The Third Lap

Back in the day, I used to run Track and Field. As a long-distance runner, my events included the 800m, 4×800 meter relay, 1600m, and 3200m; but of the four, my focus was the mile (1600m). I just really liked that distance. You had to strategize for each lap: don’t go out too quickly for the first 400 meters (don’t be a ‘rabbit’!); settle into a pace the second lap; push yourself the third; and finish strong. While I have always enjoyed running, applying this formula was easier said than done. The tipping point was always the third lap. I could be cruising for eight hundred meters, but if I got lazy or in my head during the third lap, it was over.

With that history, I have always thought as an educator that our schedule of four terms, or quarters, was ironic. The pacing of the school year would seem to parallel the hundreds of miles I ran as an athlete. (Aside: For two years, I was at a school on trimesters, but couldn’t adjust! The mile has four laps, not three!) I never considered it as a student, but now in the classroom, I can’t not see it.

FIRST LAP/ TERM: Don’t go out too fast. There will be plenty of time to cover the content. It is crucial to set behavioral expectations and–for me–a friendly, playful, happy learning environment. Everyone has different styles, but I don’t want my students to be intimidated by another language. I want them to be comfortable enough in my classroom that they can fail and know they are still safe. That said, there is still a lot of academic material covered the first quarter. But I always have to remind myself to ease into it each year. Skipping rules and expectations initially is tantamount to being a rabbit on the track. No good!

SECOND LAP/ TERM: Settle into a pace. Classroom management still exists (haha), but we have developed a rhythm for content at this point. To keep it interesting for my classes–we meet three times a week for most levels–we have a rotating schedule. For example, we will start class on Mondays with a song-video in Spanish; we will start class on Tuesdays with the Floor Map; and we will start class on Fridays with a story.

THIRD LAP/ TERM: Push yourself. The winter months is where it gets interesting, where you must avoid at all costs a lackadaisical attitude. Students are making great progress; now is not the time to slide: you need them to fly! Last year, however, I felt the pull of the Lackadaisical Vortex with PK3 when, after a full semester of speaking 100% in Spanish to students, they still had not produced a single word in the target language. They were silent. And I was frustrated. It took until MARCH of that year for the three-year-olds to output anything, but it was so worth it! I just had to be patient, keep doing what I was doing, and… wait. A little longer. This lap–err, term–can be tough, though. Just keep going!

FOURTH LAP/ TERM: Finish strong. The fruits of your labor become apparent here in this last lap. Students are talking, and reading, and writing, and asking thoughtful questions, and while you may be exhausted, your classes’ progress pushes you forward. The little lightbulbs turning on give you hope. And just like in a race, when you see your competitors sprinting towards the finish line, you speed up, too. Aside: I have always loved running, but never cared much for competition–and certainly never had a strong interest in winning races. This became clear to my parents when, during a race in seventh grade, I stopped during the mile to wave at them in the stands… In my classroom, however, we always finish the year on a strong note!

These Days

Currently, we have started the third lap quarter of the school year. The 100th day is around the corner, and it is time to reflect on what students are learning. Maybe you read my Quarter Summaries–maybe you don’t. Either way, it is easy to go to cosmic extremes when thinking about language- learning: either students know nothing, or they know everything. It is crucial here to remember that that pixelated singular word is part of a much bigger picture. Learning a language takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and sustained effort. There are a lot of puzzle pieces. Simply because it takes so much time, we have to be constantly alert and cognizant of the fact that our pace might be slowing down, and then adjust accordingly.

After all, I have no patience for mediocrity! I don’t merely want my classroom to be a place rich with learning and fun–wishful thinking, a fanciful dream: no, I need it to be a fantastically magical jungle of linguistics, a fast-paced, as Dave Burgess says, “Learning Extravaganza”. That said, pacing is the key to success. We are in it for the long haul!