Help! My Spanish Teacher Is Crazy!!!

Or, how to start the year off right in a foreign language class

Do you ever have one of those moments where you plan the best activity ever for your class, and it falls completely flat because your students would literally rather die than participate? No? Just me? Am I the only one who sometimes thinks maybe I just should have gone into dentistry, because getting students to talk in class is a lot like pulling teeth? Ever ask a question and have a room full of students looking somewhat like this guy?

My last post was all about the importance of being willing to risk looking ridiculous in the foreign language classroom, but how do we get students to do this? Students have to feel safe making mistakes, and it’s up to us to create a classroom environment where it’s okay to step outside our comfort zone, and even okay to look a little bit silly doing so.

Day 1 of any class is about setting expectations. Often, this means going over the syllabus, talking about major assignments, or reviewing grading policies. (Pardon me for a moment while I yawn. Is it REALLY a good idea to bore our students to tears before we’ve even taught them anything?) That’s probably what students are expecting when they walk through my door. But I always have something a little different up my sleeve for day one. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still setting expectations. I’ve just chosen a different set of expectations to focus on, and a rather unorthodox method of addressing them.

The class looks something like this…

I survey my students, looking for that perfect first victim, preferably someone who gives off a bit of a class clown vibe. Don’t get me wrong, none of them are safe, but it usually helps to start things off with someone who likes to be the center of attention. I see one of my athletes, already joking comfortably with his buddies… perfect! I catch his eye and make the “come here” gesture with my finger.

Now I’ve got him up in front of the class. I smile, then turn and start banging my head against the wall (gently, mind you, but very theatrically). He looks at me in confusion. The rest of the class is caught somewhere between laughter and bewilderment. I pause just long enough to point at him, then at the wall, indicating that he should copy my behavior.

“Wait, you want me to… naww… do I have to? You really want me to bang my head against the wall?!?!?”

I nod and smile, then do a few more head bangs myself just to make sure he’s got the point. He laughs, but complies, to the great delight of all of his classmates. I leave him to his head banging and move on.

Next, I find a couple of my girls who look particularly outgoing and use hand signals to indicate that I want them to stand up. All the way up. Yup, I want them up on top of their chairs or desks or tables, depending on the particular classroom setup. Of course, in order to show them this, I have to climb up on top of my desk too. (Mental note: Make sure never to wear a dress on the first day!) I just get up there when I notice my head banger has stopped banging, thinking I’m done with him. Oh no, not yet. Back down I jump, heading over to his spot on the wall and repeating my pantomimed instructions to keep the head banging going.

Now that he’s back in action, I can return to my girls on top of their chairs. I hop back up on my desk and start disco dancing à la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. (Disco is great for this, because you can look pretty darn ridiculous without having to move your feet much.) My girls start giggling, looking somewhat embarrassed, but they do comply and start busting out some moves.

By now, everyone knows what’s coming. I go around the room, sometimes taking one student at a time, sometimes groups of two or three, and giving each of them something utterly preposterous to do. Occasionally I have to swing by an earlier group and restart them if they’re slacking off (I’m looking at you, head banger!) Before long, the entire class is filled with teenagers doing everything from square dancing to strutting around like chickens. I step back and watch them for a minute or two, then finally, I give the signal that they can stop what they’re doing and go back to their seats.

Then, and only then, do I say my first words to them. We have a discussion about the activity – how did it make them feel? Why did I start our Spanish class off this way? And what on earth have they signed up for?

I’ve done this for the past 5 years, and as goofy as it sounds (and, in truth, it really is pretty ridiculous), I have found the activity to be an incredibly effective way to establish the classroom environment I’m shooting for, right from the opening minutes of the semester. I find it helps me communicate two very important messages to my students:

1. There is absolutely no need to use English in this classroom

There will be times when you will feel like do not understand a single word that is coming out of my mouth. That is okay. That is normal. I am fully prepared to use body language and other forms of non-verbal communication to help me get my message across. If I can get you playing leapfrog and doing the can-can without ever speaking a word, then seriously, what’s the limit? I’d rather have you resort to gestures and signs when you don’t understand, rather than flipping back to English. English is a crutch. You will think you need it, but you don’t. 

2. This is a classroom where risk-taking is encouraged

You will make mistakes this semester. It is absolutely unavoidable when you are learning a language. You may feel really silly when you do. You may feel embarrassed. You may worry that other people are judging you. Guess what? You will never look more ridiculous making a mistake than you just did dancing around this classroom. You have already experienced your most embarrassing moment in this class! The worst is over! It’s all downhill from here! So go ahead – take a risk, give it a try. You might get it wrong, and that’s not only okay, it’s something to celebrate. We learn when we make mistakes. 

