Comprehensible Input (CI) was heavy on my mind the week leading up to #CIIA16. I thought about it in the morning as I showered, as I drove home from leading summer camp (and thus accidentally running a red light! Whoopies!), and while I tried to grow grass where rocks once were next to my driveway. While I was watering the dirt and intermittent patches of grass, I couldn’t help but think how similar my experience growing grass was similar to my journey to CI.
First of all, I had to remove a LOT of river rock from alongside my driveway. I had to work every weekend in April and some of the beginning of June while filling 20 large buckets full, and truth be told I still see a few left out there as I water. The river rocks are a lot like my traditional beliefs about language teaching. I had to really overhaul my belief system just like I hauled these rocks! I was the teacher that never allowed late work, that chastised children for not bringing a pencil to class, and required students to keep an organized binder for points. While I don’t do any of these aforementioned items any more, sometimes my old beliefs sneak back in just like those rocks that work their way up from down in the dirt. For example, I don’t really believe in giving homework anymore, but this past year I had a weekly assignment for my classes that was due every Tuesday. One semester was a culture log, another was a musical genre exploration, yet another was getting extra practice on Duolingo. As much as I liked these assignments, the same old frustrations that came with homework appeared: finding time to grade it all, deciding how it really fit into my gradebook, and dealing with students who hadn’t done the assignments.
Second, my husband and I poured a lot of seed down and we watered it religiously. The whole concept of Comprehensible Input is that you are providing students with a ton of input through reading and listening in the target language in order to get output. Similarly, I myself had to get a lot of input. I made it a priority to attend conference sessions in the target language (language input for me!) and sessions about CI and TPRS methods (methodology input for me!). I read blogs from CI/TPRS practicing teachers and I follow them on Twitter to follow their words of advice (more methodology input!).
However, after about two weeks of water our grass in the morning and evening while avoiding walking on it my husband and I admitted something wasn’t working. We had a few small patches of grass, but the rest was still dirt. My husband also didn’t like how unlevel some patches of dirt were with our grass. So we went out and bought seven bags of dirt to throw on top and try again. This has happened in my classes, too. My first year with TPRS my Spanish 3 students were reading a novel and were majorly complaining. They didn’t like the book, they thought it was too hard, and they wanted to do more speaking at that point in the year. So I eased off of the book, went back and did some vocabulary practices with a little more grammar thrown in there than I wanted, and then picked the book back up. My second year teaching with TPRS I had extremely split capabilities in my Spanish 1 levels. My 8th grade group understood the novel we were reading quickly while my non-8th grade groups struggled with reading. The non-8th grade groups couldn’t answer basic comprehension questions in Spanish or English! I was so worried I had made a terrible mistake launching into an in-depth (2-3 month) novel study. I happened to come upon a post that outlined how struggling readers have difficulty because they cannot visualize what is happening in the story. I scoured the internet and came across an idea from Cynthia Hitz to make little paper dolls with emotions, objects, and scenery that could be changed out while we read a chapter. I created the dolls, added vocabulary labels to reinforce vocabulary, and let them cut the pieces out. We read and when I paused students set up the current scene being described. I then showed them mine on the projector and we compared how close students were. This helped students tremendously!
Even after starting back over with fresh dirt and a whole lot of grass seed, we’re still not seeing perfect results in our yard. I see weeds that grow in our neighborhood and the starting of baby trees, and of course there is still a lot of uncovered dirt still. However, I do see that there are bigger patches of grass next to the old grass and also where leaves have gathered to protect the seeds. The patches are growing in height and outward into the dirt. I strongly believe that this current situation is a LOT like my students. I have some students who have soaked up my input and are going to keep growing with their language skills (I’m thinking of that patch way down by the mailbox that is thriving!), I have some students who aren’t quite where the other students are (because aren’t weeds really just a kind of grass? As my husband says, it’s a shame society didn’t pick weeds to be aesthetically appealing because they grow much better than grass in our yard!), and I have some kids that I still need to help even more. After making the switch to TPRS and CI, I have given less Fs than ever before. In fact last semester I only had one F, and last school year I ended with 0s. Nonetheless, the biggest struggle for me this year was knowing how to teach students who weren’t responding to CI and TPRS. I had three students fail at the end of the semester in May, and I have reflected long and hard on how I could have better helped these students. My hope is that I can recognize students like these sooner in the future so I can reach them sooner.
When we first started growing our grass, I remember comparing our yard to our neighbors on our right. They had laid down new seed in the middle of their yard and beneath their trees around the time we had, covered it with hay, and it seemed they had grass in about a week! I remember feeling slightly jealous that their grass had already grown (and it seemed to grow with little tending to), and a little embarrassed that our’s hadn’t grown yet. I have these feelings as a CI/TPRS teacher, too. Sometimes I’m jealous when other teachers share success stories – especially if it’s when I’m having a rough patch or a down kind of day. Other times, I am embarrassed when colleagues share their students’ work and I compare it to mine. I will think, “Oh! I should be teaching that in Spanish 2!” or I will say to myself, “I can’t believe their student used that many adjectives! Why have I never taught asombrado or precoz!?” I think this part is natural because language teachers want their students to have mad (read: crazy good!) language skills. Luckily, these thoughts don’t last long as I am extremely grateful to these other teachers for providing me with new ideas to bring to my students and for inspiring me to keep going.
In conclusion, examining my grass has reminded and/or taught me that my journey to being a Comprehensible Input teacher…
- … required me to examine if what I was doing in my traditional (i.e.: textbook and grammar driven) classroom was effective or not.
- … started slowly by learning about and implementing TPRS.
- … required me to receive a lot of linguistic and methodology-based input myself.
- … diverged from strictly TPRS when I needed to reach my students in another way in order for them to be successful.
- … could not be done without the support from and inspiration of other CI teachers.
- … is rejuvenated when I see the results in my students!
- … still isn’t done.