Are We Just Spinning Our Wheels?

I don’t know about you, but the deeper in I get, the more untenable classroom instruction in foreign languages looks. I am not sure that classrooms of 35 work. Are we just spinning our wheels? Should we keep trying to figure this stuff out – how to best teach languages in classrooms?
(These are just random thoughts I woke up with. Don’t get weirded out by them. It’s a blog! I like to do a little reality check from time to time. Just using the blog to think, to clarify – the real reason this blog exists, quite frankly. It’s like journaling for me – that’s it. So if you are reading to find some kind of truth here, forget it.)
I know, I know – it is hubris, to talk like that, to imply that schools simply don’t work. Nonetheless, I absolutely wonder if a classroom of 35 different individuals with different learning styles and different motivations and different parenting (a huge factor) and different levels of intelligence and different social skill ability levels can, in fact, work. Are we just spinning our wheels?
Not only that, but we’re the only target language speakers in the room. And if we give them L2 related technology, it turns into an English fest. I’m not talking about what Duke does with technology, songs, etc. – as long as the class is focused together that is one thing. But, sorry to say it, but if I had more information/research at my disposal, I would pursue on this blog an investigation into the use of technology games and such to teach languages.
Does the use of technology games and such in the classroom produce CI or does it produce bullshit CI? We, not machines, are ultimately responsible for what our kids learn. This is especially true in languages, which are human things. (Like Dr. Krashen said – “Robots can’t converse”.)  Use of internet sites and technology to provide supplemental education to motivated kids outside of the classroom is great, but I’m talking about using machines in classrooms to keep kids busy and/or to make the teacher look like they are up with things here.
I know. We’re told to differentiate. Forget about it. I don’t think differentiation can work in language instruction. Why? Because when we separate kids by ability level and get different groupings together and then we get that particular top spinning and walk over to a second differentiated group and get that top spinning, and then a third and a fourth and a fifth top gets spinning, by then the first and second and third and fourth tops have stopped spinning.
But all they are doing – when they get the English rolling behind our backs – is being kids. Why this pollyannish belief in differentiation in languages? Probably because the administrators who talk it up aren’t the ones who have to implement it. People who merely theorize about teaching should one day be made to actually teach, so that they can finally learn what that means.
It’s kind of like the big cooperative learning thing of twenty years ago. The theorists came up with the idea of placing kids of  different ability levels into one group of four and get them working together. Has anyone seen any research on how that worked? Hell, I don’t think it worked at all. Straighten me out on this. Am I wrong?
Am I being overly pessimistic here about whether schools can actually work? Am I off base? Duke called me a control freak the other day in a private email. He suggested that if we just let the kids go free with songs and gutteral sounds in the classroom, they will learn. I disagree. Corky disagrees.
For a moment, I bristled at the idea that I am a control freak in the classroom, and, whenever I bristle, I immediately ask myself what is true in what I heard. In this case, I don’t think anything is true about it. Anyone thrown into a classroom, in order to survive, would have to immediately be perceived as, to some extent, a control freak.
But what is in our hearts? I am only asking this sweet question to my TPRS colleagues here. I don’t care what others think. I only want to hear from those of us who have fully drunk the Kool Aid and who, as a result, are now experiencing careers of incredible emotional change. I am only asking this question to those who, in spite of all, keep to Krashen’s vision because they know it is far superior to anything every thought of thus far in language acquisition.
I know what is in my heart. I have, deep down, an undying, spiritual kind of deep love for the grandeur of learning, for the greatness of humanity, of, especially, France. I have a deep desire to never FORCE this love upon anyone, but, instead, to make a living simply by making it as joyful as I can (this is Krashen’s real discovery) in my classroom. It only looks like control, Duke, when you’re visiting me at East. It is an unavoidable persona that you see there without which I cannot teach.
So, what about all this? Are we spinning our wheels? What about differentiation? And, in the larger sense, what about our daily struggle to share our love of the language and culture we teach with kids? Can we do it? Are we doing it? Or, as long as there are 35 kids with
different learning styles and
different motivations and
different parenting (a huge factor) and
different levels of intelligence and
different social skill ability levels

are we just lying to ourselves? It’s a real question, folks, so answer it by commenting below. And don’t forget, October is a bitch month. The honeymoon of August and Septmeber is over, the sociopathic monsters have begun to emerge, and we have a long hard winter of seemingly endless days in front of us.
So let’s keep the faith. Maybe not the faith that what we are doing will actually work, but the faith in each other, that here we are having somehow ended up serving kids who are suffering and so, no matter what, we must continue to do so, as patriots.
We must continue to serve our country, because America is in critical need of public servants who know what they are doing right now. Let’s continue to try to make our schools work even if they cannot work. Isn’t that the game?



