When students refuse to contribute

There are times in the course of a school year when students just seem “done with school” and there is nothing we can do to revive the flash of goodwill that we enjoyed in our first weeks together. Personally I have always found November and February to be the hardest months to slog through, but of course I don’t let my students see that. 

There are a few tricks that we can employ to keep our classes fresh and not become demoralized by students that simply stare at us. When students refuse to contribute, their apparent passive aggressive non-compliance is often masking a deeper discomfort with speaking and feeling foolish. Even if you know that they ‘can speak’, respect this awkward moment and instead invest in activities that provide rivers of comprehensible input. That is what your students truly need to eventually emerge with a desire to speak.

Plan the flow of your year

Take a look at the second lesson planning essay, which focuses not on the daily lesson but rather on the flow of the entire year. The thrust of the CI Master Class is to teach you a set of skills that you can use to interact with your students in the moment. Each activity and skill leads educators to have real conversations with their classes, rather than canned, ‘fake dialogues’. Stop spending prep time developing beautiful content lessons that students seem intent on ignoring! I plan my year so that the featured activities develop the skills required later in the year. For example, we start the year with frequent book talks so that, by second semester, students can read from my class library independently. My book talks in first semester also prepare them for their own gallery talks in second semester, modeled after what they have seen me do. Planning the flow of your year may build just enough novelty in class, but it also will help you see the big picture of the skills students are developing even if they stop contributing orally to class.

Movie Talks and authentic media

Looking at the graphic showing the flow of my year you may notice that around mid-October I start leading many movie-talks and “telling a tale” activities. In part this is because students are gratified to find a few more “passive” activities such as movie-talk in this part of the year. There are 50 movie talks already prepared and appropriate for any language inside the CI Master Class.

With the movie talks I am also training them to participate appropriately before we begin a TV show in January. In October students will whine because they want to chat with friends during the movie-talk. They do not want the teacher to pause the video and discuss. In October you should teach students to expect the video to be interrupted, to expect to listen to you talking about what is on the screen, and to maintain a silent room while doing so. Do this in October so that the activity will work in January when you start movie-talking an entire TV show. It is not the worst thing if you burn a movie talk or two in October because your students are not listening to your input… there is no ongoing plot line. However, in January if students are not paying proper attention to the movie talk each day, they will become hopelessly lost in the complexity of a plot that lasts until Spring break.

Simply telling tales

By October students’ listening abilities have developed considerably, but they may be self-conscious of their speaking which is weaker. They can now ‘hear’ more of their mistakes. Some teachers mistakenly believe that students at this point need more practice speaking; what students really need is a heavy dose of listening and reading until the language falls naturally out of their mouths, unforced. This is the perfect time to give them an extra dose of rich language through “telling a tale” activities

Fables, fairy tales, and folk tales all work as great sources of inspiration and many students are not acquainted with these timeless tales. Aesop’s fables are just the tip of a bountiful genre; certainly delve into the many fables attributed to Aesop but also do a google search for “Jean de la Fontaine fable”, “Hans Christian Andersen fable” or “Félix María de Samaniego fable”. But why stop there?! I have heard of teachers telling the Star Wars saga in short installments in class! The key is simply to avoid telling the tale word for word, or translating it into the target language. Instead glance often at the Sweet 16 verbs posted on the wall of your classroom and use those to help you tell the tale.

On the “telling a tale” page have ideas for holding students accountable during the tale without having to interrupt it with comprehension questions. I even have five videos of me telling tales to my level 1 students on the substitute plans page of the CI Master Class. Feel free to watch one for inspiration or even take a break and show it to your class.

Subtle changes

An occasional subtle change can have a great impact on the energy in class. Do you always stand in front? Try sitting among your students, facing the board like they do. Nothing sends the message that you are not the performer on stage quite like simply joining the audience and commenting on a movie talk from ‘the peanut gallery‘. This is easy if you have a student at your computer.

Take a look at the classroom design photo essay in the CI Master Class for more ideas. I am always impressed at how the lighting in a room profoundly impacts the mood of the class. Switching from industrial overhead bright white lights to several soft lamps, specifically during the storytelling portion of class, may impact student’s willingness to participate.

Have a bailout move ready

Bailout moves are essential, like the net below a circus acrobat. I always have a bailout move ready so that as an activity loses steam I can quickly transition without losing the attention of my students. There is a list of 13 bailout moves on the CI Master Class and my favorite continues to be the music matching activities that I make for French, German and Spanish classes (see the “Voices of Others” module, section 8). They are student-directed, allowing me to pour myself a cup of tea, and they can be dropped into any class for a quick transition. I choose one song for all classes, all week long, so that by Friday when we watch the captioned video my students already entirely understand the lyrics.

What not to do

The one thing I avoid is the trap of continually searching for the next big thing that will delight students so they hopefully love my class again.

I could, of course, plan out a non-stop string of surprises that flow throughout the year, and on paper that does not sound too bad. However there is a problem with what I call “the birthday party” approach to lesson planning: students become more and more passive as they expect you to entertain them. I don’t want to be an entertainer. I don’t want students to passively expect me to perform tricks for their amusement. What happens after the performance is over? Honestly, I suspect the ‘entertainer-teachers’ may be robbing their students of the internal motivation they need for a lifetime of language acquisition.

When the school year is over, I want my students to be aching for more Spanish, not for more crazy Spanish class antics.