With Nothing But My Training
One goal I have for the year is to explore what can happen if I get out of the way of the language-acquisition machine that is the human brain and let comprehensible language emerge the natural way. Part of this focus on emergent language, for me, is to not plan classes and simply rest myself in my training and trust that I can simply show up and speak comprehensibly in a safe community, that this is all my students need from me – comprehensible input and emotional safety, as Ben has ben saying to me all summer.
Friday was the first day of school. Not for the kids, but for me. They were at school since Tuesday working on their Circling with Balls cards, doing a Hargaden Website Scavenger Hunt, and drawing “imaginary pets”. (Shhhhh…the drawings are actually potential Invisibles to use later when we are ready to launch into stories…but I just told the sub to tell the kids that we would be doing a lot of artwork in class this year and using our imaginations, and I wanted to get to know what kinds of artists and imaginations they had.)
I was down at Mike Peto‘s workshop in Southern California for the first three days of school. My plane arrived back in Portland on Thursday night around midnight and I did not actually go to sleep till about 1:30 AM. So, after all the traveling this summer and this last late night, I was feeling super-fried and tired and pretty much just “Do I really have to do this?” on the ride to school Friday morning.
The chairs in my classroom still needed to be arranged and I had nothing on the lesson plan. But, riding along on this cool, cloudy September morning, I was strangely at peace – more than I have ever been on the first day in sixteen years of teaching – because I have committed to working with completely emergent language and no pre-planning. I actually had the thought, “This is the perfect start to the year, because I am simply too fried to plan.” I met Rhea, who will be student teaching with me this year, for coffee, and we did not even talk about school! We talked about our friends, our summers, our lives, and an epic night at the Bye and Bye we had enjoyed in August. We enjoyed each other’s company and connected as friends and colleagues.
And you know what? We got to school, we arranged the chairs (Mike, I used your four groups of nine arrangement, and it is a great setup!), and then classes started. And it went great. Better than great. It was joyful. With just my intuition in the moment to guide us, very joyful and successful classes emerged.
What helped me to teach successful classes with literally NO IDEA what I was going to do, talk about, or accomplish (other than providing comprehensible input)?
- Speak slowly and clearly and with good humor and love. Speak so slowly it is painful for me. If it is not painful for me, it is painful for the students.
- Pause and point, like, EVERY. TIME. Embrace the time it takes to slowly walk to the board and point. And then, with your hand on the L2 word, scan the room to make sure that their faces show comprehension. I once heard that we should treat each word like a golden coin dropping into a deep well, and wait till we hear the thunk at the bottom.
- Write L1 and L2 on the board whenever anything new is said. Even things you would assume they know. Even “gracias”. Even “moment” – in French one would think kids can get “moment” with no L1 translation – but it sounds so different. Kids literally gasped in amazement seeing that what sounds like “mamuh” is “moment”. Cognates really aren’t. And if kids stop trusting that you will make it comprehensible, you have lost their hearts. It is much easier to keep trust than to regain it. Support them with L1 and they will quickly learn to trust you.
- Enjoy and embrace kids’ breaking the classroom rules. With patience, good humor, and smile, point silently to the rule and make it clear with a sweeping look around the room that you expect this rule to be followed. I walked over to that poster at least eighteen times per period. It makes me happy to do so. Because soon, in a few weeks, I will be enjoying a well-trained class that knows how to listen.
- Acknowledge kids. A lot. Make them “the best, smartest, most talented, most famous, most amazing people in the world.” Applaud them, literally. We applauded the kid who got the first class job (hall pass kid), the second class job (person who takes the picture of the board between classes and erases the language that emerged in the previous class), kids who spoke in L2 (yes, there were a couple even on Day One), we applauded ourselves as a group for listening so well, it was like the Emmys up in there today, so much applausing
- Train kids to be patient as you write on the board. I literally have them applaud themselves for waiting silently as I turn my back and write on the board. (This is hella important since I will be spending many a minute writing on the board throughout the course of the year.) The FIRST TIME I need to write something on the board in L1 and L2, I stop halfway through, and, as if I am blown away with surprise that they are listening silently, I write “Silencio” (or “Silence”) on the board, tell them “¡El silencio es MAGNIFICO!” and have them applaud themselves. Then for the next week or so we will frequently applaud the class’ silence. (Sometimes we give “un aplause silencioso para el silencio” and clap without touching palms…cause it is funny.) This positive reinforcement will pay off throughout the year as I write peacefully on the board and do not feel rushed by the fear that I will lose them while I write.
- Do not fear L1. You have to invest in kids at the beginning of the year. And the middle of the year. And the end too. You have to give some time in L1 to build those relationships that make kids want to be there and want to listen. You need to be a community first and a language community second. Unscripted, unplanned L1 interaction shows kids you care about them as people. As the year goes on, I will be talking more and more in L2 and less and less in L1, but right now I do not fear L1 as long as we can get a nice flow of L2 going from time to time, so we know how it feels as we ease our way into the year as a group. So, I shared about the conference and I asked kids about their summers, and I talked about the rules a bit, and we assigned a few student jobs, and we talked logistics (like how to put materials under your seat. In one class, a student invented a new job, of policing kids’ materials and taking away house points from their group if their materials are in the way! I love this – emergent class jobs! What if I had been more invested in “covering” a lesson plan? This student’s idea – a great one – would have likely been lost. Because I had the attitude of “Let’s see what emerges”, the space was there for her to offer this brilliant suggestion and now she has a cool new role in class, and the cookie part is I won’t have to trip over kids’ binders and such!)
- Give mini-brain breaks. After about fifteen to twenty minutes, kids need to process. Probably in L1. That is OK. A minute of L1 to “talk about what we have learned so far” is time well spent. Even if they are not talking 100% on task, who cares? They will come back to you refreshed. Listening and understanding is rigorous, hard work.
I noticed that this training has little to do with what is in my brain and a lot to do with the body and heart. This training is more a mental stance, an attitude, a disposition, based on a mindset that all I need to do is provide understandable messages that people will pay attention to. I rest myself in Krashen’s and Chomsky’s elegant findings on the simplicity and beauty of the human brain, and what we need to give it to let it do what it is designed to do. I rest myself in the years of training I have gotten from my incredible mentor,Ben Slavic, a true educator and a pure soul. I rest myself in the community of support and love that has grown up around Ben, and nurtured me and so many others. Thanks, fellow human beings!