Saturday, February 14, 2015

Deep and Simple

When I was growing up, I was never a Mr. Rogers fan. For some reason, I never felt a strong connection to him or to his show - according to my mom, I was more of a Sesame Street/Electric Company kind of kid, and she swears that it is because of those shows that I know my letters, numbers, and can read. Now as an adult, I am in awe of Mr Rogers due to his gentle spirit, his wisdom and his unconditional display of grace to others. 

One of my absolute favorite quotes is by Mr. Rogers. In the late 1990's, when talking with an MTV producer about the flashy, quick-paced, sound-byte media era in which we live, Mr. Rogers simply said: 
I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.
When I look at education today, I strongly believe that we are focusing on the shallow and complex by covering too much material too quickly on a superficial level (hello, AP syllabus?!). Should not we be striving for the opposite? 

I feel that CI/TPRS teachers have a good understanding of deep and simpleIs that not what we as CI/TPRS teachers are trying to establish in our classrooms? A deep and simple approach to teaching language? We strive to accomplish this through:
  • delivering understandable, comprehensible messages in the target language - when students understand what we are saying, they are engaged and "with us" in the moment. Their affective filters lower, hence subconscious acquisition can occur. Strategies like embedded readings help scaffold a lengthy passage into readable, bite-sized chunks but yet keep adding new details to the reading.
  • limiting vocabulary... - Yes, students need to know vocabulary, because we are teaching a language, but gosh, we have traditionally overloaded them with WAY too much vocabulary WAY too quickly. Students' affective filters rise when we show them a list of 30 vocabulary words and tell them that there will be a quiz over these words at the end of the week. Students need time to "absorb" the words through repetitions in meaningful contexts. CI/TPRS focus on teaching high frequency words first in order to build that foundation early. We use limited target vocabulary in our stories, and the truth is that limited vocabulary can actually go a LONG way.
  • ...but not sheltering grammar - When teachers limit vocabulary, as a result, they can easily spingboard into "complex" language structures. Just because the textbook (and we ourselves) say that students are not supposed to learn the subjunctive until the upper levels, that does not mean it cannot be used in level 1. If it is used with known vocabulary in meaningful context, students understand what you said. Now can they replicate the subjunctive themselves at that level? Probably not, but should that dissuade us from using those structures with them if comprehension is our goal? 
  • personalizing stories and implementing Personalized Questions and Answers (PQAs) - Including students as part of a story plotline or asking them PQAs is one way to say to students "I see you, and I value you." We establish connections between students, and as a result, a relationship and trust develops - one's classroom becomes a community.
Deep and simple does not mean that we have "dumbed down" the curriculum or that we have taken away rigor. On the contrary, we have actually focused the curriculum in such a way that all students can succeed in acquiring a language. 

How deep and simple is your classroom?