In May of 2017 I wrote a blog post about how I use passwords with my Spanish students when I greet them at the door. (To read more about passwords click HERE for the May 2017 post, and HERE for Alina Filipescu's explanation of how she uses passwords; I believe the idea for passwords was originally from Alina.)
I teach three different levels of Spanish and usually I have two or three different passwords, depending on the level. To help ME to remember the passwords and questions, and to simplify things, I taped a mini-white board outside my room next to where I greet the students with the passwords written on the board. The first day of a new password, I have it written in Spanish and in English and the following days it is posted only in English. The white board is also handy because I can write an example response to a question on the whiteboard for additional support for the students.
An excellent benefit of using password questions, is that it is an indirect way of introducing a new sentence structure (grammar) without the focus on grammar. For example, my question this week for two of my classes were "¿Que nunca has hecho? (What have you never done?). Below the question, I wrote "Nunca he viajado a Australia" and the following day I left only "Nunca he ..." as a hint for the students.
I'm sure it is obvious to language teachers that I was "practicing" the present perfect form and past participles with the students. However, the focus is on their answers and what I learn about the STUDENTS from their answers. The grammar aspect is happening at the door, but the discussion and interest level continue inside the classroom after class starts.
Friday was a good example of class discussion happening after Grammar at the Door with the passwords. Students answered the question at the door followed by a comment or another question by me. A student said that she had never eaten octopus, so I asked her if she wanted to eat octopus. Another student said he had never eaten at Chick-Fil-A, to which I commented that I have never eaten their either. Another student said he had never traveled outside of the United States so I asked him where he had traveled in the United States. Someone even said she had never gone to Starbucks.
After class started, I shared with the students the answers of their classmates and wrote a few example sentences on the board. Then I asked each student to respond to the same question again, but with a different answer. Each new answer was a spark for a new conversation, some quite unexpected. Those that teach high school won't be surprised that one student said he had never drunk his own urine. Yes, he really said that. His answer is what I view as a teachable moment and a learning opportunity. My first thought was of are news reports of people that are trapped after an earthquake or a disaster and that is how they survived. Interestingly, none of the students were derailed by his answer and one girl said it's sterile, to which I agreed. From that conversation students heard in Spanish "estérile, sobrevivir (a recycled word from a newspaper article we discussed earlier in the semester), and terremoto". (sterile, to survive, & earthquake)
When the password question is one that interests the students, the follow-up classroom discussion flows easily, student engagement happens with ease, and the language is used in a natural way - to learn about others. Students want to hear what their classmates say and they want to respond to what their classmates share. I actually ended the conversation with one of my classes because it was Friday and I wanted to wrap up an activity we had started the previous day.
I am not against "grammar". Grammar has it's place and value in conversations. Grammar naturally lives in conversations, but it doesn't live in worksheets and certainly not in conjugation charts. The more we communicate with each other, the more examples of grammar in context we hear and see. Remember, grammar isn't the star of the show, but rather plays a supportive role.