Sunday, January 8, 2017

ACTFL16 - Big Idea

Last month I shared a small idea that I brought back from Boston. In this post I want to talk about a BIG idea.

Saturday I attended Paul Sandrock and Donna Clementi's session "Collaboration: A Real World Purpose for Interpersonal Communication." I'll admit this session didn't really fit into my conference goals of focusing on  FLES or assessment & feedback sessions but I'd heard good things about Paul Sandrock and the interpersonal mode is something I struggle to teach so I went. And I was glad I did! Here's what I learned.

"Two presentational statements do not make an interpersonal conversation."

And that right there, folks, changed my world. 

Can my students ask some basic questions? Yes. Can they answer some basic questions? Absolutely. Can they have a conversation where they are actually listening to the other person's statements and responding? Uh, NO. So are they improving their proficiency in the interpersonal mode? Eh, maybe some of them are but not because of anything I'm doing explicitly. 

There are a few reasons why I struggle with the interpersonal mode...

First, the interpersonal mode is not my strong point. I still to this day get nervous when I have to talk with native speakers. I can watch Spanish TV series all day long (El ministerio del Tiempo anyone?)  or even write a 10 page paper but have an impromptu conversation? No thanks. Because it's my weak point in my own language learning it's a weak point in my language teaching. I have to consciously and deliberately think of ways to get my students to have more real interpersonal interactions

Second, elementary age students don't necessarily know how to do this in their L1. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with a 7 year old? It's all about what they want to talk about not what you want to talk about. We learn the absolute basics in kindergarten and 1st grade - eye contact, smile, don't talk at the same time as the other person. This is age appropriate. 

But in the older grades, when I came back from conference I tried to get them to have a REAL conversation not just make 2 presentational statements at each other. I found myself having to model a conversation in English so that they understood why they needed to listen to each other and respond. Some of them still didn't get it but a lot more of them did than before and they should get better with practice. 

The point, however, is that how to have a conversation was something I had to explicitly teach in English for them to understand. And now that I've done that it needs to modeled over and over again so that they internalize it.

And third, interpersonal is HARD for novices no matter what age they are. When limited to lists and memorized phrases it's not that easy to have a back and forth.  Last year they learned how to ask questions like why, where, and when, which works great when talking to me because they can elicit more information but that doesn't work when talking to their classmates and they would switch to English. But if I teach them better phrases than just question words they can stay in the target language. Already with just I agree, I don't agree, Me too, and I prefer ____ I've gotten my 4th graders talking about their favorite animals in a much more authentic way than they had been previously. They can do it IF they have the right tools.

So what does that mean for my classroom?

I've already introduced a few simple changes to existing activities so that students have more of a chance to use the interpersonal mode. In Paul and Donna's presentation they had lots of ideas on how to use collaboration to get students to use that language, specifically using interpretive exercises to encourage interpersonal communication. I use Kagan structures a lot and those already encourage the use of phrases and vocabulary for collaboration and accountability. I need to be more deliberate in making sure I'm teaching and having students use them. 

I need to look at my unit plans and evaluate the interpersonal activities to make sure they are actually interpersonal and not just presentational speaking in disguise. 

I need to research what is developmentally appropriate for my young learners so that I'm not expecting too much from them and so I can teach them interpersonal skills in a way that enhances both their L1 and L2. 

I need to make sure that my activities are things my students actually want to talk about! If they don't care enough to discuss it in English then they are not going to put in the effort to talk about it in Spanish. Luckily, this is not something I struggle with too much. 

So there you have it - my biggest take away from ACTFL16. "Two presentational statements do not make a conversation." I think I might make that a poster and hang it over my desk as a reminder. 

Which of the three modes do you struggle to teach? What are your strategies? Share in the comments below or on Twitter using the hashtag #earlylang!

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