The Struggle to be Comprehensible

“We acquire spoken fluency not by practicing talking but by understanding input, by listening and reading.” –Dr. Stephen Krashen

I was ready.

My lesson plan was solid gold, and I had worked hard to think through all the could-be catastrophes. It was Thursday, our usual storytelling day where I pre-determine the shape and end goal of a specific narrative. Today’s was to be about the history of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber.

(Note: This is an adaption of traditional TPRS but not true TPRS itself, in that students are not directing the way in which the story will go. Teacher-stories are for review and listening practice, using circling to ensure students understand the focus structures of the week.)

Anyway, I was quite proud of myself.

My first period class, full of advanced students who were already picking out prospective colleges while still in seventh grade, loved it. We asked the silliest kinds of questions, like, “Would you use a lightsaber to cut a cake? What would happen?” We discussed how you would clean such a thing afterwards, and how dangerous it would be to try to lick the frosting off an electric sword.

I faced second period full of confidence that I had crafted a good story with endless possibilities for questions and answers but most of all creative conversations.

Then second period came in.

And they just sat there.

“Sí.”

“No.”

“El espada azul.”

Again and again I received only one word or, at best, incomplete sentences for answers with very little enthusiasm. So I slowed down, backed up, simplified, extended the wait time. I had students take a quick brain break, then switched partners a few times.

Eventually we reached the end of the story, and I was exhausted. I am a veteran teacher, and my bag of tricks is extensive, but today I felt defeated. What had happened? I had tried so hard, and yet all I had received in return was a flat lake of silence.

During my prep period, I went to investigate. And I found out that, unbeknownst to me, all students were participating in a suicide-awareness presentation given in a certain class. The presentation was extremely serious and many students were crying afterwards.

And then they came to Spanish class.

There was no way I could have known. It wasn’t on the school calendar, and it seemed an oversight that I wasn’t notified. Or maybe no one thought it would matter.

The lesson I learned that day is that sometimes, no matter how comprehensible the teaching may be, we must also listen to our students. I was trying SO hard to stay in the target language ninety percent, and I didn’t think to take a break and simply ask: “Hey. What’s going on?”

I wish I had.

But now I know better, and all I can do is strive to improve every day.

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