Posted in teaching, Uncategorized

Language Learning: The New Math

(Don’t worry, this is just a Google Series intermission!)

As I was cleaning the kitchen, a thought occurred to me: “Write me a problem whose answer is 4.”. What an amazing application this type of backwards learning has in math. 

Scaffolded: “Write me a polynomial which can be simplified to 4x + 1.” 

Scaffolded again: “Write me a polynomial which can be simplified to 4x + 1 in more than 3 steps.”. 

Again: “Draw me a line with a slope of ___ and write the equation (f(x))”. 

You may have noticed that I’m not a math teacher. But I amAnd, if you are a language teacher reading this… chances are, you are too.

I hear from parents (and students) all the time: But, my child is SO good at English! Well, that’s great, I reply, but the problem is, learning a second language has more in common with Calculus and Algebra, than it does with English Class.

Sure! I teach transition phrases and how to write a paragraph or how to write a sentence instead of a fragment (where is your verb?!?!?!?). Sure! We read literature and analyze it and look for cultural connections. Sure! We do all of that. In Spanish.

BUT, you see, we also look at grammar. Sometimes, explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Those explicit moments are sometimes needed, but often, they are the reason kids end up hating their language class as much as they hate their math class. And, they can’t figure out why.

This is why. A new theory is on the rise in the world of linguistics, that, as far as I have researched, I happen to agree with. It is the mathematical analysis and comparison of linguistic structures to the math of the world. You see, math makes the world work. Science is math applied. Math makes it all make sense. Languages have to end up making sense in order to communicate a message, and it turns out, that is a job math can do. Grammatical sentences are complex formulas, and just past that equal sign (=) is the message you communicate. When your formula is bad, your message is too.

All of these revelations and random thoughts of math while I clean my kitchen, bring me to a few points.

  1. Just as language teachers are moving away from the explicit teaching of Grammar… and seeing amazing results… math teachers are going to have to do the same. Unfortunately, this means that this change will need to be reflected in the standards as well. Just as language standards have become communicative (answer based), math standards will have to do the same. Instead of process based, we’ll need standards like, “Students will engineer a bridge… ect.”; because they can’t meet that standard without implicit math. Math standards will need to be results based.
  2. Language teachers need to be cognizant of their students who struggle in math and communicate with these students’ parents. This will prevent the poop-storm that ensues when said kid struggles and their parents are blindsided–because they thought Spanish was an English class.
  3. The example problems I mentioned above are similar to the ones language teachers use in their classroom every day. Compare:
    1. “Tell me 2 things you like to do.” 
    2. “Write me a paragraph explaining what you would do if  “X” happened.” 
    3. “Tell me your favorite memory as a child.” 

In each of the above examples, we give the kids a product, and they must fumble with the pieces to come up with an answer. Like in math, we give formulas, functional chunks, that kids use in the gap to achieve the task.

What do you think?

-CL

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Posted in teaching, Uncategorized

Everything i learned is wrong

I’ve learned over the past 2-3 years, as I’ve moved from proficient to fluent in Spanish… that everything i’ve learned is wrong.

Not everything, but a lot of things. For instance, lots of the “rules” that we teach kids in Spanish, aren’t really true. Not every sentence that starts with “Ayer” has the preterite. Not all of the rules we learn and teach fit into spoken, normal, everyday Spanish.

Recently, I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting a lady who is a true genius and actually re-wrote Spanish grammar to reflect simple truths about Spanish. Her book is called “Spanish Grammar for the Independent Learner”. I intend to use it with my upper level classes next year, and in the future, from the beginning in any class that I teach.

As teachers, let’s not perpetuate the reasons that kids hate Spanish/ Foreign Language.

Another great read, kind of a “pep rally” for Foreign Lang. teachers is Chapter 2 of this Texas Framework.

-CL

Posted in teaching

Things that work: Tiered assignments

No matter the subject area, no matter the school, no matter the class or the individuals in it, as teachers we realize that students have different goals for their learning, and we have different goals for their learning too.

Don’t get me wrong: The standards are the same. I just mean, that maybe we know a kid needs to work on a certain skill, or maybe we know where he wants to go in life, or how he is motivated, so we cater to that in our instruction.

