During my first semester at Suffolk, I noticed there were several Spanish-speaking students in my classes. As my position wasn’t permanent, I figured it would be useful to add “Bilingual” to my CV and that I would have several students around who would be more than happy to feel intellectually superior to me. The good news is that a year and a half later, I still enjoy studying Spanish; the bad news is that those students still feel intellectually superior to me.
Michel Thomas and Me
The best system I’ve used for learning Spanish (and I’ve tried a lot of them) is the Michel Thomas method. What make his tapes unique is that the recordings are of him teaching two people. You get to hear their (often incorrect) answers and how he responds to them. His style is a wonderful combination of humor, clever mnemonics and carefully planned repetition that constantly adds just a bit more to what the student already knows. With other programs, I would get bored or weary after 20 minutes, but with Michel Thomas, an hour goes by and I whisper, “Tell me more.”
The Michel Thomas Method and the Classroom
Here is the revolutionary, groundbreaking, innovative idea (that I stole from someone, but I can’t remember who) that I’ve come up with all on my own this summer: Stop teaching 25 kids at once. My plan is to take three students from the class and only teach to them. By this, I mean that they will sit at the front of the room and I will teach them. My usual style is to lecture to the class, but no more. Now, I will build the subject in tiny increments, continually asking my three students questions and assessing their understanding. A typical exchange might be:
(to Student 1) What is the y-coordinate of point A?
AG: (to Student 2) And what is y-coordinate of point B?
AG: (to Student 3) How much did the y-coordinate change?
S3: By 3.
AG: Good. How much did it change if I ask you first about point B and then about point A?
S3: Still by 3.
AG: Yes, but it is a curious thing here. From A to B, the y-coordinate goes up and from B to A, it goes down. We don’t want to lose that distinction. So we agree that if it goes up, we call it a positive change; if it goes down, we call it a negative change.
(to Student 1) When we go from point A to point B is the change positive or negative?
AG: (to Student 2) And from point B to point A?
AG: (to Student 2, again) How about in this picture—again from point B to point A?
S2: The change is negative.
AG: From point A to point B, the change in the y-coordinate is negative. What about from point B to point A?
S2: From point B to point A? Oh, yes, backward. It is positive.
AG: Now the way we will write the change in the y-coordinate is to use a Greek letter (writes it on the board). The change in y is written (writes it on the board).
S1: But how do you know if you’re going from point A to point B or the other way around?
AG: You need to specify. Let’s make an agreement, though. If I don’t say anything, we’ll mean left-to-right, the same way we read.
(to Student 1) What, then, is in the first picture?
AG: (to Student 3) And what is it in the second picture?
AG: Are you going left-to-right or right-to-left?
S3: You didn’t say which, so I’m going left-to-right.
AG: And does it go up or down?
AG: When it goes up, the change is positive; when it goes down, the change is negative.
S3: So, is it -2?
AG: Of course.
What’s the Problem?
So, already I see some issues.
- There are 22 other students; what if one of them wants to ask a question? The simple response is that I’ll answer it.
- Won’t those three students get a better education than the others? Yes, but I plan to rotate the students daily.
- What if a student doesn’t show up when it is his or her turn? Their performance in this setting is graded. If they don’t show up, their grade reflects that. Also, I can always do it with two students (it might be more effective that way!)
- What if a student shows up under-prepared? Again, it is a part of their grade, so I expect some of them to take it seriously. But, I can imagine a student who is clearly not working at the same level as the other two students and this could be a problem. I would probably phase him or her out as the lesson grew in complexity and then discuss it with him or her outside of class. I need to take care in putting together these groups of three: if done randomly, I might end up with three slackers who could ruin the class.
- The three at the front will pay attention, but what about the others? How do you keep them engaged when you’re ignoring them? This is the toughest question for me to answer. I hope that I can make the dialogue interesting enough to keep their attention. Ideas here would be really appreciated. One retort I have is that even if I lecture conventionally, I still can’t keep their attention the entire time. How many more would I lose this way? I don’t know.