Buckley and Davidson "AT" System Still Going Strong After 20 Years of "Full Contact" Language Sessions
October 25, 2001
Henry Buckley was advocating "point and click" in the classroom in the early 1970s, long before educators envisioned the computer revolution.
But Buckley's point and click was part of a different revolution, one that changed the way foreign languages were being taught, and the way they are still being taught at Davidson. To foreign language students at Davidson during the past 20 years, point and click has been what happens constantly during their high-energy drill sessions with upper level students known as "ATs."
The assistant trainers employed in the college's language departments learn a choreography of clicking their fingers and pointing at students to prompt them either to repeat a phrase or sentence, or transform grammatical structures. In the case of dialogue acquisition or reinforcement excercises, initially students all repeat the phrase together. Then the AT points in rapid-fire succession at individual students to command their individual response. If a student responds successfully, the AT quickly moves on to the next student. A wrong response directs the AT to another student for a correct response, so that the student who made the error can hear the phrase again, and give it another try. Once all students have spoken the phrase correctly, the AT calls for another choral response to signify success and the group goes on to the next exercise.
The clicking and pointing continues at a rapid pace for the entire 50 minutes of each AT session, and ATs are never supposed to speak English, translate phrases into English, or explain grammar. Students in introductory and second-level language classes have either two or three AT sessions per week.
"If an AT conducts the session right, everyone should be exhausted at the end of the session!" said Buckley, who helped pioneer this "Rassias Method" of extracurricular instruction with its namesake, Professor John Rassias, at Dartmouth College about 30 years ago.
The methodology they developed was enthusiastically received throughout higher education. It was so popular that it garnered funding from the Exxon Foundation, and in 1976 Buckley was hired as executive director of the Rassias Foundation to promote the instructional method around the country.
Davidson language faculty members decided to adopt it in the early 1980s after attending one of the many workshops that Buckley presented around the nation. The first group of ATs was trained by him at Davidson in August 1982, making this the 20 th anniversary of the program.
Buckley's subsequent relocation to this region has allowed him to train just about every group of ATs since then. Since 1992 he has often taught French at Davidson as a visiting faculty member, and has twice led Junior Year Abroad groups in France.
The AT method works, Buckley asserts, simply because it forces language students to open their mouths and speak. "It remains as the only method that gets students speaking," he said. "In a typical introductory class of 20 students, I can only hope to hear from each student two or three times. But in an AT session, the same student is forced to repeat phrases and sentences up to 65 times in a 50 minute period."
The college currently employs about 40 ATs, each of whom drills about seven language students in their extracurricular sessions. The Chinese department and Russian departments are using faculty members as ATs until more students reach fluency in those languages.
A professor employs about three ATs to work with the 20 students in his or her class, and works closely with those ATs to plan and evaluate their drill sessions. Though ATs do not formally grade students, they do turn in a worksheet for each session telling whether a student's performance was poor, on par, or superior.
ATs not only helps students learn languages more efficiently, they help professors be more efficient in the classroom. Professors spend class time covering vocabulary, rules of grammar, and context, leaving it to the ATs to polish a student's verbal ability. ATs are instructed not to explain anything they teach, but simply to work full-speed at loosening tongues knotted by unfamiliar sounds. "There's an old saying that if you can say a word, it's no longer foreign," Buckley stated. "Well, that's what the ATs do constantly."
Students who wish to become ATs must undergo a two-day workshop in the methodology at the beginning of the year. To demonstrate its effectiveness, AT candidates spend one session as students, while Buckley leads them in learning phrases of Greek, a language that none of them knows. By the end of the demonstration the candidates can speak several basic Greek phrases. Though they might not have a clear grasp of their meanings, their pronunciation is impressive.
Those selected as ATs spend about an hour preparing for each of their session with students. The key to their success, said Buckley, is their personal energy and enthusiasm. "An AT never sits down," he asserted. "A good AT is energetic and enthusiastic. The reason for the point and click is to give the session a rhythm, a pace, and to keep students on edge knowing that they could be called on to speak at any instant. A midwestern university's promotional poster once advertised the method as 'Foreign Language: A Full Contact Sport!'"
ATs are also supposed to be an inspiration. Since they are only one or two years older than their students, they help those just learning a language to recognize just how possible it is achieve fluency.
ATs at Davidson include many American students who have been Junior Year Abroad, as well as .some international students who are native speakers of the language being taught.
German exchange student Jasmin Bluhm works with students in a German 101 class, teaching them everyday phrases such as "After I do my homework, I am going to the movies," or "Would you like to go the concert?" She praised the current approach, saying, "The students I am working with do very well with this method."
Zeb Kelley '04 is in Spanish 102, and has had three AT sessions per week for the last two semesters. "I believe that ATs have helped me be comfortable with Spanish pronunciation and vocabulary. When we learn the meanings of new words in class, chances are, I already know how to say the word because I have heard it many times before in AT sessions."
Andy Gyves '02 teaches students in an introductory French course twice a week. "I've never taught before, but this has been a lot of fun," he said. "We were all a little nervous at first, but have become friends as the semester has gone on. They say 'Bonjour!' when they see me on campus, and stop and tell me how they've done on tests."
One of his students, sophomore Joanie Gidas, said the sessions are worthwhile, but that it's always a relief when the final bell rings. "Then you don't have to be on your guard anymore," she said. "You don't have to worry any more about someone snapping at you!"
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.