Monday, May 13, 2013

What's Important in a Foreign Language Classroom?

Foreign language teachers... we're our own special breed, aren't we?  Like all teachers, I believe we exude passion.  But we go far beyond that.  Most of us are so passionate about our content areas that we scream "nerd" loudly, clearly, and proudly.  We love the little grammar nuances that make our languages unique, and thrive off of portraying the cultural quirks that make our students squeamish. So how do we bridge the gap between what we find challenging and fun in a foreign language, and what a typical student will find intriguing enough to continue on in the sequence?

Ask a student on the first day of class what they hope to learn in a foreign language, and you will not hear someone say "I want to learn how to conjugate verbs!" Or, "I want to know how to say "the" in all possible ways!" No, students are more likely to say "I want to be able to talk about my (family, hobbies, school, job, interests, etc.).  Are  grammatical aspects of the language going to come into play while introducing those topics?  Absolutely.  Should they be the focus?  I have come to believe that they are less important than books or placement exams portray them to be.

This leads to a good counterargument: if the book expects teachers to teach grammatical concepts A-N in year 1 in order to prepare students for year 2, isn't it the teacher's responsibility to cover them?  And what about those pesky national exams??  They certainly emphasize grammar.  Yep, all true.  In fact, I am really disappointed at national exams for the extent to which they expect students to know grammar.  It's disheartening.  And unrealistic.  A German student who can rattle off all of the charts associated with definite and indefinite article usage will likely  have wide skill gaps when it comes to actually using the language in context.  And most importantly, Germans will not be fooled into thinking a student is proficient just through his or her superior grammatical mastery, especially if the vocabulary does not back it up.  So what are we to do?  How can we have the best of both worlds?

Like I've stated before in my blogs, I do not consider myself to be an expert in the field.  But I do know that I have shaped my teaching to represent student interest, and since I've done that, the program has grown (more than doubled in one year), students are becoming more confident in speaking, and more students are signing up for advanced German.  In this regard I consider myself to be successful, though there are certainly more measures to take into consideration that I didn't mention above.  So here's how I have changed my approach to teaching foreign language:

Teach Grammar, but Be Real
When I introduce verb conjugations, I tell students that this is the one beast that will follow them through their German career, so listen up.  When I teach accusative case, I say that this is how Germans do it, but if they get it wrong, they will still be understood (so don't beat yourself up about it).  I also tell them point-blank that those students who are interested in learning for mastery will want to work with this especially closely, but if you're going for meaning, write it down and try it but don't worry so much.  Most students will actually do better on this topic when I approach it this way.  Regarding the cases, then, in German 2-4 I give them a flow chart as an FYI and let them use it on quizzes, etc.  I will then do mini-lessons on different elements of the chart, but again de-emphasize the importance of memorization (because it takes years to speak it at a steady pace, anyhow).  See the chart below:

Supply Learning Opportunities Outside of Traditional Resources
In the past year or two I have been consistently playing a "song of the week" daily in class.  We will watch the video on Monday, then try singing along to it throughout the rest of the week.  I use StepIntoGerman for many songs, but supplement some of my own favorites (Nena, Revolverheld, Die Toten Hosen) off of YouTube as well.  At first I only printed the German lyrics, but then caved and provided the English, as well. The result?  Countless times I have found myself teaching vocab, and students will say "Oh, that word was in the song ____, right?"  Students are not only paying attention, but they are supplementing their vocabulary without even knowing it!  The same can be said from the use of stories, comics, and other cultural resources.

Answer Students' Questions
Kids are curious about the cultures that go along with our languages.  Now, when high schoolers in particular are full of questions, they can be disruptive ("Frau, can I ask a completely unrelated question?" "You certainly can, but can I finish with this topic first, then we can discuss it?").  It's our job to know the appropriate time to field questions, and we should do this daily. We can't anticipate everything that students want to know about language and culture, and responding appropriately and giving validity to students' questions keep them interested!

Let Students Have Fun
We language teachers know that learning the language should be its own reward, but not every student shares our sentiment.  It's pivotal for us to promote language learning and the fun that can be had through it.  Seek opportunities for students to play games, talk to one another, explore websites (interactive or not), and otherwise provide a relaxed environment that fosters learning.  Give them voice when planning new units, and offer to create collaborative assessments so that they are interested in the product.  This insures buy-in, and I believe that's the most crucial part to a successful classroom today!

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