In the first chapter of Le Petit Prince, there are these lines:
J’ai ainsi eu, au cours de ma vie, des tas de contacts avec des tas de gens sérieux. J’ai beaucoup vécu chez les grandes personnes. Je les ai vues de très près. Ça n’a pas trop amélioré mon opinion./So I had, over the course of my life, lots of contacts with lots of reasonable people. I lived around adults a lot. I saw them up close. That didn’t improve my opinion of them.
It’s hard to live around grown-ups. For me anyway. On some deep level, when I was young and trying to decide on what kind of work to do, I think that my feeling the same way as the pilot above made me decide, perhaps unconsciously, to work with kids instead of adults.
My thinking may have been that kids are less serious than adults, less reasonable, and therefore would be more fun to work with. I just wanted to have fun in my job, I guess. So I became a teacher. Sounds silly, looking back, trying to have less stress professionally by simply avoiding the world of adults:
But the pilot in Le Petit Prince couldn’t even do that:
J’ai donc dû choisir un autre métier et j’ai appris à piloter des avions. J’ai volé un peu partout dans le monde. Et la géographie, c’est exact, m’a beaucoup servi. Je savais reconnaître, du premier coup d’oeil, la Chine de l’Arizona. C’est utile, si l’on est égaré pendant la nuit./So I had to chose another profession, and learned to pilot airplanes. I have flown a little over all parts of the world; and it is true that geography has been very useful to me. At a glance I can distinguish China from Arizona. If one gets lost in the night, such knowledge is valuable.
It’s natural that I wanted to avoid getting a real job and the world of adults. Aren’t kids the ones who can still play, who haven’t lost the capacity to laugh? Hmmm. Looking back, I now see how wonky my decision to be a teacher really was. Children have been made to become by schools serious little adults and, in a strange reversal, language teachers have over the last 50+ years have preferred teaching the language as if their students were adults instead of children.
We prevent kids from playing in our language classes. And yet aren’t languages joyful/have the capacity to bring joy? But it’s all so serious in our classes. They can be wrong and, except for the elite, they are wrong on something every day. That’s no way to teach a child a language!
All kinds of insights going on in this ramble. I now see that before I heard about Krashen and Blaine Ray (20 years ago) it wasn’t the kids whom I was teaching who couldn’t play. It was me. They wanted to play but I wanted to work. I was a teacher! I had gone to college and graduate school. I was smart!
When I started teaching at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, South Carolina in the late ’70’s, I really sucked at teaching. There was a real problem there. Only a few kids in each class could actually understand the heavy grammar – the heavenly grammar to me but it was just heavy to them.
I was a grammar teacher. I need to say it. My own professional needs were being met but over the years I began to realize more and more that my students’ needs were not being met. They weren’t learning any French, they were just becoming good editors and mechanics at the language!
I didn’t know why I disliked my job so much back then. Even when teaching to the National French Exam and when my students’ names, year after year, were usually the only names in the entire top ten list of places in the state results, that didn’t make me any happier. Hmmm.
When I taught my beloved Little Prince in level 3 to smart rich kids, most didn’t get it, because we had to use English, because all we had ever done in class was grammar, because that was the way I had been taught so that was the way I taught. They didn’t read well because they hadn’t listened to the language. A few could read it; most could not. I pampered the few and resented the rest.
When I taught AP French literature at that school, one girl got a 4 on the AP French Literature exam. But I had told her what to write. We predicted the question, which is easy to do if you create and they memorize a generalized answer that covers questions they might ask. Testing was, is and always be a game that is not ever indicative of what children really know.
That girl really didn’t know French. Off to Princeton she went, using the 4 on the exam to help sell herself to the admissions office there. She was happy about her French class. Her parents were happy. I wasn’t happy.
Now I can see that I probably would have been happier working with adults. It certainly would have been easier. Maybe not. But I think so. Hell, I don’t know. I just wanted my time spent at work to ring true somehow. I wanted to return home after a day at work feeling as if I had done something, and not faked it.
Not once in South Carolina did I have a meeting with my colleagues that satisfied me. They were all nothing but grammar teachers who had become language teachers because they had been rewarded in high school and college for their skills in grammar, for being able to do the grammar but who, like me, couldn’t actually teach the language in their classrooms.
It was because they weren’t language teachers. They weren’t language teachers any more than car mechanics are surgeons. And still to this day in many schools most language teachers are not language teachers, they are grammar teachers.
