What would you do if you had taught high school Spanish for years and then suddenly you were given new responsibilities involving…
If you’re like me, your first day you’d come away thinking
What are they thinking? What was I thinking? WHAT DO I DO?!
Learning from the best
In high school we can often get the impression that high-schoolers are like kindergarteners [remove tongue from cheek], but they’re not, and I was woefully aware of this the first year I tried to teach elementary school after ALL my training and experience was in secondary schools. The first time I tried this I didn’t have a professional learning network, but my second time around I knew just what to do – ask for help. Two amazing women were instrumental in helping me feel comfortable in my skin in front of kids ages 2 to first grade. Nationally-recognized elementary guru Marcela Summerville direct-messaged me her phone number on Twitter and gave me a half-hour crash course in preschool Spanish. You can read more about what I learned from her in my summary of how I approach elementary learning.
The other woman was Nadine Jacobson, then a teacher with more than 600 students at a local elementary school, now working for Middlebury Interactive. I didn’t know her at the time but my good friend Thomas Sauer was the Jefferson County (KY) world languages specialist then and he told me, “You really should find a day your school will let you come observe her.” So I did, and just watching her in two classes (coupled with the phone call with Marcela) taught me as much (or more!) about elementary teaching as I would have learned in a training program. Note: For many helpful elementary resources like units with their goals, see Nadine’s class wikispace.
Conversation practice, adapted for all levels
So what does this have to do with interpersonal speaking, you ask? And will you take away anything from this post if you’re a secondary teacher? Everything, and I hope so.
Nadine’s classes did an activity around the beginning of every class period called Linguacafé. Linguacafé is a conversation activity that gets kids talking, helps shyer students have a low-anxiety speaking outlet, and gives the teacher opportunities to both give meaningful feedback and complete administrative tasks like collecting homework or taking attendance, or even setting up the next video, while students are still engaged with language.
Here’s the process.
Practice conversation targets
In kindergarten and first grade, we did Linguacafé every single class period, but you don’t have to. We only had class once a week, so it never got “old” with the kids. But you could do it every class period regardless of age. Simply varying the conversation targets adds variety.
Particularly with elementary kids who are struggling to cognitively parse parts of sentences anyway, the students need practice before starting Linguacafé. Secondary students may skip this step. But first, I asked for volunteers (and those who volunteered and accomplished the task got to color in a smiley-face on their participation chart; following Nadine’s example we called them “sí, se puede”s). Two (sometimes three) volunteers would stand in front of the class and model the conversation. With kindergarten, this always started with how are you and its potential answers. By the end of first grade, students could choose from many different dialogues they knew, including answering how are you? what is it? what color is it? what’s your name? what’s the weather? and more. So first, you need to have students model some of their options or the specific conversation you’re targeting.
Pick your music
Routine is key with elementary kids, and it’s not a bad thing with older ones either. I only had between 15 and 20 minutes per week with my elementary students, and anytime I could use a routine to not have to give instructions, directions, orders, etc. was a great help. Enter the music. My students knew that as soon as Hola a todos began, they were to begin Linguacafé. When Adiós came on, everyone was to get to the end of their conversation and return to their seats. For secondary students, you’ll obviously want to pick something different (how about something by Kevin Karla y la Banda, perhaps Call Me Maybe?)
Get ‘em up!
Often at the beginning of the year, I’d ask my students,
What do we do for Linguacafé? Stay quiet in our seats or get up and talk to our friends?
I bet you can guess what happened. Kids are conditioned as to what school is supposed to be like. I got a chorus of
Stay quiet in our seats!
So you can imagine how much kids liked it when I laughed and said, “NO! We get up and talk to our friends!” During the time the music was playing (I put it on repeat and then put on the ending song when I’m ready), they knew they were to wander the room doing the routine, which was…
Again, the little guys need a routine and a few rules. Here are ours:
- We always start with hola.
- We always talk with one friend at a time unless Sra. Cottrell tells us to talk to more. Then we move on to talk to a different friend.
- We speak Spanish.
- We always end with adiós.
- We never interrupt our friends who are talking.
Why it hits a home run
Here are some reasons why I love this activity, after putting it into practice for three years:
- Repetitions: Students get repetitions in a way that’s fun to them. Even with only 20 minutes per week with my students, I watched my students acquire automatic responses to common Spanish questions.
- Movement and noise: I don’t work well in a world where school is supposed to be quiet. The world is changing and it’s looking for people who will innovate and “make noise.” I love to hear the Spanish chatter during Linguacafé.
- Engagement during administrivia: we all have stuff we have to do, or forgot to do before class, or whatever, and like I said, Linguacafé gets kids talking (instead of just writing a list of whatever all the time!) while I quickly get those tasks out of the way.
- Class relationships: If you have kids who are cliquish, you can add a rule that they can’t talk to the same person twice in the same Linguacafé, but I found they do this naturally anyway. Kids will get to know each other and interact with others they may not have talked to.
- Encouragement for the shy guys: I watched my students who wouldn’t say a word in class (even in a small class) blossom and show off conversation skills I never knew they had when we did Linguacafé and they were talking one-on-one with the same friend they played on the swings with.
- Feedback: You will be amazed at how well you start to know your students’ individual conversational ability and how many opportunities you have to quickly work with them one-on-one on what they’re struggling with if you incorporate Linguacafé into your regular schedule.
Okay, you get the idea, and this post is already long, but I wanted to add an example for how this might look in a secondary class. I have to tell you I never did this in my secondary classes because it only occurred to me recently, but you can add it to the growing list of things that will change about my classroom the next time I have one. My friend Amanda Díaz-Mora is doing a unit now on What does my day look like? and asked me about something involving goal-setting, so I borrowed her theme. Here’s a slideshow of conversation prompts for a Linguacafé within that theme. I’ve put them in English here; simply click “File” and “save a copy” to edit within your own Google Drive to tailor to your school and language.
If you get a chance to try Lingacafé in secondary classes, I’d love to hear about it, and perhaps have a guest post here about it.