Sometimes I feel like I am talking to a wall.

We start in on a new activity, I say "stand up and form a circle" waving my arms like a mime and no-one moves. Or we are talking about a reading and I am asking for some input about their understanding, but I stand before my board thinking "Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?"  Sometimes I feel like I am talking to a wall.

When I speak to my 3 year old in French, she responds: she nods her head, asks follow up questions, puts her shoes on, etc.. With each interaction, I am reasonably certain of her understanding.  When I speak to my classes, some students behave like my daughter: they nod and make eye contact, turn to their partner and discuss the conversation prompt, etc.. Let's call them group A. Many of my students, however, do not show signs of understanding. About a quarter of them, aren't even looking in my direction. They are daydreaming, doodling, trying to fly a paper airplane … you get the picture. Let's call them group B. Another quarter are giving the appearance of listening, turned towards me and hands free of distractions, but they do not move to start the conversation with their partner or open their book as instructed. Let's call them group C. The numbers vary in every class and with every activity, but I think the problem is the same. Group A understands the instructions and implements them. Group B and C do not.

In every class, across all subjects, I think it's safe to say that there are learners who are bored or disengaged. Who among us can say they have never been disengaged during a PD session or meeting? But I don't think boredom alone can account for my inability to connect with a greater percentage of my students. So what is the explanation?

My hypothesis is that some students in Group B and C feel overwhelmed by the speed of delivery and complexity of the message in a foreign language. But I also think that some of Group B are also a bit bored because they easily understand what I am saying and don't feel the need to pay attention fully.  So this leads me to my first question:

How do I engage learners at different proficiency levels?

I don't think this tells the full story, however, because when I speak with students 1-1, I often feel far more confident in their level of understanding. They pay attention and I speak to them about more concrete parts of what they are working on. I also frequently give them instructions one at a time and wait until they have responded to the prompt before moving on.

How do I replicate/scale up the level of engagement and comprehension that I achieve with students 1-1?

As I move into interviewing my students, I'd really appreciate any suggestions you may have as to how to phrase questions in a way that will get me some useful answers. I've used the ones on the placemat, but student answers tend to be surface level ("I felt excited/engaged during Bingo") thinking back to whatever most recent game we played.



P.S. I've been dabbling with something called  Comprehensive Input (tldr: mostly understandable texts, videos, listening activities with a lot of repetition at a level only slightly above the student's level). Doing some planning, I came across this quote and it really resonated with me, "Many times, when students seem disengaged, and when we feel the need to hurtle on to a new activity, it is because our pace is too fast, or because we are not using enough visual support, and the language is not comprehensible to the students." (ANATTY p74)

4 thoughts on “Sometimes I feel like I am talking to a wall.

  1. @hfransen Some of the best research and work in this area is being done at Havard's Project Zero . I really love some of their visible thinking routines -
    ( )

    These routines and protocols really shift the classroom and can surface some interesting data on what the students are actually understanding.

    Check out these ones in particular -

    If you find yourself in a "Buller" moment consider swapping out one of these protocols and see what happens.

    Looping in @nblair @jbairos @mwilcox @amacrae for some additional expertise 🙂

  2. I love this question, Hannah. How do we engage ALL of the learners in the room? Flipgrid has helped me a lot with this, as has having 20 mini whiteboard and whiteboard makers for quick writing tasks. We can touch base more at our next F2F. I'd also love to hear what other ideas you've tried or discover.

    As for your question about what to ask your students, here's what I asked my students last year. I'm sure it's not perfect, but it was my starting point:

    Can you tell me about a time when you had fun speaking French in class?
    What makes it easier to speak French?
    What do you need from me to help you speak French more often in class?

    Can't wait to chat more!


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