One way to do this is though differentiated assignments. For instance, assignment “menus” where students pick various tasks within the menu to complete to demonstrate their competence.

One neat idea I’ve toyed with in the past, but actually go to use for the first time this school year is the idea of tiered assignments. The fact is: students learn language at different paces. Sure, we can aid that pace, but we can’t completely control it. This year, I had to come to grips that I had to provide (with 22 kids in the room) the same, somewhat modified, instruction to all of my kids (sure, i could supplement in small groups, etc.) knowing that half where native speakers of Spanish, and half were not. …and knowing that the content of the instruction was vital knowledge for their learning.

I had to come to grips with the fact that after a reading selection, the summaries of the native speaking 2nd graders would be full, developed, grammatically “ok”….while my non-native speakers at different proficiencies could do, well, various things. Some of them could tell me, some could draw it, some could write it…but not well, some could give me a better paragraph than a native Spanish speaker could.

In order to facilitate learning and gradable assignments, I started using this idea of different levels of assignments that targeted the same skill but required different levels of language proficiency to complete.

Taking this from a content based 2nd grade Dual Language classroom… back to secondary next year… here’s what I’d like to do:

Teach AP Spanish in the same classroom with my Spanish 3’s. I’d like to give them the same/ similar content…but, give them tiered assignments. You see, what happens a lot in smaller AP Spanish programs is this: the AP kids get stuck in the back of a room and do “independent study” aka: automatic “A” & probably not gonna pass…….

Instead, I’d rather teach them all–but then modify the assignments to meet them where they are in their proficiency and assess their progress that way.

It worked with 2nd graders… ask me next summer if it works with AP 🙂

Posted in teaching

things that worked: teaching conjugations.

Over the last year, I have had the chance to try a lot of things with a lot of different kids. I have been in: Middle school Spanish, Spanish 1, Spanish 2, Spanish 3, AP Spanish and ESOL classrooms working with kids and helping them learn something that matters.

Anybody reading this who has taken a foreign language knows about the dreaded conjugation. However, chances are… unless you still speak or teach that language, you probably remember next to nothing about how to do it, when to do it or why to do it. Which is why I took a different approach.

With the exception of my middle school (beginning Spanish) students… all of the students I worked with this year learned how to conjugate from somebody other than me. And, as a result the paradigm shift between what they learned and what I wanted to teach them was much to large to grasp… so I had to work with what they learned. BUT! In my middle school Spanish class, I got them before they ever learned conjugations from anyone else… and it was awesome.

Here is a small recap of what is usually taught:(im gonna use -ar verbs as my example…)

(Students have a list of verbs: Hablar, llegar, llevar, etc.) We tell them that these are verbs, and that in order to use them we have to conjugate them. How do we do that? Well!

You drop the “-ar” part and add an ending. The ending depends on who the subject of the sentence is.

If the subject is:                                         Then you use this ending:

yo                                                                     -o

tú                                                                    -as

él, ella, Ud.                                                   -a

nosotros                                                         -amos

ellos, Uds.                                                      -an

 

Here are the problems I see with this method. First of all, it is grammar heavy… in a world where we are phasing out formal grammar and replacing it with basic grammar accompanied by things our students can actually use. These kids, no matter how old, are all confused by the word conjugation, and even though they receive some grammar instruction through 11th grade… chances are they haven’t located the subject of the sentence or the verb in a sentence in at least 2 years by the time we, as foreign language teachers, get them. Now, instead of changing the way we teach to help students learn better… we jam this “formula” in to their heads–knowing full well that they don’t have the grammar background to use it with success.

I have sat with student after student who struggles with this concept and lets is ruin his or her love for the language.

Here’s what I did instead. I thought of something our kids ARE learning in their English classes that is related to conjugations. As a linguistics lover, I have never been able to ignore the fact that conjugations are just manipulations of morphemes to change the meaning of the word being used for the subject of the sentence… (if that lost you: read: Conjugations use root words and suffixes to change the meaning of the word.) Our kids are being suffocated with SAT prep etc. and that stuff is full of prefixes, suffixes, root words, etc. That is something kids know and they know it well. I thought… well, heck! I’ll just use that!

So, to start out, I gave the students all of the vocabulary for the unit, and had them look up the words. This vocabulary included the infinitives (like Hablar, llegar, & llevar). For nearly a week we used all of these words just as vocabulary words, learning what they mean and being able to recognize them.

