Structured Spontaneity – Setting Goals for the Arabic Course

Hello again! It has been one week, and already I hit my first wall. At the same time, though, I had a rare moment of brilliance.

(I’m gonna start with the moment of brilliance).

While looking over the syllabi for my other two courses this Fall, I had a stunning realization about the way they worked together with this Arabic course. One of these classes is Classroom Discourse Analysis, and other one is World Language Curriculum and Methods (not apparent from the name is that this course is about designing language curricula with storytelling). I realized that the former could potentially provide a theoretical background for the effectiveness of my TPRS course, which partially hinges on the teacher’s discourse in the classroom. Meanwhile, the latter would help me learn the principles of effective storytelling for language classrooms. This lineup of courses could not have been more perfectly aligned with the goals for this Arabic course.

As exciting as this realization was, the past week brought its fair share of frustration.

Any of my professors will tell you I am a zealous advocate for TPRS. If TPRS were a sports team, I would be the loud and crazy season-ticket holder in the front row with his face and body painted up.

Another passion of mine is setting clearly-defined goals that give purpose, meaning, and structure to any endeavor.

While it would seem, then, that planning goals for my Arabic TPRS course would be a match made in heaven, it has felt more like greek yogurt and spaghetti – two foods which I enjoy separately but when brought together, are a repulsive mess.

I reflected on why it was so difficult to set goals for this TPRS course and boiled it down to two reasons:

1. TPRS courses teach language in context – using stories and conversations rather than lists and rules.

This makes TPRS highly effective, but difficult to attach specific and measurable language goals to. It seems ‘normal’ and ‘right’ to use contextualized language from stories or conversations to teach the language, but when it comes to setting concrete, measurable goals for students’ language acquisition (and finding ways to assess and track those goals), I feel tempted to de-contextualize the same language I sought to contextualize in the first place.

This seemed pointless until this past week, when I perused the syllabus for another class I am taking this semester – World Language Curriculum Methods. This course (taught by Dr. Patrick, who taught me TPRS), focuses on how to use the concept of story to deliver contextualized language. I read the final project for the course and laughed in disbelief – our final project is to write a language unit (hmm… does a 5-week Arabic course count?), the goal of which is for students to be able to listen, read, understand, and have conversations (to their appropriate level) about a story. This story will feature all of the target language vocabulary and grammar that you will want them to have acquired by the end of the unit.

That’s it. If they understand the story, they will understand the vocabulary and grammar that was used to tell it. Looks like I’ll be working on that “final project” a little early…

2. Structure and Spontaneity are not friends – or so it seems. On the surface, setting measurable goals and working towards them in a methodical and disciplined manner seems completely antithetical to the pursuit of creativity, spontaneity, and discovery

Last semester, though, I made a discovery about the relationship between constraint and creativity, between structure and spontaneity. I took a class with Dr. Cahnmann-Taylor called “Poetry for Educators,” in which we were often prompted to write poems under sometimes-annoying constraints (ex. rhyme structure).

I soon realized, though, that constraints seem, at first, to rain on our creativity-parades, but they are actually sharpening our minds and training them to dig deeper for the most brilliant and effective ideas.

What if the reason setting language goals for a pro-spontaneity classroom is difficult because we are making too many goals? (many of which are not important?). For example, all a story needs is “rajul (a man),” “biddu (he wants),” and “bishuuf (he sees).” With simple goals, and simple structures, the potential for creativity actually grows.

Bottom Line: It is not impossible to set goals for a TPRS course. It is necessary.


One Year Later… (Coming Full Circle)

I found this blog buried deep in the internet closet, coated with dust and cobwebs.

It must have been over a year since I last touched it. Nevertheless, I held it up to the light, cleaned it with a rag, put some new batteries in it, and – you know what? – it still works. So, why make a whole new blog when I have a perfectly good one right here?

See, last Fall, I created this blog as a requirement for my class, LLED 7504, and filled it with weekly reflections on what I had been learning. In this class, I learned about a teaching method called TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). The class (and the method) resonated deeply with me for many reasons that I have mentioned in previous posts on this blog.

Also, before I started grad school, I majored in Arabic as an undergrad, and I speak the language fluently. As I learned about TPRS, my imagination ran wild with ideas to incorporate it into an Arabic classroom.

Then, about a month into the semester, my friend Anna asked me to teach her Arabic.

For the next six weeks, my imagination became reality. I wrote lesson plans, designed stories, and put together a one-person Arabic class for my friend Anna. When I spoke to my advisor about this, she recommended a course about curriculum design and encouraged me to, well, design a curriculum.

