The way we teach with comprehensible input has applications to other disciplines and we are barely scratching the surface of ways that teaching like this can positively affect education.
Last week I was pleased to have an unusual visitor in my classroom. Larry Currey, a math teacher at Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, was in my classroom the last three periods of the day on Friday. Most observers that stop by my classroom are understandably language teachers, but Larry was interested in observing because his son-in-law, a Latin aficionado and a big fan of Justin Slocum Bailey, had observed me some time ago and had encouraged him to come. This was a unique experience because the observing teacher, although quite accomplished, did not speak Spanish and was not a language teacher. He was also from one of the highest achieving high schools in the state of Colorado for the last several years. Maybe a factor in their good results is because they encourage self-directed professional development like observing a teacher in a different discipline.
You can read the pdf of the letter to his principal about the observation here.
Here are Mr. Currey’s observations:
I attended two sections of Spanish I and a section of Spanish III on February 17, 2018 at Roosevelt High School in Johnstown, led by Bryce Hedstrom. Hedstrom is the president of Hedstrom Language Resources, LLC, a published author and frequent speaker on his comprehensible, input-based approach to teaching foreign languages. He welcomes observers to his classes at Roosevelt High. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to his room and learned a great deal.
The first Spanish I class had just started when I arrived. Two students immediately greeted me. One welcomed me to the room and offered me coffee or tea, the other would serve as my interpreter for the class. This greeting was repeated for every class. Each interpreter was fully on top of the class and knew the reasons behind why they were doing what they were doing. I was handed a two page “Checklist for observing a foreign language classroom” (see it here). When I later asked for another copy of the form, Hedstrom had already included one, knowing that visitors always request one.
Every student in the room had assigned responsibilities. In addition to my greeter and interpreter, each class had a timer who tracked the number of continuous minutes the class stayed in Spanish, a recorder who made tick marks on the board for each eight-minute block of the same, and someone who tended the classroom door in case of hallway disruptions. My interpreter told me there were other jobs in the room, but didn’t elaborate.
The walls were covered with content as was the white board at the front of the room. One bulletin board was covered with post-it notes, listing the close to 400 hundred books the students had read last semester. There was a listing of rejoinders common to the students that had been translated into Spanish. The back of the room had scores of books that the students were encouraged to check out. The books were published by TPRS Books, Fluency Matters, Command Performance Language Institute and independent authors. These Spanish-language books all included glossaries in Spanish and English translation for words used in the stories.
Hedstrom greets each class on their way into the room. He asks each student for the “password” in Spanish and the students are expected to make the correct reply in a complete Spanish sentence. The Spanish I classes were asked what time they went to bed the night before. (Answers varied from 8:00pm to 2:00am. Hedstrom made a personal reply to each student about their stated bed time.) Hedstrom took attendance while the students completed their bell work. One student came in tardy and apologized to Hedstrom and to the class for being late to class.
Spanish I centered around a story Hedstrom related in short, declarative sentences about a large boy who captures a small boy in a green book, and the small boy’s friends. Hedstrom illustrated the story with simple cartoons as it unfolded. Key words involved left, right, knee, large, small, attacks, a cry for help, slowly, possibly, probably, animal names, and thinks. Hedstrom asked questions and students added elements to the plot development as the story evolved. Their responses were complete Spanish sentences. There was a moral: everyone needs friends. The lesson was charming and had the students thoroughly engaged.
The expectation in the room is that the students understand and are following the story. A clenched fist pressed against a palm is the sign that a student doesn’t understand. Once that sign is made by an individual, others in the room repeat it, making certain Hedstrom doesn’t miss the cue.
Once the story was completed, Hedstrom passed out a written version of a similar story that included references for key words that might be difficult. Students were asked to look on their “Amigos” maps of Central America and pair up with their partner from The Dominican Republic. This is a technique he uses to quickly and randomly pair students. Students then played “ping-pong”, with one reading a sentence in Spanish and the partner translating the sentence into English. The roles were then continuously reversed and students retold the entire written story sentence by sentence in both languages. Faster pairs started over, rather than just sitting and chatting.
All classes were conducted almost entirely in Spanish. The little English that was used was mostly for my benefit. All of the classes ended with the declaration: “Students, I have a secret”. Every student in the room, in unison, dramatically planted their left foot forward, leaning forward with their left hand cupped behind their left ear. Hedstrom then gave them their password for next week’s classes. Once the password was given, Hedstrom thanked the students for learning today and the students thanked him for teaching them—all in Spanish
Spanish III followed much the same course, but at a higher level. The password for this class was a wise Spanish saying. Bell work for these students was to add a few sentences to an original story each student is writing about a photograph on the board of a waste basket with a bouquet of roses inside (Valentine’s week).
The lesson story here was one the students had created in class last week in response to questions Hedstrom asked about likely commands given to a new employee. After quickly reviewing the story by asking questions about it, he had a couple of activities to reinforce the learning. The first was reviewing the story with “ping-pong” translation. Students pushed the chairs aside and divided themselves into two circles, one facing outward and the other facing inward Students were given a written version of the story so far (it is still growing). These students also played “ping-pong”, but at a higher and faster level—Hedstrom later said he purposely used the same activity in the upper level class so that I could see how it functioned there. This time the pace was quicker and there was more content. Every minute or so, the outside circle was ordered to advance by one person and the stories continued with a new partner. Each was restarted at the place of the slowest partner.
Students were then handed a worksheet asking them “draw, write, and pass”. There were places where the students could illustrate (with stick figures) a plot development. Below each drawing space there was room for several sentences describing the action. He had the students line up in ascending order according to the number of animals their family had. He then went through asking each to declare how many of what kind of animals they had. The two students with the most had more than 18,000 cattle. This was another way to get students up and randomly re-grouped. Every four students was a group for the activity. Students completed a single frame and description in a minute and a half, and then passed the form to their neighbor for the next development in the story.
As the last class left, Hedstrom was telling me how important it is for students to read books in the language they are studying and that he encourages them to check out books on their own to read at home—for no credit, just the joy of learning. As if on cue, a student stopped by to check out a book to take home for the weekend.
- All of his classes were thoroughly engaging. One of my ambassadors confessed that students who don’t want to work will avoid Hedstrom’s room, because “there’s no place to hide”, but those who have experienced it really enjoy the pace and the sense of accomplishment.
- Bell work was relevant and graded, ensuring participation. I will begin grading my bell work at a point a day, to be included in their participation grade.
- Students often worked in pairs, to ensure participation, comprehension, and to make certain that students actually interact with their classmates. I will begin pairing up my students for the same reasons.
- I like the use of the hand sign for help, and the responsibility other students have for repeating it. This keeps the fastest students in the room from dominating the discussion.
- Hedstrom likes the daily password for more than content mastery. Watching the students come down the hall gives him an opportunity to read their body language before they enter the room, giving him insight to his students’ state of mind before classes begin. I can see how a weekly password can be useful in my classes.
Hedstrom has established an environment where the expectation is clearly that the students will learn. His drawings are effective, the stories are charming, and his demeanor is positively engaging. If my six years of grade-school Spanish had been in Hedstrom’s room, I’m sure I would know more than a handful of nouns, colors, and numbers, and would actually be able to speak Spanish today.
Hedstrom is retiring at the end of this year. Given his open door policy, any foreign language teacher owes it to their students to visit his room.