building-blocks-717309_640Some of you may know that since my first OWL (Organic World Language) workshop last March, I have been fully on board with this approach. And by the way, it is just that: an approach. It’s less of a method, not-so-much a guideline, but really, truly an APPROACH. I know when people hear an acronym they groan, and role their eyes, and then they stop reading. But just give me one more minute of your time, please!

OWL incorporates tons of movement, along with the pattern of the OPI, 100% immersion, authentic reading and writing, and many, many other super important, evidence-based concepts that we are all trying (for me, haphazardly) to incorporate into our curriculum. Another critical component of OWL is this: Context is EVERYTHING!

You’ve seen the ACTFL OPI tree image, right? Well, if you haven’t, it’s basically everything you need to know about language proficiency in one graphic. The roots are the context/content; they feed the rest of the tree. The trunk, which holds the tree steady, is the functions of the level. The branches of the tree are the text type; they show us what the tree “looks like.” And the leaves, well, they are the accuracy. A tree is a tree, in any season. The leaves in no way make the tree. The tree CAN live without the leaves (at least for a long while). POWERFUL, right?

Let’s go back to those roots. Remember how they feed the tree? Well, OWL- ORGANIC world language – is really dependent on building those roots, er, I mean context. In order to finish this picture, I need to go back to previous years. I usually teach Pre-AP Spanish 2, 3, AP Spanish, and a section of Spanish for Heritage Learners. In other words, my students come to me pre-formed. The come to me having already developed some kind of notion about Spanish. Try as I might, I can never regain those precious few first moments with them. Fast forward to this year, when I have all of the above courses, plus Spanish for Heritage Learners 1 AND 2, and…drum roll…a section of Spanish 1. Do you want to take a wild guess as to which one I was the most excited about?!

I bet you guessed right! Starting off from day one with a group of fresh-slate, bright-eyed Spanish 1 students has been a dream come true. I was going to be able to build their context from the first moment they laid eyes on me and my classroom. Let me try to condense four weeks into a couple of paragraphs, while also telling what I have learned about building something from nothing.

The first day started like this: I printed off big name tags, laminated them, punched holes, and threaded yarn. My students entered to me handing them name tags that said, “¡Hola! Me llamo _________.” Oh, but how do they know what to write? How do they know what to do with it? Lesson number one: don’t underestimate the students’ ability to infer meaning IF YOU GIVE THEM ENOUGH CONTEXT. Clearly, when they saw me wearing a tag around my neck that had my name on it, they would know what to do. I built context without even saying a word.

Next, I had students get into a circle. How do you do this when they don’t know the words? Simple. You point to your foot, say the word for foot. Grab a student and bring them so your feet touch. Repeat on the other side, continuously repeating the word for foot. Already, you have one easy word to build on. Then I walk around shaking hands with students saying “¡Hola! Me llamo Profe Cochran! ¿Cómo te llamas tú? (Hi my name is Profe Cochran, what’s your name?)” They picked up SO quickly, and within 30 seconds I had them turning to their neighbors and asking their names; next came how are you- good, bad, normal? Then the next few days were a blur of describing classmates (alto? bajo? alta? baja? seria? chistosa?) and finding ways to get in plenty of repetitions to move from conceptual, to partial, and then to full understanding of the target phrases. This is where lesson number two comes in: don’t just think because you’ve covered it and they can comprehend it that they can use it. That movement from conceptual to full understanding is NON-NEGOTIABLE.

Fast forward to today, four weeks into the school year, and if you ask my Spanish 1 students to describe themselves, 98% will answer in complete sentences. They are highly memorized sentences, but they are sentences. Confession time: my Spanish 3 students do not do that. Let me just go in and throw in lesson number three here: the only way to move from conceptual to full is to get in plenty of repetitions, day after day. That means you have to find new ways to talk about the same thing repeatedly. For my Spanish 1 students, we’ve incorporated family members, a few things that they like to do, and now a few clothing items (that they wear to school, so we can actually SEE it), and some school materials (ditto what was in the previous parentheses). So, yeah, let me amend that previous statement. “my Spanish 1 students to describe themselves, their family, their interests, some clothing items, and some school materials, 98% will answer in complete sentences. They are highly memorized sentences, but they are sentences. Confession time: my AP students don’t do that.” When you throw in the directional and body part phrases, and the occasional silly idiomatic phrase that we use to make all of the movement happen…these kids are moving forward fast.

But what about my super HOTS essential questions for my student-centered fun themes that I have worked so hard on? What about the in-depth IPA’S and the inquiry-based learning projects I have set up? Don’t worry, I completely understand. And believe me, I’m with you. My upper level courses are still run the same way. But please, just consider this last, fourth lesson that I have learned: more is not necessarily better. Now that I have this new perspective, every resource I consider is carefully picked over for any hint of intimidation for my students. In the past I would not have hesitated to throw a song with the lyrics at my students and think to myself, “oh, they’ll just pick out what they know,” just because it fit our current “theme.” Now I see that same song and the same lyrics and I can mentally envision my students withering away, their self-confidence disintegrating the same way the sand slides away from beneath your feet when the wave washes over them. Don’t get me wrong, we are still using at least one authentic resource per week. They have all been audio or audiovisual so far, with the main goal of just being able to pick out a couple of words we know from the resource (we use organizers that I have created to go with the sources). Check out Zachary Jones’s “¿Cómo eres?” activities to get a feel for the kind of resources I’m talking about. These resources have been carefully chosen, and we listen to them over, and over, and over again. Each time, my students have astounded me. They already pick out the same number of target words as my Spanish 2 students.

I am so excited to see where this group takes me this year. I hope I have many more lessons to share with you all before the year is over. And do you know what is the best part about it all? We are having so much fun! One particularly fun moment was when a student was confused by the word “hermano” and “mano” (which we learned on day one from transitions and attention-getters). When I was telling the class I had no brothers or sisters, the student said, “tu hermanos, ¿no manos?” Oh, we could not stop laughing! Together we laugh, we move, we play, and we are building an awesome, supportive community through the process.

Won’t you join us?