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Meet Michele Whaley, PNCFL Nominee for ACTFL Teacher of the Year

September 18, 2016

This year’s PNCFL Nominee for ACTFL Teacher of the Year is Michele Whaley. Michele is a 30-year Russian-teaching veteran in the Anchorage School District in Alaska. She is the both the first Russian teacher and the first Alaskan teacher to take the stage as a regional finalist for ACTFL Teacher of the Year! Michele is also the reason that you are reading this blog--the only reason that I know anything about comprehensible input is because I observed Michele and she took me under her wing. She is the most kind and genuine person that I have ever met, and I am so glad to call her a friend.

This is the third of five posts featuring the regional nominees for ACTFL Teacher of the Year. To celebrate Michele, please leave a comment on the post with a word of encouragement, a connection that you share, or something that stood out to you while reading her responses to my 10 getting-to-know-you questions!

Why did you decide to become a language teacher?

I have always been fascinated by what makes people learn to communicate, what helps them acquire, whether they’re babies who are kicking their feet as they take conversation “turns,” or polyglot adults who speak all the languages in regions that surround their own. Additionally, I felt that I failed miserably as a young (high-school) language learner, and yet I was fascinated by languages. I wanted to find ways to make language acquisition work.

What is your favorite memory as a language learner?  

My favorite memory is when I was an adult language student in Russia. I had been struggling with imperatives in the classroom, and was nervous about having to ask someone to repair my shoes. But first, I had to find the shoe repair shop, somewhere behind GUM (on Red Square in Moscow). I asked a woman, who gave me rapid fire directions to the shop. I was hoping I could both remember and follow her words, when another passer-by approached me and asked for directions to the same spot. I repeated the same three sentences I had just heard, and then was able to follow her as she set off at a run for the store. I was very proud of my achievement: being able to hold those words in my head long enough to repeat them accurately.

What is your favorite word in your target language?

One favorite Russian word is dastaprimechatelnosti, because it has been my students’ favorite word for decades. It means “important sites (in a city or nation),” and students seem to learn it immediately because it rolls off their lips right away, even when I don’t ever ask them to say it. Their joy in “eating” the word has passed on to me.

What do you love about teaching?

I love so many aspects of teaching that it’s very hard to answer this question. One of the rewards is when a student recognizes achievement in acquisition. With a comprehensible input approach, students often do not appreciate how much they are learning, because while the required attention and focus is rigorous, they are acquiring language unconsciously and it takes time to recognize their growth. When they suddenly realize the satisfaction that comes from true acquisition (as I did in the example above), it’s wonderful. Even a solemn high school student or an adult learner in a parent Russian class returns to the state of a young learner: proud, enthusiastic, and excited for more.

Describe the best professional development that you have experienced.

Again, this is a very difficult question to answer, because in the last twelve years I have had an overflowing cup of great professional development. But what got me started was a week at my first NTPRS conference, when I realized that as a Russian teacher, I could employ the same techniques that others were using to achieve great results. More importantly, I found a community of teachers who worked from a philosophy of teaching students language, rather than teaching language to kids. Suddenly, I knew how to have a better connection with everyone in my life, including students. I love using Russian to get to know the kids in my classes.

Share one of your favorite memories from class.

Years ago, I found a song called “The Stallion” in Russian, in which a chorus of Russian sailors backs up a rock group. “The Stallion” brings to mind visions of the wealth of the endless Russian steppe. I was using it to teach verbs of motion. It became an anthem that first year, and I thought that would be the end of the song, because I stopped specifically teaching verbs of motion. But students still wanted to sing it the next year. Even though we had many songs that different classes liked over time, and all the others varied from group to group, “The Stallion” was a hit every year since. I love the song too. It is beautiful, slow, melodic, and powerful, and I wish I knew what makes it reach so many different populations. The memory I have is that any time I have started “The Stallion,” for the first or the twenty-fifth time a class has heard it, a reverent hush falls in the room. Soon, voices join in. I have to turn away because tears fill my eyes.

Who has made a great impact on your teaching?

Many colleagues have made impacts, really too many to name. Two who stand out are Laurie Clarcq and Susan Gross. Susie models how to be “in the moment” with a student, even in the midst of a large class. I had always wanted to get to know my students, and I was lucky enough to spend three different weeks with Susie, watching her connect with people in different languages. Susie taught me that every single person is fascinating. Laurie Clarcq added to that lesson with her ability to support and find the good in every person. Laurie signs off her posts “With love,” and she means it. Laurie and Susie have made it possible for me to have a bigger teaching heart.

What is an area of teaching in which you would like to grow or improve?

I would like to improve on my use of props. There are many ways to use props to improve comprehension, to startle, to surprise, to enliven and expand a lesson. I have a giant box of puppets, and I’ve just interrupted answering these questions to put them in the wash so that I can start pulling them out at the right times. But puppets aren’t all there is to props. I also want to be more creative in letting students direct the creation of props so that they feel the added ownership in a lesson.

Why should your language teaching colleagues in the US consider joining ACTFL?  

ACTFL is simply the best resource we have as language teachers, with everything under one umbrella. The ACTFL website alone has a wealth of information that I go to first, including the proficiency guidelines, Can-do statements, training for the APPL tests. I wouldn’t have met Bill Van Patten or Judith Liskin-Gasparro (for instance)  if not for an ACTFL panel on educator training. I wouldn’t have learned about research outcomes that I wanted to explore in my classroom if not for the Annals. At ACTFL conferences, I have learned from teachers from across the nation and around the world about technology, reading, comprehensible input, proficiency guidelines, and much more. I’ve met colleagues who teach online and in every kind of school. I’ve gained professional opportunities just by walking through the exposition hall and talking to vendors. I live in Alaska, so ACTFL is my link to the pulse of what is happening in language acquisition.

And finally, since this is for The Comprehensible Classroom...What is one strategy that you use to provide comprehensible input to your students?--

One strategy I use to provide comprehensible input is to break a text into a very short, comprehensible summary. I make sure that the students understand that summary in different ways (visual, kinesthetic, and so on) before I expand it to a ever more complex versions. Laurie Clarcq and I call this strategy “Embedded Reading,” but a “text” can be visual or auditory, so it could be a picture, a film, a song, or a poem as well as a short story or even a novel. Once students are solid on the main concepts of a piece, embellishments will be easier to understand. And once students realize they can understand a text, their love for reading grows. As Susie Gross says, “Nothing motivates like success.”  

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