Krashen wasn’t real big in South Carolina in those years. Nobody was on board with comprehensible input back then. And to this day there is still a huge number of “language teachers” who point proudly to their storefront of grammar goodies while many say publicly that they use CI. They don’t!
To this day, those teachers in South Carolina along with their buddies worldwide are still doing the same things with the same poor results, and at the end of each year kids keep thinking that they are bad at languages. Millions of kids worldwide are trapped in this cloud of misinformation about their language capacities perpetuated by these mechanics and no one is calling them out on it. It’s insane.
I saw many of those teachers in Denver at ACTFL once, years ago, thousands of them, all over the place downtown. A voice in my heart wanted to run away from them into the cold downtown night, because they looked fake. They felt fake.
They even scared me. They scared me in their presentation rooms. They scared me in the elevators. Even their briefcases scared me. I know, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover and this is not a real healthy reaction to have to colleague, but what the hell it’s my PLC and it’s private and I need to say it.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way because I have discussed that odd feeling of distance from my “colleagues” with sympathetic members of this group often over the years. That year Bryce Hedstrom and I ended up running around in the hallways like kids because whenever we thought of going into a session something stopped us, we started laughing, and we ran away.
So for twenty-four years up to 1999 I never had one meaningful meeting about teaching languages with those people – I can’t even get myself to call them my colleagues. And those are the people who are still teaching our kids today!
I know they are doing their best and that I’m being unreasonable about this. But still, at what point does one call colleagues out for what they are doing professionally? I have some answers:
First, you call them out when they don’t align with the research or the standards.
Second, you call them out when they aren’t familiar with the research.
I defend their rights to teach as they see fit except when it is at the expense of children. At that point, when children feel as if they cannot learn a language and that it is their fault, that’s the point where I have to call them out.
I want to explain to parents in general that the reason that their kids quit their language classes as soon as they can is not because their kids are stupid but because of teachers who are not aligning with the research and the standards but with the textbook companies’ idea of what a curriculum is.
For the past 20 years I have worked with one goal – to lessen the self-doubt caused in kids when in their grammar classes they draw the erroneous conclusion that they are bad at languages, when they are only bad at grammar. A lot of people who have full command of English no little about English grammar. They don’t even need it to be fluent in English.
It is beyond sad that kids think that they themselves are fools at language when their perceived failure is really due to the fact that their teacher doesn’t know how to teach languages, just grammar. It is the teacher’s failure!
If it were about national security, they would all be fired in an instant for failing to get the job done, but it’s “only children”. The same people who tout our nation’s children as our future fail to stop the humiliation in language classes that they endure. There’s something messed up about that.
Somehow, the kids’ parents need to know that their kids’ language teachers need to change, that they don’t know any more about really teaching a language for real acquisition than a clown knows about performing surgery on a patient.
But it won’t happen that way. It will happen only when teachers who understand and can apply the research and the Communication standard and the Three Modes of Communication bring those things to their teaching. The key is in making entire departments turn.
And the patients, the kids, are not doing well. They keep dropping out. They have too many classes in which they can’t just laugh and be kids while learning. As the adults who are responsible for this really bad situation that has been going on for decades, what are we going to do? What are we going to do to learn to play and thereby really instruct our kids in languages so that they actually acquire it?
And then we have the horrible task of dealing with kids who have so badly forgotten about play (happens in the middle school years) that they turn on us, usually under the influence of their totally deluded parents, and want grammar lessons? What then? They turn into little robot asses.
That’s the hardest part of this shift that we are now in towards play and stories and laughter via comprehensible input. We are trying to unfreeze kids, to turn little robots who don’t want to become human into real people. We are trying to turn little liar Pinochios into real boys. We are trying to turn fake little Barbies into real girls. We are trying to turn kids who think that it is o.k. to cuss in class and use language that abuses people into respectful young people.
I don’t know where this is going. Just rambling. Hoping we didn’t all make the wrong decision to work with kids because the option of working with adults was an option we didn’t want. Because we didn’t want to be around “serious people”. Because we wanted to laugh a little in life and to enjoy our jobs and not have to think that life is a big serious thing with all kinds of penalties if we don’t measure up.
Speaking about not measuring up, the following event actually happened to one teacher in our group here who this past year was communicating with very engaged kids and got observed and afterwards received this from her supervisor that said this:
“Try to encourage students to answer your questions in complete sentences, students most of the time answer with actions or simple words. TPR is a great tool to teach vocabulary, but the objective is for students to vocalize that vocabulary.”