February 12, 2011

Fun With Animal Sounds!

Пчела жужжит!

I'm having a lot of fun teaching Russian 1. First off, thanks to our tiny school for being tiny and trying to utilize all our resources. At most places it would be very unlikely that your psych prof would pop up to teach a first term of Russian language. We won't discuss how our language teachers are vetted... I think about this. My defense is I think I make a good RUS 101 teacher, and I have no pretense about being a crappy RUS 102+ teacher. I have clear limitations. So what exactly does qualify a language teacher? A language teacher for an undergraduate program? A degree in the language? Formal teaching experience? Native language skills? Fluency? A cert-i-fi-cate?

Digression #1 for Today:
Then again, what exactly qualifies people who receive doctorates to teach? I'm not sure when I realized this, but often times your undergraduate (and graduate) professors don't have any formal training in teaching. You've met them. The content experts with the "banking model" mindset. Some get by on instincts and adapting when things don't work well. But after 46 years in school and getting that PhD sometimes the ego gets in the way of hearing that you may know your stuff, but you can't communicate it well or help others wrap their minds around it. 

In terms of teaching, I did take any opportunity that presented itself to get formal teaching training in grad school -- and my favorite conferences currently are teaching-focused (e.g. NITOP.) But I also think that my clinical (therapist/evaluator) training has really been helpful and shaped how I teach... even when I am teaching Russian. I think a great deal about who helps people change, group process, human cognitive quirks, and the role of anxiety in learning.

I started taking Russian when I was in my sophomore year of high school. I was sick of French and thought the Cyrillic looked very cool. I continued through high school and decided to continue when I went to college. Please know I'm not one of those people who magically absorbs another language. It was major work and a lot of wrestling with my own anxiety. My major weakness as a second language learner is if I'm not sure if it is correct I won't say it... which means I don't practice as much and lose lots of opportunities to learn from my mistakes. A second weakness (or strength) is I can't learn by rote grammar memorization, which means I've struggled in most of my language classes. When I was in Russia studying, living with my host-parents, listening to Russian all the time -- more seemed to fall into place, and I become more adventurous. 

I forced myself to get a Russian Language & Linguistics degree in undergrad. One, after all those years in Russian language classes, why not keep going and get the degree? And two, there was a cool cross over between my language experience and my anthropology degree -- linguistics had faculty from both programs... so even though I had two different majors there was a thread to connect them. I think I was one of the first people to graduate with the Russian Language & Linguistics degree (as opposed to the & Literature degree.) Word nerds. I also made sure I studied abroad. I had to make sure that was part of my college experience for sure! It was while in Voronezh learning Russian that I was hired to teach English to the Russian students. What a great experience to be on both sides of the language learning game. Whenever I would run across a particularly anxious, quiet student in the English classroom, I would just pop into Russian and remind them that I knew what it was like and to just try it anyways.

Already in my RUS 101 class, some of my type-A students have said I teach a hard language class. I'm communication focused, and they are craving organized charts for gendered and numbered case endings. So I'm still focused on getting the students to speak and hear and build a means to communicate, but I'm adjusting the course to meet those traditional language class students a little less than half way. They acknowledged that they want to more comfortable, easier way. I suppose they can have both since they are willing to do the work. We can have the traditional charted-structure, and still be focused on speaking, listening, and responding with whatever we have available. Mime! Pointing! Communication shall be had. 

We can even digress to discuss why Russian horses say "Ee-go-go" instead of "Neigh." Or who came up with grammatical gender [?!?! Wonders the English language speaker.] Or from a Russian-speaking perspective, what is with English definite and indefinite articles (a.k.a. "a," "an," and "the")?!?

If the animal sounds in languages is your thing -- check out Bzzzpeek.com. For fun!

So for teaching RUS 101, I think I have the content down well enough, and my own experiences make me willing to be very creative in the classroom given that learning a language as an adult was quite a challenge for me. I know I will learn a lot from this experience, so I hope I'll get a second time. Meanwhile, I'm up to my eyeballs in second language teaching pedagogy books/resources and linguistics books. Having fun.

February 2, 2011

Snow Day!

Снежный день!

Greek for "Day to catch up on work"... and get behind on classes. 
  Spring Term 2011 Snow Day total as of Feb 2nd : 2
  At least I culled the email down from 132 in the inbox to a manageable 14. I should go read now.