Teaching language is wonderfully rewarding because the evidence of progress is so tangible. At the beginning of the year, you start with students who can’t say anything in the target language, and by the end of the year they’re freely conversing with each other (albeit within certain limitations, of course). Language teaching certainly has its challenges, though, and one of them is making the jump from talking about personal, concrete ideas and topics to discussing more abstract ideas.
This was the challenge I faced toward the end of my quarter teaching German 3 at Stanford in Fall 2012. I had a class of highly motivated students who had made a lot of progress and were doing well. But the final chapter of our textbook, Deutsch Na Klar, made an enormous conceptual jump in what it expected of students. Suddenly, after several chapters of talking concretely about careers and living situations, it asked students to speak abstractly about “global problems.” This jump can be intimidating to students and frustrating for the teacher, since this sort of linguistic progress really only happens with time. But I decided that my students were capable of more than they thought they were, provided they were given enough time and structure.
At the bottom of this page, you can find the assignment that I used to help my students negotiate this assignment, but the assignment itself is in German, so I will walk through it here. The handout first lays out the scenario that students will be debating: Stanford is considering a new policy that will require students to spend at least six months total abroad during their four years here. The students were to pretend that they were a focus group, and some were against the policy and some were for the policy. The handout then gives students very specific steps for preparing their arguments over three days, including what should be done at home, before culminating in the debate itself.
Outcomes and Lessons Learned
The assignment was very successful. The teams were, for the most part, evenly matched, though the team against the new requirement were the clear winners - although the team for the requirement had many good arguments about why people should spend time abroad, they had not addressed the issue of why it should be required of students. But all students presented their arguments well, and designing the assignment served for me as a testament to how much I had learned over the course of my three quarters teaching language.
I had learned, first of all, about the importance of structure when one is asking students to leave their comfort zones. My German 3 students were perfectly capable of having a basic conversation in German; they didn’t need structure for that the way they had in German 1. But I was asking them to make persuasive and fairly abstract arguments, and for that they needed structure. I had also learned how to break down large tasks into smaller ones, so that each step is manageable for the students and so that the overall assignment does not become overwhelming. Both of these lessons were key to challenging my students while avoiding frustration and exasperation.
These lessons are crucial not only for language teaching, but for all types of teaching. They have continued to inform not only my language instruction, but also my literature instruction. I look back on this assignment, however, as a key achievement in my development as a language instructor.