14 thoughts on “Are We Just Spinning Our Wheels?”

  1. Just a thought on differentiation… I amy be a bit off the mark here, but I always saw what we do in a CI based classroom as the most naturally differentiated instruction around. We teach based on the expressed needs of the students in front of us, using those “barometer students” who may be very engaged, and are interested in “how to say stuff”. These are generally not the 4%’ers that are intrigued by grammar, but students with open minds and hearts, who are willing to play with us in this beautiful language. There may be students outside of the parameters of this, but I truly see our (relatively) natural language development as self-differentiating, as opposed to having three different versions of “exercise one…”

  2. What a great point that should be made. And, in fact, we do reach a ton of kids in the way you describe. My rant above is aimed more at those who would have us separate the class into pieces because doing so is currently viewed as part of the overall term, “best instructional practices”. That is not true in foreign language classrooms, in my opinion. Rather, what you describe, the way you describe it, is real differentiation. And we do it. Thank you, Cheryl.

  3. No we are not spinning our wheels. If we truly believe in diversity that means we believe in giving the jerks a chance as well as the model students. And being in control of a class is more than just dominating the jerks too; people naturally work harder at becoming comfortable than becoming better. We can motivate, we can model, we can encourage, but everybody–especially ourselves–need to go through the growing pains of learning how to hold ourselves to high standards in a real world setting.
    I sometimes comment to my wife that my personality has changed since I became a teacher. We were at my son’s Cub scout den meeting the other night and I had zero problem turning around and shushing some giggly girls behind us who were talking over an awards presentation. I used to worry how I would be perceived, now I’ve conditioned myself to see a need and say something without putting it through the “will I come off wrong” filter.
    And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m so grateful I did the early grunt work of contacting parents as a part of setting expectations and enforcing standards, because I have a bunch of kids that have responded very well to that (even though it took three weeks or so for them to become consistent). And now among that group I can see who is really trying to change (most of them) and who are just thumbing their noses at the system (for me only one kid, thankfully, and he moves onto Bryce’s alternate learning plan on Monday).
    So yeah, we are teaching socialization as much as we are a language at times? Bring it on. Our kids need models of how to negotiate change over time rather than just ideals and motivation. Control for control’s sake is a major problem. But they know when you’re working in good faith and paying them the complement of seeing more in themselves than they do themselves.

  4. Hey Nathan, if what we’re doing is teaching kids first and language second, socialization has to be part of what we’re doing. I took what Jennie showed me about teaching manners on food day (because we won ice cream on a spirit day challenge) and wow! has that particular class ever become snappier about etiquette lately. I’ll never do a free-for-all food day again!
    While I’m on this tangent, one more comment: I got to teach one part of PA where Susie has taught me to add in life lessons (if you’re alone in an airport, whom do you ask for advice?) and then I learned that our incredibly young (26), incredibly successful football coach (we took state for the first time this year) does a life lesson at the end of every practice. He’s teaching kids first, and football second.

  5. Yeah if I see a parent being mean to a kid in a grocery store I am ON IT. It’s good. Teaching socialization skills. O.K. here’s my next question. What percent of language teachers do that? I mean, for TPRS to work in our classrooms, we HAVE to do that. But the language teacher who belongs to the 99.9% of language teachers who do NOT do full time CI in L2, and so don’t really need for their kids to “show up” and interact with them in class, except in fake textbook ways, how many of them even have a format in which to teach this all important life skill? If nothing else, Nathan and M, you reaffirm my faith in our work by your comments above. We combine the academics with the socialization training in every moment of our classes. Those two things are not separate in our classrooms. I don’t think too many language teachers can say that. It is a unique thing, a thing of the future, a thing that announces the arrival of real adults in classrooms.

