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November 9, 2015

Let's talk about Thanksgiving for a moment.

First, think back on everything that you have ever done to celebrate or teach about the holiday in your World Language classes. Got a mental list? Great.

Now, think about why you decided to do each of the things that you have done in the past.

If you're like me, your list consists mostly of vocabulary-related activities that you did because they were fun and an excuse to celebrate something in class. I probably thought that it would be helpful for my students to be able to know Thanksgiving vocabulary so that they could talk about the holiday, too. But mostly...if I'm being honest with was easy to just give my kids a word search or other vocabulary activity and call it a day. Lots of kids are absent during the Thanksgiving "week" of school, anyway, so I didn't want to waste my time coming up with anything that moved us forward in the curriculum. And, well, sometimes I just like to be lazy. Who doesn't?!

Over the last week, I feel like I have been doubting and second-guessing and questioning a lot of things that I've done in the past. Nothing too major--don't worry, folks, I haven't read any new research that shows that there is a better way to learn language than through Comprehensible Input! Just "the business of school" stuff, I guess. I'll be writing about a few of them as I can find the time, but for today the topic is Thanksgiving.

First of all, Thanksgiving vocabulary? Come on, Martina. When will my students ever find themselves in a conversation with a native speaker in which they need to describe their family's Thanksgiving celebration?? It certainly won't be when they are Novice speakers. Maybe someday in the distant future after many more years of language study when they find themselves in a study abroad, living with a family in the fall semester and spending Thanksgiving with the family. But other than that, I think the topic will go untouched. So why have I wasted class time making sure that my students know the words "turkey" and "stuffing" and "mashed potatoes"?

Okay, well I could give my students a reading in the target language about Thanksgiving. This has some potential if I make it about the input and not about the content. Again, I don't really care if my students are able to explain the history of the holiday or even how their family celebrates it. What I do care about is them being able to talk about anything they want to at any time because they have a strong "core" of vocabulary that allows them to do that. So if I made sure to use high frequency vocabulary in the reading, like "goes to [someone's] house", or "comes to my house", or "eats with family and friends", or even "watches TV/football/etc"...well, that's great because my students are getting repetitions of those high frequency structures. More repetitions = acquisition! You could read it together and then personalize it by discussing what students do with their families, and if you have been careful to center the reading on high frequency structures, then your discussion will allow for many repetitions of them, as well. Just remember that the value of the discussion is in the core language, not the topic-specific language--so circle judiciously!  I've never done this, so if anyone out there has something that they'd like to share...please do!

Next possibility: personalized class discussion about thankfulness. When Carol Gaab asked during a session at NTPRS this summer, "What is your goal for your students this year?" (um, I don't remember the exact question, but it was something like that). Is it for them to read a novel? To get through [#] chapter in [x] textbook? To perform as Intermediate-Lows on the ACTFL Proficiency Scale? My goal was for students to learn Spanish and how to be nice people. This is one of the things that I love most about TPRS®. If you spend any time as a casual observer in the various virtual TCI forums that are out there, you will see that students' mental, physical, emotional, and social well-being is our priority. Strategies like Bryce Hedstrom's La persona especial or Ron Wilber's Happy Un-birthday help me to work toward the two goals that I've set in place for my students simultaneously: my students learn Spanish and they learn how to be nice people. They learn how to celebrate, care for, and respect each other. So having a conversation about gratefulness around Thanksgiving...well, that seems like a best practice idea to me. Here is a  quick list of skeleton sentences that include high frequency structures that you could use as a basis for your discussion:

A great strategy to use when you do a discussion like this is to have students draw a quick illustration of their response instead of just throwing it out there. It will give you something concrete to talk about, and it will hand-deliver circling "shadows" to you (things that are NOT the answer to your circling questions). Another option would be to throw some poster paper up on the walls and have students spend 5 minutes at the beginning of the class period filling them out, like I wrote about here. You could even have them write or illustrate their response on a sticky note and make a bar graph on the board, but forcing a math activity on students when we're talking about gratefulness seems a little contrived.

I don't think that it's a waste of time to focus a day or two's lessons on Thanksgiving. I do think that it is too often a waste of time--especially looking at my track record! Most of you know by now that I am home full-time with my kids, now (I don't want to trick you into thinking I am a full-time teacher, so I try to say it a lot!), and I guess I would want the same thing for my students as I want for my kids. At home, I'll probably do a Thanksgiving project or two because it's fun and I have many hours in the day to fill. You don't have that luxury. But what I really want for my kids is for them to understand what gratefulness is, what it looks like, and why it matters. This is a skill that we work on all the time, and Thanksgiving is a great excuse to give it a special focus. Now that's a lesson plan I could stand behind.

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