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Communicating with Mirrors

As I think ahead to the summer, I’m hoping that I can help new audiences understand teaching with CI.

Words in Alan Alda’s book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? are jumping out at me – literally, as I’m listening to it rather than reading to it.

For storytelling teachers, there is one idea that is obvious: that people will learn better if they have a story to attach it to. But Alda has a new lens for me to use as I discuss how slow is slow enough for language acquisition.

Alda discusses teaching scientists how to share information better through improvisation exercises. One of those is the Mirror exercise. The follower in a pair must mirror the movements of the leader at the same time. Alda coaches the participants, telling them to slow down so that they can be precise together. If the leader is moving too fast, Alda says it’s his responsibility to help the mirror (follower) keep up with him.

“The person communicating something is responsible for how well the other person follows him. If I’m explaining something and you don’t follow me, it’s not simply your job to catch up. It’s my job to slow down. This is at the heart of communicating.”

“If I tell you something without making sure you got it, did I really communicate anything? Was I talking to you, or was I just making noises?”

Mirroring moves in ever more difficult exercises in movement into speech. The pairs have to use signals from body movement and ideas and face to work together.

Any of you who are around me this summer: I’m going to be drafting you into experiments with mirroring and improv games. With luck, it will make at least me a better communicator and teacher.




PS Alda cites this article on tapping by Valdesolo and Desteno as leading to social cohesion. I suspect it is part of what might start to explain the miracles Gerry Wass and I have noted happening in classrooms where we use music.


Fun in Spanish

I’m at the end of my fourth day of teaching in a Spanish immersion week. Everyone who’s important knows that I am not truly a Spanish teacher. Everyone in my classes likes how I speak slowly and carefully. They understand me! There’s no way I could speak any faster…my monitor is working overtime, and I know that students will learn in this class. I don’t want them to learn incorrect language.

I am having the time of my life! I’m learning to simplify what I do know, and how to compensate for what I don’t. I keep track of phrases I need (“Tenemos suerte” is my most recent acquisition), and when I don’t know something, if I can’t divert attention, I tell the class I don’t know and we move on. It feels as though I’m born to do this language-teaching thing. I knew it was fun in Russian. It’s even easier in Spanish, partly because there’s so much out there. Storytelling authors: you have some orders coming! I brought an assortment of books–some that I had bought for myself, and also a couple of class sets that I ordered for my class at home–just in case people would want them. They did. They’re drinking up the chance to be able to understand what they read. I know just how they feel.

It’s too bad I can’t sit in on the other language classes, because they’re at the same time I’m teaching. But that doesn’t matter…I’m learning a lot by doing my research in the evenings and by actually teaching the material for the second or third time. This is the most patient group of students ever. I’m truly grateful for this opportunity. And now I feel even more inspired to continue my Spanish language acquisition adventure.


Accountability discussions

I’m visiting my daughter in New York (City, if you’re on the west coast). The day I arrived, she invited me to accompany me to her actors’ group accountability session. I had heard about these meetings, but never experienced one. Her group combines advice, counseling, and meeting of friends.

Each person had a chance to talk about his or her week, and then the group leader went through a list that the group had helped that member make the previous week. Most of the members had completed most of the items on their lists.

I loved the public sharing of accomplishments, and wonder whether this could be added to the Bryce-Special-Person day starter, especially for those groups who have known one another well for some time, and where the deeper questions he suggests are successful discussion starters.

In the acting group, the leader suggested steps actors needed to take to keep their careers moving forward. She knew how to help people network, how to time emails to potential agents and responses to companies, and she recommended specific seminars. It was fascinating, and it gave my daughter a reality check about what folks ahead of her on the acting ladder were still doing, as well as lauding her for short-term accomplishments. Each week, the leader helps members add a manageable set of new goals, and she emails them their lists after the discussion.

In school, “accountability” is usually about a specific class, whether that is positive or negative. I might check in on a student whose assignment or book is overdue, hand back assignments or completed rubrics, and if I happen to hear about a sport activity or drama event, I will ask questions and applaud successes. But I don’t have a way to  intentionally help students take small steps toward other life goals.

Where students know one another in a supportive classroom climate, each day could include check-ins with a couple students on goals to include a personal one (relationship or organizational), a health or lifestyle goal, and a step toward specific interests (learning about a career or getting involved in a club, for instance). Then as the cycle came around again, the class could check in with the student. It probably couldn’t turn around as quickly as the weekly actors’ group, given class sizes, but that might be good for students, who might need more time to work on goals, as well as for the teacher and other class members, who might have time to research ways they could be of assistance.

It occurs to me that keeping the class “checklist” could be a class job; students could maintain it on a section of the class website or simply keep a notebook page for everyone.

I love how talking about big topics makes class groups become communities, and I suspect that kids might like the addition of a model of setting and noting achievements of goals in their personal and professional lives. Can’t wait to start implementing in August!

“Perfect Grammar”

An update on my path to acquire Spanish: yesterday we were Face Timing with our daughter, a fluent speaker of Spanish. At some point, since my husband was headed out to play a Cinco de Mayo gig, we lapsed into Spanish for a silly teasing argument over his lack of headwear. He claimed that real Mexican musicians didn’t wear sombreros, and didn’t know where it was, so I said I’d seen it somewhere in the house…

I had the past tense verb! It came out of me (and then I checked, because I suddenly thought what I had said might mean something else). Karl responded, and after another minute, my daughter started laughing uncontrollably. Nervous, I asked why, and she explained that Karl was making up Spanish words from his Italian background, and that my Spanish was textbook perfect grammar.

I do remember that when folks said my Russian was perfect grammatically, it meant “somewhat stilted,” but I’m taking this as a compliment.

