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OPI: a favor

Just a quick note today. I’m finding that I can comprehend a book written for adolescent native speakers of Spanish, and am a whole lot better at circumlocution with sympathetic listeners.

I have been pretty accurate myself when people have asked me to guesstimate what their OPI Russian score will be (they have informed me after their official OPI).

So I wonder…is there anyone out there who is working on becoming an OPI interviewer in Spanish who needs someone to practice on? If so…I’d love to get a baseline to be able to gauge progress over the next decade.

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Teaching adults is different after all

I just finished the second of an eight-week (once weekly) hour with parents of our local Russian immersion program. Last week I had only one student, so used the Star of the Day slideshow to support our conversation. This week, when the rest showed up, I put some of the “Super Seven” verbs (thanks, Terry Thatcher Waltz) on the white board, along with a few other important words as they came up, and we spent the entire hour just reading about that first student and comparing her with others.

In the past, I’ve run my adult classes the same way as I did my high school classes, with lots of brain breaks and varieties of activities. But this time, after reviewing some gestures that I’d be using, we spent the entire hour on the reading. They were responding well to questions about the text and themselves and to “what did I just ask” questions, working on reading the Cyrillic, and showing interest in one another.

In the deep of winter and spring, there probably won’t be the same level of energy, so I plan to drill deeply into the lives and interests of these students and of their children now, and then we can study songs and read other pieces later on for variety.

My ah-hah understanding: I was ever so pleased to see that students could use a (heavily supported) reading in Cyrillic on their first night. I won’t try to tiptoe around the Cyrillic from now on.

Finals done!

I am relieved and pleased to have administered some successful post-secondary language finals yesterday. I owe colleagues big time!

  • First time teaching at a university
  • First time using a dedicated textbook curriculum
  • First time with only three hours a week over only two sessions

In our second-semester Russian class, we started the final with a listening section, taken from the many recordings that we’ve heard this semester, and which students had a chance to review. Thanks to Señora Chase, that was easy to administer and to grade with her three-level assessment. I adapted the form to fit university classes.

I’ve been using “Star of the Day” /”La Persona Especial” interviews for years, thanks to Bryce Hedstrom, and I had tweaked slides to fit the themes of our textbook throughout the semester. For the oral part of that exam (timed), students had a list of questions they could ask one another in conversation pairs, and if they were comprehensible to this sympathetic listener (me), if they understood and responded to the questions their classmates asked, and if they asked at least three follow-up tag questions about comments their partners made, they could get an A on that part. Understanding and communicating were the key to a solid B. Long pauses, missed communication opportunities, and answers that didn’t make sense lowered the grade. Our class has learned a lot about one another, so I was impressed that new information came out during the orals. I also enjoyed the laughter that ensued.

Finally, we had a 25-sentence discourse scramble, thanks to Bill VanPatten’s direction. This particular mini essay was based on the answers that one student had given to all the Star of the Day questions. Again, it followed the grammar, vocabulary, and the themes of our text. Each student had to reassemble the essay into a logical flow, with introduction and conclusion. I hadn’t truly expected grammar to be important when analyzing the form of a paragraph, but I am now a believer because of the mistakes some students made. Again, it turned out to be very easy to grade, though students came up with several different ways of making the pieces flow. We had done only three of these in class, so I will try to use this format much more often in the future. I would also make this section significantly longer.

This wasn’t the most flashy or creative final, and it was certainly not what the students have been used to, but I am pleased that they were able to demonstrate their level of ability to communicate in and to comprehend Russian. They extended what we’ve been doing in class but they were able to be completely prepared by following my review suggestions.

Native speakers in the university language classroom

At the start of my first semester teaching at university, I was a bit horrified to find that I had four native speakers in my Russian language classes. I didn’t think to ask my experienced colleague in time to find out how she handled that situation, so bumbled on.

I’ve had a lot of native speakers in high school classes, and have even posted how to use them on this blog. But those were usually exchange students for whom the Russian class was a chance to relax in their day at an American school, or children of Russian speakers who had missed the reading and writing of a Russian school. In either case, they were basically captive audiences, and I did my best to engage them and use their talents in the best way I could.

But at University, I forgot that these are students with a choice, and was tormented that they should be in a class they were paying for, with a non-native speaker in charge.

