I’ve actually never read a comment like the one reproduced below, and the reason that that is a big deal to me is that over the past 15 years here there have been over 70,000 comments, so this is a rare one! It’s from Carly (Oct. 25). What she wrote represents in my view a breakthrough in the sense that the idea of looking at classes as being different from each other, with different kids in them, and so responding to them differently is just new, and very welcome, bc I think that if we can undo the ‘one-size-fits-all” mentality in our buildings, we will take yet another big step forward in this work. Here is what Carly said:
I remember how I had to fill out forms that detailed what I was going to teach in class that day. I should have just written that I was going to use the language to try to build community, so that I could address the standard of Communication.
But I couldn’t just teach Communication – the people I worked for expected me to teach French in the same way that my colleagues in the building taught math and science. But that is certainly not what the research says about how people learn languages!
I worked myself into a frazzle for twenty four years in South Carolina before moving to a middle school in Colorado where, thanks to Susan Gross and Blaine Ray, I found the treasure of comprehensible input instruction (then in the form of TPRS) that instantly brought me a relative degree of joy in teaching.
Back in the old days, when I used a traditional curriculum, it just wasn’t any fun. There wasn’t a shred of feeling of community. There was the small group of the smart ones and me. Classroom management was spelled b-0-r-e-d-o-m for those students not in the grammar club.
It is the very lack of ACTFL’s providing teachers with ways to implement a curriculum that leads to the building of community – real human communication – in my classroom that caused me, over many years of teaching, to feel somewhat crazy all the time. I wanted to communicate with my kids instead of just delivering instructional services, but I didn’t know how.
In those early days I had to work too hard. I had to plan everything. I had to teach everything about the language without being given a fraction of the time necessary to do that. And so in my efforts to gain the approval of my supervisors I favored the few in spite of my instincts that it was not the right thing to do.
Our national parent organization, ACTFL (the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) says on their website that “the ability to communicate with respect and cultural understanding in more than one language is an essential element of global competence.”
It may be true – global competence may be a worthy goal – but doesn’t such a statement aim a bit high for what most of our students in their young and difficult lives can practically accomplish right now?
Global competence? Even if we could bring our students to mastery of the language in the short time that we have them, which we can’t, if students don’t even know what it is like to be a member of a classroom community, how can they can hope to communicate with respect and cultural understanding on a global level in the target language? Doesn’t sound very possible to the vast majority of our real world students on a practical level.
If a child feels that they are a valued member of a classroom community, they will acquire the language.
But many kids haven’t the slightest idea what being in a classroom community even means. It is due to the fallout from being in schools, where building classroom communities can’t compete with the teacher’s need to teach the subject matter, and no blame on the teacher.
But communities are built on language, exist only because of language, so we are in a different galaxy from other subjects in schools. So we are charged with the responsibility to find ways to uplift our students and, by teaching interesting things, draw them into the community. You can’t order them to do that.
How to speak to our students in a way that uplifts? It’s so simple. First, we must of course speak so slowly to them that they understand effortlessly (Krashen). We know we are doing this when it is painful for us to speak that slowly – because when we speak so slowly that it is painful for us, then it is not painful for them to listen. (We are the ones being paid, not them, so the pain of the communication process should probably be on us anyway.)
Second, we must learn to speak to our students in a kind way, in a way that conveys two messages to them simultaneously, that (1) they are safe, and (2) the fact that they are sitting in the classroom with us is important. (We accomplish this partially via the Student Jobs aspect of the Invisibles program.)
How to build up damaged kids so that they are happy members of our classroom communities? How to make our students want to be in our classes and slowly, via trust in us and in the way we are teaching them and in their peers, become productive members of our class community?
The strategies – OWI, all the Reading Options, the Word Chunk Team Game and the other strategies in the soon-to-be-discussed Star Sequence curriculum – indeed do a lot to automatically build community, but what about the skills we need to also build community in our language programs? Let’s talk about a few of those:
Clearly, the case being made here is that shame plays a major role in preventing real communities from forming in our classrooms. What to do about it?
In my view, the best way to neutralize the effects of shame in our classrooms is to offer a superior, feel-good and strongly inclusive community building curriculum (see definition of curriculum offered above).
The One Word Image/Invisibles curriculum literally paints the shame out of our classrooms with positive strategies that succeed almost without effort, because the starting points for this new curriculum are not (targeted) word lists but (non-targeted) images that instantly grab everyone’s interest.
What kind of shame do our kids experience that prevent community from happening in our classrooms?
(1) Testing shame is a big one. High stake testing starts in elementary school, which is outrageous, and it is this testing that by high school is so out of control that it represents perhaps the biggest impediment to building community in our classrooms.
(2) Peer shame. Do I need to go into that one? ll I need to say is “Instagram” or any other social media word and it’s clear. If we’re teachers, we get it. Alisa said here recently: “The shame is coming from all fronts – the constant Instagram posting and commentary can’t be helping these kids… some seem afraid to do anything independent or different for fear of the online response.”
The isolation that we see in some students plays a tremendous role in preventing them from making strong and observable gains in the language.
Therefore, a focus on building community is just as important as one on comprehensible input when developing best practices in our field. In my opinion comprehensible input and building community are now the left and right hands leading us to higher levels of instruction.
So another focus we can have this year is how to build community in our classrooms. (My deeper mind is yelling, “Just use the Invisibles!” and I agree – it’s that simple!) But let’s warm up for that in-depth discussion of the Invisibles (will happen later on here) by discussing the concept of community in general terms.
Sean Lawler wrote recently that we all have our moments where we speak in English at length about whatever comes up that is just too interesting to not talk about in English. I think this helps with the long block, especially for the older kids.
Here’s an example English tirade we went on: We had included Serena Williams as a character in a mini-story. A student, Chelsea, who was putting her head down in class a lot that day, starting talking, in English, about how Serena married a white man and recently had a baby. She just started talking. And like a river running around the rocks, I flowed right into the conversation. We talked about Serena, her image as a black woman, etc., for over 5 minutes. Then I remember looking at the clock and thinking, “Could I finish this story and do a little fill-in-the-blank with sentences about the story before the bell rings?” I had to move quick, so I jumped us back into Spanish. I know Chelsea struggles with her own feelings of self-worth. I’m sure she feels more valued when we entertain conversations in English like this.
I am happy if, at the end of the year, I have used “only” 50% of my available instructional minutes in the TL that year. It means I was building community. ACTFL is all stuck in their theoretical heads on their 90% position statement. That puts the language in a position of greater importance than the kids and distances them from us. The Chelseas are why we are in the classroom, not the language. I applaud you, Sean. The discussion about Serena was important to her development as a person.
*Because I need 10,000 hours to get a kid to mastery, whereas even in a four year program, given 125 available instructional hours each year X 4 years gives me 500 hours or 1/20th of the time I need to get them where I want them. So by doing 50% of the time in the TL that year, only giving them 1/40th of the time needed, or in a good class in a good year, 1/30th (factoring in all the time for announcements and calling role, etc.), how big a deal is that? 1/20th of the time needed to get my students to mastery is what I have, so what difference does it make if I only have 1/30th or even 1/40th (50% of time in the TL). Our job is to make them want to learn more and feel good about themselves as language learners, not to get them to fluency. The 90% position statement is bogus. And they put on boring conferences. Back to the point – teachers who try to cram all the CI they can into a class are hurting themselves and their students. It’s not about teaching the language, it’s about being in community and preserving our mental health and, less importantly bc all we can really do is take care of ourselves first if we are to help others, that of our young charges.