What does ‘engagement’ look like?

I recently observed a typical communicative-method classroom teacher. Her kids were, for the most part, quiet and orderly. They sat in their groups (of course, to learn from each other) and got up on cue and did their “kinesthetic” activity where they walked around the room asking each other questions from a pre-printed paper in their hands, checking the answers against the pre-printed answer on the sheet. The teacher was very pleased with their performance, and rightly so: the whole thing was the very image of a perfect second-language classroom.

Except that’s not what I want my class to look like.

I am trying to instill habits, immediate unconscious responses, in my kids. That doesn’t have much to do with “working in groups”. How can a kid who doesn’t speak the language teach another kid who doesn’t speak the language, if language acquisition involves hearing correct forms that are meaningful? It doesn’t have much to do with how much (or how little) noise there is in the class. It has far less to do with whether the kids’ backs are touching the back of their chairs (yes, this has actually been cited as ‘proof’ that I’m not ‘engaging’ my students.)

How do we realistically measure engagement? I would submit that if we believe that different kids have different learning styles, engagement with a lesson will likely also look different in different kids. Not all kids are going to be leaning forward eagerly for the entire class period. But aren’t those kids who are leaning back and — gasp — not making constant eye contact — aren’t they just tuned out and not learning?

Why don’t we start backwards, and look at the results of the class?

Shouldn’t the important point in a class — the goal of which is to have kids acquire a language — be whether or not they do acquire it, not how they look while they are doing so? It is very intimidating to a non-TPRS teacher to see a TPRS classroom in action, because it is just not “controlled” in their mind. Where’s the accountability? Where’s the test?

I can tell you what each of my students can do without looking at my gradebook, because it’s not about the gradebook anyway. It should be about what they can do with the language.

If I have students achieving an ACTFL low-intermediate level of oral proficiency in Chinese after about 130 hours of instruction (and I do), I don’t care if they stand on their heads during class. And if that doesn’t fit into someone’s checklist from that outdated foreign language pedagogy course, maybe it’s time to update the checklist.

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