Motivation: Friday Field Trips, The Newsela Challenge and The Grammar Challenge

Given that motivation is cited as one of the keys (along with aptitude) to language learning, I’ve been thinking a lot about student motivation and buy-in in connection with developing and teaching legal English curriculum to LLM students. I’ve also been thinking about grammar and how to help students improve. So when we decided to add an additional ALDA class on Fridays this semester (and that I would be teaching it), I decided to try and tackle both of these topics in one semester-long effort.

Friday Field Trips

Each semester I’ve made it a point to devote three or so classes to field trips: One to federal court, one to state court, and one to a law firm. In the past, we’ve also done trips to the United Nations and the Court of International Trade. The students, needless to say, love these trips. But they also are a fantastic way to build background knowledge for the students. And of course field trips provoke a basis, desire and motivation for learning more.

So this semester I’ve set a schedule of one field trip every two weeks. The first will be to the Supreme Court in Queens County to visit a judge whose clerk is a St. John’s Law School alumnus. Additionally, we plan to visit both federal and state courts (to watch trials, motions, jury selection, etc.) as well as a police station, a couple different types of law firms (large and small), Queens Legal Services, and the United Nations. The biggest development, however, has been that as LLM students not in my ALDA classes have learned about them, they too have expressed interest in joining along for the Friday Field Trips. And from my perspective, the more the merrier and the better overall experience it will be.

In preparation for our first trip (later this week), in addition to studying the judge’s background information, the New York court system, and the notion of clerking for a judge, I was also able to get our alumni contact at the court to record herself talking about what it’s like to clerk for a judge. I then had the students attempt to transcribe the recording and used it to assess their listening and working on training their ears along with reviewing the concepts mentioned in the recording. I also shared the recording with my fellow ALDA professors, one of whom is focused on tort law this semester and who incorporated part of the recording into her class. (These are examples of what my Curriculum Development professor from my MA TESOL program would refer to as “mining the text.”)

In addition to the above preparation, students are also required to produce reports, initially making predictions about what they expect to see and learn, and then a post-field trip report sharing observations, insights and analysis of what they experienced.

I plan to continue this pattern of preparation and interaction in advance of each field trip to enable my students to maximize their comprehension and feel more confidence in both listening to our hosts as well as asking questions.

The Grammar Challenge

How to help students improve their grammar amidst all this field tripping and preparation? I do periodically teach grammar explicitly in response to issues I see in student writing. But there are always many more issues than I can address, and so I focus on the ones that most directly interfere with the students’ ability to communicate their meaning. Yet students generally push back against too much grammar teaching in a law school class, and with good reason.

My attempted solution this semester is modeled on the Newsela Challenge. I am providing the students with access to activities in all four levels of books from the Elements of Success series, by Anne M. Ediger and Linda Lee, published by Oxford University Press. Anne Ediger was the professor for the Advanced Grammar course in my MA TESOL program at Hunter College, and I’ve found the book to be unique in its teaching of grammar, it’s use of noticing activities, and its focus on connection to communicative purpose.

The rules for The Grammar Challenge are:

  1. Students must complete at least one section each week.
  2. They can choose sections from any chapter of any book. That is, they can work on whatever is of interest to them at the level they think is appropriate for them.
  3. For each section they complete, they gain bonus points toward their final grade in the class. Plus, the student with the most points at the end of the semester wins a book of their choice purchased from Amazon (up to $25) and a St. John’s Law School sweatshirt.
  4. They only caveat is that students must get at least 70% of the answers correct on their work to get credit for a section.
  5. But students are permitted to ask native English speakers for help with their work.

My thinking is that this way students will teach themselves more grammar than I would be able to cover and on areas that are of interest to them. This will also give me and my Teaching Assistants the opportunity to assess their grammar, identify areas where they may need additional help, and then provide that help.

For example, after the first week of the Grammar Challenge, a couple of the students’ work showed they were consistently dropping the “s” on plurals and 3rd person verbs. This is not something I would harp on in my corrective feedback on a writing assignment as there are generally bigger language fish to fry. But in the context of grammar activities that focus on the topic (ones that the students reported as being very easy), I was able to point out to the students all the instances where they dropped the “s” to make them aware as they practiced.

Additionally, it flushed out a better understanding of the student misunderstandings. In many instances, the student knows about the conjugation. It just slips their mind when they’re moving quickly, and they don’t “hear” it in their brains the way a native speaker does. In another case, a student used “is” instead of “are” because a plural noun was followed by a prepositional phrase with a singular noun (“My favorite sports to watch on TV _______ (is/are) _____________.”) Being able to identify the nuances of errors like these will help us help our students to start noticing their own grammar gaps and then address them.

This approach is not focused on specific areas of law, such as torts, business organizations, Constitutional law, legal writing, reading and briefing cases, etc. But I believe tapping students’ motivation in this way will help to efficiently fill in critical gaps in grammar and background knowledge.

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