I think the biggest benefit of blogging for teachers is that it increases their ability to be reflective and articulate about their practice. Stray thoughts and half-awarenesses get fleshed out into full-fledged epiphanies as teachers figure out how to talk with their colleagues about what they do in the classroom. Back in April, I ended a blog post with four target areas for growth in my practice, one of them being Interpersonal Mode at the Intermediate level:
“My Level 1 classes have a lively and robust environment that makes room for well-supported and scaffolded conversational interactions. But in each subsequent level, I prioritize the interpersonal mode less and less, even as students are working towards pushing their proficiency ever further. I need to take a hard look at my unit themes and objectives, and consider how I can make more space for interpersonal communication — the heart of why most people want to learn another language.”
Interpersonal communication comes naturally to a first-year language course. The early Novice curriculum is teeming with questions: first memorized ones (“What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from?”), then open-ended ones (“What do you like to do in your free time? What is your family/friend/teacher like?”), and follow-up questions serve as a natural tool for students with limited language to rely on (“You like video games? Me too. What’s your favorite game?”). As we enter Novice High, though, and the focus of topics broadens from “All About Me” to “The World Around Me”, sometimes interpersonal prompts can start to feel a little… forced. If we’re learning about the cultural products, practices and perspectives related to Japanese homes, for example, we can certainly talk about our own homes — but is that something I actually want to talk about in the Target Language?
By the time my students are approaching Intermediate, it seems like the “interpersonal” questions we’re asking are really miniature presentational speaking tasks in disguise. In one unit I taught this year called “How do we express love through food?”, we used Japanese obentou (packed lunches) as a cultural lens. When I directed students to interview each other on their experience with obentou using questions such as “What is your ideal obentou like?” and “What kind of lunch did you take to school as a kid?”, I faced a dilemma. Having kids charge into the conversation with no scaffolding resulted in weak, Novice-level answers. Yet when I gave them the questions to think about beforehand, I could literally see the pained looks on my students’ faces as they worked to script out and then memorize answers in order to prepare for our “conversations”. Interpersonal mode is supposed to be spontaneous and organic… but how to support Intermediate level conversations while still providing scaffolding and support?
Not two weeks after pondering these issues in my April blog post, I found myself attending the annual spring workshop hosted by my state’s Japanese teacher organization. Our guest lecturer was Tomoko Takami of the University of Pennsylvania, who guided us through lessons from her textbook for Business Japanese classes, “Powering Up Your Japanese through Case Studies: Intermediate and Advanced Japanese”. Being a “student” in Takami-sensei’s class made it instantly apparent what a master teacher she is, and I was delighted to discover those strategies for scaffolding interpersonal communication for Intermediate students I had been searching for just weeks ago! Ask, and you shall receive. Blog about what you’re struggling with in your practice — really articulate where the issues lie — and the solutions to your problems have a way of seeking you out, it seems like.
When I wrote that blog post, I was wondering if the themes I had chosen were my problems, and silently dreading the thought that I might yet again have to go build new units around brand new themes in order to better focus on interpersonal communication. But Takami-sensei’s lecture made me realize that themes are just an ends to a means: making our students more proficient. Takami-sensei’s Business Japanese course is built around case studies of various corporations in Japan, a topic I would have never gravitated towards or thought to be personally interesting. Her course is not really focused on learning about Japanese companies, however, but simply using them as a springboard to inspire opinions and discussions on everyday life.
During Takami-sensei’s lecture, we worked through several activities she uses in a chapter from her textbook on Coca-Cola Japan. The goldmine conversations weren’t around topics like “What is your favorite Coke product?” or “Does your family drink a lot of soda?”, but rather, tasks that required us to negotiate opinions with partners. In one activity, we examined three different “only in Japan” beverage products, and were asked to decide as a group which one we’d recommend to start selling in the U.S. You wouldn’t believe how passionate people got justifying their opinions!
Remember how I said earlier that as Novices shift to Intermediates, the topics seem to move from “All About Me” to the “The World Around Me”? I think one of the secrets to interpersonal communication at the Intermediate level is that the questions no longer have to be exclusively about me/my experiences. During Takami-sensei’s activity, the opportunity to scaffold was still there (we had a handout with pictures of the three products, and space to write our opinions on each product before the conversation), but the scope of the task was expanded. Unlike what students had been doing in my own class, we were not merely asking for each other’s answers: we had to listen and respond to each other’s ideas, in order to reach a group consensus. Perhaps it’s that built-in higher purpose — talk with each other and apply that information to a greater task — that seems to light the organic “spark” of interpersonal communication beyond the Novice level.
Upon returning to school after Takami-sensei’s lecture, I immediately began trying out some of the strategies she had shown us, and instantly noticed an improvement in the quality and spontaneity of my students’ interpersonal interactions. In that same unit on obentou, I showed my students pictures of three different packed lunches, and asked them to decide which one would best accompany the article we were about to read, based solely on the title. These kinds of open-ended interpersonal tasks (unlike those earlier questions about students’ experiences with packed lunches) lack a “true”/right answer, and I think it’s that sense of freedom that opens up more natural and authentic interpersonal communication. Even when my students’ structures broke down or they resorted to using more Novice-level language we had learned in previous years, the fact that they had to connect evidence from an external source to build and give an opinion meant that they were connecting thoughts and sentences in a way that sounded more like Intermediate-level conversation.
Another activity we did in Takami-sensei’s lecture was a simple Jigsaw Reading that artfully connected the Interpretive and Interpersonal modes. During the lecture, we were given just the first paragraph from a short article explaining the development of the Japanese beverage product “Qoo”, and read it together as a class. Then, we divided into groups of 4, and each group member was assigned one of the remaining 4 paragraphs. However, the paragraphs were NOT labeled with the correct order, meaning that our task was to a) silently read our own paragraph, and then take turns paraphrasing its content, without directly reading it aloud or letting anyone else see/read it, and b) decide the correct order of the paragraphs. This proved to be no small task — only a third of the groups managed to come up with the correct order in the time limit! But even the groups who didn’t get the right answer still engaged in a vigorous, task-oriented conversation. The article was a stimulus, and a valuable source of input, but not the end goal of this ultimately interpersonal activity.
I never expected to walk away from a lecture on university Business Japanese courses with so many lessons learned on how to structure interpersonal communication in my own classes. But the moral of the story is, great teaching is great teaching, and can always facilitate learning, no matter the topic. Here are my Big Three Takeaways from Takami-sensei’s presentation, which I not only used to strengthen interpersonal discussions in my Intermediate class at the end of this year, but I’ll also reflect upon as I plan for my Novice level classes next year:
- Interpersonal conversations don’t have to only be about me and my experiences. At a certain point, it becomes “easier” to talk about an external stimulus, like a picture or article, than it is to narrate about myself.
- Asking and responding to questions should not be the end-goal of an interpersonal interaction. Quality interpersonal tasks often center around a larger problem or goal that necessitates eliciting information from others.
- Though we teachers tend to get really excited about selecting and planning themes, they’re really subservient to our primary goal of moving students’ language ability forward. Any theme can serve as fertile ground for interpersonal discourse, as long as the unit is not reduced to the mere dissemination of knowledge about a certain topic.