows and what is comfortable and familiar to him when doing comprehensible input would become too exhausting.  I don't know a CI teacher who hasn't done the same. It is hard to do comprehensible approaches all the time. They don't allow for worksheets. They expect you to shelter vocabulary, when textbooks and district mandated tests don't. Depending on work load, it can feel necessary to go back to a traditional approach sometimes.  Don't think that it makes you a failure; just do what you can and return to CI when you feel comfortable and ready.

Keith said he really values the comprehensible input philosophy because it in and of itself creates community. The methods say to students "I see you," "I value you," and "I want your opinion," simply because they ask for student interaction and input.

Keith offered us teacher testimonies--names
may have been changed to protect the
Keith demonstrated asking a story for us in English.  It is nearly impossible to describe that here--scripting it would be uncomfortable and would simply interfere with my own participation in the seminar.  However, I have done my best to describe asking a story in writing here, and it is included in my demonstration here, so hopefully you might be able to find some guidance in both of those resources.

Advice Keith gave was to choose a student or teacher to feature in the story who can have fun with it.  I had a wonderful student a few years ago who was game for just about anything the class would throw at him.  I think they killed him off in the stories just about every way a person can die, and many ways that are pretty much impossible, but his attitude was always positive and he was always fun.  This made him a great choice as a story character because he understood that it wasn't personal and all in great humor.

He also mentioned something that is often lost when watching people demonstrate asking stories, because these people are experienced storytellers by that point.  That is that he started with a script. He wrote out every sentence, every question, expected student answers, basically each spoken language item was on a paper in his hand.  He told his kids he was trying something new and asked them to come with him on the experiment. And they did.  Just like mine did, when I held a script in my hand. Just like Bob's did when he taped scripts around his classroom to help him remember the Latin for "open your books."  Learning to teach this way is a process, like cooking.  A script is just a recipe you can follow until you're ready to cook on your own.

Movie Talk

I read this whole page on my second day
of French!

The last thing was a quick demonstration in English of Movie Talk (Miriam posted about the same here; she and I have been doing the same activity in our classes this year, which I began after I observed Bob's class and his own Movie Talk activity). When we broke out into our immersion groups, Lauren gave us a reading based on the previous day's vocabulary, and had us read it and discuss it with question and answer.  Lastly, she let us experience a Movie Talk in French.  I am finding the experience of being a student in an unfamiliar language really helpful for perspective.  I recommend that anyone who can, do so.  Even if you just have a friend who speaks another language, practice on each other and take turns being teacher and student.  It is invaluable.

If you missed Day 1, you can find the post here. For Day 3, the post is here.

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