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I had nothing to lose because everything was so blah.

I have known Michele Whaley for years but had never had the good fortune to work closely with her until July 2021. We ended up that summer, very serendipitously, working together in the Beginning Cohort at FM-iFLT.

One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, Michele and I regularly connected to talk about life and teaching. During one of our initial chats, I learned that Michele works at a Responsive Classroom School. While the Responsive Classroom model is comprehensive and multi-faceted, for now, we will focus on its primary objective during the first six weeks of school: community building. Nothing else. Yes, that means no focus on grades, tests, or content! When Michele told me this, I was intrigued and had to learn more. 

I have always known that creating an atmosphere where all students, regardless of ability level, felt successful, valued and seen as crucial, and I thought I was pretty good at it. That is until the start of the 2021-2022 school year, when I decided to challenge myself and focus solely on building community for the first six weeks.

In past years, I mistakenly thought I could dual-task, trying to build community while integrating constructive classroom routines. You know the ones I mean: staying in the target language, sitting up with the intent to listen and understand, not blurting out in English, signaling to me when they didn’t understand and tracking me with their eyes. And let’s not forget the big daddy of those new routines: striving to maintain or exceed the 90% mark for staying in the target language as a class.

Please do not misunderstand. The previously mentioned behaviors were, and still are, essential in my classroom; they were simply not my primary focus during the first six weeks. I audaciously put aside those arguably ‘good’ goals and replaced them with a new set of primary objectives in a completely different realm for the first six weeks.

If I am being honest, I was pretty skeptical about losing academic gains and feared that I would start the year badly by ignoring the behaviors mentioned above. How would my students learn to behave in ways I know would foster language acquisition? In other words, I knew that this challenge would not be easy for me and that the stakes were very high!  

So just exactly how did I start the year? Well, read on if you want to know more. 

First and foremost, I learned my students’ names as quickly as possible and made sure that my pronunciation was spot on. I had to push a few students on this because they honestly didn’t want to correct me. They would say things like, “I don’t really care” and “it doesn’t matter,” but I didn’t accept this. To be clear, learning the pronunciation of my students’ names was not new to me; however, gently pushing them to help me say it correctly was.  

Next, I changed the entire format of my class. I started each class with a light-hearted activity that was game-like in nature and allowed the students to confidently learn every student’s name in the class. Activities like Stuffies, Seven, Modified TPR, Magic Number, etc., worked well for the start of all my classes.  

Want details about these activities? Many are zero- to low-prep activities, perfect for the busy teacher who feels overwhelmed and exhausted. If so, click here to join my email list where I share tips & tricks for language teachers every week or so.

A modified version of Total Physical Response (TPR) fits the bill nicely, helping the students learn each other’s names in a way that allows for lots of movement.  

For my modified version of TPR in French I, the first three to five minutes of the class would go something like this:

  • Classe, tout le monde se lève. (Class, everyone stand up)
  • Tout le monde regarde, Saniah ! (Everyone look at Saniah!)
  • Tout le monde regarde les sandales de Saniah! (Everyone look at Saniah’s sandals)
  • Maintenant regarde les sandales de Natalie. (Now everyone look at Natalie’s sandals)
  • Classe, tout le monde regarde Kyle. (Class, everyone look at Kyle)
  • Tout le monde, regarde le t-shirt de Kyle. C’est rouge, non ? (Everyone, look at Kyle’s t-shirt. It is red isn’t it?  
  • Classe, tout le monde regarde Ava. Regarde le sac à dos de Ava. Ava a un sac à dos rose, non? (Class, everyone look at Ava. Look at Ava’s backpack. Ava has a pink backpack doesn’t she?  
  • Les sandales de Saniah sont de quelle couleur ? Bleues ou orange ? (What color are Saniah’s sandals? Blue or orange?  
  • Classe, tout le monde regarde le sac à dos de Jeremiah. Son sac à dos est de quelle couleur ? (Class, everyone look at Jeremiah’s backpack. What color is his backpack?)

