CI without stress: Takeaways from a workshop with Tina Hargaden and Ben Slavic

A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a one-day workshop in Chicago led by Tina Hargaden and Ben Slavic about starting the school year strong with CI practices. Tina and Ben are dynamic, envelope-pushing leaders in the CI community, and I gained many new insights from them. I am excited to share my takeaways here!

Tina and Ben presented tons of practical information at this workshop, ranging in scope from the core principles of why we teach this way in the first place, to how to plan for the whole year by creating instructional cycles, to how to set up specific tasks for students. They also set up an awesome Facebook group called CI Without Stress for the attendees of the event. The name of this group definitely captures what I think is one of Tina and Ben’s main messages for teachers: relax, open up, and have fun playing in the target language with your students!

As I reflect on my notes from the session, I feel like I can divide up what I learned into two categories: the “heart stuff” and the “head stuff”. (I bet Tina and Ben might say that it’s all really just “heart stuff” when you get right down to it, but this helps me develop a framework in my mind for all of the information I gathered.) Below I will do my best to articulate the ideas that resonated the most with me the in both of these categories.

The heart stuff

Tina and Ben advocate for more of the heart quality in language instruction. More heart for ourselves and more heart for our students. The theme of self-care for teachers came up several times. One thing Tina said that stood out to me was, “CI is hard emotional work, even when things are going well. So we need to be working with a clear channel of energy.” Isn’t that so true? Even on the best days (or maybe especially on the best days) good teaching requires energy and vulnerability. We need to acknowledge this and take good care of ourselves, so we can have the strength to show up again and again each day.

What does taking care of ourselves look like? According to Tina and Ben, it means letting go of a lot of the things that we think we have to do as teachers. It means simplifying lesson plans and doing only the things that count. It means not necessarily grading every single assignment. It means believing in ourselves, even when colleagues or administrators question our methods. It means taking a lunch break and going home at a reasonable hour to do things we love or spend time with people we love. It means putting on our own oxygen masks first, people! (To echo one of Tina’s examples.)

This last point hit home for me. When I first started teaching, I was a single mother with a four-year-old. I was shocked by the amount of work I was bringing home each night, just in order to scrape by and feel like I was doing a halfway decent job for my students. I felt so sad to go home and not really be able to pay attention to my child, because I was so overwhelmed by all of the things I felt I had to do to be a good teacher. Part of the reason why I was drawn to CI in the first place is because it offers a much more sane work-life balance to World Language teachers than traditional methods do. Once you get into the groove, there is a lot less planning and grading to do, with better results to boot!

How can we extend the same gift of the heart quality to the individuals we teach? Tina and Ben say that we can move away from our pre-planned lesson objectives and simply talk with the kids about who they are and what they are interested in, trusting that acquisition will follow. We can help our students feel like acquiring a language is easy—because real acquisition happens in the unconscious mind, so it is easy. And we can make sure they feel successful, because they will be.

The head stuff 

One great thing about this workshop was that Tina and Ben offered tangible strategies to help us increase the heart quality in our classrooms. I call this “the head stuff,” because to me, even though it supports the emotional, feeling side of teaching, it taps into the nuts-and-bolts, intellectual side as well. Here are the two big ideas that stood out to me:

Untarget the input

Through their research into second-language acquisition, Tina and Ben have come to the conclusion that when we target our input by choosing which structures we want to focus on ahead of time for each lesson, we create a language environment that is a bit too close to the traditional grammar-and-vocabulary-list way of the past. We become focused on jamming in as many repetitions of the target structures as we possibly can, instead of truly being there with students in front of us. Our instruction can become forced and stale, which in turn can stress us out. When we use untargeted input by letting the students choose what we talk about each day (through storyasking, One Word Images, and the like) we create a language-learning situation that is more authentic and more heart-based. We affirm our students by talking with them about what they are interested in, instead of our pre-determined target structures of the day.

This is a big shift and, to be honest, somewhat scary when I first heard it. Can we really walk into class without a clear idea of what structures we’re going to focus on that day? How will we be sure that the students are getting the language they need? Tina and Ben argue that we can let go of this worry. High-frequency vocabulary will naturally emerge in our stories and conversations, so we don’t need to plan for it. In fact, Krashen’s Natural Order of Acquisition Hypothesis tells us that students will only acquire language that they are ready for—whether we target it or not. By untargeting the input, we may be able to create a richer, more flexible linguistic environment that is based on our students’ lives and interests. Students who are ready to pick up a wider range of language will do so. This makes sense to me, and I am excited to learn more about how teachers are giving untargeted input a try in their classrooms.

Plan six-week instructional cycles

While Tina and Ben argue that we don’t have to plan for the grammar structures and vocabulary that we teach, they don’t expect us to go in without any plan whatsoever. To this point, Tina shared how she uses instructional cycles to plan for the whole year. This is exactly the kind of thing I love to learn about from other teachers! Here is what she does:

Tina plans in six-week chunks. For the first five weeks of the cycle, she uses a variety of strategies to load her students with CI: things like calendar work, card talk, One Word Images, storyasking, rewrites, listen and draw, free reading, dictations, and so on. On Fridays, Tina always does a 10-minute free write, as a way to track student growth (and to show them how much success they are having with the language!). Here is what a sample week might look like for a 45-minute class period:

Monday: Calendar work, free reading, card talk, One Word Image or storyasking

Tuesday: Calendar work, free reading, card talk, rewrite story from yesterday as a class

Wednesday: Calendar work, free reading, card talk, listen and draw the story of the week

Thursday: Calendar work, free reading, card talk, dictation of story of the week (maybe with some tweaks at this point, to make sure things don’t get boring).

Friday: Calendar work, free reading, card talk, 10-minute free write, game/music/video clip in the TL.

This is just one possibility for how you could structure the week, of course, and there are zillions of different ways you could switch things up to incorporate your favorite activities or try something new. I just LOVE the simplicity of this kind of planning. It’s easy, sets up a great routine, and allows you to load your students with tons of input.

Tina would repeat this type of plan for the next four weeks of the instructional cycle. Then, in week six, she does what she calls an “assessment battery.” During this week, she tests her students in a different area each day. The point of this assessment week is to celebrate the students’ accomplishments during the instructional cycle and track their growth. If you have students keep portfolios, you can have them add these assessments throughout the year, so they can see how far they’ve come. Here is what an assessment battery might look like:

Monday: Listening assessment. Retell a previous class story and have students jot down the main points in English to show comprehension.

Tuesday: Reading assessment. Type up a previous class story and have students write down a summary in English to show comprehension.

Wednesday: Listen and sketch or read and sketch (whichever you prefer or want to work on at that time). Retell (or type up) a previous class story and have students illustrate it to show comprehension.

Thursday: Free write. Have students write for 30 minutes (working up to this amount of time at the beginning of the year) using any language they have learned so far in the year. Use word count to track acquisition.

Friday: Celebrate the success of the instructional cycle with games, music, or videos in the TL!

After this assessment battery, Tina would start a new instructional cycle and continue throughout the year. I think this is a great way to structure planning, and I am excited to give it a try in my own instruction.

I am so thankful to Tina and Ben for sharing all of these wonderful insights! I hope some of these ideas will be as helpful for you as they are for me. Please leave a comment if you have tried/are planning to try any of these strategies! I would love to hear about your experiences.

À bientôt!





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