Much of the reasoning behind what I do is based upon my discoveries of what did not work with my groups when I tried it. I suppose that while I'm at it, we should also look at the experience, perspective and biases I bring to the table. My beliefs about language learning and their way of approaching language learning both come heavily to bear on what my classroom practice ends up looking like on a given week.
First let's talk about me. When I was in high school, I discovered a facility for language learning. After raking in top prizes and awards in German, I decided to see if I had the same ability to master Spanish. Yes, I won blue ribbons in poetry declamation and extemporaneous reading in both languages at an annual state-wide foreign languages festival in the same year. I became a ravenous student of languages--studying French at university during the day and classical Latin, Demotic Greek, Italian for Business and Travel as continuing education courses at night. Portuguese I studied on my own using Berlitz records. Yes, vinyl LPs!
In each case, I did my best to find a friend who was a native speaker and then offered this person something in exchange for just hanging out with me speaking his/her mother tongue. In some cases I traveled to a country where I could practice. At the age of 21, I went to Japan where I lived for a year with a Spaniard. I insisted we have a completely traditional Japanese household without chairs or forks. In keeping with "when in Rome, do as the Romans," I offered my subway seat to any male I saw standing. I was all in, as they say. I wanted the experience of full immersion. Because Xavier was a graduate fellow at the University of Hokkaido, I qualified for free Japanese classes every week day. I was a student of the same sort of classes I teach today. The Japanese we learned was intended to help us learn to navigate life on campus. We learned to say things like, "Where is the cafeteria?" and "Go past the engineering building and turn right. It's just past the library." The text book was excellent. It came with a set of cassette tapes that I listened to over and over at night in the small apartment we rented on the low-income side of town.
In case you haven't guessed yet, my approach to language learning is obsessive. I want to listen to target language (TL) radio, watch TL television, and learn the lyrics to TL songs. If I run into compatriots in public, I refuse to speak our common mother tongue. That's me. I wonder what biases spring from this perspective and how those inform my approach!
And what about my students?
The LINC Seniors' class was mandated by the government to be one of the specialty niche classes warranting a lower student-teacher ratio--about ten students maximum per class instead of the 20-25 found in mainstream classes. In that way it's not unlike my afternoon literacy class.
|Getting library cards|
Through a series of needs assessments, I have learned which settlement themes and topics they want us to explore. I've also discovered that the Chinese students do not want me to spend any class time on writing. "We don't need to know how to write a composition anymore," they tell me. "We don't need to write resumes," they add. It's why they've migrated here from another school where they were integrated with younger students.
What DO they need me for? The Chinese students want me to help them improve their listening skills and pronunciation. And the Iraqis? They seem content to build their vocabulary and gain the knowledge imparted during a typical semester of settlement English: how to use a bank machine, what is considered polite and rude in this culture, that sort of thing. The entire class enjoys daily opportunities for oral practice. Neither the Asian nor the Middle Eastern seniors want me to spend much time on explicit grammar lessons. About once or twice in a semester we do a sort of on-demand week of grammar. Last term it was a four-week course on the English article system woven in among topical lessons. This semester it was causative verbs and passive causative after one Dictogloss team had written on their chart paper, "M's uncle took his prostate out."
So my big challenge is helping the Chinese students improve their listening skills. Now before I tell you next week what I am doing in class these days, let me tell you what hasn't worked. My attempt at a "Listening Boot Camp" pretty much failed in every way. You can read about that using the following links:
The Listening Skills Dilemma
Listening Boot Camp - Week One
Listening Boot Camp - Week Two
Okay, well that's enough from me for one week! Next week I hope to share not which practices and approaches I've abandoned, but which techniques I'm now employing and how that's going.