Or, how to start the year off right in a foreign language class

Do you ever have one of those moments where you plan the best activity ever for your class, and it falls completely flat because your students would literally rather die than participate? No? Just me? Am I the only one who sometimes thinks maybe I just should have gone into dentistry, because getting students to talk in class is a lot like pulling teeth? Ever ask a question and have a room full of students looking somewhat like this guy?

My last post was all about the importance of being willing to risk looking ridiculous in the foreign language classroom, but how do we get students to do this? Students have to feel safe making mistakes, and it’s up to us to create a classroom environment where it’s okay to step outside our comfort zone, and even okay to look a little bit silly doing so.

Day 1 of any class is about setting expectations. Often, this means going over the syllabus, talking about major assignments, or reviewing grading policies. (Pardon me for a moment while I yawn. Is it REALLY a good idea to bore our students to tears before we’ve even taught them anything?) That’s probably what students are expecting when they walk through my door. But I always have something a little different up my sleeve for day one. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still setting expectations. I’ve just chosen a different set of expectations to focus on, and a rather unorthodox method of addressing them.

The class looks something like this…

I survey my students, looking for that perfect first victim, preferably someone who gives off a bit of a class clown vibe. Don’t get me wrong, none of them are safe, but it usually helps to start things off with someone who likes to be the center of attention. I see one of my athletes, already joking comfortably with his buddies… perfect! I catch his eye and make the “come here” gesture with my finger.

Now I’ve got him up in front of the class. I smile, then turn and start banging my head against the wall (gently, mind you, but very theatrically). He looks at me in confusion. The rest of the class is caught somewhere between laughter and bewilderment. I pause just long enough to point at him, then at the wall, indicating that he should copy my behavior.

“Wait, you want me to… naww… do I have to? You really want me to bang my head against the wall?!?!?”

I nod and smile, then do a few more head bangs myself just to make sure he’s got the point. He laughs, but complies, to the great delight of all of his classmates. I leave him to his head banging and move on.

Next, I find a couple of my girls who look particularly outgoing and use hand signals to indicate that I want them to stand up. All the way up. Yup, I want them up on top of their chairs or desks or tables, depending on the particular classroom setup. Of course, in order to show them this, I have to climb up on top of my desk too. (Mental note: Make sure never to wear a dress on the first day!) I just get up there when I notice my head banger has stopped banging, thinking I’m done with him. Oh no, not yet. Back down I jump, heading over to his spot on the wall and repeating my pantomimed instructions to keep the head banging going.

Now that he’s back in action, I can return to my girls on top of their chairs. I hop back up on my desk and start disco dancing à la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. (Disco is great for this, because you can look pretty darn ridiculous without having to move your feet much.) My girls start giggling, looking somewhat embarrassed, but they do comply and start busting out some moves.

By now, everyone knows what’s coming. I go around the room, sometimes taking one student at a time, sometimes groups of two or three, and giving each of them something utterly preposterous to do. Occasionally I have to swing by an earlier group and restart them if they’re slacking off (I’m looking at you, head banger!) Before long, the entire class is filled with teenagers doing everything from square dancing to strutting around like chickens. I step back and watch them for a minute or two, then finally, I give the signal that they can stop what they’re doing and go back to their seats.

Then, and only then, do I say my first words to them. We have a discussion about the activity – how did it make them feel? Why did I start our Spanish class off this way? And what on earth have they signed up for?

I’ve done this for the past 5 years, and as goofy as it sounds (and, in truth, it really is pretty ridiculous), I have found the activity to be an incredibly effective way to establish the classroom environment I’m shooting for, right from the opening minutes of the semester. I find it helps me communicate two very important messages to my students:

1. There is absolutely no need to use English in this classroom

There will be times when you will feel like do not understand a single word that is coming out of my mouth. That is okay. That is normal. I am fully prepared to use body language and other forms of non-verbal communication to help me get my message across. If I can get you playing leapfrog and doing the can-can without ever speaking a word, then seriously, what’s the limit? I’d rather have you resort to gestures and signs when you don’t understand, rather than flipping back to English. English is a crutch. You will think you need it, but you don’t. 

2. This is a classroom where risk-taking is encouraged

You will make mistakes this semester. It is absolutely unavoidable when you are learning a language. You may feel really silly when you do. You may feel embarrassed. You may worry that other people are judging you. Guess what? You will never look more ridiculous making a mistake than you just did dancing around this classroom. You have already experienced your most embarrassing moment in this class! The worst is over! It’s all downhill from here! So go ahead – take a risk, give it a try. You might get it wrong, and that’s not only okay, it’s something to celebrate. We learn when we make mistakes. 

Every semester, I have to remind myself of my own lessons, particularly the second one. Every semester, I consider starting my classes off more traditionally. Every semester, I worry about that all-important first impression; I worry that my students will have no respect for me, that they’ll think I’m just a goof who thinks she’s fun but is really just super uncool. And every semester, I take a deep breath, walk into that classroom, and start banging my head against a wall again. I’m always glad I did.

Did you give this activity a try with your students? What else do you do to encourage your students to take risks? Do you have a special technique you use to help lower the affective filter in your classroom? Tell me about it in the comments!

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