This semester I am teaching the second semester, second year language class for Spanish. You know the class… the one that has all of the gnarly bits of grammar that were left over from the first semester of the second year sequence. The class where you will finally learn how to say “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” but not without reviewing (over and over again) the grammar and structures and forms and conjugations from the PREVIOUS semester or semesters.
The students coming into the class have already purchased the textbook, or textbooks (because there were THREE different books for this class, vs one huge textbook, all of which together cost each student about $150). Some of them may have already purchased access to the online components (videos, audio, more kill-and-drill exercises than you can shake an empanada at) The access to the online materials is good for three semesters.
I am expected to use the text, not because my department feels it is the best thing out there, but because we missed the window of opportunity to do anything different., and half the class bought the book for the first semester of the Intermediate sequence. (I believe that window of opportunity was open somewhere around March. In Ohio in March, it is really hard to think about anything other than “when will the winter END?!?!” … so here we are.)
I am not here to lambaste the textbook, nor the textbook industry. Lord knows I don’t want to write my own and I have tremendous respect for those who do. But textbooks, and the way they are structured, should not dictate the course’s or the students’ learning objectives.
The question is this: where do we want to end up at the end of this 16-week learning journey and how the heck are we going to get there?
As a way to organize my thoughts, I made a list of the chapter topics and a list of the grammar points each of those chapters covers. This is what I came up with:
By the time we get to Chapter 12, it seems, there is nothing left to learn (!) What is more, the bulk of the semester seems to be about recycling and reusing knowledge acquired in previous semesters. Not surprisingly, students often complain in this class about not being challenged and how “we did this last year” or “we know this already” and now I can see why… there is more recycling happening this semester than actual new material to be learned.
So why not be upfront about this with the class from the get-go? Why not say: hey, look at this grid…here are the forms we have yet to learn, and here are the things we need to make sure we haven’t forgotten… but more important than that…(and here is where I move away from the textbook) here are some topics/themes that might be an interesting way to put those forms and functions into a useful context so we can use them to talk about things that matter, vs subjects the book hopes we care about.
There is this little event called a US Presidential election happening this fall and while I am teaching the class. That most certainly could lend itself to some active uses of the Present, the Past and the Subjunctive (“I want to vote for a candidate who…”) Some of the vocabulary that is (supposed to be covered) at the end of the semester should be incorporated sooner (the Hispanic Votes, issues involving Hispanics in the US, etc). The issue of same sex marriage is showing up on ballots more and more…. what better way to incorporate vocabulary about gender, relationships than here?
My point is this: Rather than going through the text in a sequential fashion (Chapter 1 must precede 2 which is always before 3…), I am going to think about larger, overarching topics that can connect the content of the chapters in more meaningful ways. Let’s take some vocab from chapter x and chapter y in order to talk or write about z. Let’s use the topics from the end of the book at the beginning of the semester and tie it into something that is going on in the world… that sort of thing.
Speaking of making things meaningful: I am also going to ask the students to tell me what they might like to do /say /accomplish with vocabulary that touches on Art, Work, The Environment, etc. How can this class make those topics more meaningful for them, and in turn for all of us as well? How can the grammar we are learning and re-learning be used to do that?
The text (and assorted ancillary materials) is as a resource….one of many resources, but not the only resource. This is not an either or kinda thing. More than anything I want my students to see that their own interests (as well as current events) can be woven into a language classroom, and if need be the text can take a back seat for a while. But it will be there…as a security blanket for some and a “justification for spending all this money” for others.
I welcome your thoughts and comments!