That is exactly what happened. I wrote my own curriculum for introductory Levantine Arabic (a spoken dialect of Arabic, which I will go into later). After presenting the finished product, my classmate Rhia (a doctoral student and all-around go-getter) pushed me to get a pilot program set up.

Then, after speaking with Dr. Cahnmann-Taylor (a professor in two of my other classes last Spring), I was given the green light to teach a 5-week Arabic ‘mini-course’ as a segment of her class in the Fall.

“Which course?” you may ask.

LLED 7504.

So, one year after starting this blog for LLED 7504 as a student, I will now be continuing the blog for LLED 7504 as a teacher (sort of). 

The 5-week course will start on September 25th. Until then, I will be conducting research and working on the course. I will update this blog each week with a new reflection about the obstacles, solutions, and overall process of preparing this 5-week Arabic course using TPRS methods.

Here we go.

“If they didn’t learn it, you didn’t teach it…”

This was a bombshell idea that came up in our most recent class meeting, but I think what makes it a bombshell is how remarkably simplistic it sounds. Teaching, one could argue, is the transfer of knowledge and skills from one person’s mind to another. If the transfer was not made, no teaching took place. The fact that this sounds like a refreshing new perspective, rather than common sense, shows us something about the way we perceive language.

It begs the question – what do teachers teach? The first answer to pop into your head might reflect your preconceived ideas about education. Do they teach Social Studies? English? Spanish? Algebra? Physics? Or do they teach students?

Especially in language education, whether a teacher believes he is teaching a language or a group of students will impact the outcome of the class. If a teacher is teaching a language, he will give the students a list of 50 vocabulary words, reading them once at the beginning of the week, he’ll give them a quiz, and use this written assessment to decide whether or not the student can speak the language. This stressful, pressured, and frenetic pace is often influenced by standards, curricula, and a host of other factors – none of which include the acquisition of the students.  

However, when the student’s acquisition of the language is the goal, the teacher will only teach what the students are able to learn. This means the pace of the student, not the curriculum, is what the teacher responds to, because the success of teacher lies in whether or not his student’s learn what he teaches.

Stay in Your Comfort Zone

This week, I read about Armando, a 29-year old Mexican immigrant who learned to speak fluent Hebrew after working 3 years in an Israeli restaurant in California. (And by “fluent,” I mean Israelis listened to a recording of his voice and thought he was a resident of Tel-Aviv). The study highlighted the factors that led to this remarkable level of fluency. I want to talk about two of those factors:

  1. He built strong friendships with the Israeli customers
  2. He never forced himself/was never forced to speak Hebrew

Quick backstory:

In the summer of 2012, I studied Arabic in Marrakesh, Morocco. The program, the Center for Language and Culture, was by far the most phenomenal I have ever experienced. One day, one of the professors and I were walking and talking through the streets of Marrakesh, looking for a place where we could purchase a basketball (it’s me we’re taking about after all).

As we talked about language acquisition, he mentioned this one study he found which showed that a student’s comfort level in a language-learning setting has a profound impact on their level of acquisition.

Fast-forward to Fall 2016, and I now I know what he was talking about – it’s the affective filter. The affective filter is a mental wall that is raised up when you’re making a conscious attempt to gain what can only be acquired subconsciously.

Looking back to the two factors that helped Armando, when we find ourselves in unfriendly atmospheres, and when we are overwhelmed by the amount of a language we do not know, our level of stress raises, as does our affective filter. However, when we are in a comfortable environment in which we are loved and accepted, our filter comes down, allowing all kinds of comprehensible language input to enter our subconscious.

We’ve been taught that to achieve greatness necessitates getting out of our comfort zone. Oddly enough, acquiring a language necessitates staying in our comfort zone. 

“I’m not good with languages…”

**This post is for everyone who has ever said or thought those words**

I want to part the veil for a quick second. If you forgot or didn’t know, this blog is for one of my MA courses in the College of Ed. So, why is it on Facebook? And why are you reading it? Hopefully, because I’m achieving my goal in making language education compelling and relatable. That’s why I’m in this program in the first place.

I had an epiphany recently. I have come to realize that nearly all of us, at some point, have assumed that some people can learn foreign languages and others cannot. Teachers and students alike consign to this belief, and as a result, expectations are lowered.

“They’re probably not going to be able to speak the language, so let’s at least have them memorize the colors, a few phrases, and be able to count to 100.” 

Here’s my question: We’ve already done it once – why can’t we do it again? We are all fluent in one language, so what’s stopping us from becoming fluent in another?

