“I’m sorry.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard far too many students utter after saying something in English. In this context, the phrase rings of shame and feelings of inadequacies. It says, “what I said isn’t perfect. I should apologize for exposing your ears to my terrible English.” This is definitely not how I want my students to feel about the process they’re going through and about themselves as learners and speakers of this new language.
Benny Lewis, a polyglot from Ireland, wrote an article called “Mistakes Are the Only Way to Learn a Language.” In his article, he argues that to learn a language you absolutely have to make mistakes, and you have to use and experience the language. If you waited until you could speak perfectly before you tried, you’d never learn for lack of practice.
Although I always do my best to express to my students that mistakes are a part of the process and nothing to feel bad about, this semester I came up with an activity to help promote a classroom climate where everyone understands that learning is an active process and that mistakes aren’t negative but instead opportunities to learn.
For this activity, I purchased building blocks. (I have two nephews, so the blocks will live in my toy box in between semesters.) This is what I did:
- I divided my class into two teams. (3 for larger classes)
- I gave each team a bag of blocks and told them they had 5 minutes to work together to build the tallest castle.
- After the activity, I went through the slides shown below.
I asked my students to share out why they thought we did this activity in class. My students said things like “team building,” “to build community,” “to work together” I affirmed that all of these are certainly part of it and great ideas. Then I moved to the next few slides.
I told my students that this is the first lesson of this class. Learning is an active process just like they were doing while building the castle in their groups. If they want to learn a lot, they can’t be passive; they need to be as actively engaged as they were during the activity.
Next, I showed my students this slide to talk about the importance of building vocabulary and not being afraid to “play” with and “experiment” with the language. One thing I asked them here is “How many of you have children?” Then I talked about how children learn a language. Kids don’t care if they mess up. They just play with words. Sure, in the process they say the craziest stuff, but they have fun, and they never feel ashamed. And do you know what? They learn the language really well.
I used this slide to talk about the idea of mistakes and to reiterate the point that mistakes are a natural part of the language learning process. In one of my classes, one of the group’s towers fell down about a minute from the end, and they all scrambled to get it built up again. I won’t lie; I was secretly hoping that one would fall over, so I could use it as an analogy. I told my class that “sometimes when you’re learning, your tower falls over. That’s okay. Learn from it, and build it back up just like that group did. They didn’t get discouraged. They didn’t quit. They didn’t tell themselves they’re terrible block builders. They just laughed and kept going. That’s the attitude you need to have in this class.”
I closed out this activity by telling my students the main takeaways I want them to get from this activity. I think it was a useful community building routine that set the climate for students to take risks and be willing to engaging in the learning process.
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