Chapter 63: Imperfetto vs. passato prossimo

It’s Saturday morning. November has just passed. An unexpected rain in San Diego has freshened the air.

Next week is the last week of the semester and my Italian 100A students got stuck with a huge nut to crack: learn the imperfect, the pluperfect, and present perfect using reflexive verbs. To top it off, they’re trying to study for their comprehensive final next Saturday at 8am. They’re tired and angry as their other professors are piling up material in all of their other classes. It’s incredible how little professors know about teaching and learning!

It’s a good thing California hasn’t passed any gun possession laws!

So, I sit here brainstorming. How can I pull off this stupid assignment for the week and get my students to succeed? More importantly, I don’t want them to lose their love of Italian that I have cultivated in them from day one of the semester.

An idea mi viene in mente immediately. When I was a high school Spanish teacher in the bowels of rural Illinois, I taught all three past tenses at one time with no problem. Best of all, my students didn’t even know it they had learned all three tenses!

In my intermediate Spanish class, I had two times of bored and restless students: jocks and cheerleaders. After failing miserably to teach through a textbook, I threw the textbook out the window. I bought some copies of El Vocero, a Miami-based newspaper and soap opera digest in Spanish while visiting family in Chicago.

I gave students the choice: read sport’s articles about the Cubs and the Cardinals or a summary of their choice about the week’s action in The Young and the Restless. I asked the jocks and the cheerleaders to summarize as best as possible their article’s content. Because of prior knowledge and interest in sports and soap operas, they had little problem deciphering every article’s main points. For the rest of the semester, we read dozens of articles, designed for native Spanish speakers.

The students were pumped because they could read real newspaper articles while enrolled in second-year Spanish!

Then—came grammar time, and they didn’t even know it. I asked them to pick out all the examples of the preterite, the imperfect, and the pluperfect. They had no trouble at all recognizing these tenses. However, in past years, when I made them memorize all the conjugations of all three tenses, they failed miserably.

The key message to some of my moronic language teaching colleagues: our students can read an unlimited amount of sophisticated text in all the past tenses–if we focus first on comprehension and reading enjoyment.

The focus on immediate and forced production leads to memory overload and frustration. Memory overload and frustration lead to pissed off students. Pissed off students lead to the weakening of language programs. Let production come in later years of language study. If five years from now our students can successfully read anything they like in a second language, haven’t we done a great job as language teachers?

Next week, I’m throwing the textbook out the window like I did as a high school teacher, but I’ll have to find a classroom at San Diego State that has windows.


About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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One Response to Chapter 63: Imperfetto vs. passato prossimo

  1. Excellent teaching strategies!!

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