Then, one day, I had students open up their textbooks to a page in the chapter completely in Spanish. And… I made them translate it. They were angry. and flustered. and very loud about it. The things I heard were, “This is too much!” “We don’t know this much Spanish yet!” “I don’t recognize a single word!” When they calmed down enough to let me talk… I informed them that every word on that page was a word we had learned together before, or was a word from our current vocabulary list. They just stared at me. Still angry I was going to make them do sooo much work.

They settled down and started working. About 30 seconds later 5 hands shoot into the air.

“Yes, Kevin?” I say.

“But this word isn’t on our list!”

“What word is it?”

“Its in the 2nd sentence. It says, ‘Yo hablo con mi amigo.’ We don’t have ‘hablo’ on our list.”

“You’re right. Everyone listen up. (Class looks up.) What word from our list looks just like ‘hablo’?”

(The kids think for a second. Some take out their list to compare…) Suddenly the class yells “Hablar!”

“And what does hablar mean?”

“To speak or to talk.”

“Exactly, so, what do you guys think this sentence means?”

“I to talk to my friend.”–someone says.

“Kind of. Does that sound right in English???”

“Oh! True! Maybe it means, “I talk to my friend.” ? Right?”

“Yep. See you guys have everything you need to do this. Go ahead. If you have a question, ask the people around you before you ask me, ok?”

You see, what I did wasn’t a simple translation. It wasn’t torture. It was in-context learning. The kids figured out that the same word can look a little bit different and mean something just a little bit different too.

After we went over the translations together, I asked the kids, “Was that easy, medium or hard?” They all shouted “Easy!

The next day the kids came in and we talked about the vocabulary words on our list that ended in “-ar”. The students knew that they were verbs, and I said, “Can I use the word the way it is now? Think about it. Did you see the word “Hablar” at all yesterday in the passage?” They suddenly realized… that no. They usually do not see the word written with the -ar at the end.

Using sentences from the passage they had translated, we went over the words again.

“Yo hablo con mi amigo.”

“Tú hablas mucho.”

“Ella habla con la maestra.”

“Nosotros hablamos en clase.”

“Ellos hablan con los chicos.”

I asked the students a critical question: What do they think the root of the word is? And what do they think that root word means?

After a minute of discussion amongst themselves, they answered, “habl” must be the root, because its in all the forms of the word that we have seen. And, it probably means “talk” since that part never changes.

Then I asked, “What are the different suffixes we have used?–Make a list with your partner.”

They come up with a list like this one: “ar”, “o”, “as”, “a”, “amos” & “an”.

Now, I said, ” Just like in English, suffixes change the meaning of a word a little bit. Write down what you and your partner think are the meanings of these suffixes.”

This is what I got:

  • -ar = to
  • -o = i
  • -as = you
  • -a = he or she
  • -amos = we
  • -an = they

Then I showed them the words again. “hablo” -What does this one mean? The class all says, “I talk.”

You see, what they learned are vocabulary words… not conjugations and formulas. They learned to recognize that the ending has its own meaning and tells you something special about the word.

Instead of having entire classes (like in my Spanish 1-Ap Spanish classes… grr!) of students writing things like “Yo hablar mucho” (I to talk alot). These kids would say, “Hey! That one doesn’t make sense. You used the wrong word. You should have used “hablo”.”

And you know what? These kids really had it. It took more time on the front end, but when we got to -er/ -ir verbs… they caught right on. To them, seeing “amos” is the same as seeing the ending “tion” at the end of a word. They just know that it means something important, and they use that to inform how they listen, read, write and speak. 🙂

So. That’s one thing that worked.

-CL

Posted in professional development

A journey through…. Technology?

Well, tomorrow ends a short, but intense journey through educational technology. I find it interesting that I am young, and have, until now, lived so successfully–and unaware, of so many great and useful technologies. This course has taught me a lot of things, but the most important are these:

-Successful integration of technology puts pedagogy first.

-I need to be resourceful. There are a lot of free resources out there, and I need to continue to find them, learn them, and use them when they will help my students.

-Technology changes and evolves. And so should I. Continuing my professional development so that my teaching can stay relevant is key : )