I’m still working through the tail end of the introductory class I designed to be adaptable to any level. It admittedly works best with older students; I’ve had great success using it with all my 1° Bachillerato classes (equivalent of 11th grade), which is where my focus is this year. However, the 2° ESO students (equivalent of 8th grade) stumble through certain parts, losing their focus.
I begin by re-introducing myself, and I tell them I’m from Arizona originally but have lived for two years here in Madrid. I explain that I’ll be their Auxiliar de Conversación for this year – using the Spanish pronunciation of the title, which communicates that I do speak and understand Spanish, but won’t be using it with them (with much younger students, I can understand the ruse of pretending one doesn’t understand the local tongue, but it seems a fairly absurd trick with older teens).
I go over the three rules I came up with for the class:
1. Respect – you respect me since I’m the professor, obviously, but you also respect the rest of the class. Learning a language is difficult for everybody, especially the speaking aspect, which may make us feel shy, scared, or even embarrassed. In order to learn, you’ve got to be comfortable enough to make thousands of mistakes – so we respect each other in my class. Finally, you respect yourself – I’m a native speaker, and you can learn a great deal from me that you’ll never get in a class with a Spanish professor. The trick, though, is that you must speak in English; that way you take advantage of the opportunity.
2. Participate – the worst class would be one hour of silence: boring, and I will fall asleep. This is not a normal class; I definitely want you to talk. I’ll bring in things I think are interesting, but I need you to uphold your end of the bargain.
3. Enjoy – no homework, no exams, no grammar (or, at least, not in a traditional sense). Hopefully you’ll come to treat this as a break from your normal sit-down-and-take-notes classes, and possibly even have some fun.
… of course, plenty of this gets irretrievably lost in translation. I’m not too fussed about it, though; I’d rather set the bar far too high than far too low.
I follow up this barrage of words by asking that everyone stand up, and a plastic SpongeBob ball emerges magically from my bag of tricks. When you have the ball, you must say “My name is _______, and I like _______” – the trick being that the item you like must begin with the same letter as your first name. This has proved a fantastic way to get absolutely everyone to break the silence, to learn students’ names immediately, and to gauge an initial level of the group (did they understand the instructions? are they able to grammatically complete the sentences? what kind of vocabulary are they using?).
After a few rounds of liking jazz, jumping, and juice, everyone sits down around one table, and we take turns throwing a die. Each number corresponds to a category on a colorful sheet of paper I have prepared, and you must speak extemporaneously about yourself with regards to that category. Students give tidbits of varying complexity about their family, house, pets, summer, hobbies, and secret talent (alternatively a favorite and dreaded category). I follow up with prying questions asking for more information – is your sibling older or younger than you? Do you like being the oldest/youngest? What’s good/bad about it? Do you get along or do you fight? Who wins?
We usually make it around the group three times, and then I switch to an “English survey” that I’ve concocted, a means of practicing speaking as well as information gathering as to what students will need from me this year. I find out what languages students speak, how they would rank their English level on a scale of 1-10, what’s hard/easy about learning English, their favorite subjects in school, and whether they’ve ever taken private lessons or gone to an academy.
The survey ends with asking students to tell me the classic two truths and one lie about themselves, which I ask them to write down so that they can remember. It’s often here that we run out of time, but occasionally we’ll get around to hearing what they’ve come up with – the most common responses being along the lines of “I like football, I like PS3, I like study.” I did have one girl claim she could fly.
After the class is over, I mark down the level I perceived from each student, dividing them into High, Medium, or Low with the possibility of pluses and minuses. Once I’ve made my way through the whole class, I sort the students into level groups, and then begin to design classes accordingly.
I will admit to being bored out of my skull with this particular lesson plan at this point – I’ve executed it well over thirty times – but it really does work perfectly for an introductory class of older students of unknown and mixed levels. Also, it occasionally offers the opportunity for hilarity based on students’ responses to the die-rolling game. My favorite thus far was a female 1° Bachillerato student who haltingly told me she used to have two turtles, but not anymore. I asked what happened to them, and she said they died – okay, normal, for turtles. No no, she protested, they died because she put them in the microwave.
“I wanted a dog.”