Last week I shared via Twitter a few writing samples from my French 4 students to get a better perspective of where their proficiency lies – something that is, admittedly, really difficult for me to determine from where I sit as their (very) sympathetic teacher. The samples got very positive feedback from the #langchat community and beyond, which was exciting for my students and validating for me as a teacher that, hey! Maybe I’m not actually messing this up as badly as I sometimes think I am!
The samples also got the question I seem to hear a lot from my colleagues who are trying to get into a more proficiency-based mindset: How do you get them to (fill in the blank here)?
I am really fortunate to work in a school district with (mostly) highly-motivated students. They really want to get an A, which can sometimes be annoying but is also a great motivator for a proficiency-based class because I can tell them “If you want an A, you need to write in complete sentences/add transition words/more detail.” I often look at my level 4s and ask myself, how did you learn to do this?! because even I don’t really have a clear cut answer! I don’t have a good system for introducing vocabulary and making it stick. I rarely teach grammar and I never give worksheets or homework requiring them to practice the grammar that I do introduce. I don’t teach using novels consistently (unfortunately). My gradebook is horrifically unbalanced (can you believe I didn’t assess listening at all for my level 4s in the 3rd quarter? Insert monkey-covering-face emoji here). I don’t even use 90% Target Language all the time (shaaaaame! I know!).
So, here are a few things that go on in my classroom that seem to be doing something to help my students. This is by NO MEANS a way to make myself look good – these are simply the things that go on in my classroom that I think may in some way be linked to my students’ success. I wish I had more clearcut answers for those of you who are starting on this journey, but half the time I really think the students are successful in spite of what I do rather than because of it, LOL!
1. No homework or participation grades.
I only grade things that I consider to be assessments. I don’t assign participation points and on the extremely rare occasions I give homework, I don’t grade it and it’s optional. This means the stuff I do collect and grade has a huge impact on their overall grades and to be successful on those assignments, they need to participate in class and do the things I ask of them. My control freak tendencies hate this. My past experiences of giving homework and participation points, however, were not convincing enough that I felt motivated to continue doing it.
2. Talk to them
We have a lot of informal conversations in my class. My lesson plan actually tends to be “Plan B” as interacting with the kids in a personal way takes precedence, so long as this informal talking takes place in French. If I find we’re starting to slip into English, then we move on to the formal lesson plan. Is this best practice? I don’t know.
3. Grammar in context
I’m by NO means an expert at this but I do my best to introduce grammar in context via TPRS stories and MovieTalks or PACE-model type lessons. Whenever I request feedback from my students, they almost universally say that hearing the grammar in context and lots of repetitions is what they feel helps them learn the best. Plus, it’s not (usually) boring, which means they’re more likely to remember it.
4. Mercredi Musique
This is something that’s brand new this year in my classroom and is now by far the most popular part of my class. Every Wednesday we listen to a song, watch the music video (if appropriate) and sing the chorus. Sometimes we might discuss why we like or dislike the song, or I ask another question that pertains to the song’s contents – for example, last week we listened to Comme ci, comme ça by ZAZ and we answered the question, “What do you do to annoy people?” This was a great opportunity to intro the grammar point “by _____ing” to my upper levels, and just a good conversation piece for the lower levels. Songs are also RICH in slang and idiomatic language, which make them great vehicles for engagement (or at least, I think so). I try to not be offended when my students say things like, “Mercredi musique is the only good part of my week!” I think there’s a compliment in there somewhere!
5. Forced output
I understand that forced output is a controversial topic amongst language teachers and SLA specialists, but for me, it’s not. I need students to demonstrate growth and understanding of the concepts introduced in class, and I need them to do it orally. At all levels. I understand that some believe that students will produce when they’re “ready” but there are also a great many students who would be glad to sit quietly forever if I let them. You know who they are! In my class, we speak French. Whether it’s French 1 or AP French, that’s simply my expectation and by now, my kids in French 4 even interact with me in French outside of the classroom. I rarely correct them when they speak (or write). I even think their oral skills have helped improve their writing skills – I can tell some of them are arriving at the point when they can think about what “sounds” right instead of needing to resort to a grammar rule.
This year, my evaluator commented on something about my classroom that makes me incredibly proud, and even moreso that he was able to pick up on it in a class where I speak almost entirely French the whole time – that there seems to be an implicit, palpable level of trust. And he’s right – I’m not sure what it is that got us to this point, but my kids and I trust each other. They trust I will not let them fail and whether it’s as a result of this trust or just the nature of the particular kids in my classroom (I’m inclined to think it’s the latter), I trust that when I ask them to do something, they’ll do it. And for the most part, that happens. On the other hand, this is a group of kids who asked to watch the news in French to improve their listening skills so I’m not totally sure that I have anything to do with their attitudes at all!
So, like I said, I don’t know if these things really answer the question of “How do you…?” but these are the things I fall back on year after year so I have to believe there’s some good in there somewhere. Please let me know if you have any other tips on how you get your students to do __________ in your classroom!