At iFLT conferences, one of the distinctive features is the language labs: classrooms where highly experienced comprehension-based language teachers teach elementary through high school-aged students. Conference attendees can observe these classrooms, gaining insights from these opportunities to see teaching in real time with young students. A debriefing time after the classes finish for the day allows the lab teacher and the observers to talk about the process of instruction and respond to questions.
The July 2018 iFLT conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, offered a new type of language lab that may offer potential for teacher training in other settings. The iFLT 2018 website described these as teaching labs in which a mentor teacher would work with up to five experienced, apprentice teachers to co-teach adult language classes. These were offered Tuesday through Friday morning (four days of class). For the apprentice teachers, the class was an opportunity to work in a real class setting closely with experienced teacher-trainers to co-teach an intensive class for adult learners. In addition to a opportunity for professional growth for experienced language teachers who attend the conference, this type of language lab could be a model for applications in language teacher education both at the Bachelor’s and Master’s level. Opportunities for similar teacher training could come about from partnerships between teachers, universities, and their communities. In the remaining sections of this article, I will describe the labs in greater detail, share from some of the teachers’ perspectives, and set out some general ideas about how such a model might fit into teacher education programs.
Teaching Labs: Format
Leslie Davison led the Spanish class, and Paul Kirschling led the French class. Both Leslie and Paul have been teaching and training teachers for many years, and have been language lab instructors with younger students numerous times. They also have each been awarded as CCFLT (Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers) Teacher of the Year. Experienced Spanish or French teachers who registered for iFLT applied to be an apprentice teacher by submitting two 10-minute, continuous feed videos that demonstrated their classroom practices. All of the teachers in the labs were very proficient at comprehension-based, communicative language instruction.
Adults from the community and iFLT conference attendees’ families were invited to take the classes, with some language teachers as space permitted. The classes took place each morning of the conference, so iFLT attendees could go observe any of the labs. I thought these co-taught, adult language classes sounded like a really interesting model for teacher training, so I made sure to observe each of them. I also stayed for the half-hour debriefing times after the classes ended so that I could hear from the teachers directly about their experience and ask questions.
Each lab class was a group effort in planning and carrying out instruction. I noticed that one teacher typically guided an instructional strategy, such as PQA (Personalized Questions and Answers), story-asking (as in TPRS), or using a video (such as a modified version of MovieTalk and using a Senor Wooly video). They would then transition to another of the co-teachers who followed up with another strategy. Occasionally, more than one teacher led class together, or one of the teachers interacted with another teacher in the target language more spontaneously, continuing to speak slowly and comprehensibly for the benefit of the beginning-level learners taking the class.
The different interests and personalities of the co-teachers came across to me by which activities they carried out and how they proceeded. It was a nice way to see that many types of personalities thrive in a comprehension-based teaching approach. Teachers do not need to be theatrical, even in activities that involve actors and story co-creation, though the teachers who were more naturally dramatic could be themselves, too. The overall similarity was that they each sought to facilitate students’ opportunities to understand and enjoy what they hear and read, within the communicative context of their class. Leslie Davison, who led the Spanish class, told me that adults taking the class reported liking that variety of teachers: “Many thought it good to have a variety of styles and personalities. I think this speaks to that fact that there is no one style/person to deliver the CI. Provide the input and make the relationships. That is all that is required for success.”
Observing the students in the classes was fun. I saw adults participate by answering questions and acting. I saw the classes on day two and day three, and I noticed that they were using the posters around the room to help recall vocabulary that had been introduced. They took a quick quiz in the Spanish class: four true/false questions about the story they had created together, on which apparently everyone did very well. Throughout class, they smiled, laughed, and seemed generally to be enjoying themselves. I saw two Chinese teacher friends in the French class, where they became actors in a story about wanting a pet cat (or not!). One of my friends shared her French composition after the week ended: she could describe herself, her interests, and motivations — a strong start on her French.
