Friday, February 27, 2009

“‘Treehouse Club’ worked for me!”

Today, like every Friday, my students have an exam.

The topic this week--regular verb conjugations.

Remember those from your days of high school foreign language classes? I didn’t think so.

Don’t feel bad. Most of the non-foreign-language-speaking crowd can’t do it once they leave school. It’s what keeps the college instructors in a job.

Anyway, I decided several years ago that I really needed to find a way to get people to understand the mechanics of conjugation without making it seem all grammar-y. I know, I know. Grammar-y isn’t a word. Stay focused for chrissake! I spent quite a while thinking about how to teach an essential, inherently boring, element of grammar in a way that helps teenagers get the concept so they can actually use it to string sentences together? After a little trial and error, I decided to go with the greatest strength of the Wayfarer methodology of instructional practice.

I told them a story.

The abridged version of this story is given below. In class, I draw this out with effects and drama, and it always seems to capture their attention. Good stories should do that.

“When I was a kid, there was this tree that was next to a cliff. One day, you and I decided to build a treehouse in the tree. The one we built originally had one level, but we decided to build a second level so we each had our own floor. In reality, the treehouse didn’t last very long (for reasons that should be obvious based on the construction data you’ve been given), but the idea was a good one and we were kids, so there you are.

I got to be the President of the Treehouse Club. Why? Well, it was my wood, my hammer and nails (ok, it was my dad’s but let’s not worry about the details), and it was my power cord being used to provide power to the television (see picture below). As president, I get to have the top floor of the treehouse, and I get the television and the foosball table (not illustrated for reasons of pure laziness).”

I point to one student. “Congratulations, Pat, you have been appointed Vice-President of the Treehouse Club. You get the second, lower level and with it, all the magazines, board games and the portable radio.

You’ll notice that the treehouse is built more to one side of the tree than the other. We could only build out so far on the cliff side, so we thought it would be a good idea to add extra space on the other to make up for it (Frank Lloyd Wright would have given us points for originality). On the cliff side, the treehouse was only big enough for one person to fit. I put my presidential suite on that side, on my floor of the treehouse. You did the same with your vice-presidential suite.

We made a few basic rules shortly after we finished the treehouse. We said that we could only go onto each other’s level if the other were there with us (this was to prevent unauthorized use of the television or theft of the board games). We could invite people up into the treehouse, but only to our own levels. Furthermore, no one was allowed into the treehouse unless we were there.”

At this point, there is usually some argument about whether this story has any basis in reality at all, or whether the rules were as inane as they sounded. There is also some discussion about how cool treehouses (and treehouse clubs) are, and how, if we had a treehouse at our school, we could have class in it. It always takes a minute to get the focus back.

I tell them that we’re only halfway through the story, and that this part is being used in part to set up the next part.

Would you like to hear it? You’re already this far into the post, you may as well finish.

“Let us imagine now that we’re fully moved into this treehouse. We have cable and wireless Internet, and all the modern amenities. Let us further imagine that we have saved our money and we intend to use it to buy a new verb. That’s right—a verb. Since we have Internet, we can order it online from (the central clearinghouse for all verbs online) and qualify for free shipping and a discount on all future purchases. It comes in 3-5 business days in its distinctive cardboard packaging.

We open the package to discover the verb and a whole host of attachments. Oooo! We like attachments! The verb happens to come with one already on it so, if we want to do something different, we have to take that one off, then put on the one for whomever is going to play with the verb.

If I’m playing with the verb, I’m going to play with it in my suite. Same with you. If we have friends up, we need to move to the bigger side of the treehouse, so everyone has room. We didn’t have a particular rule about loaning out the verb to other people, so this could be done. If only one person were to play with it, though, he or she has to do so next to the cliff by the tree.”

I realize I’ve gone on for quite a while with this elaborate storytelling, so I’ll cut it short to say that it’s all designed to explain a couple of things about conjugation. First, it settles the issue of hierarchy in French and Spanish (something that we don’t deal with in English, which makes the concept confusing). Second, it makes clear the mechanics of conjugation (which are invisible for us in English since almost all our verb forms are the same in any given tense).

The lesson goes on from this foundation. I show them how to unpack their verbs and make them match whomever is using them. I remind them of the basic idea of the treehouse: It’s better the higher up you go. This helps them to know how to figure out which ending is used when the subject of a sentence they’re making is complex, with lots of persons (“John, my friends, you and I…”).

End result: My students love this unit! I get a lot of positive feedback about it from them because they feel like they understand it right off the bat, and they can use it in their writing (which is getting more complex by the day). All this confidence showed on their exams, too. Of the 63 kids who took it today, about half earned Mastery Credit (90% or better, more or less) and only 3 had to retake the exam entirely (which means they didn’t come anywhere near passing it).

I’m proud of them. I’m also pleased when my unusual approaches to language learning work for them.


JRH said...

Hey, that's really cool! My Spanish teacher taught conjugation as if it were math -- subtract the ending and add... -- which hooked me so much that I went on to minor in Spanish in college, but I have always wondered about the poor kids who hated math that she lost in the process.

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