Two drawing gadgets

Good Morning!

No Spanish news this morning, just two awesome drawing sites that Teacher’s Tech on YouTube shared.

First, AutoDraw: draw your best version of something, and a picture will probably popautodraw 4-29-2017 (2) up that is somewhat close to what you want (sometimes I can’t get it to recognize my renditions, and then I just choose an alternate picture; I was attempting a mouse and ended up with a bear here, for instance). You can paste it into a document. It’s that easy. Since students often have trouble recognizing what I draw, this is especially helpful for me to use in front of the classroom on the white board; I can still print vocabulary words that I need to use.

Second, Quick, Draw! It sets a challenge to draw a picture that the computer can recognize in 20 seconds. It’s a little obsessing-making. Try it!

Spanish is coming along

I have not been writing anything in Spanish lately, mostly because my guinea-pig Spanish-class-colleague students have been increasingly busy as we get to the end of the year. Thus I’m not creating parallel stories that need correction before I give them to students. I will probably start writing again after school’s out, especially if I can find some students to practice on again.

Instead, I read about four chapters of a TPRS novel every day with the only teacher who can still give me twenty minutes of practice. Then I go home and read more there, sometimes children’s books from the library, and most often at least five or ten pages from Bajo la Misma Estrellaa translation of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars. I know the story, having read it a while ago in English, so I can hang in there in much the same way as our lower-level kids do in an Embedded Reading after the first version. I have improved to the point that I usually understand almost everything in three of four paragraphs. Total daily reading goal: one hour.

Lately, I’ve been sick again (I think preschool children’s viruses are taking their toll on me), so I spent four days down. For two of those days, I turned on my YouTube Dreaming Spanish subscription and watched/dozed/watched all day. That man is amazing! I now understand everything, but I love seeing what’s in his fridge and his little Madrid apartment, and hearing about his adventures. I wish I’d known about him to begin with, because I’d like to know how much I would have understood back in January.

Yesterday, I was over the moon again with this acquisition stuff. There was a new Radio Ambulante podcast, so I found the transcript, read it through, looked up about five words, and then listened while following the transcript again. It was about a plastic surgery gone bad. When I found myself squinting at the transcript because it was hurting me to think about it, I realized I’d moved through some sort of language door; I was reading for the story, rather than for the practice. There was no translation going on in my head. I wasn’t deconstructing sentences, partly because the journalists speak so fast. It’s great fun to be able to just get it. I’m amazed how empowering this process is.

(Weirdly enough, I am also beginning to pick up speed on my acquisition of ukulele. I had despaired of ever being able to play a stringed instrument, even this “easy” one.)

While I understand most past tense verbs, I wouldn’t be able to produce them. Or anything future other than voy a. I’m trying to notice subjunctive when I can. Mostly, I just read and listen and trust that eventually I will have enough input to start outputting with confidence in places where there might be “real” Spanish speakers.

Family class

I had a ten-hour family connection class this weekend. Last night I couldn’t hear over the constant buzz of all the Spanish speakers in the room. I was confused because when our instructor would ask a table to report their responses to a question, the answers were way off the topic. She was very good at picking something out of what they said to make it answer her question, but I was beginning to wonder why they were so off-course.

Today I sat with a table of ladies from the Dominican Republic who offer child care in their homes. When I explained that I love listening to their Spanish, they slowed their speech and started helping me with my language. But when the first slide came up, the lady next to me asked me what sssch meant. I had to ask her to repeat four times. It turned out that she meant, “such,” from the sentence, “David’s father is such a helicopter dad.” Oh boy. I told her it was that the dad in the case was “muy” helicopter. That didn’t help. I added “bastante.” Still not much help. We looked it up. Tal. By then, the slide show was much farther along and we had missed whatever the point of that slide had been.

It became clear to me that many of the Spanish speakers had been compensating for a lack of comprehension by copying other groups and talking whenever the instructor turned discussions over to us. They hadn’t understood what the instructor was asking them to discuss, but they tried to use at least a couple of the words they’d heard. And when she went on to present content, like how to avoid cultural conflicts with families, or when she gave examples from her own experience, they were completely lost. I started explaining to my table. They would listen to me, then rephrase what I said in better Spanish, and then we would discuss the concept (“discuss” might be a little strong for what I was doing).

The class became a wonderful challenge for me. I was fascinated to learn how American best practices look from another cultural standpoint. But I was also struck by the idea that the instructor is giving these presentations to people who probably aren’t getting what the presenting organization expects. They simply don’t have enough English to understand more than sentence-level, and they don’t have the frequent comprehensible input that they need to be able to progress. At this moment, I don’t have any answers, but I sure understand the problem better!

It was so easy for me: the presentation was on a topic I know well, in my first language, and the Spanish vocabulary was what I could either already use or guess at. But for my classmates, the topic was new, the written language was new (they had a hard time figuring out even which page we were on, since the numbers were all out of order and they were mostly text), and they sometimes had to work to make sense of what I was saying. They didn’t even try to fill in the final sheet in their handouts: goal area, specific goal, and steps to the goal. The graphic organizer helped me pull together what we had covered, but my group were still defining pasos a una meta as the class was dismissed.

Now I can see even more why it makes sense to talk with students in CI language classes about topics that fit the context, and to play with those topics in ways that the students lead. When we tell a story, review it, enlarge on it a bit, review again, and move forward with the whole class, students are with us, acquiring at their level. When we are not student-directed, students lose focus easily because discussion no longer fits their context.

Jason Fritze has said to include either new information or new structures in a class, but not both. He was talking about cultural information, but his advice works to explain why student-led language acquisition is so effective.