Apprentice Teachers’ Experiences
In debriefing times that I attended, we conference attendees asked the lab teachers what it was like teaching adults compared to teaching in schools. Common responses from those who taught in the labs included a big smile or chuckle and comments like, “very refreshing!” In teaching adults, classroom management issues are almost none, so the focus of the teachers’ attention really could be on providing quality, comprehensible language experiences with the students. Honing the actual language process could take precedence in a way that is sometimes not so easy to do while teaching in a school, where many factors besides language acquisition come into the picture. The feeling of playing with and in the language came across to me while I observed these classes, and there was very little interruption of the flow of target language. I saw some use of English to clarify and check for comprehension, and in non-instructional moments I saw English used to develop connection with the learners.
I contacted some of the apprentice teachers while preparing this article to get to hear from them again after they’d had time to reflect after the conference was over. Bill Langley, who co-taught Spanish, commented that the lack of classroom management issues really allowed him to explore and practice teaching skills. He said, “I can go into my class this year seeing how well CI can work without a bunch of fancy technology tools. They are nice to add novelty but CI by itself works.” Leslie Philips, who also was part of the Spanish lab, mentioned that collaborating and watching the other lab teachers interact with the students were highlights of the experience. Blair Richards, who taught in the French lab, said that, “In retrospect it was THE BEST thing I could have done to get the most out of this conference” as an experienced teacher. She also noted that working with Paul and Allison Litten in the French class felt so natural that students thought they knew each other well, though they had actually just met that week. They each had a different style and perspective, yet the students said that was fun, not confusing. Blair found it to work very smoothly: “At times it felt like all three of us were teaching simultaneously, like one big natural conversation with our students.” She also gained the ability to move seamlessly from asking personalized questions (PQA) into a story through experience in the lab. It sounds like sometimes these labs felt like live coaching. Leslie mentioned that there was simultaneous coaching as teachers led class, but to be honest, as an observer I did not notice that. I think that it must have been silent and subtly given.
Possibilities for Teacher Education
In the debriefing times in both labs, I asked what the lab co-teachers thought about their lab class as a model for pre-service language teachers — maybe before student teaching, being part of a co-taught class for adults with the guidance of an experienced teacher. They thought the model had potential. After one of the debriefing times, a new graduate about to begin her first year as a classroom teacher approached me after the debriefing to say an enthusiastic, “Yes!” that the model would have been very welcome to her before she began student teaching. It makes sense to me: any time we can reduce the number of things that are feeling brand-new, the greater the chances we’ll succeed and enjoy the process. A little edge of challenge is enjoyable, but being overwhelmed is definitely not. (This is one implication of Cognitive Load Theory.)
Of course, at iFLT, the co-teachers were all strong, experienced teachers. Pre-service teachers would probably not yet be at that level of elegance in planning and carrying out lessons. So how could this be adapted to a language education program for people who want to be world language or English as an Additional Language teachers?
First, the supportiveness of the model seems like a great idea for a first step into running their own classrooms. By working with adults, the classroom management issues would be minimal compared to teaching in a school. All of the teachers in these labs said it was different from teaching in school and a great pleasure to teach adults. The level of direction by the mentor teacher could shift over the course towards pre-service teacher leadership, just as it does in most student teaching settings. Coaching could easily be a regular part of the planning and preparation times, and as done in the iFLT labs, could happen in subtle ways during class when that would be helpful.
Through these experiences, those in the teacher ed program could develop a sense for what works for them and to find strategies that they enjoy for different purposes. They might also find out that teaching itself is really great fun, so that on those days working in schools when they address concerns from an angry parent, or hear students complaining about their class, or have to jump through another administrative hoop, they remember their first experiences teaching language in a supportive, collaborative environment. Sometimes we put up with a lot of other things in order to be able to teach language. I expect that often, the relationships developed in co-teaching would last into the future, perhaps becoming a first place to turn for empathy and ideas when things get tough. Retaining teachers is a real need in our profession, and supportive networks are one way to help each other through difficulties.
Leslie Davison shared similar thoughts about the value of the lab for teacher development. She mentioned that the positive responses by the adults who took the class as students was a big benefit for the co-teachers. Many of the learners had past experiences in language classes that were not as enjoyable and effective at developing their ability to understand and use another language, and so this class was a refreshing change for them. She noted that “the mentee teachers were greeted with smiles, laughs, and positive encouragement from almost the very start of our class. This safe and loving environment (for the teacher(s)) lowered their affective filter and allowed them to try new techniques with more confidence.”
