Smiles today from a normally blasé group of 8th graders. Thank you Dr. Bill VanPatten!
Recently at the ACTFL 2016 conference in Boston, I made a beeline for all the sessions focused on proficiency via comprehensible input. Many peer-reviewed studies in SLA (second language acquisition) over the past 30 years have shown that explicit language (grammar) instruction avails little. If you just google Stephen Krashen, a leading researcher in this field, you’ll find plenty to sample.
For the crazy week before the holiday break, I decided to try out a task-based activity that would take 3 days and be appropriate for all 3 of my levels in the middle school. My ulterior motive was to give the students comprehensible input (not instruction) on the plural forms of present tense verb (we….you all…they…. want/prefer/ask for). The 3-day task’s goal was for the students to find out how they and their classmates rated on a scale of very materialistic to hardly materialistic.
For Day 1 I put together a google document with photos of 6 different categories of people: children, teens, moms, dads, grandmothers and grandfathers. I searched online ‘top presents for children in France 2016’ and so forth. I added those photos and then wrote sentences in French as though I were interviewing these people. Here’s a sample of some of my sentences displayed next to the photos of the people and the presents:
- Who are you all?
- We are moms
- Are you all American moms?
- What do you all want for a present?
- We are asking for kitchen gadgets and this year a ‘sushi bazooka’
On the first day, I spent about 30 -35 minutes interacting with my students in French, based on the photos and information. Questions included asking them to predict what a group might say, whether THEY personally wanted what the French kids/teens reported and a lot of verifying information.
When I repeated the same Day 1 class with the 7th graders, I was able to invite my principal to come in and observe. I wanted him to see what I was trying out from the ACTFL conference to which our school had so generously sent me and 7 other world language teachers.
Jeff sat in for the entire class (a gift of time from a busy man)! Afterwards, after commending a few aspects, he offered one suggestion that I found valuable. He explained that as a middle school class, even though they were highly engaged and interacted with enthusiasm, they would have benefitted from a change in activity in the middle of the 35 minutes.
The time was right for me to hear and GET that. And over the next 24 hours, I let my imagination percolate. When Day 2 of the activity arrived, I divided our class time for all levels into 3 different mini-activities. And that worked! Our activities included a drawing recap of some of the groups and presents. (I narrated ‘facts’ and students sketched the content in their notebooks.) Then together with their partners, they retold the ‘facts’ in French. An individual survey of gift possibilities followed, just a quick 3-5 minute input-based reading of choices, using language with which they were growing familiar. Then they had to interview classmates about their top gift request. I had the questions written out for them to use.
For 2 of the classes, we had 5 minutes toward the end of class to come back together as one group and tabulate top boy and girl gifts and draw some conclusions.
On the 3rd day, I spent a few minutes showing and talking about French Christmas songs and the emphasis on FOOD over presents in French culture. We discussed in a mixture of French and English what their culinary holiday traditions were. Then I set them loose to interview, in English, whomever they could find in the hallways about their gift preferences. They returned to class and we watched the short videos, giggling over the responses.
Overall, I feel gratified by what both the students and I learned through this 3-day task activity.
Teaching is an art and we only get better with practice and a humble willingness to try and fail and take advice.