The longer I teach, the more I see how complex the effect of classroom dynamics is on the learning that happens within every class; those dynamics are influenced by each student and all that he or she experiences both inside and outside the classroom, as well as of course by the expectations and demeanor of the teacher. In the world language classroom, especially at first, many students become so fixated on the "foreign-ness" of the language that they struggle to recognize the commonalities, linguistic and social, that can serve as footholds from which to propel themselves forward and upward on their personal climb toward language acquisition. Without those footholds, the climb can seem insurmountable, too great to achieve.
Issues of perfectionism, self-doubt, being laughed at, and being less-than, all revolving around self-esteem, enter with our language students as they begin class. I find this to be especially true when students begin learning a language in middle school, an age and time that is already so fraught with themes of self-consciousness and insecurity. Stephen Krashen coined the term affective filter to refer to that imaginary wall that blocks learning, of language or anything else, when student anxiety is high and self esteem or motivation is low. There is a strong tension between wanting to "get it right" and a subsequent fear that one is not in fact doing that; these expectations and fears are obstacles to both learning as well as enjoying a new language, and the way students interact with each other around these concepts most certainly affects the learning environment of the classroom. By getting purposeful about building a classroom language-learning community starting in the 5
grade, as students transition to middle school, I hope to channel those feelings of self-doubt by focusing on student roles and responsibilities to others within the classroom, using the ways they will relate to each other as reason for communication as well as motivation to support one another.
In today's world language classes, we are constantly looking for ways to provide or create opportunities for students to communicate authentically in the language we are teaching. The emphasis is on actively using the language and providing lots of opportunities for students to do so that are unique but similar, so that they can get repeated practice, but in continually engaging ways. This can at times feel somewhat contrived, as the prompts for conversation, although realistic and real-world to varying degrees, don't always actually touch the real world of the student. It is a what-if world that students must imagine: If you were in France, if you met a French-speaker, this is what you would say or ask in this particular, sometimes random-seeming situation. Or if you needed to borrow a pen, this is what you would say. But either you don't actually need to now, or by the next time you need to again, you will have forgotten how to say it because you haven't needed to practice the phrase since then. Even the attempt to make the prompt feel more real, the extra layers of detail to imagine in order to make the scenario more - in fact - imaginable, sometimes pulls it instead further from our students' reality, turning the task into a collection of hoops through which to jump.
In part this is because of the inherent complexity of language and the tension between giving students simple, widely usable language, and the ways in which concepts and language don't always translate into neatly packaged bundles. So on the one hand I try to give students lots of commonly used sentence starters that they can apply in different situations just by switching out vocabulary; on the other hand, sometimes the student wants to express something that defies simple swapping, something that doesn't easily map onto current conceptions of language structure. Of course part of learning a language is learning how to use what you know to communicate something more complex than you are currently able to say; but still, students can become frustrated when they don't understand that what they want to say involves a complicated tense change or a different and confusing structure, and thus don't understand why I won't just give them what they are asking for. Because there exists always this dance of what to teach and explain as a way to build linguistic understanding in general, and what to just give, free of much explanation, simply as a communicative option for self-expression. All of this threatens the clarity of the language foundation you have been working so purposefully to build; without that clarity, even the best ideas and plans will risk falling short. Our students need something to say and a reason for saying it, accessible and varied ways to respond and explore, and a space in which they feel comfortable doing so.
It is for the social and self-esteem needs of my students as well as for the desire to bring a new kind of authenticity to communication within my language classroom that I write this unit. To understand and use the factors already at play in my language classroom, to organize our procedures and activities around the idea of community, and to create a structure for being and communicating within that classroom community that empowers students as language learners, as agents of their own learning and contributors to our classroom learning community.
I teach at an arts magnet middle school comprised of grades five through eight. When students enter in 5
grade, they are placed in a reading or math enrichment class if there is need; if not, they are placed in French, Spanish, or Mandarin Chinese. If students or parents aren't pleased with a placement, they may meet with guidance and switch languages at the beginning of the year. But we try to convince them to stay, as students and parents often have preconceived notions of what is or isn't a useful language, and we are trying to change that message. So it is my job to show students and their parents the usefulness of French, and if I can't convince them of that, then at least either to show them how much fun they can have with it or how much they are learning to communicate with it. Students who enter a language in 5
grade generally continue with that language through 8
grade. Grades five and six focus on vocabulary-building and more simple question/answer sets, while grades seven and eight focus on more complex conversational prompts and how to access and apply language within a growing diversity of linguistic knowledge, while building more overt awareness of grammatical structures.
So for example, in 5
grade, if we are learning classroom vocabulary we will also learn or review phrases for asking if you have an item and replying in the affirmative and negative, as well as asking if you can borrow one, or if there is such and such an item in your book bag. By using those few question and answer phrases, we are repeating the key vocabulary in several different and useful scenarios. But useful though they are, those scenarios are largely fake. Students don't actually need the items at the time they are asking for them, and they don't have any real reason to know if their classmates have them. It is just an exercise in language. And it's a good one! Although the set up as it stands is largely successful, at times it can get a little too focused on vocabulary-building and questions seemingly plucked from the sky.
And there, the question forms itself: How to provide a more meaningful and engaging context in which to ground these questions and answers? I've become familiar recently with the concept of worlding, or constructing a world. In that light, I like to think of the answer as moving from word-building to world-building, where that world is built on the words we need and the relationships we form in the classroom. Where we learn French and recognize language connections, where we leave behind limiting beliefs and adopt those beliefs that move us forward in our common goal.