A few years ago, I stumbled upon Lance Piantaggini‘s Universal Language Curriculum. His Latin curriculum has two main parts. The first part contains two main essential questions, which are, “Who am I/Who are we?” and “Who were the Romans?” The second part of his curriculum is a heavy emphasis on high frequency verbs (You may have heard other comprehensible input teachers talk about the Super Seven or Sweet Sixteen verbs). In all of his lessons, he strives to present materials in which he uses lots of high frequency verbs and to provide a partial answer to his essential questions.
I have been working to set up my curriculum using a similar model . As a French and Spanish teacher, my first question is still “Who am I/Who are we?” but second question becomes either “Who are the French speakers?” or “Who are the Spanish speakers?” I make a point to put emphasis on speakers of the language and not residents of the country where the language originated to be more inclusive. Focusing on high-frequency verbs and the first essential question helps students progress according to the ACTFL Proficiency Scale, and focusing on the second essential question helps students develop intercultural competence.
This curriculum framework has given me the freedom to present material on almost anything as long as it answers those two essential questions in some way and includes lots of high-frequency verbs. In class, I usually have an idea of what I want to talk about on any given day, but the foundations of the curriculum gives me the flexibility to let the conversation flow to anything the students want to talk about. So while we may start out by talking about what students did over the weekend, one student may say something that sparks a conversation, and the next thing I know, we’re talking about whether or not Batman is a superhero if he has no superpowers or if pineapple should be put on pizza. It doesn’t matter, because all of that conversation still leads to answers to our first essential question (“I like Batman. My favorite food is pepperoni pizza.”).
While I do allow students to lead our conversations, I still try to steer our conversations to topics that are AP themes and that invite comparison between my students and students in the French-speaking world or Spanish-speaking world. One good theme to talk about is school. Some high-frequency verbs you might use include is, goes, does, and has. Then you’d need to expose students to vocabulary they can use to talk about what classes and teachers they have and like, school materials they need for each class, and what activities they do in their classes (verbs like to read, to draw, to sing and so on). This partially answers the first essential question (“I am a student in middle school. My favorite classes are art and science. In art, I draw and paint. In science class, we learn about the biology of plants and animals”). Then you can explore material about schools in the French and Spanish speaking worlds and start to compare their schools with your students’ school in the United States. You’ll still use high-frequency verbs and say things like they are, they go, they do, and they have to talk about students in other countries, and you’ll use we are, we go, we do, and we have when making comparisons. This answers the second essential question (“In France, students go to school for twelve years. In secondary school, they go to school for five days but have a half-day on Wednesday. At the end of secondary school, students take a test. The test is called le Baccalauréat.” Students study very hard for the test.”)
While teaching remotely, I found that I wasn’t able to introduce as many topics or structures. The same things is true now that I teach in a hybrid model. In spite of this, I found and continue to find that following a Universal Curriculum has been fortuitous. I don’t have to worry about not being able to “cover” a certain topic or structure the way I used to when I taught using a traditional grammar-based curriculum or even a unit-based curriculum. The way I see it, students will still be able to answer those essential questions at the end of the year and will have had exposure to those high-frequency structures. They just may not be able to answer those essential questions as thoroughly or use those high-frequency structures as easily as students may have in previous years. That is our unfortunate reality right now, because a magic formula to speed up proficiency just doesn’t exist. In the current state of things, I just need to remind myself that my students still will make some gains in proficiency this year, and just be happy with that.