Gerunds, easy? Think again! How I dealt with a lesson I bombed, and what I learned from it

Michael A. Krallitsch, April 2012

I recently had an encounter with teaching a concept that should have been rather easy to comprehend, yet the lesson ended up dying a miserable death, and I was caught in the middle not knowing what to do. I wanted to show my German 2 students that it is rather easy turning a verb into an infinitive as noun (aka gerund). I had gone over this concept with my cooperating teacher beforehand, and she mentioned that I could show them a simple trick that makes turning a verb into a noun easy: put a das article in front of verb and capitalize it. For example, laufen (to run) changes to das Laufen (running). Sounds simple enough, right? That is what I thought, too, but apparently the students were having more issues with this than I could have imagined.

I began the lesson by going over what nouns and verbs were. The students were able to catch onto this concept rather easily, as they have gone over it multiple times before. The hardest part about teaching certain grammar concepts is that I am not sure exactly what these students know, as I was coming in towards the end of their second year of studying the language, and I was not sure what terms or concepts they had learned previously. I was not sure what word they used for noun—das Hauptwort, das Nomen and das Substantiv are words I use interchangeably—so I asked them what they were familiar with. They seemed to nod in agreement with das Nomen, so I have decided to stick with that term ever since. Once we had established that a Nomen is a person, place or thing, I asked them what they know about verbs (das Verb). Because they were able to explain to me that a verb is an action word, we had now had the tools necessary to move forward with the lesson.

I asked a student to give me any verb he could think of and then wrote that on the board. Next, I told them to pay attention to what I was going to do next, as this was important for understanding this new concept. I then put a das in front of the verb and capitalized the first letter to make it into a noun (all nouns are capitalized in German) and mentioned that that was the simple trick to understanding this concept. Unfortunately, the students were not as amazed at this trick as I had hoped, but they did understand the concept. One student decided to raise her hand and ask me why this would be necessary; unfortunately, I was caught off-guard and unable to answer this question and ended up freezing at the moment. The students could sense my uneasiness and began to tune out. Not knowing what to do, I asked my cooperating teacher, who was in the room observing me at the moment, for some help. She was able to explain that using this construction is way of circumventing the need to conjugate a verb. On one hand, I was glad that my cooperating teacher was in the room to help me out; on the other hand, this made me lose some credibility with my students.

Once we had established the basics of turning a verb into a noun, I decided to take this one step further by adding prepositions to the equation. Bei, mit and zu were the three prepositions I wanted them to understand and how they worked when using them in conjunction with a gerund. When I asked the students about changing cases when using these prepositions (all change to the dative case), they all gave me a blank stare, as if I were speaking a foreign language (no pun intended). In my studying and understanding the German language, I always learned something in terms of the proper grammar expressions, and that was really the only way I knew how to explain these concepts. Unfortunately, the students were not as well-versed in these terms as I had hoped, so the more I used them, the deeper I dug myself into a hole of confusion, and by this point they had already stopped listening to me. I saw that some students had kept on looking at the clock and others were not even following along with the notes I was writing on the board. Nevertheless, I kept on going because I was bound and determined to finish what I had started. With a few minutes left in class, I decided to hand out a worksheet that I wanted them to work on as homework, and this is what took us to the end of class.

When the bell rang, both they and I were extremely happy that the period was over with. After they all left, I talked to my cooperating teacher to see what her take on it was. She had sent me an email with some suggestions for the next time, and she also gave me some oral suggestions to use with my next class (I teach two German 2 sections back-to-back).

During the next period, things went a little better, but I could feel myself losing the students even easier than in the previous period. These students were definitely getting off task, talking with others across the room and paying little attention to me. I had to rein them back in multiple times, while at the same time trying to fix the mistakes of my lesson from the previous period. Aside from the disruptions, this lesson went a little better, but I was still having issues getting my point across clearly. After class, I had a talk with one of the girls who was being very disruptive and told her that this had to stop, because she was making it more difficult for other students to learn.

After having to suffer through two periods of misery (both for me and for my students), the only thing on my mind was, How can I make this make more sense to them? When I got home that evening, I spent a fair amount of time rewriting my lesson for the next day, making sure to spell out for my students step-by-step how to apply the knowledge of gerunds. Not only did I rewrite my lesson, but I also wrote up a worksheet that had a brief explanation of how to turn verbs into nouns, as well as a chart I wanted them to fill out and then five questions for them to answer, using the information from the chart.

