Sunday, February 5, 2017

La Señora toca el ukulele: PBL and language learning outside the clasroom

If I've learned anything in almost a decade of teaching, it's that I'll never stop learning... and although I don't think I've ever lost track of how to be a language learner, it's still easy to lose hold of what it feels like to be a beginning language learner. As we are deep into conjugation practice in 8th grade, I see novice students and native speakers alike baffled by the mysterious jumbles of pronouns and verbs. After approximately 15 years of pounding those verbs into my head, it's easy to forget how confusing they first were.

One of the things I've been pushing myself to do this year is to learn new things. This is part of my ongoing and often futile quest for work/life balance, but also pretty crucial as an educator. It's harder to empathize with my students and give them the support they need if I forget what it is like to be a learner.

Here's what I'm learning and what I'm re-learning about about being a learner:

Arabic: I began learning Arabic a few years ago. In reality it's been about a decade... but with nothing more consistent than a year or so of (supposedly) weekly language lessons, which were more like monthly or semi-monthly. I tended to switch into Spanish as my default L2 mode. I used the strategies and tricks I taught my Spanish students - I labeled items in my house, made flash cards, came up with mnemonic devices, and drew things on whiteboards. During my year teaching English in Spain, I found a Spanish/English/Arabic exchange in order to rediscover my language-learning self as I was embarking on the new adventure of teaching my native language.

I learned what my students (hopefully) have learned - if you don't put in time to practice and study, you won't be able to use the language. Some words stuck - the word for thank you (because I drew a picture to go with it, and because I could actually use it in the real world) and the word for worm (because of the little worm dude/dood I drew.) (Okay. That is totally a caterpillar. Apparently I have a lot to learn.) By the time I actually traveled to Morocco, the only full sentence I could remember was "She drinks coffee." Not super functional.

Now I'd like to pick Arabic up again, especially in our current country's situation, where I am trying to engage with and fight for those who are oppressed and under-represented. (That's another story.) I know the drill - I need to practice every day. I need to learn phrases I can actually use, and find places to use them. I know how to be a language learner. (Now let's see if I can carve time for being a language learner out of the massive amount of time it takes to be a language teacher.)

Maybe I'll set myself the same monthly homework requirements I give my students, and they can grade me.

I'm also trying to learn the ukulele. A few months ago I somewhat impulsively bought a ukulele. Now I've been muddling my way through learning how to play it, usually on sunny Saturday mornings. I have limited musical experience, and only with melodies on very linear instruments (Celtic harp, mountain dulcimer, piano) so there's a steep learning curve! I am starting by trying to learn Limón y Sal by Julieta Venegas, starting with this tutorial.

I'm learning from a Spanish tutorial, and learning a new skill in my 2nd language is great in the context of project based learning. It's made me realize a few things about a second language + PBL. To learn to play the ukelele, I obviously needed to understand enough of the tutorial to follow along. I needed a basic level of language in order to learn a new skill in that language. That allowed me to follow along, and learn more specific new vocabulary in an authentic way. (Acordes and traste I could understand from the context. Rasgueo I could understand, and looked up to learn the new verb rasguear.) Chord charts are confusing to me because I have trouble conceptualizing spatial information. I watched the beginning of the tutorial several times and drew out charts of the fingering, but couldn't get all the chords to sound right. I re-tuned the ukelele a few times, downloaded a app for chords, watched the video a few times. I eventually realized I was holding the ukulele in the wrong hand. I needed to grab the white-out and start over several times. I needed to be okay with making mistakes and reassessing what I thought I knew in order to keep going. Once I fixed my hold on the ukulele I could correct my diagrams and actually practice the cords correctly, trying to cement those abstract diagrams into muscle memory.

How does this apply to my teaching?

Students need to have some basic language skills before collaborating and using those skills for a project. This is why this year I'm making sure I focus on skills and proficiency and not sacrificing all of our limited class time for projects - as much as I believe in project based learning as the best way for students to learn, students need proficiency. Especially as we develop and increase our K-5 language program, by middle school students will have both the language skills and the confidence needed to complete real-world projects in the language classroom. Focusing on authentic, engaging language tasks is a way to incorporate the concepts and values of PBL without sacrificing proficiency.

Teaching students a growth mindset and not to be afraid of making mistakes is crucial. Building a safe, supportive environment where students feel safe making mistakes allows them to show up and actually begin the hard work of language learning. For me, a big part of letting kids be vulnerable is letting them see me as a learner as well. From the perspective of a Spanish learner now teaching Spanish, I'm able to share with students my own struggles with the language, and strategies I used to study and remember. As a gringa guiri language learner turned teacher, acknowledging my status as a learner is important - especially in a community that includes native speakers. I often ask native speakers for regional variations or obscure words, and we look up words together frequently. Taking a descriptive rather than prescriptive view of language (lo siento, Real Academia) is also important, since I want students to recognize and respect regional variations as it is used - not just language from a book or the variations I happened to encounter in Spain. Finding the best way to support and challenge my native speakers is an ongoing area of growth for me, but the importance of beginning with a respectful and supportive relationship is one thing I'm already sure of.