  6. Hi Ben and others.
    Spinning our wheels? Maybe. But it’s the hand we’ve been dealt in order to make this country more in step with the 20th century. I was on fluencyfast and saw the citation about more than 80% of europeans being able to have a basic conversation in another language. How motivating is that?? We have a lot of work to do and I have no doubt we are using the best methods possible to get us there.
    Just think of how confident your kids are about a) being able to use the language b) knowing that a second language isn’t just possible, it’s downright easy! We’re changing the future public perception of language learning in this country every day!
    I have a new principal this year. She is convinced that by focusing staff’s attention on 2 things a) a 10 minute bellringer focused on reading or writing and b) building meaningful relationships with kids, we will see results of up to 10% increase on our standardized tests in the spring. I believe it and I would be scared out of my pants if I were still teaching the old way. As it is, I can already share personal information about 25% of my kids.
    Control Freak:
    I feel I know where Duke is coming from. I’ve had similar thoughts when reading what you’ve wrote, Ben, about discipline. But, here’s the thing for me. It’s about student success and learning. The bottom line is the kids won’t learn as much if we don’t insist. It’s a fine line and last year I got down in the dumps because I started to see myself as a control freak – I was trying to control them for me. Not for their learning. This year, I keep reminding myself and them that we need this environment to be able to accelerate our learning as much as possible. It many times diffuses confrontation with jerky kids who want to get your goat. By turning it on them. “Look, I’m not asking you to be quiet, I’m telling you to be quiet. And not for me, but so that I can help you and your classmates acquire as much X as possible in the little time we have together.” I think we always need to keep student learning in the forefront of our minds and remember the environment matters. I always remind kids that learning should ‘feel easy’ but that what I’m asking of them, to listen the entire hour, is damn hard. No other teacher expects that of them in my building.
    On Public Service:
    Damn right. We are public servants if we are in public schools. We are shaping the future of these United States and attitudes about world languages always seem to be an indicator in adults of other social and political beliefs. Our job is to educate the public – whoever walks through the door. Whether we teach level 1 or level 5. It’s downright unethical, in my estimation, to think that we would be able to select who takes our classes. Of course, it is problematic. It’s far easier to say “get to chapter 9 so I can start there”.

  7. “…it’s downright unethical, in my estimation, to think that we would be able to select who takes our classes…”.
    This is The Big Shame of many of our colleagues over the years, who have only allowed certain handpicked kids – usually white females – to go to the upper levels. There is no defense of it. Nothing they can say about the make up of their upper level classes can defend what they have done. No, it is not about “language ability”. I completely agree with you, Grant. If we can help in altering who goes to the upper levels, and if that is all we accomplish, then all of what we are struggling with now will have been worth it.
    I also really like what you say about our classes being one of the few in which the kids are required to listen the entire hour. (That is why I absolutely require one brain break in every fifty minute class and two in block classes.)

