Teachers gather in Breckenridge for cutting-edge language training
Ryan Summerlin July 19, 2012
The children were given props on Thursday – a hamburger hat, an empty pizza box and chocolate – and instructed in Chinese to relate to the objects in certain ways: point to one, hug one.
The kids all responded to the instructor’s directions, and quickly. They were easily able to pick out the sentence “I want to eat hamburger” from a board filled with Chinese words and sentences, and when asked in the foreign language if another student was good-looking, responded right away, laughing after the instructor gave the subject fake arm muscles before asking again.
These children, it was clear, understood some Chinese. And while that’s impressive in itself, it’s the time-frame in which their level of comprehension was obtained: only three days.
The students – many of whom hail from Summit County – were attending the language labs at The International Forum on Language Teaching, a three-day conference held at Breckenridge Elementary this week. While the students were able to benefit from the event through their two-hour labs – besides Chinese, there were classes for Spanish, French and English language acquisition – the days were really meant for grown-ups, the teachers who sat and observed in the back of the room while students were led by “master teachers” known locally and nationally.
The adult attendees were there to learn more about the techniques of Comprehensible Input, a second-language teaching method.
“Input is listening or reading to something you understand. It seems so simple. It’s not simple,” said Summit High School Spanish teacher Leslie Davison. Davison, who also works at Dillon Valley Elementary, is the one who brought the method to the school, and then the district, about eight years ago.
“Most people think, ‘to get better at Spanish I need to talk more.’ You actually need to listen more, you need to read more,” Davison said. “Once you’ve established meaning … you need to hear the word 60-160 times.”
Davison points to the case of the Chinese instructor, who kept repeating the same words – like “hug,” “look” and “give” – over and over and over to the students. But she tried to make it interesting – she used the props, and tried to relate the words back to the children themselves, like with the arm muscles.
“The more personable you make it, the more compelling, the more you acquire it,” Davison said.
Summit County student Anna Mathis, who was in one of Davison’s classes at Dillon Valley, was in the Chinese class Thursday.
“It reminded me of how fun it is to start a new language, to get better and better, and feel that pride of knowing another language,” she said.
Her friend Cassidy Bargell also had a lot of fun in the class, but noted that it was a little hard at times to not mix up her English, Spanish and now Chinese.
Davison helped bring the conference to Breckenridge, which she said is “a huge deal.” While there were many Summit School District teachers in attendance to learn, there were more from all over the state and country. The learning labs took place in the mornings, followed by the children’s departure and then attendee “de-briefs” with the master teachers, where the grown-up students got to pick the masters’ brains. In the afternoons, there were presentations by the visiting experts, including Stephen Krashen, a renowned expert on the teaching method.
The attending teachers feel like they’re picking up more skills to use in their own classrooms, said DVE principal Cathy Beck.
“(They’re) very excited by what they’ve been able to watch and gain,” she said. “It directly impacts what we do at DVE every day.”
Dillon Valley fourth-grade teacher Betsy Buerk was in the elementary beginning Spanish class for the second time Thursday to observe the instructor. Buerk liked the repetitiveness of that particular teacher, and how she broke everything up.
“She’s been really good for me to see,” Buerk said.
The whole conference gave attending teachers a chance to see that interaction, “watch the discipline and see how fast this really works,” said Summit High School French and Spanish teacher Susan Mocatta. “Because these kids are learning fast.”