Here is another guest post from my friend, Gerry Wass on his MULTI-LEVEL CLASSROOM experience:

“La preuve que il a existé c’était qu’il était ravissant.” 

“The proof that he existed was that he was lovely.”

–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A year and a half after retiring, I continue to get requests for help about how to run a multi-level language classroom.  Most come from teachers who already find themselves in this situation out of necessity, but others are intrigued because they believe that the model could produce a beneficial shift for them and for their students.  Many teachers are already doing some version and bring their positive experiences to the discussion.

One of those recent requests came from Jen Schongolla, directed to both Michele Whaley and myself.  It made me want to talk to Michele first, and I did not know the depth of her experiences.  As we talked, she was the first to point out that we had both used music successfully and effectively in our classrooms, and the more we talked, the more we realized that this could have been the unifying force that gave us both such a feeling of success with all these levels together in the same classroom.  It was a powerful thought, but it made me wonder if there were other hidden pieces of this puzzle as well.

Everyone wants to know the secrets of this strategy, and I knew that before I retired.  People told me that I needed to write a book, to record videos and generally document what I was doing, but I couldn’t find a place to start.

I didn’t like the things I videotaped, and I never felt like I really got to the core of anything when I wrote about my experiences.  The closest I came to a ‘secret’ was to keep the class together, never giving separate, differentiated assignments to separate levels.  I knew this because my students had rebelled when I tried to do so, saying that they loved being part of the class and did not want to miss anything.

I knew that I did differentiate within the flow of the class, having more complex conversations with students who wanted to speak; if they caught the class’s attention, I made them comprehensible on the board but I often let small ones stand because I wanted a tiny touch of the mystery of being in a foreign country.

“The proof that he existed is that he was delightful.”

So, I think a lot about my four-year experience with multi-level classes (levels one through four and heritage speakers) and how it still resonates within the CI community.  I remember how hard it was for me to trust Blaine Ray when he said that this would work, but the idea was so delightful that I just wanted to try it.  I knew it would help with scheduling issues that always made me fear for my program, but I could not figure out how to prepare; there was nothing written about it yet.

I hope you have read the previous article so you now know how it all turned out, how I would never want to teach any other way, how strongly I argue that it’s all an extension of the reality that every class has different levels of interest and processing speed anyhow.  But what really hits me now is that it existed at all, and that it delighted my students and me, not uniformly and not every day, but an average teacher made it work while doing way too many other things with his life.

But I also know that my personal proof is not enough, because I cannot convey how delightful it was without telling more of the story, without confronting the aching in my heart from no longer having these magical experiences be part of my days.  This article then, is not so much to make a case for multi-level classes as it is to supply details about what I did.  So, in the order that spills out of memory, this is a pick-and-choose description of the pieces of my multi-level class:

I learned to use a class password from Bryce Hedstrom, who learned it from Alina Filipescu.  I added some cool phrases that we discovered in class, and I did try to look them in the eyes as they entered.  I loved staying behind the closed door, listening to them drilling each other about the code, and I also loved being relentless about not letting them in too easily; someone would always come back out of class to help a friend.  It was a moment of mystery that set a great tone every day.

The second part of the daily routine, after greetings, was PAT—preferred activity time.  This is something I haven’t heard mentioned in years, but it drove my classes in key ways.  It’s a Fred Jones activity that leads to playing review games on Fridays.  They received minutes every day for taking care of things like everyone being on time to class, and on Fridays we played for as many minutes as they earned.  I think most teachers would feel that they could not take the time for it now, but we had a blast on Fridays, and that helped our engagement levels.

I taught a lot of gestures, and this was before anyone pointed out that they needed to be learned in context.  So, I would not teach them so explicitly now, but they did form a key basis of many of the games we played, and they especially helped my multi-year students.  Part of why I stuck with them was that I worked hard on things that were difficult to gesture, and many of them were suggestions from students.  I was very fond of all the ‘mental’ gestures we had and found that they worked.

I was never a great storyteller, struggling with the techniques, circling, PQA, three locations, et cetera, and struggling so hard that I did not observe my students well.  What often substituted for stories was doing skits.