And when they were more comfortable with each other, I expanded this a bit.  

  • Jeremiah, saute vers Rhodes et touche son sac à dos. (Jeremiah, jump toward Rhodes and touch her backpack.)
  • Saniah, nage vers Ava et regarde son t-shirt. C’est de quelle couleur? (Saniah, swim toward Ava and look at her t-shirt. What color is it?  
  • And so on.

Modified TPR was a win-win activity in so many ways! Students started learning each others’ names as they learned a bit of personal information about their classmates, all while getting up out of the seats and staying in the target language Very quickly we learned that Kyle is a University of Louisville fan, hence the red t-shirt and that Ava loves the color pink.  

For all of these light-hearted activities, I carefully scaffolded the rules in French, one at a time, and didn’t move on until each student understood. Initially, this was a little time-intensive, but I never rushed the process. If the activity was usually an ‘elimination’ game, I altered the rules so no one would be removed. We played over and over until everyone was confident, had built trust in our “French” family and felt more comfortable. Few people enjoy making mistakes in front of people they are getting to know, present company included.

During these precious six weeks of ‘getting to know each other’, we played several games on teams. Instead of doing class discussions about whatever we had read or needed to process – a short reading, a chapter or two from a reader, a video clip or a scene from a movie – we played a game. Quizlet Live, Gimkit, Blooket, Charlala, The Marker Game, Grudge Ball and umpteen variations on Jenga. I rotated through every game I had, and we simply played.

Want details about three of these great games? Simply click here to join my email subscription, where I share tips & tricks for some fantastic games you can play with your students. 

The basic framework of my French I, II & III classes during the experiment

  • Passwords – I met my students at the door, engaged them in a short conversation and asked for the week’s word. If you want to read about how I use passwords in my class, check out my blog post here.
  • Light-hearted activity to start class
  • Short reading, chapter in a comprehension-based reader, movie short, movie clip, a French commercial or a song.
  • Processing games about what we had just read or watched
  • Time to tidy up and gather their things.  

Parameters for each activity or game we played during my community-building experiment.  

  • I varied the size of the teams– 2-person & 4-person teams, the class divided in half, etc.
  • I assigned a team leader to every team. I made sure to rotate and vary the student leaders.  
  • Each team had a name – this was non-negotiable & they only had 30 seconds to a minute to settle on a name. An interesting observation: as the students became increasingly more comfortable with each other, their team names became more creative.
  • There were no prizes for the winning team. We clapped our hands, said « Félicitations » and moved on to the next activity.
  • I let them take a 2-minute lap when I had to change technology or set up a game. Movement is critical for people who spend most of their day sitting down.
  • I used any and all brain breaks and focused on the ones I knew they liked and enjoyed.
  • We listened, drew and frequently celebrated each other’s silly drawings.
  • I created many partner activities and assigned students to ‘new friends’ they didn’t know well – some intentional and some random.
  • The teams always had tasks, and I shared the tasks in English. 
    • “I need a Jenga tower, and each team leader should help build it.”
    • “I need everyone to clear the center of the room so we have as much open space as possible.” 
  • I rotated the activities to keep things feeling fresh. I can still hear Carol Gaab saying, “the brain craves novelty!” It’s funny but true. Students need to know what to expect (thriving on routine), but within that framework, they love being surprised by something new and fresh at every turn.
  • I gave as many grades as possible for engagement. In other words, if a student engaged in an activity that would benefit his/her/their language acquisition, I found a way to give credit for doing so in my grade book.

We were doing quite well gliding into the next phase of my experiment when, at week nine, something magical happened. If you’re intrigued and want to know more, check out the third post in this series.

Donna Tatum-Johns

My passion is twofold: training teachers using comprehensible-input methods and strategies as well as teaching French using these same techniques. CI helps language classes come alive and allows students to enjoy acquiring a second language more naturally.

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