Now, this is, in no way, “my” question. It’s been asked by linguists, psychologists, educators, and the like for generations, but for all I know, this may be the first time you’ve thought critically about this.

Also, before I go further, I want to acknowledge that, yes, skill is most definitely a factor in becoming fluent in other languages – but it is by no means a prerequisite. 

Think about the last conversation you had. Unless you were having a casual discourse about the complexities of astrophysics, chances are you were not having to exert a great amount of effort or skill into both producing and comprehending language. How did you get so good at the language you speak that you were able to unconsciously communicate with others? Or, maybe a more important question, what did your parents do to enable you to speak your language so fluently?

Well, when you were a baby, your parents spoke to you. What kind of speech did they use? Short, simple words and short, simple grammatical structures. Naturally, the language they used became less simple, but at every juncture, your parents never spoke to you in words that you could not understand. And this is the key principle of Comprehensible Input.

Perhaps even more important is what your parents did not do. Your parents did not have a prescribed, linear timeline for your language development. They did not ask you to memorize a list of 50 vocabulary words, they did not give you written homework, and (best of all) your parents did not say, “Our sweet baby is probably not going to be able to speak the language, so let’s at least have him memorize the colors, a few phrases, and be able to count to 100.”  (I imagine that being followed up with, “At least he’ll be able to order food at a restaurant or ask for directions around town.”)

The important thing is this – when you were a baby, it was your parents responsibility to teach you the language, not yours to learn it. For that reason, I have stolen this line from Dr. Patrick, our professor, and I use it at the beginning of every tutoring session I lead: “I’m the only one here who knows this language. It’s my responsibility to teach it to you.”

The language teacher’s responsibility is simple: help the student naturally acquire the language by providing healthy amounts of comprehensible input.

Your brain is pre-wired to learn language.

You are good with languages.

Why Everyone Should Know About the Zone of Proximal Development

Okay. Sorry for the Buzzfeed-style click-bait title, but it is kind of necessary with a term as arcane as “Zone of Proximal Development.” I feel like I need a click-bait title to even write about it. However, once I made it through this week’s readings, I discovered that the importance and relevance of this concept go way beyond the world of education.

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was derived from Lev Vygotsky, who, like many in his time, was attempting to explain the relationship between learning and development. These two sound like interchangeable ideas, and we commonly use them as such, but theorists during Vygotsky’s period would argue otherwise.

The exact relationship between learning and development has been highly debated over the years, and one of the most common understandings of the relationship theorized that learning – a smaller, domain-specific process – served as a catalyst for development – a much broader, large-scale process. This, in turn, fueled the learning process, and so on and so forth. For example:

When you learn your multiplication tables, you are developing your memorization skills.

Cool. So what?

Here’s what. Vygotsky’s ZPD idea challenges this understanding of learning and development,  by explaining a phenomenon that we all have experienced but never paid attention to:

Why is it that I know all these things (concepts, formulas, word meanings, etc.) when I’m in class or in a group, but whenever I have to do homework on it, I completely forget everything? 

That is basically what Vygotsky sought to answer in his theory of the Zone of Proximal Development – why we seem to possess a higher level of knowledge when aided or prompted by a professor or group than we do on our own.

The reason for this, according to Vygotsky, is because there is never a solid, black-and-white difference between what we know and what we do not know. Somewhere between what we know and what we do not know is the “zone” that he refers to in his theory.

See, there are certain things that you know, but can only come up with when someone gives you part of the answer. For example:

Jessica: “Hey! Do you remember me? We met at the party last weekend..? We had that conversation about how weird praying mantises are?

You: “Oh! Yeah! Wait, don’t tell me your name, I know this….uh,…uh,….okay what does it start with?”

Jessica: “J”

You: “Jessica!”

So, you have learned this person’s name, and you know it (hence the boldface), but you have not yet “developed a memory of this person’s name.

So, it’s kind of like that…but with all knowledge.

This is especially handy if you’re learning a new language and are frustrated about the discrepancy between what you “know” and what you’ve “mastered.”

And, with regards to you and Jessica, the zone that she is stuck in is your zone of proximal development.

….But the zone you’re stuck in is her friend-zone…

…I’ll see myself out.

“Do You Understand?”

It’s a three-worded question designed by the asker to confirm a mutual consensus of meaning.

It’s also a three-worded question that will almost certainly elicit a dishonest response.

In TPRS (“Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling”– in case you forgot), we have learned a good deal about the Comprehension Check – a tool used by the language teacher to ensure that the student understands what is being said in the target language.

