Be a producer

I promise I’ll have a real Spanish-related post coming soon! I did a wonderful cultural embedded reading before break, but I need to be back in my classroom before it’s ready to share with others. (Proper attribution and all that.)

So instead, something that has been on my mind a lot this break is the idea of production. I’ve had time to finally conquer my language blog feedly and digest some of the other amazing ideas that other educators are putting out there, as well as further explore some resources I found on twitter. There is a huge push right now for a change in the way we teach as a whole. I personally believe that the change is happening whether we like it or not due to technology, so it’s better to just jump on the next boat and become a knowledgeable guide rather than be the person stuck clinging to a sinking ship.

One change that affects the entire teaching community, not just the language community (although the communicative/comprehensible input approach absolutely falls under this umbrella) is the idea of producer vs. consumer. So many of the little soundbyte snapshots posted in my twitter feed have to do with producing versus consuming. Let’s be clear here: society has no use for a consumer except to ultimately consume them. In education, we used to be the producers and our students the consumers of our knowledge, and that worked fine. But in today’s world, if you’re someone who just consumes the content that other people produce (whether we’re talking about entertainment through tv and video games, actual consumption through material goods, or even just parroting other people’s ideas without offering any of your own) then you will struggle fiercely to accomplish the things you want to do in life. The modern job market – which is theoretically part of what we prepare our students for – no longer requires just a strong back and two hands. The goalposts have been moved on our students, and we must move our educational goalposts too.

Students, at this stage in their lives, are still mostly consumers. There is a reason that billions of dollars are spent marketing specifically towards children and teenagers. But we need to start turning them into producers, to give them the practice that they will need once they leave our classrooms and enter the working world. They need the skills to be able to produce something, anything – art, food, fashion, music, furniture, car parts, ideas.

This is why we need to continue pushing to put down the worksheets and step away from the drawn-out lectures. Those tools were fine in the past, but they do not meet our students’ needs for the future. If we teach foreign language, our students need to be able to actually speak that language. If we teach FCS, our students need to be able to cook and be able to apply nutritional knowledge to that cooking. If we teach history, our students need to be able to do more than recall rote information about events in the past. I think history, in particular, gets a bad rap with students because they don’t find it relevant. As I grow older, I find that history becomes more and more relevant because everything is so global. (As an easy example, the United States funded the contras in Central America for decades, which lead to the destabilization of the area even more than it already was. Then in 2014 we end up with thousands of Central American children at our door and wonder why.) We need to find ways to make them see the relevance of what we’re teaching, and creating a learning artifact cements the importance.

One of my new superintendent’s mottos at school this year is “more and more”. We are all doing great things in the classrooms – the question is, how can we do more? What can you do to increase the production value of your students? I’m not saying that you should never, ever give them information. After all, you need to consistently give comprehensible input for students to be able to eventually create worthwhile output. But without requiring our students to manipulate, create, evaluate, analyze – all those actions at the end levels of Bloom’s taxonomy – then we’re no more useful than Google. (And Google is free. I like to think that our value as educators far exceeds “free”.) I challenge all of us to add one student product to a class – just one class – in 2015.

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Yes All Women, and Black Lives Matter

Lately, the United States has been in a bit of an upheaval. It’s weird knowing that I am living through the ‘next’ civil rights movement. In some ways, it’s taking a different form than the fights in the 1960s, but make no mistake (not even a good one): it is happening. Gay marriage is becoming more and more acceptable. Women’s issues are coming to the forefront again. The average white person is starting to have to take a good, hard look at what it means to be a person of color. In other words, everyone is starting to consider the standard topics of any pre-service teacher’s diversity course.

I initially chose not to write about Ferguson, even though it troubled me deeply. At least I had the option – it’s safe for me to comment, because I am white. I also chose not to write about a situation that affected female gamers, that I will not name by name – it’s not safe for me to comment, because I am a woman. Besides, what could I say? I didn’t know. I don’t have any answers.

But in light of the recent #slowchatpe topic, I figured I could expand on my thoughts in a blog post a bit more than through 140 characters at a time. The questions all have to do with how we handle things like gender, race, socioeconomic status, and so on in our classrooms. And my classroom is one place where I cannot be silent.

Specifically, the topic asked about gender and do we teach our students differently. Doug (@theweirdteacher) had me clarify my position, and my answer is… yes, yes I do. Educationally, in the grand scheme of things, I think that all people of all types can achieve the same basic educational goals. There will always be people who have more talent in any given area, and that’s okay too. But to treat our students all the same is doing them a great disservice. Their life experiences are vastly different depending on how they identify. Things like sexual orientation or religion can be hidden as necessary. They flavor every action we take, but if one is careful, no one in the public sphere would ever know. But things like gender or race can’t be hidden. They’re there for everyone to see and judge.

When it comes to gender, I have a mental dilemma because I teach Spanish – a gendered language. I can’t get away from it. Some of the first words you teach in any language are boy, girl, man, woman. I have changed the way I address my students as a whole and am more than happy to use a different pronoun when asked, (what do I care if someone identifies as male, female, intersex, trans, or ungendered?) but I otherwise operate inside the binary. And the thing is, although I personally do not care one way or the other about the gender binary, asking other people to think outside that binary before they’re ready is a recipe for disaster. Because whether I like it or not, events in everyone’s lives are affected by that binary. So I do treat my male students differently than female, because by the time they are 14 or so and in my classroom, they’ve had gender roles beaten into them since the moment their conception was discovered. Most of us accept them, for good or for bad. And as someone who had approximately zero self-esteem until I was 16 or so, I can relate.