Early in my career, I wrote a series of four-line skits that we did for years.  I’m not saying that this is a great idea, but I would start very slowly with the lines in English on the board, translating with them to Spanish (or one of the other languages I taught).  I would act out both sides of the skit myself multiple times and over a period of days, the written lines were gradually removed.  Everyone had the same basic lines, but they were all free to alter the words, and everyone put their own actions and attitudes into the action.  Two students (and often extras) performed the skit on video. They loved watching these afterward, multiple times during the year.  The more advanced students used more complex language and everyone was required to work with a different partner each time.  I did a lot of acting coaching that they responded to, but usually in English, and I did not know that we were not supposed to be forcing output; it was surely hard on timid students to do so—proper pacing was vital.

Seating charts–they picked their own and we changed them on the first of each month, something they always reminded me of.  I tended to give them liberty where I could.  We did timed writings infrequently, as I somehow felt less confident about them over time, even though they did well, often remarkably well.  I think I gradually moved to less and less planning, becoming more untargeted over time, taking more of the class for unplanned, spontaneous activity.  I rarely ever gave an assessment of any kind, instead collecting and entering grades for small classroom assignments, bellringers and translation activities.  I had been aware of the negative effect of assessments on engagement from the early days of my career, so this was a conscious choice.

We did FVR and I required reading outside of class from our class library—no other homework of any kind.  I embraced Bryce’s “La persona especial” but never acquired the subtle skills that he used to produce deep class community.  Movie Talks were a thing by my last year, and I did them fairly well, especially with Señor Wooly videos.  I worked hard to incorporate Textivate as a whole-class activity but felt that it would have worked better as individual work.

So by now, the ‘recipe’ should seem as unremarkable as I have always argued that it was, but, referring back to Michele’s hypothesis, we did sing nearly every day.  Something inside me trembles, at the ‘what if?’ thought, if we had never sung together.

I started with simple songs including ones I had composed; I still taught the alphabet and numbers in sequence, along with days of the week and months, but between the advanced students who already knew the songs and some magic in my prompting—no clue what it was–the norm was for the class to get up and sing in front, and we were generally loud.  We sang easy and moderately-hard songs and some very difficult, fast ones.  The newer students did not generally sing so they could be heard, but they didn’t protest going to the front either, and a lot of PAT minutes were earned via singing.  Could this one magical activity have made my classes work?

Almost certainly not, because there were so many other things that brought joy to us all, and my overarching moral code seemed to help.  During those final years with the multi-level classes, I had an amazing lack of discipline problems.

I had gradually whittled down my list of rules to two: “we speak Spanish” and “we practice integrity.”  Now I would no longer see a need to demand Spanish, so I would teach with only the integrity rule.  I gave it my own definition, and I taught it by having students finish these lines: “Integrity is doing the right … thing/at all…times/without being… asked/or expecting any … reward.”

Throughout my career, I sought to build a discipline structure that had more inherent power than just laying down a long set of rules; I think I sensed that such complex boundaries led to conflict that robbed students of power and willingness to learn. I actually tried to use The Four Agreements for a couple of years before I settled on the simple concept of integrity.  Then I had a deeply embarrassing incident where I lost my temper with a very troubled middle-school boy and ended up with a letter in my file.  The incident shocked me into wondering who I was.

While I was reeling from this, I saw the book Mindset on an endcap at Barnes & Noble.  I didn’t abandon ‘integrity,’ but I shifted further away from blaming students for causing problems because I understood that we filter everything through the lens of what we believe we can do—our mindset.  I tried to explicitly teach that it is possible to shift away from a fixed mindset to growth mindset, but it was clumsy and students did not react well.

Then just as I began my multi-level experience, I found the book Teaching That Changes Lives, and all of this came together.  Dr. Marilee Adams had a more student-friendly way to express the mindset idea, and her poster of the contrasting learner and judger paths (and where they ended up) were a perfect compliment to my definition of integrity, and I found that by walking to the poster and asking which path someone’s behavior reflected, I could put a positive spin on any incident.

