Learn to leverage a language instruction circle in 20 minutes

By the end of this instructional video you will be able to:

  • Plan for a circle in your classroom using materials and ideas for activities ready-made for you
  • Build community in circle with your students
  • Engage in supported communication with you students

I first learned about the idea of the circle as community-building through Developmental Designs, a curriculum developed through a non-profit called The Origins Program. The method endorsed daily circles in homeroom or advisory. Using the circle as an approach to build community acknowledged that students can only learn when they feel safe in their relationships with teachers and other students. Developmental Designs tells us that relationship building doesn’t happen unless structures are put in place for it by teachers. Currently, many educators are using Restorative Justice circles. I found that when my students are familiar with sharing in a circle, there is a level of comfort that helps make it work in language class.

Using circle to promote language proficiency has a similar yet different intent. In the World Language community we hear from Stephen Krashen, a linguist, that language is best learned in low-anxiety environments. The community building brought about by circle facilitates trust and feelings of safety. Later, through the work of Darcy Rogers and the rest of the team at Organic World Language (OWL), I saw World Language best practices added to the circle, for example using the target language for instruction. Since OWL started giving workshops in 2009, I have seen other language teachers take the circle and make it their own. There is a lot of support out there for you to build your own practice of a language learning circle. My goal is to get you started and then hooked and next leveraging your own circle!

Classroom Mechanics of an Interpersonal Assessment

I am slowly building towards making Interpersonal assessments work well in my classroom. The reason why I have kept at it in spite of it being a struggle is because the Interpersonal mode is central to learning to speak a language. When I attended French class with Karen Girondel at Lexington High School in Lexington, MA in the 1980s, Gigi (as we called our teacher) made it look so easy. She would get us talking about what interested us and we wouldn’t even notice we were working! Seeing that I don’t have the same natural skill as Gigi, I have had to work at it. Back in the day my students did skits at the front of the room for a grade. More recently my students have had real world spontaneous dialogues that were recorded and I would take home to laboriously evaluate.

Interpersonal assessments build on information leaned in Interpretive assessments and the information students gleam from each other during Interpersonal assessments can be used in Presentational assessments. In this way assessments are truly integrated around a theme. I give Interpersonal tasks as a chance to explore culture from the learners’ point of view. Middle School students like to talk about themselves and the world around them. Taking about their own culture, my novice students gain the tools to later talk about cultural comparisons. An Interpersonal task is the chance for the student to use the new vocabulary and structures to talk about his or her practices and products, i.e. culture. I see speaking about perspectives, which is the third component of culture, as a later skill for intermediate and advanced speakers.

group chat

Image :University of Maryland School of Psychology

On Thursday, October 29, 2015, at the annual convention for the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association I attended a session given by Dawn Carney and Rebecca Blouwolff and it was there that I got an idea to bring me a little closer to meeting my goal. Rebecca has a classroom management strategy that is genius. Break the class into thirds, have one do the Interpersonal assessment with the teacher, one do a reading and one do what she calls a fluency count. A fluency count is to have the students challenge themselves to write as many sentences as they can in 10 minutes. Rebecca’s management works better that what I have tried in the past because both of my solutions, recording pairs or taking turns two by two at the front of the room, were time consuming. The station idea is also better because a small group is a true conversation, not a back and forth dialogue. Conversations permit students to think while others are speaking. They offer a natural asking of questions and building of ideas, not a tennis match of expressing the same or opposing opinions back and forth. We will be building on what we already know, but in a more open-ended format.

To get each student to speak, Rebecca gives each one five jewels and puts the jewel container in the center of the table. As the individual speaks in a full sentences he or she ads a jewel to the pile. The teacher evaluates the contribution to the conversation real-time based on a rubric that promotes speaking in complex sentences, accuracy, listening carefully and helping move the conversation along by asking questions. There isn’t one way to do an Interpersonal assessment, but today I learned a very good way that corresponds to how I teach. I am getting there.