The following day, I walked into my first German 2 class with two things in mind: 1) Re-teach everything from scratch, and 2) do not take more than half of the class period to do so. At the beginning of class, I mentioned to the students that what I had taught the previous day may have been very confusing, but I wanted to start over again from the beginning so that they would understand it. Once again, I started from the very beginning by going over what a noun and a verb were. I then wrote on the board a sentence in English using a specific noun (e.g. I like dogs). Then, I erased the word dogs and replaced it with a couple of verbs (e.g. I like running, I like learning, I like reading). Through this example I was able to visually point out how a verb can act as a noun. Then I drew out on the board a table that shows the difference between a verb being used as a verb and a verb being used as a noun. Something like this:

English verb German verb German verb as noun English verb as noun
to sleep schlafen das Schlafen sleeping

By showing them this visual, they could see the difference between a verb acting as a verb (to + infinitive) and a verb acting as a noun (verb + -ing). After having established this concept, I asked that the students give me a couple of examples to write on the board to illustrate this point. This time around, they were able to do so without any difficulty.

Now that they understood how to change a verb to a noun and the reasoning behind it, I was able to move on to the usage of prepositions. We went through the three prepositions I wanted to use—bei, mit and zu—and what their meanings were one by one. Once we had established the meanings, I told them that these prepositions require the dative case. Knowing this, they were able to tell me that das changes to dem in the dative case. So far, so good.

Now that we knew how to change an infinitive verb into a noun, what the prepositions mean and what happens to the article when these prepositions are used, I asked that the students help me translate some sentences. For example, I wrote on the board: I am currently learning. Since they knew that bei is used when something is currently happening, we went though each part of the sentence and translated it piece-by-piece. I is Ich, am is bin and learning is lernen. Knowing these three pieces and using bei to indicate something currently taking place, the students were easily able to come up with the sentence: Ich bin bei dem (beim) Lernen. I felt as though I had made a break-through. We did the same thing for mit (with) and zu (for). After doing a couple of samples on the board, I asked my students to show me in terms of a “fist to five” (fist indicating they understood nothing; five fingers indicating they could take a quiz on it now and get 100%) how they felt on this concept, and most of them showed me either four or five fingers. Feeling pretty confident in their knowing how to do this, I decided to switch gears a bit and show them a PowerPoint with the new vocabulary for the next chapter we were going to be starting. We spent the last half of class going through this PowerPoint, and at the end of class, I gave them the sheet I had made up for the do as homework.

When the next class came in, I was surprised to see that they were actually ready to learn and not being disruptive at all. Apparently, my talking to that one student after class yesterday must have made a difference. With all of them ready to go, I started class off the same way by apologizing for confusing them yesterday, but they claimed that they had understood me. I found this hard to believe, but they insisted that they understood this concept. Now I was stuck in an awkward position, because I had not planned on this being the case, and the re-explanation was supposed to take up half of the class period. Because of this change in understanding, I thought it would beneficial to do some reviewing anyhow. I briefly asked them about the difference between nouns and verbs, which they understood. Then I quizzed them on how to change a verb to a noun. They were easily able to explain that all it needs is a das in front and for it to be capitalized. It looks as though my lesson yesterday was not a complete wash. Since they seemed to understand this fairly well, I wanted to know what was causing them the biggest problem. One girl raised her hand and said that she was having issues with using the prepositions. At this point I decided to be very deliberate in my explanation, walking them through each preposition very slowly until they felt fairly comfortable with it. We went through a lot of examples, and we practiced translating some sentences as a class to solidify this concept.

After having spent about half of the class going over the prepositions with them, I asked them to show me a “fist to five” on how well they understood the material. I was happy to see that most of the students were showing me threes and fours (Note: this class does not catch on as easily as the other German 2 class, and they have more difficulty understanding how the language works, so getting a lot of threes and fours from this group indicates a drastic improvement). Now that we had gone over and reviewed this concept, I felt confident that we could move on to the PowerPoint. At the end of class, I handed out the worksheet for them to complete as homework.

The following day, we went over the homework for the first five minutes of class, and it appeared to me that the majority of students in both classes were able to execute this concept with ease. A couple of students actually questioned me on my answers and brought up an alternative way to write something. When I looked at the question, I realized, Yes, it was possible to write it a different way and their way was also correct. This was an indication to me that they understood the concept and were able to form their own sentences using previous knowledge they had, while incorporating something new into the mix. All in all, I think the lesson turned out be a success.

Looking back, I realized a couple of things. First, sometimes even if I think something will be relatively easy to explain, it might take a more in-depth explanation in order for it to click with them. Second, when a lesson is not going the way as planned and I begin to lose the students, it might be more beneficial to switch gears, tell them that we will come back to that and redirect their attention to something else; otherwise, they will have already tuned out, and further explanations will be in vain. Thus, in a situation like this, I myself had to regroup before I could explain it to them. Third, even though the students may claim to know and understand something—like my second German 2 class told me—a little extra review never hurts. Here, it helped to clarify some of the issues they were a bit iffy on. All in all, it was a good learning experience for me.