Sunday, September 25, 2011

Students Who Just Aren't Getting It?

What to do about students who seem not to be “getting it?” And what about teaching grammar?

I received the following two-part question this week from a friend of mine:

So how do you help failing kids who just don't get it (a very small few)? I tend to feel like --oh well, !!! If they were there and still after all the circling...I have some kids who struggle with vocab and reading in English, much less Spanish!

Also, with level 2 I am finding I am really teaching them how to do verb chart for present tense because without the concept (which I didn't touch in level 1) or conjugating, they can't really learn any grammar.

My response:

Those few that seem lost no matter how many times you go over it...well, I keep having patience as best I can hoping they are learning at least something. I can usually tell that they are picking up at least a bit of language when I have them write 10-minute essays, even if they are bombing all the quizzes and tests, and then that makes me feel better about it. I don't think there is anything you can do except to keep teaching the best you can and wait for them to bloom. I have had students recently - two boys immediately come to mind - who seemed at first not to be picking up anything. One of them was miserably bombing every quiz and test and could barely write two sentences on a 10-min essay, but I just kept encouraging him. By the end of Spanish 1, he could write 4-5 sentences and was able to tell me the basic skeleton of a story in Spanish for the final, so honestly, I counted that as gain. (This kid was on an IEP too.) The other guy was just very slow acquiring Spanish. After struggling through Spanish 1, he took Spanish 2 and that was when I saw him start to show more language growth. In level 2 he usually managed to get 80-85 words on 10-minute essays, and over time that writing looked more and more like real Spanish :-). I think patience is key and just hanging in there. You might talk to them (if you haven't already) and ask them what is making Spanish hard for them, what would help them learn it better, etc.

Grammar, yes. We are teaching some conjugating in level 1, and quite a bit of explicit grammar in level 2. I'm not sure it is producing much growth in terms of language production, but it seems to satisfy our departmental desire to see them doing grammar. :-) My main mode of instruction is still stories to deliver comprehensible input.

She followed up by asking me when I start 10-minute essays in level 1. My response:

I start 10-minute essays in Spanish 1 the first day. Of course, that first day they can usually only make a list of words, but it sets up that expectation (of writing essays and getting a certain number of words.) I have them write another after about 6 weeks. At that point, they can usually do paragraphs composed of very basic sentences. I put up a stick figure drawing and have them write a story about it. For me, this is a very useful assessment technique that shows you what language they have acquired enough to produce on paper. No dictionaries, 10 minutes to write just off the top of your head. I do let them ask me for individual words as they write, but only some kids take me up on that, and you can tell that they are writing pretty fluently with or without your help usually. If you haven't done it, try it! Your kids might surprise you in what they can put down. The first time might be a little slow going until they get used to the idea, but over time they really do see improvement and you will too.

My own favored approach with struggling kids is to keep encouraging, keep helping, keep trying to show them that a) I expect them to learn Spanish, and b) I believe that they can learn Spanish. Everyone acquires at different rates, and I’ve seen over and over that kids who start out slow can still make progress. I admit, I do get discouraged at times with certain ones, but I try not to ever let it show.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"High Expectations" and My Perfectionism

Okay, so the school year began three weeks ago, and this is the first weekend I feel I can even remotely catch my breath.

Biggest triumph so far? My level 3 students and I are making up some hilarious stories together and having a blast doing it. They definitely buy into this game of Stories-To-Learn-Vocab now, after two years with me. They are doing the gestures and coming up with crazy, fun stuff. I was going to just draw stick figures on the board and not make them get up and act this year, but they are begging to act things out now. What a switch from year 1 when I had to coerce them into acting.

Biggest struggle so far? My head. I'm obsessed with how my classes are going, for better or worse. I want to speak Spanish more. I want them to speak Spanish more. I want every single moment of every class to be incredible. I want everything I do to go over like gangbusters, to be awesome, to be the most perfect thing anyone's ever seen in a Spanish class. Guess how realistic that is?

"This is level 3," I keep telling myself. "I should be speaking Spanish 95% of the time!" Or, "They're in level 3 and they STILL don't get preterit/imperfect!" Or, "They should know more vocab by now." Or, "I have to get to such-and-such grammar point ASAP!!! We're already behind!"

Incidentally, I'm way harder (in my head) on myself and my students in my level 3 classes, because I've had these kids for two years. The Level 4/AP Spanish class is more relaxed for me psychologically because I didn't teach these kids and don't know them, so my expectations for them are more flexible. Odd, too, since that class has this hellishly difficult exam coming up in May, which will clearly delineate the quality of my teaching for all to see.

I have had to spend some time this past week talking myself down a bit, because I store all my stress in my back, and it's been extremely painful and stiff lately. It's okay if I don't get to every single grammar point, every project, and every piece of literature I had planned and (gasp!) published in my syllabus. (It's in the syllabus, so obviously I MUST do it ALL!) Who sets these bizarre expectations for me? I'm suddenly the "lead" Spanish teacher in my department now, one! No one but me. Come to find out, I'm a taskmaster, and I have to stop it.

So the 3's need more work in preterit and imperfect. Guess what? So do I, and I've been studying Spanish for years and years. That's no big catastrophe. We just keep teaching it until they get it.

I have to do the subjunctive this year, along with about 4 other tenses I sometimes don't remember the names of. I'm intimidated; I'll be honest with you. But I know I'm a good teacher, and I never give up on anyone. I'll keep teaching them (and myself) until we all get it.

Does anyone else out there struggle with perfectionism in their teaching? How do you deal?

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