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!

Compelling Diversions: “Who needs a Boost?” and “What would you like, today?

The longer I teach, the more I pull back the curtain, becoming more transparent with students in the room, and better-aligning my practices with core principles. An understanding of communicative purpose has really helped me eliminate some of the charades you tend to see everywhere. For example, what once began as reading textbook passages designed to teach a specific grammar point has now become me outright saying “today, we’re gonna learn about some grammar” (i.e. learning). No veil. Texts are now read for enjoyment (i.e. entertainment), or learning about the target culture (i.e. learning). Any collaborative storytelling or Write & Discuss (Type & Talk) results in texts (i.e. creating), though the process is often enjoyable (i.e. entertainment), and focuses on some topic (i.e. learning). Those three classroom communicative purposes: entertainment, learning, and creating, have all led to great buy-in and trust. The longer I teach, there’s just no need for any of the role-play and ruse within the classroom reality.

Well, it’s that time of the year when I get ideas on what to improve upon or do differently next fall. In particular, I’ve got my eye on a couple new transparent routines that are best established right from the start…

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TPRS, etc. & Interaction: Required

Here’s a quick note about TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and other collaborative storytelling methods and strategies…

They require interaction.

This has become painfully obvious to me after teaching on Zoom for over a year in a public high school, where responses to polls are few, participation is low, and circling is next to impossible in most contexts (unless you happen to have surprisingly high levels of participation). I mean, we can certainly fake circling by doing something similar via those polls and chat, but it moves a LOT slower than that in-person question after question pace complete with reading the room (i.e. “teach to eyes” etc.). On Zoom, the process gets bogged down. That’s not circling. The point of circling is to give students a massive amount of exposure to a small set of words by asking many different questions that students can answer without hesitation. It’s actually the answering of questions that’s so key, not only to keep an eye on who might be getting lost (and then ask “what does X mean?” comprehension check), but also to get the details you ask for, as well as the surprise responses that can take the story in an unexpected yet highly compelling turn. Hence, interaction.

Yet “interaction” can be woefully misunderstood and misinterpreted to mean full-on conversations. That’s not what we need with collaborative storytelling at all. We need to provide students messages in the target language via a process that might feel ad nauseam to us, but is probably just enough (or maybe not quite enough!) for the beginner. That’s happens from questions, statements, and then restating everything that happens.

THAT kind of interaction is crucial. Other types of interaction might occur, or even prove to be beneficial in certain cases, especially in other activities, but without student responses during collaborative storytelling—not just the ones that get details—we got nothing.

Core Practices

I got thinking about what I’d say my core practices were if anyone wanted to learn more about CI and get an overview of what comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT) looks like. Would it be a list of 10? Could I get that down to five? Might it be better to prioritize some practices like the top 5, 8, and 16 verbs (i.e. quaint quīnque, awesome octō, and sweet sēdecim)? Would I go specific, with concrete activities? Or, would I go broad and global, starting with principles and ideas?

I highly recommend that you do this just as an exercise during a planning period this week, making a quick list of your core practices. Doing so required me to sort out a few things in the process, and helped organize and align my practices to certain principles. Of course, terms and definitions can get tricky, here. I just saw that Reed Riggs and Diane Neubauer refer to “instructional activities (IA),” which covers a lot of what goes on in the classroom. It’s a good term. I’m using “practices” in a similar way to refer to many different methods, strategies, techniques, and activities that all fall under a CCLT approach, as well as general “teacher stuff” I find to be core as well.

Another reason for this post is that I’ve seen the “CI umbrella” graphic shared before, but that doesn’t quite fit with my understanding of things. Rather than practices falling under a CI umbrella, I envision CI instead as the result of practices under the umbrella of CCLT. I also consider such an approach a defense against incomprehensibility—the first obstacle that needs to be removed—and I thought a more aggressive graphic of a “CI shield” might best represent that.

Here’s the first line of core practice defense:

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Methods & Results: To What Do We Attribute Success?

