Month: May 2015

Paideia Seminar and Comprehensible Input

I teach at a Paideia school, which means that my school focuses on Mortimer Adler’s philosophy that “the best education for the best is the best education for all.” I find that CI methods dovetail nicely into this, because they support the widest variety of learners. Slow processors get the repetitions they need to make meaning from high-frequency structures, and fast processors can hone in on things like how different verb endings change the meaning.

There are three pillars of instruction in the Paideia classroom: Didactic, Coaching, and Seminar. In my classes, I spend the majority of time in the Coaching mode, modeling the use of target structures through Personlized Questions and Answers (PQA), Story Asking, and reading stories and novels. To an outside observer, this might look like I am just lecturing. After all, a CI teacher does a LOT of talking! However, what I am really doing is modeling correct language and administering constant comprehension checks, building up students’ auditory and reading comprehension so that it leads to producing correct language in their speech and writing. Also, by asking them to respond to input, I am giving them a chance in a low-pressure environment to practice their target structures.

The area where I have struggled most to incorporate CI methods is Paideia Seminar. A seminar draws on Socratic-style questioning methods to guide students to a deeper understanding of an idea or a text. It is a formal discussion in which students sit in a circle and do not raise hands to speak, but rather wait for an appropriate opening. The teacher functions more a a facilitator, with the goal of keeping the discussion on-task, but not deliberately leading the students toward any one conclusion. In my school, all students participate in both weekly school-wide seminars on a particular text and in content-specific seminars. As a Comprehensible INPUT teacher, how could I expect my students to produce OUTPUT at the level that Paideia Seminar demands?

As a result, I tend to use Paideia Seminar very sparingly, deploying it only after students have already received ample input and have something highly discussible to talk about. My most successful Spanish seminar happened earlier this spring, in my 8th grade class. We had been reading Noches misteriosas en Granada by Kristy Placido, and there was an activity in the Teachers’ Guide for chapter 7 (where the mystery really ramps up) in which students had to agree or disagree with certain statements about the text and support their opinion with text evidence. Well, in the world of Paideia, we are constantly hammering “text evidence” into their brains, so I decided to use that activity to prepare them for a formal seminar. Remember, we were seven chapters into the novel, and I had built up their vocabulary previously with stories containing key target structures that I knew would appear in the novel. My students engaged in a lively debate about the true nature of the mysterious Alfonso and Soraya, completely in Spanish. The words were just falling out of their mouths, with almost no effort, even from some of my students who struggle the most and have been the most resistant to my methods! I was truly amazed at what they were capable of. One of my strategies when conducting a seminar in a foreign language is to reserve a couple of deep-thinking questions in English to ask at the end of the discussion, but these students didn’t even need them. They were fully engaged in the target language, even asking questions of their own in Spanish. The very best Paideia Seminars are ones in which students take the lead in the discussion, and I never expected that to happen in a Spanish seminar.

Their success has inspired me to develop Paideia Seminars for other texts as well. When I teach Esperanza next year, I can see a having a debate about Alberto’s role in things. (My students this year had strong opinions about his seemingly cavalier attitude about leaving his family behind.) When I teach Robo en la Noche, I want my students to delve deeper into Cecilio’s role in the theft. Do his reasons absolve him from his crimes?

Paideia Seminar is such a great tool for exploring characters and themes, and with enough CI prep, students can do it all in the target language, too!

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