Along the path to proficiency, we encounter many things in our classroom, in our department, and in the field. In this series, we would like to share some notes from the field from educators who have made an impact and have learned something impactful along their journey. Here they will share their notes from the field with us and how their learning has helped shape them, as well as its impact, as they help their students along the path to proficiency.
I love teaching middle school. There’s just something about working with hormonal, overzealous, emotional middle schoolers, who have yet to embrace the value of personal hygiene, that make it one of the best-kept secrets in education. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a cakewalk. Working with middle school students can be a real challenge, particularly when teaching reluctant learners. One of the joys of teaching middle school is the freedom I have to teach outside the box. For me, teaching outside the box is about taking risks to help my kids acquire language. I do so regularly, which often results in great success or the occasional blunder. But when I fail (it happens), I embrace the opportunity to learn about how I can better serve my students.
Working with novice level language learners is fun. Developmentally, they’re linguistic kindergartners. And my classroom, much like kindergarten, is about hands-on learning and social interaction. I want my students to play with the language and play in the language. We play a lot in our classroom. One game we play is called, “What’s in the bag?”. The rules are simple, my students have to ask questions to try and determine what’s in the bag. One day, I brought a bag of Barbie dolls to class for use as a storytelling activity. When my students discovered what was in the bag, you can imagine their reaction, particularly the boys. Initially, they weren’t interested in playing with Barbie dolls. But by the time we were finished with the activity, I couldn’t get the boys to put the dolls down. Not only were they excited about playing Barbie, they were also using the target language to tell a story. It was one of those moments where everyone felt like they’d just won the lottery. The kids were laughing and having a great time sharing their stories with one another and I was enjoying watching reluctant learners engaged in the target language. I took a risk that successfully allowed my students to step outside the box and encouraged them to have fun playing with the language and playing in the language.
At the beginning of last school year during a compulsory district meeting, all the language teachers were scheduled to discuss assessment. While assessments are important, I just wasn’t into it on that particular day. I wanted something different. As it turns out, some elementary teachers were having a session on LEGO’s. I love LEGO’s! Paying with LEGO’s sounded like way more fun than assessment, so I joined them. The session was about how to use LEGO’s to teach listening, speaking, reading and writing by building stories; the same skills that I teach my students. Today, we have 10 boxes of LEGO’s in our classroom. Reluctant learners love to learn with LEGO’s! Consequently, they also like learning with Play Dough too. If I hadn’t taken the risk to step outside the box, my students may never have known the excitement and joy of storytelling with LEGO’s.
Personally, I find teaching outside the box is way better than teaching inside the box. For me, inside the box can get a bit stuffy, even claustrophobic. I know some people prefer the box, and that’s ok too. It’s familiar, comfortable, and safe. But being stuck inside the box, particularly with a bunch of smelly middle school students, can really stink. I see the box as restrictive. If you stay inside the box, eventually you’ll run out of room to grow. We cannot expect our students to be risk takers if we are not willing to lead them and take that first step outside of the box. For me, outside the box is this world filled with possibilities. When you empower yourself to make instructional decisions that are in the best interest of your students, everyone can be a risk taker, everyone can be vulnerable to failure and everyone can experience success.
And isn’t that how learning works best? By taking risks and learning from mistakes? Especially when it comes to learning languages. So I say be fearless. Take risks. Embrace failure. Don’t hesitate to teach outside the box. Find what works for you. More importantly, find what works best for your students and you can’t go wrong.
Kristopher Morehead teaches French at Pipkin IB/MYP World School, a Title I school in Springfield, MO. He is President of the Foreign Language Association of Missouri (FLAM) and two-time nominee for the ACTFL Leo Benardo Award for Innovation in K-12 Language Education. Among the many resources in his teaching toolbox is a proficiency-based learning model known as Accelerative Integrated Methodology (AIM). Kristopher is a masters candidate in Applied Second Language Acquisition at Missouri State University. Find Kristopher on Twitter: @MrMOREHEAD.