Comprehension checks are like the flashing icons on the dashboard of your car. When you’re driving, you cannot see all that is going on under the hood, but the gauges and icons on the dash alert you to the needs of the car. Likewise, a language teacher cannot peer inside of a student’s mind, but he can “read” the student to know whether to slow down or offer more explanation.

Comprehension checks can be done in an endless number of ways, such as asking the student to translate the previous sentence or reading his/her body language (the “deer-in-the-headlights” look is a dead giveaway and is almost impossible to mask). I would only consider one of these methods to be ineffective, and that is actually asking the student if he understood. If they did understand he will nod and say yes. If they did not understand, he will nod and say yes.

Deeply embedded in our social DNA is the belief that misunderstanding is shameful. The action we take on this belief is to deny it whenever it occurs. Think about it. You’re at a party, someone you just met asks you a question, but you don’t understand.

YOU: (leaning in) “I’m sorry?”

STRANGER: (indistinct, incoherent, and impossible-to-understand chatter)

(The socially-brave among us will persevere a little while longer, asking one, maybe two more times for him to repeat what he just said, but without success. Eventually, this happens…)

YOU: (nodding) “….uh-huh. yeah.”

You still have no earthly idea what this person said, but to avoid the embarrassment of asking them to repeat what they said a third (or fourth…or fifth) time, you nod in agreement, hoping you did not agree to something ridiculous or dehumanizing.

(To my Seinfeld fans out there – this is basically the plot to the puffy shirt episode.)

(To my non-Seinfeld fans, …nevermind.)

This “fake-it-’til-you-make-it” social strategy might spare us an embarrassing moment at a party, but in a language classroom, the only thing we are being “spared” from is acquiring the language we came to learn. Thus, the language educator has both a pedagogical responsibility and a social responsibilty. He not only has to teach the target language, but now he also must create a compeltely new social environment.

The social context of the language classroom must operate by a completely different set of rules. Asking for repetition or clarification should not be not only accepted, but also encouraged and rewarded. In this social context, risk is celebrated, failure is welcome, and positivity is expected. Once this culture has been established, then we will begin to see some real language acquisition.

Did you get that?

The Previously Unconsidered Background of ‘I’ and ‘We’ Cultures

A few years ago, I learned about the difference between individualistic and collectivist societies (often dubbed the ‘I’ vs.’We’ mentality). At the time, it seemed a rather simple and straightforward concept. ‘I’-oriented cultures were typically found in the West (most notably, America), where people identify first as an individual, then as a member of their family, group, school, etc. On the other hand, ‘We’-oriented cultures were typically found in Eastern nations, where the “individual” is primarily perceived as an extension of their own family.

Again, it was a relatively simple concept – not exactly your anthropological version of rocket science. Yet, there were two very-real possibilities that, until a few days ago, I had never considered:

  1. America might not be as exclusively individualistic as I once thought it was
  2. The reason for that could be linked to the history of oppression in the US

The readings from this week forced me to come to grips with the fact that individualistic-and-collectivist oriented cultures are not pre-existent but are often forged through circumstance. For minority groups in the US, that circumstance has historically been oppression.

Also, to clarify, I recognize that no two individuals within a culture are the same. Furthermore, the characteristics I use to describe groups of people here are not to reinforce monoliths or stereotypes, but to highlight large-scale societal patterns.

The two groups spotlighted in these readings were Black and Latino communities in the US. Both groups are ‘we’-oriented, and both have a history of oppression in the United States. This oppression, for individuals within these communities, has served as the tie that binds. It coerced a unity, in which no individual put his or herself above the group. This unity even transcended nationality, as Latinos in America – despite coming from many different nations – became a unified community. Furthermore, this oppression sets the stage for servant-leaders like MLK, who do not seek leadership not for personal ambition but for the sake of his community and his nation. Becoming a collectivist community, for oppressed minorities, became a means of both preservation and of pride.

The White Community in America arguably does not feature the same collectivist mentality as these minority groups. (After all,”the White Community” is an expression that almost no one says). To probe deeper, perhaps the reason for that is because White Americans have not been coerced into a collectivist culture the way Black and Latino communities have in the past.

I could go on writing about how the “individualistic-collectivist” spectrum manifests itself in the issue of oppression to cause so many of the problems that baffle us in America today, but I would rather not turn a blog post into a feature-length article. For now, though, hopefully we can start using this “simple” concept to make sense of some not-so-simple issues in our world.

