Albert Fernández’ story speaks to the natural tendency of teachers to replicate the same methods that our own teachers used, especially when we are in “survival mode”, and just getting our teaching legs under us.
Albert’s blog, Señor Fernie, shares his thoughts on CI teaching from a stance of “I’m trying this all out and sharing how it’s going for better and for worse…and if I can do it, anyone can do it.” On his blog, Albert also shares stories that he and his students have written, and you can download them here.
I recently chatted with Albert about his session on the Spanish Teacher Success Academy online conference. You can access that conference FREE through March here.
Here’s the 30-minute video on Albert’s session “Moving Away from Grammar-Based Teaching”.
Each story in this series will offer an opportunity to share your story too, and enter for a chance to win prizes that will help build our collective capacity as a teaching community. My goal in sharing these stories is to help people see the commonalities in the struggles that we all go through at one point or another in our journeys.
If Albert’s story speaks to you, please leave a comment below that shares part of YOUR teacher story. Two comments will be randomly selected to win one of two prizes:
30 minutes of phone guidance time with Albert OR a guest post on Albert’s blog, to share your experiences trying out CI methods.
If you want to see more of Albert, check out his session at the FREE online conference, Spanish Teachers Success Academy, which runs March 10 through 15, 2019. Be sure to block out some time on your calendar so that you can watch during that time, because the sessions are only available for free during that window, and you don’t want to miss them! You can get your free ticket here. And you can download the free playbook here, which has information from all the presentations! You can purchase lifetime access to the conference or binge-watch as much as you can from March 10 through 15 — your choice!
Albert was a guest on the We Teach Languages podcast in fall of 2018, giving advice for new language teachers. You can listen to the interview here.
Now, on to Albert’s story.
¡Hola a todos! My name is Albert Fernandez.
My CI journey started way before I knew about “CI” as we know it now. I went to graduate school for an MAT in foreign language education and I was familiar with the idea of comprehensible input (language that is comprehensible to the students that is necessary for them to acquire language). But in the 10 years since I graduated, the term “CI” has evolved to mean something much more than just a term used by linguists to describe the kind of language that learners need in order to acquire language.
“CI” is now a movement. It’s become a catch-all term for the methods and techniques used by teachers who have decided that after years of starting novices out by teaching them about the language rather than giving them comprehensible input, maybe it’s time for a change. As I see it, the “CI Umbrella” covers all kinds of activities and methodologies that focus on allowing students to acquire language in as natural a way as possible. I have fully embraced this idea.
But how did I get here?
My first job out of grad school (and the job I currently have) is teaching 1st – 8th Grade Spanish (and now I also teach Kindergarten). I applied, interviewed, and was hired in a whirlwind (all of it happened within 2 days). The principal who hired me, once I got into my room and started setting up said, “OK. Have fun.”
And then I was on my own.
I didn’t have resources from the previous teacher, no order of instruction, no unit plans or lesson plans, no partner teacher to work with, just a set of books originally published in 1987 (this was in 2010, btw) and a classroom. If I left my teaching job now, with almost 10 years of elementary and middle school teaching under my belt, and had this level of freedom, it would be a dream come true. But as a baby teacher, with only a slip of paper saying I was a “Master” of foreign language education, it was terrifying; it was paralyzing. I knew what I should do, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it.
Needless to say, that first year was tough. I fell back on all the things that I knew from going through 12 years of Spanish classes in my life. I didn’t do anything like what I learned about doing in my Master’s program. I was fully in survival mode: Get information, any information, about the language into the kids’ heads, test them on it, and repeat. As the years went by, I grew in confidence and competence in classroom management and teaching (well…teaching grammar) and by my 3rd year of teaching, I was able to control a classroom. The kids and I were able to enjoy Spanish class and have fun learning.
But I still had this voice in the back of my head telling me that I still wasn’t living up to the expectation I had of myself as a Spanish teacher. I wasn’t able to put into action all the strategies and methods I had learned about in grad school. I didn’t have a community of teachers to guide me through. (At the time I called myself a “Lone Wolf” because I thought it sounded cool; the term for it now is “Department of One.”) I was all alone in the school and struggling to live up to the high expectations I felt I was being held to by admin, the legacy of incredible professors, and my own knowledge that teaching grammar rules doesn’t really help students communicate in the TL. There was a gap between my goal for my students (that they move up the proficiency levels) and my instruction (grammar, discrete vocabulary memorization, forced output).
As I went through the first few years of my career teaching grammar rules and having kids memorize hundreds of vocabulary words a quarter, I felt this gap get wider and wider. I felt more and more like I was doing them a disservice. I felt like no matter how well I taught them to fill in blanks, they weren’t learning the skills they would need to actually communicate to someone who isn’t their Spanish teacher.
I have to stop myself here for a moment to point out that there is no correct way to teach language. A criticism of the CI movement is that there is snobbery or elitism and that we look down on teachers who use more traditional methods. I get it, and from the outside, that’s how it might seem, especially with the sort of passionate rhetoric about how much better “CI” is than traditional methods.
But that’s not been my experience. I believe that at the end of the day, it’s our job to do what we feel is best for the students. Every teacher and every class is different and what works for one may not be the best approach for another. Regardless of where you are on the CI spectrum, whether it’s a fully grammar-based curriculum on one end or a Non-Targeted CI curriculum based on students’ interests on the other or anywhere in between, there is no wrong way to teach. There are just ways that are better for us as individuals.
The 2013-14 school year is when the world opened up for me. This was the year that I stumbled upon The Comprehensible Classroom, Sra. Spanglish (now PBLintheTL) and Musicuentos. These are the blogs of Martina Bex, Laura Sexton, and Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, respectively, and they opened my eyes to the world of “CI” as it is known now.
Suddenly, there was a whole world of ideas and approaches to teaching that had high efficacy and were based on the kinds of teaching methods I had learned about in graduate school. Their blogs led me to TPRS and attending a TPRS workshop. This changed my career and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it has changed my entire life. Their blogs also led me to #langchat, a weekly (now bimonthly) twitter chat between language teachers to share ideas and advice about language teaching and to the CI Liftoff and iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching Facebook groups. And they inspired me to start my own blog sharing what I do in my classroom and my students’ work. This has only helped me with making more connections in the world of language teachers.
I encourage everyone I meet to start their own blog (I even wrote a blog post about it!) for reflection and connection with other teachers. Before the language teaching blogger community and before Langchat and Facebook, I was a lone wolf in a dark forest. No one in my school could understand that me doing a good job using outdated methods was not my idea of the best job I could be doing. But the world of CI teachers understood. They had gone through the same things as me! This community is filled with incredible teachers and content creators whose main goal is to help other teachers provide students with the skills to communicate effectively in a language that is not their own using the most modern research-based methods available.
Without the CI movement and TPRS, I would not be where I am today. I am not sure I would even still be teaching. I definitely would not have started blogging or presenting at regional and national conferences. CI has given me a voice in shaping how languages are taught. Come and join us and be part of the conversation. Let your voice be heard, too.
Comment below to share your thoughts and your own story!