No Downside: Mid-Stream Switch, Part 1

I write these words thirteen years after writing my first “Mental Notes of the Month” for my old web site. It is interesting to reflect upon how dramatically my approach to teaching Spanish has changed since those days. But it’s also interesting to note that the seeds for the changes that I have made were already present in what I wrote back then.

I wrote a piece that I called “The Relentless Rejection of What Does Not Work”. There’s nothing that opens your mind to innovative ideas quite like having to fill the space that opens up when you stop doing activities that do not work. But activities spring from approaches, and approaches spring from beliefs about how people learn. In the process of rejecting activities and figuring out how my students learned (or didn’t learn), I eventually rejected my whole approach to teaching Spanish. “Learn this grammar and learn this vocabulary and combine them into sentences without making any errors” simply did not work for the vast majority of my students.

I owe the rejection of my initial default approach (the one that had made me successful as a language learner, had spawned some of my songs, and had built me a reputation as an effective young teacher) to one sentence by Dr. Walter Bartz of the Indiana Department of Education, uttered in a meeting that I remember nothing else about (and that I probably didn’t want to go to). I can’t tell you what the actual sentence was, but the way it resonates in my head is, “human beings are wired to learn language by listening….” Whatever he actually said and however that sentence ended, that one observation held the explanation for why I was not getting the results that I had hoped for from my students. It also set my teaching on a trajectory that would lead me several years later to a pride in my students’ results that I could not have anticipated during the dark time when I was working on my second CD, when I felt desperate to get out of the profession.

To the extent that I am known by Spanish teachers outside my school, it is generally for my music—the response to which has been tremendously gratifying. But the success that I had with my songs and other innovations in my classroom did not make me feel that I was adequately serving anyone but my “A” students in the long-term.

A little over a decade ago, I could barely stand the idea of setting foot in a classroom. Only the breaks afforded by student-teacher and then a semester of personal leave (working full-time renovating the house we now live in) made me feel like teaching could be tolerable again. Only changes in my approach to teaching have allowed my enthusiasm and effectiveness to increase with each passing year, to the point where I’m telling everyone who will listen that my twentieth year of teaching was my best one yet.

This series of posts will be the forum for me to trace the evolution of my approach to teaching Spanish—to share with to anyone who will listen the beliefs, ideas, and observations that have allowed me to feel like my life’s work as a teacher might just matter.

Buen camino,

Todd