Planting the seeds of language learning

Phew. We’ve made it into the second week of September. I had my day off on Monday, which I spent doing entirely lazy things (mostly playing a fun game called Card Hunter that is like Dungeons and Dragons meets Civilization. With cards). Now we’re well into the full swing of school. We even have parent-teacher conferences next week! I know that DEVOLSON is soon upon us, so I’m trying to enjoy the last vestiges of my honeymoon period with my freshmen. Unfortunately, this time of year also means softball, which means my 8th period is utterly destroyed. (4 of my 6 students are softball players.) It makes things tough, but, that’s the gig.

In any case, I don’t have any particular lessons to discuss at this moment. I’m mostly chugging along, trying to keep my lessons fresh using what I learned over the summer. (The brain craves novelty!) It’s hard, though – it’s so easy to slip back into old habits and forget to set a timer, to forget to PQA, to circle too long, etc. That’s just part of the growing process, I suppose.

Speaking of growing, that’s the whole point of this post. I’ve been trying to catch up on my backlog of blog posts. I was at 76 on Monday; I think I’ve gotten about 30 down. Somewhere in that gigantic pile of reading, someone mentioned the difficulty of being patient with TPRS/comprehensible input techniques. Amy Lenord also had a timely post today about how she restarted her year with last year’s accomplishments in mind. I think that’s one of the toughest things about the art of teaching – every new year, you have to start over. In my case, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m the only Spanish teacher, so I get to see my students grow over four years and that is AWESOME. On the other, I tend to get mixed up (for example, I planned an activity for this year’s Spanish 2s but was about to scrap it because I thought it was way too easy… when I realized in my head, I was thinking of the abilities of this year’s Spanish 3s). I also have a hard time remembering who has learned what. This is mostly an issue in the 2/3 levels, because Spanish 1’s essential vocabulary is pretty tightly controlled due to their low ability levels, and AP’s vocabulary is barely controlled at all due to their high ability levels. Whereas in 2 and 3, maybe last year I taught one class a ‘bonus’ word or phrase and not the other. Or maybe less students picked it up than I thought they did. Things like that.

But anyway, back to the growth thing. Whoever made this post – and it’s entirely possible that they were mentioning an idea from someone else – said that the first year of TPRS is like planting the seeds. We carefully plant the seeds of knowledge. We water them daily with regular review of previously taught words. (And if we don’t review them, were they really that necessary in the first place?) We fertilize our tender sprouts with a low-stress environment and sunny attitudes. But then, we mostly just have to wait. We won’t see the fruits of our labor until the next year, at the earliest. Decent production simply isn’t possible at the novice level, and that’s okay.

And when we see those fruits? Wow, what amazing fruit. I used to struggle so much trying to get my students to wrap their brains around the differences between the two past tenses, and how those look and sound different from present tense. All the days wasted analyzing stories, rather than reading them. All the worksheets to practice our irregulars, our boot-changers, our car-gar-zar verbs, trying to pick the right form of ‘was’. They were effective, sort of. My students could conjugate with the best of them. But they were utterly stumped when they ran into tenía in a story – and they lost the joy of Spanish, the reading, the listening, the cultural intonations that happen with different languages. This year, my Spanish 2 students are utterly unphased by switching quiere to quería. Tiene becomes tenía. It’s a lot less steps in their brain to look and say ‘hmm, quiere and quería have a lot of the same letters. They probably mean the same thing.’ than to do the whole conjugation rigamarole. I had students doing re-tells, in past tense Spanish, their first time seeing it. Accurately. That is some sweet, sweet fruit.

So when I’m bogging myself down and feeling like, how many times can I possibly recycle the forms of the most common verbs, and how can I stretch my language to use cognates and stay as comprehensible as possible (preferably 100%!), and how many ways can I re-tell a story without boring my students… I know it pays off. Their vocabulary seems so relatively narrow compared to before, but they have a pretty strong base by the time they are in Spanish 2, and by 3 and AP, their vocabularies go crazy with growth. Their flowers are blooming, so to speak. Readings that used to take 2 days to slog through now take 30 pain-free minutes. This year’s students aren’t any smarter, or inherently better at Spanish, or any of those things – it’s been my careful planning and hard work that prepares them to do their part of acquiring the language.

I guess in a way, over the years, the seeds of good teaching have been planted in me, and I’m now starting to see my own flowers blooming. Go figure.


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