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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Road to Proficiency Is Littered with Errors

As I  prepared my Spanish 3 Honors students for their [drum roll] Interpersonal Communication Assessment, I noticed that the level of anxiety started rising in the room. Now, my 3's are used to speaking to me and to each other in Spanish on a daily basis. However, the words oral assessment  make most of them break out into a cold sweat. So, I told them "If you are perfect and make no mistakes, you will NOT get a 100%. You will not get a 100 because if you make no mistakes, you stayed safe and gave me [this much]. It is not possible at this level of proficiency for you to be perfect AND do what I am asking you to do. I want you to interact, to ask questions, to communicate as if you were doing this in the real world". I also added "I want to be so caught up in the story that you make me forget to check for mistakes." I drew their eyes towards the I Can Statements and reminded them where their focus needed to be as they prepared for this assessment.

I Can Statements:
  • I can shop at (Sra. Carnes') Mercado Artesanal and buy souvenirs and clothing for myself and 2 other family members or friends. 
  • I can bargain with the vendor and get the best price for my purchases.
  • I can describe the items that I am buying by how they are made (material, color, design, etc)
  • I can talk about for whom I am buying these items and for what reason.
  • I can pay for the items accurately and ask for/give change in Mexican pesos
 I transformed the front of my room into a Mercado Artesanal with a variety of items from LatinAmerica. Students didn't know exactly all of the items that they would find at El Mercado though we had been working on this vocabulary in our Las Compras unit. There were no prices listed at the shop. Students had random partners with whom they had not had an opportunity to practice ahead of time. Though we had watched videos, read articles, discussed and used idiomatic expressions during the unit, they didn't have a script.I set up a table as the bank and they had to collect their pesos before they went shopping. I had run off copies, in different colors, of all currency bills up to 1.000 pesos.

I teach 3 Spanish 3 Honors classes. I was lucky to have 2 heritage speakers in one of my classes and they  played the part of shopkeepers. What happened next was a thing of beauty. The kids acted as if they were really at a market in Mexico. They were totally engaged in the event to the point that it seemed as if some of them forgot this was an assessment. They improvised, told stories, acted their part as customers convincingly, and loved the bargaining process. My heritage speakers did a great job acting as shopkeepers. Language bubbled up organically such as students saying "Soy un pobre estudiante" and the shopkeepers saying "Soy un pobre vendedor. Tengo que dar de comer a mis hijos". Then the students would get more outrageous "Mi hermana está muy enferma con influenza, tiene frio y necesita un sarape. Deme un descuento por favor".  This happened naturally and I couldn't believe that these kids could produce that much language. They did it because they were engaged in an activity that was meaningful and relevant to them.They also had a specific goal in mind, to get the best price for their items.

During the interactions, I took notes of their fluency, idiomatic expressions, use of vocabulary, communication exchanges, etc. I also noted their mistakes. When they were done, I looked at the annotated rubrics. Everyone had mistakes, some just a couple, others a few. Then, I looked at the I Can Statements posted on the board. I felt that if every one of the kids in that class were dropped at a Mercado Artesanal anywhere in Latin America, they could successfully make a purchase, bargain for a better price, describe the item and reason for the purchase to a friend or L2 speaker and pay for the item. For the first time in my teaching career, every kid in the class got a 100% for that assessment.

The lesson for me is this: The Road to Proficiency is - no, MUST BE, littered with errors. We need to let our students know that it is necessary to make errors in order to get better at speaking a new language. Then, as teachers, we have to walk the talk and reward them for those errors.

Disclaimer: Not advocating or suggesting that we should always give 100% to everyone. But, when magic happens, it deserves to be rewarded.

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