Monday, April 10, 2006

The Magic of Learning Language

I teach 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade French students English twice a week. I am astounded by the way they learn, how quickly they pick things up, and the magic that is learning language.

Children do not need the definitions, the sentence structure formulations, the conjugation charts (like adults do) to learn. Instead, they just start to understand. After having been teaching mostly in English since fall (usually I only used French to discipline) now I have switched entirely to English. The most used classroom phrase has now become, "No French!!" with huge grins and pointing fingers (occassionally at me when I goof :) ). And I am absolutely amazed by how much this change in classroom policy has effected their ability to understand. I can use words they've never heard of, in a normal tone of voice, with only the normal gesturing I might use to anyone, and they all understand! What? Children have magic to them.

I am very proud of all of them this year - they have done fantastically - and, with no training in teaching, this has been a great year for me to uncover one of my gifts and learn how it works.

I must add, however, that I've also done four years of summer camp, two years after school day camp, a semester as an assistant teacher at a Montessouri school, an intensive ABA therapy summer school program for special needs children, and was a respite counselor for an autistic child for a year. So, I was not completely unprepared.

Anyway, some things I've learned about teaching in the past few years:

1) I've learned (partly from observing the way I learn) the most powerful tool is the child's own intrinsic interest. Let's use teaching language for example. We all, as people, have more or less of a desire to belong, be accepted, communicate and bond with other people (essentially these all combine to make up one of Maslow's needs in his hierarchy of needs). So, what better motivational tool could there be than the child's own genuine interest in communicating and bonding with others? Children like to talk to their teachers (if their teachers like to talk to them), children like to be liked, children like to feel secure, children like to know their boundaries. So, in my language classes, for example, saying 'no french' forces them to do what they're motivated to do anyway in a new, productive, challenging way. And they do!!! They come up with new sentences (that I never taught them) and questions all the time. It's fantastic! I love teaching.

2) I read in one of the articles which I posted elsewhere that introverted children often feel left out in school (though often they are very intelligent) because they have a hard time working past the outbursts of more extroverted others. Not just for them, but for all children who just can't handle the chaos (many ADD children, learning disabled children, children with auditory processing difficultly, and children who are just having a hard time understanding), it is necessary to set up a structured classroom where there is some degree of routine, where people speak one at a time, and where some rowdiness is allowed in the name of learning - but only as the teacher wills it. This is essential for those who are often left behind.

3) It is very important to not forget about the individual while managing the group. To encourage the child's own interest, I have found it enormously helpful to just make sure I make real eye contact with every single person in that class every time I hold a class. People like good grades but they LOVE recognition - and most are craving it. And there's no reason not to give it to them - it's highly motivating. So, when I make eye contact I take an extra second to give that child a special look - a look of approval, a smile of encouragement, a look of conspiracy (if the child always knows the answers and I just can't call on him again), a look of acknowledgement for a job well done, a look of excitement at their discovery - something to say, "We have connected today. I have seen you. You are valuable here. And look at what you've done or are doing!!" However, this must all be done quickly so that one does not lose control of the group.

Now, I have a lot more to learn - and will be learning it next year I'm sure - that will be trial by fire unlike any other experience I have been through. But I have a lot of tricks in my bag and, most importantly, I can figure out what motivates people - once you figure out the function of a behavior (I learned in my ABA behavioral therapy camp) - why they are doing it in other words - you can figure out another way to fill that need. And I'm good at that. I have an empathic mind after all. :)

Any comments? Feel free . . .

As an afterthought - today I made a girl cry. I was a little surprised - she was drawing during class and I went right up to her and said no, looked at her firmly, and took the drawing from her - not in a mean way, just firmly. Most of the children in my classes are excited to participate and spend much of the class with big smiles. She is often unwilling and seems like she thinks its uncool (which it is - honestly - but that's part of my charm - I love doing this stuff anyway and I work hard to make an atmosphere where cool does not matter). Anyway, she is always a little rude, so I was suprised that my just saying no to her hurt her so much. She must want to please me more than I realized. But that just shows that children listen more than we think. It still makes me sad to think about - but now I have learned something about her - she is more sensitive than I realized - as kids often are. And if we don't overuse our nay-saying, it holds quite a bit of power. At least, she was smiling again by the end of the class, and I had her answer a couple questions (giving her a smile look when she was right) so she knew she was forgiven.


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