This last week I had the privilege of presenting at the second International Forum on Language Teaching Conference (2012) in Breckenridge, Colorado. For two hours and fifteen minutes every morning I taught a group of intermediate secondary students that ranged from Spanish 2 to Spanish AP. The challenge was to teach them using comprehensible input strategies in such a way that challenged each student, but left none behind: true differentiation. After each teaching session, the students were dismissed and the teacher observers and I discussed what had happened for an hour or so.

Mary Beth is a teacher in Breckenridge and was with the students and me for the entire time in the learning lab. I will explain my observations on the experience later, but to start off, she offers her reflections:

Reflections on iFLT Conference by Mary Beth Johnson

This week I had the pleasure of being an ambassador teacher in Bryce Hedstrom’s teaching lab at the iFLT Conference in Breckenridge. Eight high school students participated for three days in the learning lab with Bryce as a roomful of teachers looked on. No pressure, right? Kudos to the students and the teacher for performing gracefully under pressure and allowing teachers a unique look into what goes on in a successful language classroom. As a teacher who has been trying to practice TPRS and CI-based methods in my classroom for two years now, this experience was valuable beyond measure. Here are some of my reflections and “aha” moments from the past three days.

1.  TPRS/CI works!

We know it works, research shows us it works, but every time I see it happen, it feels like I’m seeing it for the first time. Students painlessly acquired complex language through highly personalized repetition. Students were beautifully and spontaneously using the subjunctive with little-to-no grammar explanation. The results speak for themselves.

2.  Your classroom doesn’t have to be a three-ring circus to successfully incorporate TPRS/CI methods.

As people came in and out of Mr. Hedstrom’s classroom this week, many of them said, “It’s so quiet in here.”  It definitely was, but the students were engaged and enjoying themselves, and more importantly, they learned. Some teachers have a wild and crazy teaching style and they get amazing results. Personally, I always felt a little inadequate in these methods because I didn’t think I was lively enough.  When I tried to push myself to be crazy, it felt forced and my students didn’t respond.  After watching this week, I feel more confident adapting the methods to my own personal style and personality.

3.  Connection is a powerful thing.

One of the things that struck me most was that Mr. Hedstrom was able to establish such a strong rapport and sense of community among this group of students in such a short amount of time. He listened to them with interest and used the information he learned to help them buy-in the stories they worked on the class.  Anyone in the room could feel the bond in the group, even after just three days. On the last morning I was standing on the playground, waiting for the students to arrive and I overheard some of the girls from the class chatting. What were they talking about? The story they had worked on in class the day before. One of them had even written one of the lines on another girl’s Facebook wall the night before.  The story had gotten into their heads. Another girl talked about checking her former Spanish class’s website the night before and reading an article. The buy-in that comes from establishing connection is a powerful thing.

4.  Students already know what it has taken language teachers a long time to learn.

After the final session, Bryce gave the teacher observers a few moments to sit and chat with the students before they left for the day. Their feedback was powerful for everyone in the room. Two of the most surprising comments were that the students wanted more vocabulary and they wished the class were longer! They were in the class for two hours and fifteen minutes (during their summer vacation) each day already!  Here is a summary of their other comments:

  • I really liked it when you wrote the words on the board.
  • I liked how you spoke slowly enough for us to understand, but not too slow. 
  • I liked it when you talked to us in English sometimes.  It was a good break for my brain.  
  • I liked it because I could understand everything you said in Spanish.
  • In my traditional language class we learned a lot about Spanish.  Here we actually learned Spanish. We used Spanish.

It was very validating for us CI/TPRS teachers.  Students notice what we are doing and it makes a difference.