Students as Teachers and Teachers as Learners

I have been at a loss this past week. I’ve wanted to share with you about proficiency and desk-free teaching through this blog, but I’ve simply been stuck. Let me tell you a little bit about why.

We are lucky enough at our school to loop with our 7th and 8th graders. This means that I have students for two years. There was a program change, however, that shifted some students into the 8th grade Spanish class who hadn’t taken Spanish before. I knew this was happening. I didn’t think much about it because we’ve had new students mixed into higher levels in the past. In those situations, new students and stronger students were able to increase their proficiency. We were able to create a class where new students would focus on words while their classmates worked on sentences. While we did notice that these new students had a longer quiet period than the typical Novice-Lows who were in Novice-Low classes; we also found that when they started producing, they were producing at a higher level. They seemed to really benefit from the input provided by their classmates.

Because of those experiences, I was thinking the same thing would happen this year (and I’d love to tell you more about that success). I was wrong. I hadn’t realized that I’d have one class with a high number of new students. I also hadn’t realized that the way I differentiated in the past wouldn’t work so well with this new ratio. What I have now is one class that is made up of 7 Novice-Low students and 12 returning Novice-High/Intermediate-Low students.

When this group came to me on that first day at noon, I led the class the way I typically do. And it didn’t go very smoothly. I tried a lot of different approaches:  I tried running a circle with them while differentiating my prompts, I tried running two circles, I tried mixing the students up, I focused on community building… if you were observing my class you would have witnessed a lot of trial and error. Lots of error.

Here’s what I noticed: everything I did seemed to benefit the new students more than the returning students. When I think about this, it makes sense. The Novice-Lows are the ones who really need me more. I knew that I wasn’t able to push the returning students much because whenever I did, I began losing the new students. But, it became clear that the more I did what the Novice-Lows needed me to do, the less I could do for the other students and it was them who I ended up losing.

Guess what? The returning students noticed. And they were not happy.

So, on the fourth day, they demonstrated that they were unhappy (they actually went on strike. Do you want to hear the story?), and then we sat down to talk about it. We talked about it IN SPANISH. It was great that they were able to do this. They told me their concerns. I told them what my thoughts were. And then they told me why I was WRONG. 

One of the interesting things I learned is that these students have experienced an effective language acquisition environment for two years. They know how it feels. And they knew that those first few days were not meeting their needs in the same way. They were also able to  see that in many ways it was meeting the needs of the new students.

What we ended up realizing (to their credit, not mine) is that the returning students could (and should) lead themselves in some discussions and activities. It already happens organically with my 8th grade classes. In our case it simply needed to be more premeditated.

We have some systems set-up for differentiating between these two groups now. 3/4 days we meet will have scheduled time a part for students to focus on their language functions (listing for the Novice-Lows, sentences and extending for the Novice-Highs).  I will share this specific journey with you. I don’t believe we’ve solved the problem, but I am more optimistic today than I was last week. It’s helped to be vulnerable with my students, sharing that I didn’t know exactly how we were going to make this work, but that I knew we’d figure it out together. Students as teachers and teachers as learners was the theme of our OWL bootcamp in August. My students have taught me a lot so far.

I’ll keep you posted.