When I was growing up, I liked ‘boy’ stuff. I liked to play video games. I liked to read books with swordfighting, magic, or robots. I watched X-men and Ninja Turtles. But I wasn’t a ‘tomboy’, either. I didn’t like sports. I didn’t like to get dirty. I was the cautious friend (who had no spine so I went ahead and did all the dumb things anyway). Being a middle schooler who didn’t fit into either standard category of gender was a very rough time. As I grew into a young woman, I became more confident about my interests and the femininity of my body even though being ‘one of the guys’ made for some pretty ridiculous dating scenarios in high school. But then I was presented with a different problem: how grown men treat grown women. When it comes to teaching my students, my past experiences flavor how I perceive the world and therefore how I interact with others. I have had things happen to me, that might happen to my female students, that my male students will never experience. I can say with fair certainty that my male students and colleagues have never:

-been asked to go home with a stranger while carrying out groceries from a store in the middle of the day

-been physically picked up by a stranger because they were ‘tiny and cute, and it’d be funny’

-been followed up to the door of their apartment by a stranger asking for their name and what they were doing later, and then being called vulgar terms for a woman because they told the stranger to go away

These are some of the more extreme examples in my life, but I could name probably 10 more incidences off the top of my head without thinking. So yeah, I teach my students differently. But it also makes it easier for me to identify with people of color, even though I am as white as the Nebraskan snow. Because stupid, uncontrollable things happen to me because I am a woman, I can more easily understand stupid, uncontrollable things happening to someone because they are black. Or don’t speak English. Or are poor. Or are trans. Or are gay. It makes it easier to understand that people of color have a disproportionately high population in our prison system. It makes it easier to understand that gays experience housing discrimination. It makes it easier to understand that poor students don’t have the same systems at home to promote education. White, cisgendered men don’t have the same ease of acceptance because they are the American standard. They have to work extra hard to be sympathetic and empathetic to the concerns of others. Of course, if you’re a white, cisgendered man reading this, you probably are one of those who is asking ‘how can I help?’

In the end, we can’t break the system as individuals. Nobody cares about just me, or just you, or just that teacher over there. We have to work together. We have to fight slowly and ceaselessly. It is going to take years. We can use our words and experiences to help push our students in the direction we want them to go (that is, to be kind and accepting of all people and to understand the problems of Otherness) but I don’t feel that being ‘gender neutral’ or ‘colorblind’ is the best way. To do so ignores the rich experiences of the people around us – again, for good or for bad – and that would be a shame. But we can absolutely work to increase the number of good experiences and decrease bad experiences through thoughtful discourse like we’ve been having, acceptance, and love.

Offensive “authentic resources”

In the language learning community, and particularly in the language teaching community, one of our hot-button topics is the idea of authentic resources. The definition and usage of “authentic resources” (authres) varies from person to person. The generally accepted definition is that authentic resources are realia (videos, stories, commercials, whatever) taken from your language/culture of choice and not from the textbook. Some people believe that you should teach only using authres. Others, like myself, believe that authres is just another tool in the toolbox. Then there are others on the complete other end of the spectrum who feel that authres is often not comprehensible input and therefore should be discarded entirely.

But this isn’t about the usage in the classroom. I’m very much live-and-let-live. If a person is happy with their program and feels like their educational tools are working for them, great. The part where they say, “there’s got to be a better way and I need help” – that’s when I step in.

This post is about something that’s been somewhat stuck in my craw ever since I became more active in the language educator community, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it until the lovely Carrie Toth made a post on her blog, Somewhere to Share, earlier this month. (You can go read it first. This is a blog. My words can wait.)

Her first point in that post gave a shape to my discomfort. Something that really bothers me about the hardcore authres-only no-teacher-created-materials position is that the argument discounts all non-native speaker teachers. I try not to take things personally in the teaching world, but this argument is like a suckerpunch. It demeans me. It undermines me. It dismisses all the work I put into learning my second language, especially considering I learned it in the US school system, where we learn bits and pieces of every single culture and dialect of Spanish in the world rather than just the single environment a native speaker grows up with. In English, I am a hardcore grammarian. I am one of those people that, when I learned Spanish, was terrified of sounding stupid. I couldn’t carry a conversation with even the most basic confidence until college because I didn’t want to mess up. It’s also tough for me because I don’t have the vocabulary in Spanish to express myself in precisely the same way I do in English. I am very sensitive to my ability to produce Spanish, even though I’m sure every other non-native speaker has the same fears that I do. Do I sound stupid? Do they know I’m really just making up this word and hoping it’s the right one? Are they going to care that I always put the accent in the wrong place when I say difĂ­cil? Probably not.

The problem with immediately discounting materials created by non-native speakers is that it basically says that my Spanish isn’t authentic. My Spanish isn’t real Spanish, it’s gringa Spanish. I’m just a faker. But when I speak it or write it, and native speakers can understand and respond, isn’t that authentic? The argument pokes at that little doubtful hole that is already large enough thanks to my own nitpicky brain; I don’t need other people to make that hole bigger – even though I am sure it’s unintentional 99% of the time. When the majority of language teachers in the US are non-native speakers of the languages they teach, making the argument that only native speakers can offer useful or meaningful teaching materials is a hurtful statement to non-native teachers as individuals and our programs as a whole. It is discourteous to the non-native speakers who spend their precious free time creating materials for everyone to use in the classroom, whether it’s as simple as a blog post or as involved as a novel.

In the end, this isn’t a call to arms to abandon the idea of using authres in teaching. It’s a call to recognize that non-native speakers can offer authentic language experiences too. Just something to consider the next time the authres argument comes up.