Fast forward, and I am just delighted by their presence. One participates fully in the class as a regular student, sometimes becoming my “dictionary,” looking up concepts and vocabulary for me. He often gets to help model our activities for the rest of the class. His homework is not the same as the others, as he is reading novels — and discussing them outside class with another, older, native speaker. That man was a computer programmer in his native country, and he is a whiz preparing Quizlet, Kahoot, and game-like Powerpoints based on our text’s grammar and themes. I love it!

Two young Russian-speaking women are in charge of finding me appropriate support for our texts. Often they will write up texts about themselves and their families for me that supplement our book, especially the book for the lower level class that has almost no extended texts. I use their shorter texts as discourse scrambles (thanks, Bill VanPatten for this bridge to writing). They find videos and blogs that are reasonable to understand and appropriate (in my mind), especially after I went on a search for blogs and came up with some that had pictures I never want to think about again. (They know which words not to search.) In class, they allow me to divide up into reading and interview groups, and they are again great models for conversations. Today, one of the young women will bring her 12-year-old sister to be the subject of an interview. I’m excited!

And just now, one of them sent me a list of blogs–I wanted readings with first-person accounts–and she offered an extra suggestion that we follow Russian celebrities on Instagram. I had done that on Twitter, but forgot about it, and was thrilled to search for каюры (mushers…we’re on our third day of the Iditarod up here) and find great pages of Beringia mushing, complete with lots of text and comments. Wow. I asked her to suggest which celebrities we should follow, because she will know who’s top of the list.

Students control acquisition

Fighting words.

I played about seven minutes* of BVP’s latest podcast for my university students last night, pausing occasionally (podcast-talk?) to discuss some of the vocabulary (SLA, “head-initial,” acquisition). Two worlds – the textbook/tradition and my understanding of the process of acquisition – are constantly at odds during my lesson planning. Sharing the podcast allowed me to show students that I’m trying to do right by them. Bill’s direction for teachers helped. “Make classes engaging, compelling, and enjoyable” in order to support acquisition. Tall order.

One of my students who has told me that he appreciates the homework (“spend 5-7 hours outside class weekly with input you understand and reflect briefly on it”) was meeting my eyes the entire time we listened to Bill’s podcast. He is the one who told me he had dreaded this class and is now motivated again to learn Russian. Another student, who had been a little dismissive of my homework assignment, but who has most successfully shared what she feels she’s acquiring, stayed after to tell me that she “gets” it now. She said that whenever she understands something new in one reading, she starts to see and hear it everywhere. She is getting the kind of mass input that I want them all to get. I so appreciated her acceptance!

Something clicked for me during the podcast too, and I hope to explain it correctly. As I understood it, Bill talked about how students don’t notice grammar unless the sentence forces them to need the grammar to understand. So during our story-telling, when the cat was telling its owner that it wouldn’t be eating any of the dishes the owner was bringing, I left out unnecessary pronouns as we told and retold and asked questions. (Russian, like Spanish, has verb forms in the present and future that are pronoun-specific. Only third person pronouns can apply to either a male or a female, but in the midst of a text, they can be dropped.) And though I don’t really believe that just one day’s worth of such input has an impact, when my students later had to Google Voice a little conversation, every single one of my second-semester students got the Russian future verb forms correct. I tried the same idea while guiding the advanced students through choosing the correct imperfective/perfective past forms. Their Google Voice results were about 75% correct, compared to the last time we tried this and I felt like a complete traditional grammar failure.

I’m not sure whether there’s a way to direct student to materials that don’t include the pronouns or other hints that make acquiring the grammar possible, but it’s possible that, once having noticed and understood that the pronouns aren’t necessary, students will start to comprehend their own choice reading and listening more effectively. As it is, every student in my two classes is reading different material, often venturing beyond the five pages of suggested resources that I gave them for potential CI. A few like the textbooks. An advanced (native speaker) is reading novels and discussing them with our local tutor. One has found a huge supply of cat memes (I never would have expected this, but her oral output is improving rapidly). Others use the 3Ears videos; one found a bunch of pirated-online children’s books, and I have been enjoying those myself – though I can’t in good faith share the link with the others.

