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7 Rules to Remain Sane and Avoid Perfection

It is reaffirming to lead workshops and be surrounded by teachers that demand as much from themselves as I do. Their passion pushes me forward. I have met many educators who are entirely consumed by this quest for perfection and occasionally wonder, however, if I should modify my message. These are educators that I worry about; I worry that they will burn out before developing the skills to be able to run a CI class effortlessly without pre-planning. I worry that, after putting so much effort into creating a compelling class experience, they are setting themselves up for a tremendous disappointment when their students yawn, tune out and dismiss the class as boring. I worry that they will conclude that CI is just too difficult, when I want to communicate the opposite: teaching with CI should be really, really easy.

There is no aspect of my life in which I demand perfection of myself; I am pretty forgiving of myself in the gym, the kitchen, perhaps a little too forgiving when it comes to cleaning the house, and although I often do not finish reading novels I still find a little time each day to read. That is, I do show up and do my part; over the years I have become a decent home cook, my BMI is ever so slowly going down and I am now well aware of my blood pressure, and even when I only read novels for 10 minutes a day my world is still so much bigger than that of a non-reader. Perfection is the enemy of progress; here are my seven guidelines that will lead you towards progress without fooling you into thinking that you need to be perfect. You need to be working on these skills in order to improve.

(1) Set clear expectations: “We are going to learn X language this year by hearing and creating stories together. First we are going to learn about each other, and once we are comfortable with that language we will begin creating our own stories. In order to acquire this language, you must listen and be able to understand. Listening is your main job, making sure you understand is my job.” Notice that there is NO talk about our stories being compelling, nothing about students loving class, nor changing their lives by exposing them to a wider world. I don’t mention that I want them to look forward to my class, nor do I tell them that they are my curriculum… we talk about what they want to talk about. All of that is true and as you get better at CI it will become part of the DNA of your classes, but while you are still learning some adolescents will use that information against you… and make you miserable. Instead set clear roles for student and teacher: you listen, I make sure you understand.

(2) Side conversations in L1 cannot ever be permitted. If there is a warm class community, your students’ natural urge will be to chat in English with each other. You must nip this in the bud at the beginning of the year and remain vigilant throughout the year to make sure that there are never side conversations. Stop class whenever there is a side conversation, regardless of how much you might be enjoying the story. Side conversations surge forth when the class conversation is getting good, so you must always be vigilant and never get entirely swept into the drama of the class conversation. Plan smooth transitions and bailout moves so that students do not fill “free moments” speaking in English. Repeat your expectations every single day. This might feel tough because it feels so darn unfriendly.

(3) Get to know your students and enjoy being with them. Learning more about your students’ lives while speaking the target language is always a good lesson. Tell them stories that you enjoy, speak the target language.

(4) Students who engage with their imaginations acquire language much quicker. Emotional connection with the content is a potent language acquisition accelerant. That is why I allow code-switching when we are first imagining the content. Let them get excited, and then take the stage and turn it into the target language. The balance you need to find is how much English is too much. I usually only allow a few words in English before I return to the target language, but sometimes I let a detail develop in English and then allow us to process that language during the Write and Discuss afterwards. One of the skills you will be sharpening is learning how to encourage creativity without sacrificing the target language. I say: honor that quest. You will learn by doing. Some classes you will speak way too much English, some classes you will want to apologize for cutting them off before they could express themselves. Eventually you will get it just right, with practice.

(5) Aim to keep students processing rather than keeping them entertained. You will be effective as long as students are processing the input. You will be more effective if students enjoy the class and the input feels easy to process, but adolescents are fickle. Rarely will a class be rolling with laughter. Even when a story connects, there will be students with boredom written across their foreheads. Give daily exit quizzes to make sure everyone is processing the input. Students do not have to contribute clever responses in order to acquire the target language; they only have to process. Rather than trying to be their favorite teacher, aim to be a teacher that they respect. True respect is not based in fear, but neither do you have to entertain them. Interacting with people that we respect is pleasurable enough.

(6) Stop planning units. All of that planning was the source of frustration when my students did not appreciate the work I did. Yet this idea that we need to plan a unit is an unnecessary relic from the days of thematic units. All we really need to do is talk with our students. Sharpen your skills at leading communicative activities that do not have to be pre-planned; student interviews, card talk, OWIs, class-created narratives following OWIs, movie talks and read-alouds. At most I follow a two day sequence of activities. If a student does not love the story, tomorrow will be a new day.

(7) I once realized that I had a coping strategy for dealing with those disastrous lessons that I had worked so hard to develop; often would show a movie for several days afterwards. That is, after putting my heart and soul into developing a unit that my kids did not find compelling, I wasted more class periods trying to please my students with an activity that provided even less CI. There is no time to burn for game days, projects, exam days, long activities whose main purpose consists of student output or otherwise classes that are not brimming full of rich CI. Instead keep on plugging away at the student interviews, card talks, OWIs, class-created narratives following OWIs, movie talks and read-alouds. Your skills will improve the more you do it, so don’t just try it once. Keep working at it.

4 thoughts on “7 Rules to Remain Sane and Avoid Perfection

  1. Mike, what are card talks? Is that when you have kids draw something on a topic and then discuss?
    (What do you love, love to do? Where did you go last summer? etc?) I don’t think I have heard that term before.
    Thanks! (I too needed to hear this and I am desperately trying to turn my dept. on to CI. It’s a hard sell as everyone wants to teach the way they were taught!)

    1. Yes, that is card talk!

  2. This. I needed this today.

  3. This is some of the very best advice I’ve ever read. Solid.

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