Every semester, I have to remind myself of my own lessons, particularly the second one. Every semester, I consider starting my classes off more traditionally. Every semester, I worry about that all-important first impression; I worry that my students will have no respect for me, that they’ll think I’m just a goof who thinks she’s fun but is really just super uncool. And every semester, I take a deep breath, walk into that classroom, and start banging my head against a wall again. I’m always glad I did.

Did you give this activity a try with your students? What else do you do to encourage your students to take risks? Do you have a special technique you use to help lower the affective filter in your classroom? Tell me about it in the comments!

Being Willing to Look Ridiculous

I get it. We all hate looking ridiculous. It’s part of the reason I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a blog for years, but am only just now writing my first post. Will anyone read it? Do I even want them to? What will they think? Will anyone find my ideas interesting, or will everyone just think I’m dumb and boring? Is this whole blogging idea just… ridiculous?

Yet here I am, starting a blog.

As usual, my students were my inspiration, even now, on summer vacation, when I haven’t seen them in over a month. I started thinking about how much I love watching them take risks in class and how hard I work to cultivate a classroom atmosphere in which it’s okay to make mistakes and look a little silly, and I realized that it’s not exactly reasonable to expect my students to put themselves out there if I’m not willing to do so myself. And thus, this blog was born.

In the spirit of being willing to look ridiculous, I’ll start this blog off with a personal story from last summer, when I took a group of students to Spain. We all stayed with host families for three intensely hot weeks, with temperatures soaring well over 100ºF (That detail is important to the story, as you’ll see in a second). I’m guessing most of us have experienced something similar, because, let’s face it, learning a language is a messy process, and even as the “experts,” we’re all still going to make mistakes from time to time. Why not be willing to put our flops and failures out there, for each other and for our students? What better way to show them that we really mean it when we say that it’s okay to get things wrong, as long as you’re trying? So without further ado, here’s mine:

***

It turns out that the heat in Spain is not ridiculous. Heat cannot be ridiculous, in fact. I learned this the hard way, when my señora asked what I thought of the heat and I replied “Es ridículo.” She looked positively flabbergasted.

“Pero Jennifer, ¿qué has dicho? ¿Ridículo? ¡No! ¡El calor no puede ser ridículo! Espantoso, horrible, horroroso… sí, pero ridículo, no! ¡No puedes decir esto!”

“Vale, entiendo. No lo digo nada más,” I replied.

“Pero, ¿por qué has dicho ridículo?”

I tried my best to explain that in America, or at least in Jennifer-speak, “ridiculous” can be used to exaggerate or indicate that something is well beyond what we would normally expect. She just kept shaking her head no, and saying something along the lines of “¿Cómo te lo explico? ¿Cómo te defino lo que es ridículo? Una persona puede ser ridícula, pero el calor, no.”

Again, I try to indicate that I’ve got it. Ridiculous does not describe heat. Then she becomes worried that she doesn’t have a dictionary, and tells me that she always tells her “chicas americanas” to look words up in the dictionary when they misuse them, which of course won’t be helpful because it’s exactly the word for what I was trying to say; it’s just not an expression they use here, apparently.

Then Antonio, her husband, returns home.

“Antonio, ¿sabes lo que ha dicho Jennifer? ¡Ha dicho que el calor es ridículo! El calor no puede ser ridículo, ¿no? A ver si tú puedes explicárselo. Vale, Jennifer, el profesor te lo explica.” (Antonio is a professor – of agriculture, mind you, but this still apparently makes him an expert on all the ways in which the heat is definitely not ridiculous.)

Antonio agrees. Heat is not ridiculous. Espantoso, horrible, horroroso, sí. Ridículo, no. This prompts María José to run through the list of adjectives again. Wanting to show that I am not, in fact, incapable of producing the Spanish language, I add “¿insoportable?” to the list, with a questioning intonation, seeing as there is definitely a guest list for this party, and not all adjectives are on it. Her eyes light up. “Sí, insoportable, eso puede ser. Pero ridículo, no.”

I think we’re just about done with the whole thing, when her daughter and granddaughters arrive on the scene (the girls are around 8 and 10, lovely, lively girls I’ve shared a few meals with over the past three weeks.) Back to square one. “¿Sabes lo que ha dicho Jennifer?…” You know the rest by now. The daughter and granddaughters agree, heat is definitely not ridiculous. Carmen (the younger of the two) tells me that if she were to go out with her hair uncombed, that would be ridiculous. My señora and her daughter nod – that, yes, would be ridiculous. My señora seems inordinately pleased that the 8-year-old has finally found a way to explain the concept to me.

So now you know. The heat in Spain is not ridiculous. Calling it so… now that is ridiculous, and I’m pretty sure even María José would agree.