I believe that all humans carry an innate moral code that tells us what our best path in, and I did not have to switch out of Spanish to ask ¿Es integridad?  Eventually, my upper-level students simply tossed the word ‘integridad’ whenever someone did anything unkind.  They had taken over the role of disciplining the class, and I was delighted, when that dawned on me.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating that my first-year students were part of ‘España’ and my upper level was ‘México.’  Heritage learners who were competent speakers went straight to México and were always valued for their knowledge and skills, consulted whenever possible and prized as tutors.  Without my planning or expecting this, it became a huge thrill for students to make it to the second year and be part of México, and you could see it on the first day of classes, as they began to interact with the new students, and this might be one of the most vital pieces of community glue: there is a lot of help available in the multi-level classroom, and if you can tolerate the little whispered side conversations, a lot of tutoring happens, which is a big part of why they did not mind sitting with a new partner each month.

During all of this, there was also a background current that wondered and wandered, through the difference between explicit teaching to the conscious mind and implicit activity imbedded into the flow of each class session.  As I moved away slowly from explicit rules of behavior or language construction, I recognized the power of the subconscious mind to absorb ideas within a delightful context.  I believe that all human beings resist explicit instruction unless we are seeking it, our subconscious desires already having been satisfied by delight.

Now I recognize that acquisition happens best when the boundaries are bendable and the context is delightfully rich.  That leads me to a strange technique I called ‘Fictional Attribution’ (FA) because I once gave an NTPRS session about it and felt that I needed a technical name.  It was not a very successful session because I could not explain or illustrate it as well as I had hoped, but I went right on refining it, perhaps because it became my brand of comedy, and humor is something I longed for more of.  So, if you imagine a student launching a moment of low-grade negativity like “But Señor Wass, I hate to read!,”  I would pause to steer the emotion to a higher level: “Hmmm, since I know you to be a passionate wisdom-seeker, are you telling me that school has turned off your desire to read?”

“Yes,” says the student, feeling both surprise and a twisted sense of recognition.  “Ah… then I am grateful that we get to share your journey back to a love of reading.”  Or whatever other ridiculously-positive thing that came to mind.  I did not stay in the target language during these moments, but I know a lot of teachers in this community who are capable of such thinking, and I do this regularly now as a substitute teacher.

The ‘untargeted input’ movement happened right after I retired, and it gave me a way to understand what I had been working toward.  A lot of what I did was spontaneous and unplanned, rising out of the joy of having students of all different levels and doing a lot of negotiation of meaning.  I now recognize UI as a powerful tool for beginning a new multi-level class, one that insures that a teacher will be able to manage the anxiety of this deep paradigm shift; having experience with that technique before taking on a multi-level class would be a huge advantage over how I began.  But I never got over being a nervous teacher, and I would never advise anyone to abandon all routines and programed activities.

We have long ago accepted the idea that segregation by age and/or experience level is a normal way to run an educational system, but I see it as a bureaucratic organization tool.  Multi-level classes benefit from being one of the few places where such segregation disappears, without anyone even thinking about it, and this is part of the secret. Advanced students will be worried about their needs at the beginning of a multi-level system, but anxiety will disappear entirely by the second year. Kids know in their hearts that being grouped by age is a phony, hollow practice, and they are delighted to escape from it, but only once they feel and settle into the energy of a multi-level class.  And you, my readers, cannot imagine what a delight it is to work within that feeling every day until you find a way to have one of these classes.

I hope that Michele Whaley will also publish in detail her own portrait of a multi-level class, and that the floodgates will also open for others who are already immersed in this model.  I feel certain that Bryce stands ready to curate other perspectives.  My exploration of this whole area barely scratches the surface of its delightful possibilities.

So, I will end by stating what I now believe:  not only is being ‘delightful’ a way to turn an impossibly strange idea into a timeless classic, multi-level classes are one of the best possible strategies for a delightful adventure.  If you feel like you are in danger of dying of thirst in a desert, I urge you to try them.