Reintroducing “the chart”

Today on twitter, a fellow teacher asked #langchat, ‘how do I introduce past tense without putting grammar first?’ Considering the topic of my last post, how my current Spanish 2 unit on imperfect is pretty irrelevant at the moment since I no longer really need it, I figured I could be of some help. We had a nice chat (along with Amy and a number of other wonderful helpful teachers – yay everyone!) and I hope she finds the path that is right for her.

This post, however, is about my AP Spanish. This year’s AP Spanish is one of my last ‘guinea pig’ classes. My first few graduating classes were while I was in survival newbie teacher mode. Let us not speak of them. Last year’s graduates were my original guinea pigs – the kids that started as freshmen during my second year of teaching, when I was still doing heavy teacher evolution. This year’s senior class started with me using grammar-based methods in Spanish 1, transitioning to CI-based methods during their Spanish 2 (and while mentoring a student teacher), using CI-based methods for Spanish 3, and now using CI-as-best-I-can-cause-it’s-AP Spanish now. So in Spanish 1, they were exposed to ‘the chart’ for various present tense verbs, but it was whisked away for the most part during… well, all the other verbs. Tomorrow we start imperfect subjunctive, which I (guilty teacher confession time) have not taught to any class so far, because my earlier classes never got to the point where they needed it. But we’re going to start reading La Guerra Sucia and there is all sorts of imperfect subjunctive in there, so we get to learn it now!

With this class, I knew it was time to really sit down and as John Baylor would say, ‘hammer the grammar’. I have three very grammar-focused students in this class of five, and they kept asking me conjugation-related questions, so that told me they were ready and willing to sit through a boring grammatical explanation of conjugation, because they NEEDED it to clean up their communication and WANTED to clean up their communication. So after the start of the new semester, I just took the last week and chunked out every tense we knew so far and we went over the charts for them, then played on conjuguemos.com to practice. Every single one of them also chose to use conjuguemos.com practice as their homework choice for the week. But I love the choice homework, because they all chose to work on the tenses they felt they needed the most practice in.

I feel there is a huge difference in introducing the charts first thing and the acquisition of verbs, versus acquiring the verbs first and showing the charts later. In the past, my non-word-nerd students would easily become overwhelmed and frustrated with the insane amount of irregular present tense verbs – between your 3 types of stemchangers + jugar, the -go verbs, the -zco verbs, the -yo verbs, and the ones that change where the accent falls, oh, and the ones that are just outright irregular… yeah, that’s ridiculous. Preterite is nearly as bad. When we got to subjunctive, there were so many steps to properly changing the verb that it was nothing less than a hot mess. But now, when students acquire first, showing the chart sheds a little light onto the mechanics of how verbs work. My students aren’t frustrated by them; they say, ‘Ooooooh, so that’s how it works!’ (They’re still annoyed by all the exceptions BUT, having heard/seen them for years, they just accept that’s the way it is and move on.) Rather than being the focus of the lesson, they are used as a tool in my students’ toolboxes for comprehension. I see now that using charts as the driving force of my instruction was like handing a full-sized hammer to a baby – they weren’t strong enough to use it yet. Upper level students are strong enough to use the hammer properly. I know that I’ve seen the results in my own classroom, and it’s enough to convince me that acquisition first, charts second is going to get me the best results in the least amount of time.

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