So, are you trying to tell me that every single one of my several hundred students is not the same? Here I was thinking I was living in a perfect world where my “Stepford Students” would all be identical in behavior and performance. It’s time to rethink this I guess. Then the question becomes, “Where do I start?” With a classroom full of minds that all function differently, learn differently, and progress at a different pace towards proficiency it’s careful planning that will yield success and make teaching and learning a world language less painful for both you and your students.
First, plan what you are going to teach based on your local curriculum and state and national standards. If you’re lucky, your curriculum has been written with these standards in mind so that they are met naturally through your teaching throughout the year. If not, you must know what they are, where to find them and purposefully integrate them into your students’ learning experiences. From there, you can either create or use units that are built from the endpoint. Yes, I’m talking about backward design. You should always start your planning knowing your proficiency targets and plan to teach through meaningful contexts that push students to gain competence in the three communicative modes: interpretive, interpersonal and presentational. Also, allow students the chance to use their prior knowledge from previous experiences as well as learn how the target culture’s products, practices and perspectives are interrelated.
Now that dirty word that teachers cringe at hearing…..differentiation. Your students are all different, and it is just as critical to cater to the needs of the exceptional students as well as your struggling ones. Then there are your heritage or native speakers. You need to find ways to meet all of their needs, but luckily their needs can often be met by helping each other. A common practice in my classroom is to have exceptional students on my “payroll” as teaching assistants. Teaching someone else something deepens your knowledge and experience with it and assists the learner they are helping in acquiring the knowledge or fill in gaps in their learning. In addition, student work can be modified to meet their level to ensure rigorous activities that are appropriate for them as an individual. It is important that this be done intentionally and the work that is “tuned down” slightly for the emerging students still assists them in gaining proficiency towards the target, and that the work provided for exceptional students is not just extra work to keep them busy.
Whatever your methods or strategies are in providing language experiences for your students, it should always be something that they find relevant to their lives. If a student is excited about language learning and finds it to be a useful and fun tool in their life, they will be set on a path of lifelong learning and a love of languages. Your mission then is complete. They will leave you empowered for a better future with added benefits of friendships and opportunities otherwise unattainable without the skills you provided.
Let’s move on to your daily instructional practices. Keep this one question in mind. Are my students ALL engaged ALL the time? This is no easy task, and I myself am guilty at times realizing that maybe that lesson or that activity was not really grabbing all my students and truly engaging them. So what went wrong? First, plan a variety of activities based on student interest and an appropriate length of time. In my observations of other teachers in my department, I’ve seen a great activity that was really engaging get dragged out too long and suddenly the students’ attention is gone, they are off task, and misbehaviors begin. Second, brain research tells us that students remember best what happened at the beginning and end of class, and the middle area is a lull in engagement. Teachers tend to waste the most precious brain peaks with reviewing homework or other tasks that would best be done at other times. Remember to maximize instruction especially during the beginning and end of class to grab their minds at the most opportune time. Third, keep that old Bloom’s Taxonomy in mind and engage your students in activities that function at different levels. Some teachers stall out and only provide activities at the remembering and understanding level. It’s when you reach applying and higher that you are talking proficiency and not achievement. Fourth, get those big muscles moving! The brain learns best when it has oxygen to work. By involving students in TPR (Total Physical Response) and other large muscle moving activities, you ensure their brains are stimulated and getting adequate oxygen for learning. There’s nothing wrong with getting a class out of their seats even for a minute to jump, stretch and count in a Simon Says style activity. Remember to always be in the target language. I do these types of activities with 2 year olds through high school. Fifth, let’s think back to activities. You should always plan enough activities so that no particular one is dragged out, but don’t plan too many just to have lots of them, because you should be checking for understanding along the way and not leaving students in the dust behind you. Most importantly, have procedures and planning in place for the transition between activities so as to maximize that transition time and minimize misbehaviors. Finally, in closing the class, always revisit your daily performance objectives and ensure you’ve met them.
My last area to discuss is the meaningfulness of your lessons. Always try to ensure that your lessons are contextualized, connect to prior learning and require attention to meaning. Your teaching should be student-centered and meet their needs. Your activities should always be providing students with comprehensible input that is meaning bearing. Tons of input is worthless if the student can get no meaning out of it. Plan to teach in a way that you can use the target language to explain and do things with your students. Keep in mind the natural process of understanding first and producing later. Organize activities towards this process so students are expected to produce at the appropriate time, ensuring understanding. Using realia, or authentic materials, is key in providing contextualized and meaningful input and experiences. If possible, you should provide your students with ways to connect and collaborate with other students, teachers and experts inside and outside of their community. Lastly, provide your students with adequate resources for their learning.
So that’s it. Memorize the facts in this blog post and you’ll have a decontextualized, mindless quiz tomorrow that will use up the first part of class. Then you certainly will be proficient in teaching, right?