Not every teacher shares how well their students are doing—probably out of fear of being criticized—and I don’t blame them one bit. This data is often kept under lock and key, so it’s hard to get a sense of whether all the talk amounts to something. SPOILER ALERT: it does. The reports I’ve seen on how well students have been doing under a…NOT…grammar-translation approach tend to attribute success in different ways, though. Today, I’m looking at two such programs to see if we can narrow down what contributes success:

Program 1:

  • 69% of Latin V students score Intermediate Mid (I4+) on ALIRA
  • Focus on reading
  • Translation of what is understood (vs. in order to understand)
  • Uses LLPSI (Lingua Latina per se Illustrata)
  • Uses novellas & other sources of input
  • Speaks Latin whenever possible (i.e. judicious use of English)
  • Establishes meaning in English (i.e. fēlēs = cat) when students ask
  • CI is necessary, but not sufficient for acquisition
  • Extensive interaction is most important

Program 2:

  • 64% of Latin IV students score Intermediate Mid (I4+) on ALIRA
  • Focus on reading
  • Translation of what is understood (vs. in order to understand)
  • No textbook
  • Uses novellas & other sources of input
  • Speaks Latin whenever possible (i.e. judicious use of English)
  • Establishes meaning in English (i.e. fēlēs = cat)
  • CI is necessary, and sufficient for acquisition
  • Interaction is important

The results are very close by the end of each program, and there’s definitely more in common than not, but what isn’t in common makes for differently-enough teaching and learning environments. Both are just as successful, but what can we attribute that success to? Let’s look into those differences a bit more…

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Trust & Hope: We Can’t Tell Who’s Reading, But We Can SEE Who Isn’t (via Google Docs)

As many of us discussed, this remote year has been the time to put faith into the input hypothesis, by just providing input, and not demanding much more than reading from students during a pandemic. Of course, remote learning has been 100% homework, and there’s no way to know what students do at home, much less monitor and support it. So in addition to trusting the input hypothesis—that input would be sufficient for language acquisition expectations within a K-12 context—there was a hope that students were reading. Trust & Hope. Well, today I discovered that my hopes didn’t really pan out, although I cannot say I’m surprised. There’s a pandemic. Full stop. By chance, I clicked on the “trend” arrow that I’ve somehow ignored for a while, and found that it’s quite handy…

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Student Ownership: Prompts & Novella Month

You’re looking at one of my student’s illustrations. The prompt was to read a description and draw the cover of a new book (coming laaaaaaate spring, btw):

Marcus likes being a young Roman mage, but such a conspicuous combo presents problems in provincial Egypt after he and his parents relocate from Rome. Despite generously offering magical medicine to the locals, this young mage feels like an obvious outsider, sometimes wishing he were invisible. Have you ever felt that way? Marcus searches Egypt for a place to be openly accepted, and even has a run-in with the famously fiendish Sphinx! Can Marcus escape unscathed?

The result in all classes was some pretty amazing buy-in before we even got to the first page! The prompt I chose also generated class content—the source of that class’ Picture Talk—for which students don’t have to be artists like this one; stick figures are great, especially the really silly ones that get everyone laughing…

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“My Time:” A Remote Learning Solution

“Why are students failing?” Or, more specifically, “why are teachers failing students, especially in a pandemic?” A question like that was asked on Twitter sometime last month, and I had a fairly simple take on the matter: teachers didn’t adjust expectations. Sure, kids might not be “doing the work,” but it’s teachers who determine evidence of learning that comprises “the work” in the first place. Our reality is that most evidence of learning we used to get just isn’t possible remotely, or there are significant obstacles in the way. Bottom line, teachers have set expectations that not every student can meet. Even though I anticipated this, my expectations still needed adjusting, too. First, here’s a brief rundown of problems that lead to the “My Time” solution…

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Running A Tight nāvis

Here are more organizational tips and tricks to stay sane.

Notifications
In general, it’s not a bad idea to turn off all notifications, all the time, for everything. Then, turn on only what you need, like Calendar event reminders, etc. One helpful notification is “late” work. I don’t take off any points for late work because #1…pandemic…and #2 that’s stupid anyway, but I definitely don’t need to be checking responses every hour, either. If a student gets around to something, I want to be notified, not go tracking them down…

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