Rethinking Safety Nets: Do We NEED Them?!

I was looking at some posters in my classroom last week and stopped at the Safety Nets signals (i.e. “unclear,” “write it,” and “too fast”). Honestly, I cannot recall the last time a student used them. I have no memory of the situation, or what year it was, and I have a pretty good memory. Is this stuff too pedantic for high school kids? Or worse, is it not culturally responsive? Yeah, maybe….

In reality, I’ve had one major safety net this entire time teaching communicatively: English (L1/native). That’s because I don’t pretend class should be exclusively in the target language. It doesn’t need to be, and maybe shouldn’t be in most contexts. Still, let’s say going full-immersion to near-immersion were just a neutral teacher preference. Well, I’ve never preferred it, even when I tried it. I did try it, too, having misunderstood “CI” teaching in the beginning to mean “speaking all the time”—a misunderstanding that persists with new teachers or new-to-CI teachers today. When I had a “no English rule,” there was always something nagging me about that role-play that didn’t quite sit well. I even have a short video used in grad school for the EdTPA requirement with students miming to each other attempting to express some basic idea because there was a “no English” rule. It’s downright embarrassing (no, I won’t share that vid, nice try), and proof of how ineffective something forced can be—whatever it is.

So in the classroom last week, it hit me: I’ve always used English to check comprehension (i.e. “what does X mean?”), even when there was some expectation of target language use (or even that old “no English” policing rule). So it follows…

  • Why have I been asking students to do anything different?!
  • Why do we need special signals students have to learn and be comfortable doing to show incomprehension?!
  • Why am I pretending I can’t tell when students have NO clue what’s going on?!

That last one is a striking reflection. I’m never surprised when something confuses students. I can literally see it, and I can even anticipate it. All I need is a perplexed look, blank stare, or “hey Mister, wait!” from the more outgoing ones. The more I think about it, the more I realize all of the safety nets meant to help slow-processing students actually just made it harder for the shy ones, forced to let all their classmates know they don’t get it. Our work as a staff regarding equity does make me question safety nets, too. Although the intention of making class more equitable from a comprehension standpoint by using signals makes sense, we gotta ask ourselves: Do these ever work? For everyone A short answer in the best contexts is “sure,” although I know that beyond the first week of classes or so, it became one of those routines that feel like work and just faded away—like the “Who?” student job that gets old real fast! The safety net thing might be something teachers do well during demos. However, demos are great for convincing teachers to use best practices when teachers can *feel* like a student again. Safety nets might also work really well when teachers participate as students in demos or beginner language classes. However, teachers tend to have about 8,000% more interest and motivation than your typical student. In sum, we know that demos and the teacher-as-student experience aren’t always the best contexts for modelling what we do with students in our own classrooms, so keep that in mind!

So, goodbye safety nets!

One thought on “Rethinking Safety Nets: Do We NEED Them?!

  1. Thank you for sharing these reflections! Over the past decade or so I have always always started the year by asking my students to cross their fingers whenever they don’t understand what I am saying. This seems to “work” for a week or two. Then I typically spend another few weeks of the school year pausing after I say something that isn’t comprehensible and motioning for students to show me their crossed fingers (which doesn’t make a lot of sense given that I already know that I am not being comprehensible :/ ) After the 1st marking period none of my students use the hand signal and it goes out the window, just like many of the classroom jobs that I used at the beginning of the year. Thanks for sharing this and encouraging me to stop using this tool . . . it will give me more time to focus on being more comprehensible.

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