So after a lively #langchat discussion tonight, you would think I’d be out of thoughts to think.
You would be wrong. I always have thoughts to think!
One thing that has been sticking in my craw lately is how hard we are working to make our students successful. (And by ‘we’ I am referring to the group of teachers that follow #langchat, are pushing for proficiency, so on and so forth – regardless of our personal beliefs.) Current hot topics include learning in the language vs. about the language, grammar vs. communication, vocab list or no. We are falling over ourselves to create the best curriculum that includes real-world proficiency assessments with topics that interesting and relevant to our students, using videos and music and anything we can find to get and keep them hooked.
What I have yet to see be addressed is… what happens when they’re not hooked? It seems to me, at this moment, that the best way to teach foreign language is to use rich vocabulary, attend to grammar when necessary, actually use the target language, and be enthusiastic. I am a huge fan of Benny Lewis’s blog Fluent in 3 Months. He is very clear that he is a language learner, not a linguist – but he wasn’t always one. He took numerous languages throughout his compulsory and university educations, and even lived in Spain for 6 months… but still couldn’t communicate in an immersion situation. Now he speaks more languages than you can shake a stick at. How?
A mixture of vocabulary, studying grammar when not knowing something interfered with communication, and plain old hard work.
Benny lists a number of excuses that we language teachers probably hear on a daily basis. I had a student today try to convince me that 4 year olds were smarter than she is. Really? Kids who are barely potty trained and you think they’re smarter than you? This sets up my argument for this post.
Let me give you a short tale of two classes. I have two sections of Spanish 3, juniors. For some weird reason, our junior class is ENORMOUS. Most of our graduating classes hover around 25 students; the juniors are over 40. And due to some scheduling limitations, it never fails that when I have two sections of a class, one has a higher general proficiency level than the other. Most of my 6th period students are solidly intermediate-mid, pushing into high. The high flyers in that class are frequently nudging into advanced low. My 8th period class mostly hovers in intermediate-low, with a number of them still floundering in novice-high in numerous areas. (Which is kind of ridiculous, considering I have more than a handful of Spanish 1s who I would consider novice-high.) So what’s the difference? I only have two juniors with IEPs, and they are on-target with their learning goals, so that’s not it. I have an even mix of males and females, so we can’t claim the false excuse of ‘Girls are better at language than boys.’ None of my students are heritage speakers or have native speaker friends. I teach them all the same way… sort of. Obviously, I have to differentiate and bring my lesson plan’s goals down a bit for 8th period and coach them through much more vocabulary. So what gives?
With a little reflection, I am fairly certain that the difference is not me. We all have students who will soak up every drop of language, regardless of our technique. But we will also have students who only do the barest of the minimum to get by. Some of them just don’t care, and no matter what crazy teaching technique I use, I can’t reach them all. It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s a reality I need to be at peace with.
However, I don’t think laziness is the entirety of the uninvolved student puzzle. I also notice that many of my 8th period students have far lower self-esteem than their 6th period counterparts, even though they are equally able to complete tasks. They shut themselves down before we even get started. While working on interpretive skills with some handy videos from UT Austin, they were finished before I pressed play on the first exercise. ‘What? We’re going to watch videos in Spanish??’ [As if we never do this.] ‘You want us to understand what they say?’ [Yes, that is the purpose of this exercise.] ‘But they talk so fast! I can’t understand anything!’ [Yes, that is why we are doing this. We’re practicing so we get better at understanding native speakers.] I made the choice not to tell them that we were actually working with advanced-level videos, though I told my other class. 6th period feels energized and empowered by knowing they’re handling a task that is a challenge. 8th period throws up their hands and claims stupidity, even though I know it’s not true.
So I guess it is my worry that we teachers are going to burn ourselves out, spinning our wheels to reach students who are only taking our class because it beats taking business law. They have no interest in actually learning the language and are those unfortunate students who stop caring about education at an early age. It goes without saying that my 6th period also tends to have parents who place an emphasis on education and are more involved in their children’s lives. We can try to interest the uninterested students as much as we can, but they have to make the choice to put in the effort it takes to become proficient. For these students, technique really doesn’t matter because they’re not invested in the first place. They have to be the ones to put in the time, to make themselves respond in the TL, to seek out other sources in order to go above and beyond what we can fit in our tiny little pockets of language during the school day. I truly believe 100% that we can make students proficient in basic skills (intermediate-mid or higher) in our 2-4 years with them in high school. But only if they’re willing to take a chance with us. To do that, they need to believe in themselves first.