No textbook? Am I ready for this?

As I read other Spanish teachers’ blogs, I’m noticing a trend. Many of them have thrown out the textbook. Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell of Musicuentos in particular is adamant about her loathing of textbooks. The more I read, the more I want to be like those teachers, but the honest truth is that I’m extremely nervous about it. Textbooks are boring. The activities that come with them are surface level. They provide little meaningful practice with new grammatical concepts. They are far from exciting or motivating. Teaching foreign language as if it were math is highly ineffective, even with a textbook that offers clear explanations and lots of practice activities. However, they certainly do make things easy: They provide the vocab lists, they tell when I should introduce new grammar and what it should be, they provide practice for grammar, reading sections, and even tests. But I’ve been following a textbook (in my opinion a pretty good one, as these things go) for three years now. And believe me when I tell you that any abilities my students have, they have not gained because of the textbook.

The top students, the ones like me, do great. They get it. They’re able to self-check on a lot of things, they learn from their mistakes. They make me happy. However, they are a very small minority, and for goodness sake, there is no way that this many students are simply bad at language. So clearly I’m doing something wrong. Certainly, it’s not all the textbook’s fault, a lot of it falls on me for relying too much on English and too much on grammar instruction. But that’s how I learned it, so why can’t these kids learn it that way? Honestly, that was how I felt for a while. But I realize now that that traditional method really only works for the best language learners; the kids who get all A’s and who could practically learn the language from a blind monkey. But those are not the only kids I want to teach. I believe that all my students can learn more than what I’m currently getting from them.

So that brings me to my big change: no textbooks. My hope is that without a textbook, instead of just doing the same rote activities day in and day out, I’ll bring more authentic sources and more accessible language into my classroom. I’ll show my students that this can really be used outside of this room; it’s not just for an honor’s diploma; it has real value. And most importantly, I want to show them that they can do it, which is an attitude that, up to this point, I do not believe I have fostered in my students.

However, that does not make it easy. I’ve read from several teachers that, although they don’t use the textbook in class, they use its vocabulary and grammar as a guide. Sometimes because their school has set the curriculum following the book, and sometimes simply for the guidance. At my school I’m the only Spanish teacher, and I really think I can get away with whatever I want curriculum-wise. But I kind of like the idea, at least for this upcoming year, of using the textbook as a guide.

But the other thing I keep reading (and I certainly have no doubt that it’s true, based on my experience) is that grammar-based instruction is ineffective. I decided to go to no English in class long before I realized the truth about teaching grammar. I was nervous about teaching kids about the present subjunctive without speaking English. But if I’m going away from the textbook, then I think I should go away from the textbook’s method of teaching grammar as well. The only thing is, this guided-grammatical-discovery-with-some-teacher-input thing is totally foreign to me. I have no idea how to make it work. The concept of using important vocabulary over and over again in comprehensible context I understand. I’m not so worried about building students’ vocabularies, as long as I present it in the right way I think they’ll be fine. But making sure that they understand the differences between the yo form and the usted form with little to no explanation…making sure that they understand why we’re using the “wrong” verb ending sometimes…these are things that I am nervous about.

Since Christmas, I’ve been thinking heavily about major changes I want to make in the classroom. I have worked my way through lots of problems and questions since then. This is just the one I’m on right now. Lots of thinking, reflecting, and reading have solved the other problems and I’m confident this is no different. And I’m sure once I figure this out, something else will come up. But this is where I am now, and boy am I nervous about it.

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