The Child as Unit of Consideration: Language as Learning Lab

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Language class is a perfect opportunity to teach to each child's intelligence
From the Fall 2009 Caller

By Roberto Villa

Roberto Villa in Cuba

I am fortunate to teach in a school where “each child is the unit of consideration.” This philosophical tenet, as expressed by Ruth Catlin a century ago, is the guiding principle that should govern our teaching. I confess it has taken me almost 25 years to fully understand what it means to teach the whole child, and to develop an eclectic teaching method that addresses the unique ways that our students learn. Over the past 20 years we have learned a lot about multiple intelligences, learning disabilities, and brain research, and this new knowledge has helped teachers (especially the modern language teacher) create and implement a holistic approach to language learning.

It is very common in the modern language classroom, in the process of learning verb conjugations or memorizing vocabulary, for a student’s learning style to reveal itself quite clearly. In my Spanish class I have students who are very gifted and talented, and for whom linguistic concepts come easily. Often these students move up one level halfway thorough the year. As soon as I identify them, I encourage them to delve deeper in their studies, work at their own pace, and complete alternate assignments that are more challenging. I also have students who struggle with a grammatical concept, or who find writing and reading very difficult and time-consuming.
 
At the beginning of each year I ask all my students to articulate as clearly as possible how they best learn a given discipline. At the same time I ask them to explain which teaching practices they have not found helpful, and which methods or approaches they have used when learning a second language. Being able to identify early on how each student is “wired” and what his or her learning habits are is essential to addressing all their varieties of intelligences.
 
In our language classes my colleagues and I encourage all students to meet with their instructor or teaching assistant outside of class on a regular basis, and to use all the tools and references found on their laptops. In addition, we give every student extended time on tests and on major projects, and on occasion the opportunity to teach a portion of the class.
 
If each child is the unit of consideration, we have an obligation to step outside of our established curricular practices and develop other tools that closely match the unique learning styles of a particular child. For some students, a modified curriculum is the best option. After consultation with the Learning Center and the advisor, the language student and the teacher develop a set of expectations and standards. These students’ semester reports include a brief description of the modified course and a measured evaluation of their linguistic competence.
 
In my own classes I make a point to develop an individual relationship with all my students by mid- October. By then I know who loves to chat on Facebook, who plays which sport, and what music they listen to. I encourage online conversation if they have a question on their assignment or just want to talk about class or practice the language. After all, what we teachers hope is that students will take an active role in their education and work to their highest potential—and enjoy their high school experience to the fullest.
 
Roberto Villa has been a member of the modern language faculty since 1984.