Broken Record Technique – 2

There is another point to add here, not touched on in the first Broken Record Technique article

but critical to the discussion. The teacher in her initial email to me said this:

their child is one of those children who is very bright but obstinate and tries to get away with doing the least amount possible and always looking like they have a chip on their shoulder. They think they are exempt from ‘playing the game’. They are also at the heart of the group of boys in my other classes to commit so many micro acts of disrespect and inappropriate behaviors and comments, but they themselves always seem elusive and to dance around the boundaries, not quite hitting it head on for me to write up….

To summarize that point, and bear with me since it is just my read on the situation, the child does not want to become a part of the community because he doesn’t know how.

That’s at the core of this situation, which had to happen just as a fire needs but a spark to set it off. This teacher has been dealing with this snarky little group of boys all year, of which the child in question is a leader, and now it’s time for the teacher to finally right the ship in her classroom.

Why does this student have a chip on his shoulder? It is because he has suddenly – probably for the first time – been asked to behave like a human being and actually show up in this Spanish class in a human way, in a way that demonstrates his willingness to share in the reciprocal, back-and-forth way that languages – not other subjects –  require, as expressed in ACTFL’s Communication Standard.

This boy has excelled by memorizing, but he can’t now. The gig is up for him in this teacher’s CI classroom. This student has been asked to from the beginning of the year – and he has failed – to interact with this teacher as an engaged  listener. He knows because his teacher has made it clear all year that he is being required to interact not in a robotic way where he is merely fed information that he memorizes for the test.

Now, he has to actually interact with his Spanish teacher in terms of the Communication Standard and he just doesn’t know how to do it. He has resisted it all year in the way that certain robotic people resist growth at the heart level, at the human level. So, for this child, his Spanish class is a lot more than just another class; it is a scary challenge to let his guard down and embrace a true growth mindset.

The wonder child who has never been made to sweat anything in school, who is so “gifted”, who has been told that he is brilliant just because he is great at memorizing things for school, has been outed. Seen in that light, we can easily grasp now why this teacher is under fire from the parents. If they really hear what the teacher is saying to the child about how learning occurs in her language class, the entire charade that these parents have built around their child’s intellectual capacities, so sadly robotic, would crumble, so the teacher has to be blamed.

This teacher has finally called this child’s bluff by asking him to stop with the memorization meal ticket and interact according to ACTFL’s Three Modes of Communication. That is because it is her job. The child, confronted since the beginning of the year in this class with something new, something requiring actual interpersonal communication, now in this class requires a higher E.Q. and not a high I.Q., as per the point already made that language acquisition is far more about social interaction than memorization.

I might interject here that the vast majority of language teachers have been able to get away on this E.Q. vs. I.Q. point themselves, which is a scathing indictment of the current state of our profession. These old-style teachers teach for memorization of verb forms, lists, etc. but they can’t anymore. If TPRS has done nothing else, it has brought to light the research that exposes teachers who teach like this in this hyperbolic cartoon:

On this point, let’s discuss what this Spanish teacher is asking for from this student in terms of an article written in France about 20 years ago:

The Art of Conversation

This article first appeared in The Big CI Book (2014). I repeat it here because it is so critically important for language teachers to know what their real goal in class should be – simple conversation, and not “teaching”.

I have said many times that you cannot teach a language; you can only share pleasant conversation with your students, from whence derive the immense gains in proficiency when you take trips around the Star with your parents.

There is a French term, “L’Art de la Conversation” – leave it to the French to label conversation as an art form. But isn’t it true? Shouldn’t we be trying to converse with our students in our classrooms instead of teaching them about how the language is structured?

The following two passages (my translation) are taken from

(1) “Conversation differs from other forms of interaction (interview, debate, symposium, negotiation, consultation) by its familiar, improvised and free nature: nothing that make it up is decided in advance and it has no other permanence than its own practice, it is divorced from any planned outcome. Its principle motivating force is pleasure.”

(2) “Conversation is made up of a linguistic tissue thanks to which the members of a community not only communicate on a daily basis, but also guarantee their membership in the group. Through conversation, the individual constructs his social place in the group.”

The passages say that conversation:

1. has a familiar nature (i.e. people who converse are familiar with one another)

2. is improvised (i.e., not forced – it is made up as it goes along)

3. is free (i.e., is not limited in scope to any predetermined idea or scripted text)

4. has pleasure as its goal (i.e., we enjoy the conversation first and foremost) as per this quote from Stephen  Krashen: “The path of pleasure is the only path. The path of pain does not work for language  acquisition.”

5. is made up of linguistic tissue (i.e., the target language)

6. guarantees a person’s membership in the group (i.e., building a classroom community is key to what we do  and we need to do it consciously.)

The passage reveals things that we would do well to think about while trying to put CI into our classrooms:

1. We shouldn’t try to force our students into conversations.

2. Our communication in class with our students should feel as if it has a familiar nature.

3. Our communication in class with our students should feel improvised.

4. Our communication in class with our students should feel free.

5. Our communication in class with our students should feel pleasurable.

6. Our communication in class with our students should feel that it is made up of an unpolluted linguistic  tissue – the language we are teaching them – and not some mix of English and the target language.

7. Our communication with our students in class should guarantee their place in a community.

Have we ever actually been in a conversation with our students, however simple, in the ways described above? Has that ever even been one of our goals – to communicate in meaningful ways with our students that guarantee their membership in the group? Do we even speak in those ways with other adults? Is just enjoying conversing with our students enough or do we also have to worry about the test? Do our conversations guarantee our own membership in the group? Do our conversations bring us the happiness of meaningful communication with others?

Personally, my goal as a language teacher has always been to be able to just relax and communicate with my students by using interesting and meaningful, relaxed, agenda-less language.

A lot of us have probably had that goal. We’re tired of trying to force kids to learn rules. It never worked.

Can you see yourself teaching in a natural and lighthearted way where the conversation uplifts everyone in the room, even visitors? Can you see yourself standing in front of your students interacting with them in a back and forth, reciprocal, participatory sharing of meaning that reflects the ground-breaking research of Lev Vygotsky over 100 years ago?

The point of these two “Broken Record” articles is now clear and the conclusions that any right-thinking educator, including this kids’ parents and the school’s administration, must draw from them are obvious: This child is now being forced to grow up and smell the coffee about what language acquisition really is.

Any school admin team that doesn’t fully support this Spanish teacher by leaning in the direction of the attacking parents should be fired and a new admin team put in that understands how languages should be taught in terms of the Standard and the research as expressed in the web pages of the national parent organization of professional language educators – ACTFL.

Now that we are all awakening from a very long and very deep sleep in our profession, a sleep during which we have made tens of thousands of students feel that they can’t learn a language, it is time for change. It has been a Rip Van Winkle sleep that is finally coming to an end, thanks to teachers like this one in this situation who is fighting the good fight for what is right and just in language education, namely finally aligning her language instruction with the research and the Communication Standard, which is what all language teachers should have been doing all along.



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