  8. Yeah, I go for three in my block classes, one to the drinking fountain, and two “descansitos” where the kids just kind of relax, toss a ball around, listen to some music, chat, whatever. The former lasts about 3 minutes, while the latter last about 1.5 minutes. Sometimes, if we’ve been relaxing the teacher-driven CI a bit that day, I will skip the mini-break, as their break has been included in “something different”.
    To the original question posed, “Are we spinning out wheels?”, I think yes to a degree. Now I do not disagree with anything Grant or Nathan or M said about what we do in classrooms, and that socialization is a part of it. Every human being is socialized, will be socialized, must be socialized, no matter what. It’s a law of humanity. But is that saying we cannot have better socialization outside of our school walls (by “school walls” I mean the institution of compulsory education), that we cannot have better L2 learning outside of our school walls? To me, that is what the Ben’s question is asking, but perhaps I misinterpreted it.
    I do not see any reason to believe that humans cannot learn without extrinsic motivators, outside of our school walls. I do not see any reason why humans (even kids) cannot be socialized properly (insert your definition of “properly” here) without extrinsic motivators, outside of our school walls. In fact, what we see is that when extrinsic motivators (grades, dilly bars, etc.) are used to motivate kids to learn or do something, their intrinsic motivation in that activity declines (See: Punished by Rewards). To me, this is a problem, bigger than whether or not we are teaching here and now a better method of language instruction. It’s a temporary band-aid. It’s like throwing a handful of rocks under the wheels, and getting all excited when we hear something grab for a split second.
    Is this change going to happen anytime soon? Probably not. All that (most) parents (who were once students too) are concerned with is if their child is passing their classes, or getting A’s, or whatever. Never do I have a parent sit down at P/T conferences and ask if their kid is acquiring a love for languages, or if they are acquiring the skills and know-how to leave the building in X number of years and be able to teach themselves the language, or any language. I’m not saying nobody does that, but it’s not what matters IN OUR SCHOOLS. Can we change that? Hmmm. Maybe. But first we have to recognize that extrinsic motivators used to as a compulsory measure to get kids to be present somewhere is a BIG elephant in the room.
    In my opinion, what we need is a renaissance of education. Ok, I’m being idealistic (as a colleague in the science department likes to put it). But I’ve seen something reminiscent of this renaissance. It exists here in the town where I live. It is a small arts “school”, a non-profit enterprise, that has expanded 3X in the last 3 years. And it most certainly doesn’t have grades, tardy bells, or any other measure that schools use to break young humans. But it’s an “after-school” deal. You know, where kids can go after they’ve learned everything they need to know for life.
    Sorry if I am sounding a bit cynical. You might wonder why I still choose to teach in a public school. Well, honestly I wonder that too sometimes 🙂 But I remind myself that I don’t know everything (as I may pretend sometimes) and right now school is where I have work, where I can be a part of kids’ lives, where I can share my love of languages and tolerance of other peoples. I’m guessing that’s why most of us are where we are right now. That doesn’t mean I can’t see it for what it is though. (See: Weapons of Mass Instruction)
    And you might be surprised to walk into my classroom and discover that I demand a strongly disciplined classroom, with No English as a big rule, and require kids’ attention while I am speaking. Well, I don’t think things would work in my setting without it, as I’m sure most of you can attest. Like Grant puts it in his classroom, “Look, I’m not asking you to be quiet, I’m telling you to be quiet. And not for me, but so that I can help you and your classmates acquire as much X as possible in the little time we have together.” If they’re going to be there with the demands and restrictions put upon them and us, we might as well be making sure it is an L2 learning environment for those who WANT to be there.
    I do, also, agree with Cheryl, that what we are doing in our classrooms is more in line with DI than most other methods of instruction in any discipline in schools. We are in essence mandating differentiation, by mandating that kids slow us down when they do not understand, by mandating that they give us their unique, personal responses to questions.
    Sorry for the long rant. Thanks for permission to do so here Ben.

  9. My experience as a language teacher, in both public and private settings, tells me that we have to socialize kids more in public schools, partly because they’re cooped up, usually in individual seats (Cold War no sharing era), and SO unfortunately, in the large classes you mentioned. As long as we vote for wackos who want to strangle our infrastructure, including public schools, financially, we will have to teach them how to be respectful, good humans. And I think it’s a good thing that we can educate them not only to love what we love about our subject area, but also how to care for each other. But the typical physical setup, rows of desks in big classrooms, commands almost an “I” and “You all” rapport with a class.
    This year, due to opening a new school and shifting away from graded 6-8 middle schools toward separate 6-7 and 8-9 buildings, we ended up with very small class sizes with fewer than 10 students. I realized I had to gather them together to teach around a table, as is done at the Concordia Language Villages. This physical shift from rows to a table (the Stammtisch in my German immersion classroom…the Stammtisch is the table reserved for locals in a restaurant) shifted the rapport to much more of that of a group learning together and being guided by me. The table sits in the middle of a former science room, and I spent my teachers convention time making SIGNS (signs are good to have up) and setting the space up with a reading area (die Bibliothek), ein Museum, ein Theater, ein Fernsehstudio (TV-studio, where the internet is projected), eine Sporthalle (where we play basketball, thanks to a Dale Crum workshop), and my workspace, Haidplatz (my favorite place in Regensburg). I’m PQA-ing a content/culture-based curriculum based on the handbook from Waldsee, the German village of CLV in northern Minnesota, which is diverse and includes songs and games. In such an environment, the conversations we try to elicit via PQA becomes quite MEANINGFUL, especially in small groups, a la: “Fritz, do you want to sing at the Stammtisch or at the Theater?” and “Maria, Fritz wants to sing at the Stammtisch today…do you want to, too?” I noticed much more immediate comprehension and meaningful, natural interaction, not only among the students, but among “us.”
    I wanted to teach my students about the Bavarian origins of Carmina Burana, a great 20. century choral work by Carl Orff, often heard as background music in ads and movies. They (7th graders) listened to part of it via youtube, while looking at googlemaps photos of the monastery in Benediktbeuren, where the secular texts originate. It was an authentic and meaningful background to our much less sophisticated PQA, “Would you like to see this/travel here?”
    Kids learn by playing, and this type of setup really encourages this. If you can, use your imagination and try it!

