I can prepare food just fine - for myself. Once or twice a week I’ll prepare a larger meal and eat on it (as my grandmother used to say) for a few days. When the stakes are low (read: when I’m the only customer), I’ll take some risks, throwing in a little of this or some extra of that. It’s helpful that my palate is not terribly refined. 😂
Yet the dynamic completely changes when the customers are different, especially if they are consuming on site. Anxiety abounds when I have to make something for others to eat. I begin to doubt every skill that I have acquired throughout my life. And let’s not even discuss the angst about entertaining. 🙄
So last weekend, I did a thing: I invited some friends over for dinner. Given the potential for a freak-out on my part, I made it easier for myself and 1. invited friends who would eat anything and 2. pulled out some recipes for some easy things to make, even though I probably could have winged it. On the day of the dinner, I had those recipes out on the counter, but only consulted them when I had to reassure myself. And because they were there, I completely enjoyed the preparation process. The whole thing. I amazed even myself.
So what does this have to do with anything?
Well, I am still acquiring cooking skills much like our students are acquiring language (and study habits, if we’re honest). My assessment, like those that we give our students, was the meal I was preparing for my friends. While I was not being formally evaluated, I was being evaluated nonetheless. Yet my friends didn’t know that I was consulting a recipe (I billed the whole invite as an “experiment” too, to lower their expectations and my stress). One could say that I cheated. That I had “notes,” that the ideas weren’t “mine.” All of that would be true. And yet, the end result was the same as if I had either done it myself without help of a recipe or had the meal catered: we enjoyed the meal and each other’s company.
As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that my metaphor is not quite 💯 with respect to teaching and language acquisition, but I think you’ll get the gist: language is not a “one and done” rather, it’s a process. It’s so important to provide “recipes” (as reference, not formulas) throughout the practice process to build up the confidence so that students can then use those skills when “entertaining.” Performance anxiety is real and made even more real by society’s indoctrination of this generation of students with the idea that “perfect” is the only option. (And yeah, we’re ALL living proof that perfection doesn’t exist, so we should probably help dispel this myth wherever and whenever we can!). Done is better than perfect. Help students get their best ideas of the moment out of their heads and out of their mouths as best you can. It’s just language.
If language acquisition is truly the goal (and in my classes it is because there will be no one in the community who will be evaluating my students’ abilities to conjugate a verb when they’re chatting with them), we must create the atmosphere where the students WANT to entertain, to break bread with others and to share ideas. Set the table, so to speak. Let ‘em have the “recipes” on their desks, if only to provide some measure of comfort. If you do this, I suspect your “mealtime conversations” (summative assessments) will prove that much more delicious for all involved.