So, perhaps in the semester before students get matched with a school and begin student teaching in earnest, they would take a course something like these language labs. Let’s tentatively call it, “Language Teaching Practicum.” (It needs a flashier name.) It could be a semester-long course that meets perhaps three times per week: once to co-teach classes for the community, and twice to plan, debrief, and practice some teaching strategies together. Coaching, modeling instructional approaches, and working on how to build on previous lessons (sequencing) could be part of those sessions. These are topics I have heard (and experienced myself) as more challenging for new teachers. Let’s give them more time and opportunities to do those things with immediate help in a supportive environment. Leslie mentioned that “co-teaching provided a nice vehicle in which I was able to gently push the mentees into trying new and different strategies. Co-teaching the lesson with them allowed me to model, guide and then support if needed. I also think, in our case, the team approach helped build community within our group that then promoted additional risk-taking and creativity as the week moved on.” What a great environment for a new teacher as well.
Additionally, in-service teachers who are earning their Masters degree or taking Master’s coursework might take a graduate-level, similar course. How would they benefit? They can try out new teaching approaches in a lower-stakes environment than the school in which they work, where others’ expectations and one’s own habits might hinder experimentation. They can talk through teaching realities with others with classroom experience, but without the sometimes stressful environment within the school where one works. Sometimes, it can really help to step outside and beyond your own school when you’re trying to learn and grow. Test things out in a place you have support, where there are almost no classroom management issues, and less administrative overhead. I imagine this master’s level course needs a name that reflects the greater expertise of the co-teachers and its truly lab-like goals: “Language Teaching Lab.” (This one needs a flashier name, too!)
It might seem that this model would require that the education professor know each language taught by those who enroll in the course. However, the instructor could offer guidance in the instruction of almost any language, since the BA-level classes, for pre-service teachers in their first classroom experiences, might best be co-teaching beginning levels of language classes. Also, the MA-level course might best be designed in a more collaborative way, since MA students are typically teachers with some classroom experience. The purpose would be to co-teach and co-plan lessons. The course could model alternative frameworks for scope and sequence instead of just following on a textbook. Those taking the course as part of their BA or MA would be expected and helped to make language instruction happen, and get to know the process from the inside out.
This kind of course could be an amazing opportunity for experienced K-12 classroom language teachers interested in training others. It might also mean that some K-12 teachers find out they want to get a PhD to get to teach at a university full-time, not a bad thing at all in my estimation.
Involvement in the Community
Who would be the language learners in these theoretical lab classes? This could be an opportunity for community-university partnerships. (Maybe it could also be an income source for the College of Education.) Perhaps the class session when language teaching occurs will need to be after typical work hours, so that more adults in the community are available. However, I imagine the classes could take place on campus or off, or a combination of locations. There are logistics to work out in each location if this idea really was implemented.
Perhaps classes could be coordinated with other community organizations, including nursing homes, businesses, parents’ groups, religious groups, and organizations for newcomers to the US. Potential opportunities could lie in partnerships between communities and universities, with both sides benefiting. What about helping first responders develop more language skills? Here’s an example from the Houston police department, where officers are learning Mandarin so they can communicate better with people in Houston’s Chinatown.
The quality of the language courses offered to the community from semester to semester could be ensured by the professor(s) involved in the classes. The professor would help the co-teachers build on the previous semester’s course, while also helping them to adapt to whoever enrolls that semester. A side benefit is that this model would allow world language education professors and methods’ class TAs to keep their classroom teaching skills active and growing. That appeals to me for personal reasons: I want to work in teacher education, but I also really love teaching Chinese and want to keep that up. Continuing to grow and experiment is a great thing. I would love to hear about anything similar now being done in language teacher education programs!
Diane Neubauer, 杜雁子, is a Ph.D. student in Foreign Language and ESL Education at the University of Iowa. Diane taught Mandarin Chinese at elementary through high school levels for ten years before starting her current graduate degree program. Diane writes for a blog and shares videos to help teachers and learners of Chinese. Find her on Twitter @DuYanzi.