  10. Jim my feeling, and the reason I consciously left the private school arena years ago, is that private schools divide communities along economic, racial, and idealogical lines, which to me is un-American.
    Private schools suck good young new teachers in, pay them nothing, which puts into peril their retirement and their quality of life, and waste valuable years when they could be doing the real work of working in the democratically supported public institutions that are now so vital to the healing of our country.
    Bernie your statement that
    “…kids learn by playing…” is so much in my mind these days. What does that look like? How does it play out in our classrooms? As long as the teacher is in charge of the instruction, is that playing? Or does the presence of a teacher preclude real learning play on the part of students? I don’t know, but I hope this nascent thread about kids learning by playing develops here. I am poised and ready to make some changes, as per Duke.
    Grant to answer your question, I do brain breaks much like Jim. Laid back periods are of great value to me because I can visit with kids I don’t know very well, or shoot a few baskets with the kids, just hanging out for three to five minutes. I can’t believe I made it all those years without these necessary breaks in class, necessary not only mentally but also emotionally.
    I don’t have to work so hard anymore. The arrival of CI and the new brain research is teaching me that. Who would have thunk it? Teaching is meant to be pleasant and fun.

  11. Ben, here are some examples of playing so far today:
    Due to a camping trip, only one student showed up in my immersion classroom today. So we played this awesome game, Malefiz, which is made by that game company with the blue boxes, Ravensburger. The first thing she asked was, “Where is Ravensburg?” From several trips leading students, I’m very familiar with this gorgeous medieval town in Schwaben (Swabia), so I could very honestly and excitedly say, “Ach, Ravensburg ist sooooo schön (beautiful)!! Willst du Fotos im Internet sehen?” So I went to googlemaps, and found lots of beautiful photos to look at, while constantly circling “Ach! Ist das nicht schön?” or “Findest du das nicht schön?” or “Ist dein Haus auch schön?” I almost forgot about the game we were about to play.
    When we got to the game, I double tasked, by making a simple “language tips” poster to be placed later on the wall in the Spielhalle section of the immersion room. It included phrases such as: “Wer ist d’ran?” (Whose turn? it translates as “who is at it?”), “Ich bin / Bist du? / Er/Sie ist.” As we were playing, my student teacher and I were constantly using and circling these phrases. Only a few minutes into the game, without any purposeful utterance elicitation on my part, Marianne (I’m using her German classroom name to protect her identity here) began to join in the conversation, using the poster herself to check the meaning of what she was about to say. We will play Malefiz with the larger group (9) that meets on even days tomorrow.
    Playing at the other middle school, in which my classroom still has rows of individual desks (I’m working on a more immersion-isch arrangement for regular sized classes this afternoon) took on another form. My German 2 students had prepared skits (shopping or restaurant, their choice) for presentation today. But we gave them the added challenge to “insert a funny problem somewhere into the skit by only editing 2-3 lines…think of it as a Puzzelspiel.” This produced LOTS of fun PQA, happy chatter and giggles, followed by some of the most creative skits I’ve ever seen. They also played with the funny clothes (one prize in the collection is a genuine rabbit fur coat–it’s even made in France–that I found at St. Vinnie’s or Goodwill a while back). Those places are great sources for cheap, fun clothing to enliven your classroom!

  12. I have a few thoughts, too. I confess that I feel like we are spinning our wheels. Most of it comes from the fact that education is compulsory and lacking in real experience. It spends a lot of time talking about the world, rather than being in and experiencing the world. We are a little better because of our focus on CI, but I think that the location of our position is misplaced. Idealistically, we belong in a language school. While our students acquire a significant amount of language it is not even close to what they could acquire outside of the school setting. Students would learn more language in a language school setting because it is centered around intrinsic motivation, not a requirement .
    But let’s be real. We will always have a compulsory system because it makes so much money for corporations and our government, not to mention it accomplishes the task of dumbing down our society. Since our compulsory system will continue, it will always need people like us to teach a World Language. That doesn’t mean it has to be all doom and gloom. We can make a difference in our students lives in this system by being a light. I just don’t agree with the system and what it ultimately stands for. We just have to recognize the system by calling a spade a spade and decide who we are going to be in the system. If we don’t like or believe in the system, it may be time to find another job. If we want to be a light in the system despite it’s faults, we have to know what it is and realize it’s influence on our students in order to truly make a difference in their lives.

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