Yes. I’ll admit it. I’m a nerd. A big one. I’ll own it. Grammar really gets me going. Word origin, homophones, rhetorical devices and literary analysis excite me. Old AP fill-ins were a challenging game I played against myself. The Académie Française has nothing on me! (You French teachers know what I mean!)
I won’t ask for a show of hands (no need to embarrass anyone) but I would hazard a guess that many of you are like me. We love words and how they sound and all their subtle definition and connotation. We can spot a grammar error a mile away. So it’s no wonder that sometimes the path to proficiency causes me to break out into a sweat when I realize the language functions needed for this unit don’t incorporate all the rules of say, the imperfect subjunctive. In my enthusiasm, I want to teach (torture?) my students with all of the tiny grammar rules of every single one. Because they’ll love it as much as I do—right?
Anyone who’s been teaching any amount of time knows that the majority of kids out there could care less about the past participle agreement with preceding direct objects or the present progressive. And honestly, how often in everyday interactions do we need to know those million rules to effectively communicate—even at a high proficiency? If I’m honest, very few.
And then … it happened …
I was looking at the scope and sequence for third year and it says “I can express impersonal phrases using the subjunctive mood.” How is that proficiency? So I thought, I’ll change it to “I can give advice.” That’s pretty real-world, right? I mean, aren’t we always telling other people what they should do? That way, I can incorporate all those impersonal phrases about what one needs to do and what is good to do. We had just celebrated Mardi Gras and learned a bit about Louisiana. This was perfect—they could give me advice about what to do there. I planned it all out. It was beautiful. It took about a week and a half to practice and assess.
And then I had a bit of melt down. I looked at the scope and sequence again; at all the other rules of subjunctive that are listed there and thought “There’s no way I can do this proficiency lesson with every rule! I don’t have 10 weeks to devote to this! I still have all this other stuff to cover! And this is just the 3rd quarter document! We still have to get through the 4th quarter!” I will confess, I was on the ledge. I was stressing out and fearing I was going to have to revert back to my old ways and grammar books and rules. And then, my colleague walked into my room. As I started to share my dilemma and concerns, that’s when it happened. I had a major epiphany:
It’s ok to only teach part of a concept!
Yes. That’s what I said. It’s OK to only teach part of something—the part we will use most often. What? Not every single rule? Not every little exception to every single rule? Wait a minute. I’m starting to hyperventilate thinking that my students won’t know every little rule? But then, did they really know them before? Or did they memorize them for a test and fill in blanks and promptly forget them and never actually use them? Oh yeah. That’s what they did. Why do I need to bombard them with all these structures, out of context? I’ve given them the main phrases and relevant, realistic reasons to use them. That’s one of the main reasons were on this path to proficiency, isn’t it? To make language study more relevant and applicable. And to that end, I had a second epiphany:
It’s ok not to master everything about everything!
Whoa!!! Hold it right there. You mean I don’t have to drill and kill all those tiny grammar rules? It was as if a giant boulder was lifted off my shoulders. I felt so liberated. This approach to planning is so much more fun, not to mention useful, to both me and the students.
Of course, the old grammar nerd inside me wants them to know those rules, but the reality was that before they could recite the rules but they couldn’t DO anything with them. They applied them haphazardly, if at all. Now, by teaching the grammar as functional language and within a realistic, real-world context, the students naturally apply the correct mood–even subjunctive— when needed. That’s right. My students are using subjunctive as if it’s no big deal! I feel like breaking into the Hallelujah chorus!
By focusing on a performance task and the language necessary to accomplish it, I was able to narrow my focus to just the right amount of input to move my students to the next step. No more. No less. Enough is definitely as good as a feast!
Dancing a happy dance for you and your students!!!!
Thank you Betsy. This is inspiring and encouraging.
Thnx! It’s a definitely a work in progress but a rewarding one!
Yes Betsy! I’m having the exact same experience in my classes. It’s so hard to let go of the grammar (drill and kill) because it’s easy for us as teachers and it’s our secret nerdy passion, but each time I have been brave enough to try and focused more on the language chunks and using the language toward a performance task, my students have been able to USE the language so much better. They are speaking like never before. Thank you for sharing and inspiring us to keep making the shift to proficiency!
But HOW? 🙂 How did you break it down so they knew they needed subjunctive and show them how to conjugate the verbs? Just a question for clarification. I love this post!
That is the million $$$$ question! HOW??? My colleagues and I discuss this all the time and struggle to find the answer. First, let me say that I am by no means an expert. The main thing I did is change my thinking. Rather than thinking in rules and conjugations, I was thinking of a linguistic task–give advice, and language functions–impersonal phrases that require subjunctive. During the input activities, I kept making sure to use impersonal subjunctive phrases. I asked the question “what should I do in Louisiana?” as students answered, I repeated and wrote their suggestions on the board using impersonal subjunctive sentences. Then we kept using these phrases and types of phrases for other input activities and as models for out put activities. Only later, when a student asked (because this group of students are honors level and their first two years have been more traditional language instruction) did I say way, briefly. They accepted my answer and we moved on, continuing to do communicative activities with real-world scenarios when we woudl use these impersonal phrases.
For me, the HOW is in the approach. Language functions for a linguistic purpose. What do I want them to do? What phrases do they need to do it?
I hope this helps clarify somewhat how I went about getting students to speak in the subjunctive without explicit instruction of subjunctive rules. It is still a work in progress. Please share any insights you have! Good luck on the path!