When someone gets something specially customized or custom-fit, a client is usually told, “We don’t fit you to the ___, we fit the ____ to you.” Many times, that can also be said for education, and for me, morphing into Teaching with Comprehensible Input over the past nine years was my way of doing that for my students. Using TCI, I am able to let the students guide their own learning, and it has been tremendously freeing for both them and me.
My TCI journey started before I even realized. Coincidentally, my first teaching job interview in 2007 asked if I was trained in TPRS, and I wasn’t, but got the job anyway. My department head that year, who was trained in TPRS, did (and still does) an incredible job of merging TPRS with pop-up grammar and TCI, yet I felt way too overwhelmed with starting out to really make it my own. If only I had known…
In the fall of 2010, I began making storytelling vocabulary input PowerPoints for my students. They included images of celebrities, me, and students, all put in the context of the textbook’s chapter vocabulary, and were really, really engaging … for a day or two. Then, they weren’t so engaging, because we went right back to the grammar-based instruction i.e. workbook and textbook. Time after time, I found myself up against what had been really, really compelling input and then how to merge it back with what I was “supposed to teach.”
Eventually, I got to where I was able to use the material from those same presentations as assessments – therefore recycling what I had created and I became more confident doing so. I was presenting and sharing them at state and regional conferences to other teachers, also anxious to get away from the book’s prescribed structure, and excitedly, I was more self-assured in that I was doing the right thing.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied, and knew that there was more work to do. More difficult and critical yet, there was more self-reflection to do. In the spring of 2013, in a department divided, I was forced to confront my level one students’ lack of output and preparedness for level two. It was a departmentally public, embarrassing wake-up call to a truth that I had not realized – with my use of the textbook as a guide, and teaching my students explicit grammar, right vs. wrong, ser vs. estar, conocer vs. saber, imperfect vs. preterite, I had produced students not comfortable with or actually able to produce much comprehensible language. Furthermore, their confidence hadn’t been fostered as they had merely been graded – percentages and rubric points reflected their alleged linguistic worth, not their proficiency or skill set. It was a far cry from where I needed to be, and I knew it, but had no idea where to start
Then came the summer of 2015. [dun dun dunnnnn!] I attended the TELL Collab in Austin, TX, and joined the CI/iFLT Facebook community (in the same week). When I say that the ideas and inspiration flooded in like never before, I mean it nearly literally – ideas and motivations that had gone dry were instantly quenched, replenished, and there was life again. I finally had an idea as to how I could incorporate my goals in a way that aligned with proven teaching practices AND my personality, i.e. I wanted to be innovative while still feeling like myself and that I would be taken seriously as a teacher’s teacher. (Specifically, my goals were to increase my use of authentic resources, teach my students about proficiency levels [to then use them], and incorporate the six ACTFL Core Practices).
Thanks to that Facebook page, and networking with other TPRS/TCI/iFLT teachers, my professional network has grown considerably, I’ve received innumerable resources (both ideas AND files: teacher manna from heaven!) and this year has been nothing short of epic. As a professional, I know that my practices are backed by research, and that I’m using and creating quality, effective materials. I can finally defend, if needed, why I am moving (read: sprinting) away from a grammar-based curriculum and diving into one that is a stream of authentic resources, interpersonal communication with a relevant, explicit purpose, and consequently (and most importantly!) student engagement.
An example of this came around October of this school year, October 2015. Because my students’ experience had been talking about Spanish and not in Spanish (which I had been guilty of in the past, too, this isn’t a slam against their level one teacher), they were hesitant to write anything they knew, focus on quantity knowing that quality would follow, and listen to understand – it wasn’t what they had been trained to do, and they weren’t fully invested. I became nervous that maybe I had jumped in too quickly… until a Friday story re-tell writing assignment. That particular Friday, I had increased the minimum word count and was nervous – they had to beat their own, individual previous word count to get a certain percentage grade (+30 words was an 85%, +40 words was a 95%, and so on). Still suspicious about my judging comprehensibility over perfection, about five minutes in, a student in sixth period suddenly put her hands down, looked up at me desperately and said, “I don’t know how to spell [word]!” I walked over, knelt down, and calmly said, “It isn’t a spelling test. Just shoot for being as understandable as possible, we’ll go from there.” The look on her face showed me it finally clicked – it actually clicked that I wasn’t going to tear her paper apart with red pen, stifle her language-learning enthusiasm, or make her feel small for forgetting an accent mark – she looked at me, and, I’ll never forget, breathed an audible, visible sigh of relief, and began writing feverishly. In that moment, she may have just been re-writing La Llorona, but I saw a student feel empowered and re-enfranchised. She wasn’t an “average” or “bad” or “decent” Spanish language learner based on what grade she was earning – she was someone who could write a Spanish story in 100+ words, totally from memory, and she saw how incredible that could be. I realized, too, that we were on the right track, and that I was doing the right thing by and for my students. As I tell them nearly every day, we don’t visit the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, or Leaning Tower of Pisa to point out the broken, rusty parts. We go to marvel at the wonder of these landmarks, and the same should be true for our students’ work – if we constantly point out the parts that are lacking, they are going to start attaching that to their identity in our class, for better or worse. That was also the day I stopped calling it “grading” and started saying I was “touring” their work and rather than mark errors, I now highlight my favorite/the most impressive parts of their writing.
Moments like that are what keep me motivated, and motivation, as we know, is like deodorant – we need it every. single. day. My goals, materials, and ideas are really streamlining, and I am so lucky to be part of an extremely receptive and supportive group of like-minded professionals: good for the brain, and good for the soul. Plus, my students are engaged, invested in their language learning process, giving really great, constructive feedback, and progressing like crazy. Happy teacher win!
The days until iFLT this summer are slowly counting down, and I cannot wait to re-connect with colleagues-turned-friends plus grow my understanding of the methods I now can’t live without, and of course get more ideas. Chattanooga or bust!
Meredith White is a Spanish teacher at Bartlett High School in Memphis, Tennessee. She has been teaching for 8 years and was recently named a 2016-2017 PBS Digital Innovator. Follow her on twitter @TNSpanish.