The Arabic-Speaking, Stick-Shift Driving, NBA Superstar You’ve Been This Whole Time


When I was a small child, my dad showed me a project he made as a boy – a “wooden ball in a cage”. He made it by taking a block of wood and cutting away pieces of the block until all that remained was a cage with ball inside of it. He explained to me how the ball was “already inside the block,” and that he just had to cut it out, which threw my seven-year old brain into deep thought (…and by “deep thought,” I really mean “total confusion”).

Fast forward.

I am an Arabic tutor. Well, I’m a full-time student, but on the side, I help my fellow English speakers learn an incredibly difficult language (if you disagree, you’re probably a native Arabic speaker).

Having done this for nearly a year, I can say with complete certainty that my greatest task has nothing to do with teaching the language. My most important task in teaching the Arabic language is convincing my students that they’ve already been given the gift of speaking it.

I say this because far too often, my students have told me:

“I am not qualified to learn this language.”

While I’ve never actually heard those words, my students communicate it to me all the time. The sighs, the hands to the forehead, the looks of frustration and hopelessness in their eyes, all seem to reveal a deeply-rooted conviction that they’re just not good enough to speak this language.

I cannot teach someone who doesn’t believe they can learn – so I must first help them to realize they can, at which point they pick up the language all on their own. And that is why my love for TPRS/CI as a language teaching method continues to grow deeper and deeper – especially when I stumble across quotes like this one from Terry Waltz:

“The [Comprehensible Input] teacher doesn’t open the door; he pulls the lever that operates a dump truck, unloading huge amounts of totally understandable language on learners. Then the teacher sits back and takes credit for the incredible work of the brain.” (Waltz)

In addition to providing comprehensible input, I feel that my model of language education is mostly centered around instilling confidence and hope in my learners, which seems to be a trend in TPRS/CI as well. During sessions, I will occasionally stop my students after they do something particularly well – like using a new vocabulary word in a conversation, remembering something I taught them the previous week, or even struggling their way through a simple sentence – just to have a moment of recognition. I will say things like, “Look at what your brain just did! Do you even realize what just happened? Of course you don’t, because you did it unconsciously. You’re so good at this language, you barely have to try! Your brain is a work of art!” I’m essentially showing them off to themselves to prove a point, and I think it sheds light on my obsession with teaching…and how to reveal a wooden ball inside of a cage.

I love teaching because, whether it’s speaking Arabic, driving a stick-shift, or making a jump shot in basketball, I am never actually “teaching” anyone anything. Rather, like carving a ball within a wooden block, I’m simply introducing them to the Arabic-speaking, stick-shift driving, NBA superstar that they’ve been this whole time.

The positive results I’ve seen from this kind of ‘meta-narrative’ have been incalculable. And it’s why I’m even more convinced that TPRS is not only a far better method of language teaching, but also reflects the way we were programmed to learn.

We, as teachers, declare to the students the unique and incredible gift they possess, while silencing and invalidating every voice that would try to convince them otherwise.

What Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” Have in Common…

As I read through Theatre of the Oppressed, I was amazed by the effectiveness of dramatic modals, namely forum theatre, in empowering people in oppression. Whether educators in America or peasants living in the favelas of Brazil, people who have the platform to vocalize and express their situations tend to gain significant insight into their plights, as well as the inspiration for concrete social change…

…which reminds me of a film that I saw years ago.

In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character and his team “hacked” into people’s dreams as a means to obtaining secret information, or even “incepting” new ideas (hence, the name of the film). The particular way they did this was by learning about the subject’s life – his socioeconomic status, cultural values, relationships, etc. – and “constructing” a dream compatible to who the person was. The dream, as I vaguely remember them describing (it was a long time ago), was like a “blank canvas” on which the dreamer projects – and subsequently engages with – his subconscious.

Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed reminded me of this because the “dreams” he and his troupe created were real, theatrical performances. Like the “architect” of the dream in Inception, Boal crafted plays that masterfully encapsulated the socioeconomic oppression of the peasants living in Brazil, allowing audience members to project their subconscious issues onto the stage.

Furthermore, just as a dreamer has the ability to engage with his own dream, Boal’s audience members had permission to interrupt the play and interject solutions, rewriting not only the script but also their own fate.

In both Inception and Theatre of the Oppressed, the subjects/audience members “wake up” from their experience with a new sense inspiration, empowerment, and resolve. With the diligence to understand their students, and the right amount of creativity, I believe that educators can utilize the same tools that Augusto Boal and Christopher Nolan touched on in their respective works, and inspire real social change. And, fortunately for the educators, it does not necessitate sleeping in class.