In the end, I hope that the students heard not only the admonition for me to be an engaging teacher, but the statement that they are the ones in control of their acquisition. They can’t control all of the constraints: time, mindset, basic “talent,” or access to social interaction, but they can control whether they are getting input that matters to them and that they understand. I’m going to keep reminding them that they are the drivers here. I’m only the highway, and for now it’s probably only a two-lane, country highway at best. But the views…

*from about 08:30

Blissfully teaching

I am not sure, like the kids in The Sound of Music, what I did to deserve my current teaching situations, but I’m loving them. Granted, it’s been a tough week because I realized a big thing that I was doing wrong (thanks to a tactful observer), but it feels like this train is back on track to improving and connecting.

What the observer pointed out was that I seemed to have lost sight of what the point was during lessons in her room. Immediately, it was clear the same thing was happening everywhere. There’s so much material that it was flying at the students (from K-Uni) and it wasn’t ever going to be clear what was sticking.

As a CI teacher who had complete control over a mixed-level program in high and middle school, I had been used to picking a theme with the interests of kids in mind and following them down a path until we felt we’d “arrived,” whatever that meant in each group. But with a new language in elementary school (and the unlimited materials that exist in Spanish, even if I do stick to only one of my beloved resources) and a couple of new university Russian textbooks, with the overload of information in them, I was grabbing and flinging.

I used to purely follow kids’ ideas (and IB/AP themes) for lessons. By trying to answer questions and include their interests, themes would emerge for planning. When I asked myself what these new students might want and need to get out of the lessons, lessons fell into place. I knew what was worth doing and could stop flinging. Instead of drilling verbs of motion and case endings at the university, we discussed who wanted to go/travel/move where, with lots of support and with the idea that we were looking for surprising information about classmates who thought they knew one another. We did learn some surprising information: one student wanted to go get a glass of wine after class (tough day), another wants to move to Australia (farther from Mom), and another would like to move to the east coast of the US (even without ever having been there). Plenty of opportunity for me to increase the input including verbs of motion and accusative case. Lovely.

And really, it turns out that my Star of the Day questionnaire eventually covers everything that the textbook does. So when we needed to talk about food in the lower-level class, it was easy to hone in on that part of the questionnaire with our Star, personalizing with specific questions for him. (Sheer luck for me: he turned out to have formerly been a chef at one of our better local restaurants!) After talking, I projected the “class notes” document to add information about him, and students remembered information and reminded me with about specifics.

How long have I been teaching? Why did I need to relearn? I guess the answers don’t really matter.

Moving to university

“Use the material to get to know the students, rather than using student input to get to the material.” (Laurie Clarcq)

I started teaching at the university level this week. Terrified! And it’s going to be a learning curve, since there are a lot of moving parts, many of which have to do with the LMS, and many others of which have to do with the fact that these are new textbooks to me, with vocabulary lists a mile long. Textbooks have never been my thing. But I’m plunging ahead. And honestly, these are great textbooks: they have lots of readings and exercises that I can use easily and that are appropriate for the context in the classroom.

Skip from Maine saved me by suggesting what he did for his first class: students sent pictures: one that showed something they liked to do, and another something they used to do. My students added their pictures to a Google slide show. Because their names were on them, I was able to recognize almost everyone. And we spent much of the first class (90 minutes!) talking about their pictures. A (native speaker) took notes and typed them up for me, so I was able to use the writing as a reading, then chop it up into a Quizlet Live game, and then we’ll use it for a Google Voice quiz.

While the projection system was freaking out on me that first night (no – I was the one freaking out), students in pairs answered three of the chapter questions with two truths and a lie. That gave me some time to mess with the computer, and it also gave me a chance to hear their speech levels. Then everyone had to explain in front of the whole class what the lie was that their partner told. In the advanced class, students had to line up by height as a way to form pairs. They looked at me as though I had two heads. Guess that doesn’t often happen in university classes! They’re already getting used to me now.

Tonight, we read the notes, corrected a few mistakes, did some vocabulary review (but personalized), and led up to the story that was told by a music video. Unfortunately, the previous instructor had used the same music video, but luckily I knew in advance for the higher level class at least, so I could really string out our parallel story. Then we watched the video, and they realized we’d pushed in a direction to match it. Finally, we discussed the presentations that they’re going to be doing on songs: everyone will find one, translate it, present it, talk about the band, the singers, the topic…they seemed very enthusiastic about this assignment. For the more advanced group, it fits well with the focus on biography.

After class, a student told me he’d been dreading this semester, and now he’s motivated. What a relief! What we do has to support what they need for further coursework, but the teaching has to remain true to my principles. Use the material to learn about the students. It works!