A Pathology of Disengagement

In my opinion, one reason that kids don’t engage in our comprehensible input classes is that we don’t engage them. We get going too fast. We don’t invite them into the proceedings. We make it difficult for them. Maybe we get nervous about the method because we just haven’t got the experience we need with it yet. Some teachers trying to do CI don’t yet fully understand what comprehensible input even means. Things like that. Usually, with this form of engagement, the entire class doesn’t get it. When that happens, it’s our fault that our CI classes don’t work.

Other factors:

Some of the kids in the class rebel against our instruction. They are usually the kids trained in previous years with worksheets. This makes them lazy. They sense something they don’t like – having to listen in class.

Some students just aren’t ready to do the hard social back-and-forth reciprocal human interaction that is required for comprehensible input to work. Most students have never even been called upon to do this kind of thing in school, and they just don’t know how to do it, so they put up a mask of not understanding what we are doing.

In this second kind of lack of engagement, it’s the kids that prevent the class from working. Our CI classrooms requires them to be more human than they want to be, to show human qualities such as compassion and the ability to listen within the quid pro quo required for any CI class to function properly (i.e. according to the research).

The degree to which a comprehension-based class succeeds or fails is often determined by the number of such resistant kids in the class. Success or failure can be a function of the social makeup of the class, which can take many forms:

1) There may be something in the culture of a school that prevents the kids from interacting with us. There is a poverty of expression in some of my students. Some of the kids are mind-bogglingly incapable of human reciprocal and participatory work with an adult in a classroom. That can be traced to a culture of poverty of social interaction within the school.

2) Another kind of socially-induced pathology that we find when trying to implement comprehension techniques: in  schools where many of the kids are from a middle or, very often, an upper class background, helicopter parents often exhibit the very ugly phenomenon of putting teachers down. That message then comes into the classroom.

Colored by their own experiences as language learners when they were in language classes twenty-five years earlier, these parents, who were given the impression that they were good at languages because they could memorize verbs, take CI teachers to task in what is a true crime of education: the crime of hubris driven by parental and administrative ignorance and resultant criticism of teachers who are simply trying to align with current research by plowing new ground in a rotten field.

There are probably other examples of how society produces this pathology of disengagement, but one thing is certain. We must absolutely remember that our failures cannot be said to be uniquely our own, but rather part of a complex series of social reasons that have produced children who in some cases are uneducable and yet we have to educate them.

We can improve on the CI we deliver to our kids, and we can do so much faster if the kids are capable of opening up their hearts to us as we openly ask for their help in this new way of teaching. But we cannot reach kids who, due to the complex social phenomena at work in our nation right now, which is probably at historic highs for ignorance and darkness, cannot be taught and we should not put those failures on our own well-intentioned shoulders.

We daily put ourselves out there in front of these kids in a curious form of self-sacrifice that is not unlike what gladiators must have felt in Roman days upon entering a coliseum. Yes, it can get that bad, but only on a mental and emotional level, and it can cause many really good educators to quit the profession, which is a real waste.

To compare what we do to fighting animals is something that, in the larger space of the internet, would be interpreted as histrionic speech. And, to be fair, it’s not even the children’s fault either – they mimic what they hear. In one school last spring, I was told about a teacher ganging up with a parent on a colleague because the parent wasn’t happy about their child having to show up as a human being in class.

It’s not the kids fault, but it isn’t our fault either. In that thought lies our hope for good mental health in all the years to come in our careers, which for some of us may understandably not be very many, as the data animal comes at us from one trap door at the same time the kids described above come from us from other trap doors in the arena. These thoughts are not exaggerated. They are real and we need to talk about them, but we’re not there yet. Not enough traditional teachers have left the field yet, and many of us are still testing the CI waters to yet know the magnificence of the CI ocean.

We cannot perceive our own failures in the use of comprehensible input in our classrooms as our fault. Too many of us feel that we can’t reach kids. But what are we to do if iso many of our kids have no social skills and cannot become engaged in our classes despite our constant strivings? We must set ourselves straight on this mea culpa thing, this idea that we aren’t good enough.

It is painful to see colleagues with great talent and a natural feel for this kind of teaching being beaten down with feelings of lack of self-worth, when really they could be instantly successful if they weren’t surrounded by a bunch of wring wraiths, made so by a society no longer healthy and overflowing with vibrancy and creativity, as we once had going in America a few generations ago.

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