Educating Smart Ass Kids and Their Parents

Hi Ben,
You could call this one “stop teaching the rules, and start teaching language,” because this is the attitude I am getting from my 4%ers who are getting bored, disrupting class, and then getting very low grades because of it. I am seeing what you have already said about how toxic the 4%ers with attitude can be to a TPRS classroom, and the teacher who is trying to implement it. They try to make the slow (to them) pace an excuse for their behavior, which is unacceptable.
My response to these students has been (more or less): when the whole class, including you, shows me that you can follow the rules, the language learning will get going, but I will stop class and remind you of the rules every time I see students not following them. If you don’t want to be bored, please make more effort to be a part of the class.
My issue here is that it’s not really about the pacing or the rules, rather I suspect that it’s about the method. These students see the method as a waste of time. Traditional teachers use conversation as fluff, and students assume they won’t be held responsible for the fluff, so they just space out until the vocab list appears, and they memorize it. Meanwhile, most students enjoy the fluff, and then get frustrated when their test does not reflect those activities.
So I just handed out my first round of participation rubrics, with some of the brightest students getting some dreadful grades, grades that they and their parents have probably never seen before. They also require a parent signature, so I think I’ll be contacted by some confused and/or angry parents very soon. My administrator is generally sympathetic, but may also ask me to back down on this if the parents get really mad.
Another issue is that some parents will probably request that their son be allowed to “work ahead,” that is, do grammar drills in a traditional textbook during class. This is something I would have allowed last year (though it didn’t happen), but this year I think it would only undermine the classroom culture further, for students to know that “Billy” gets to “study” by himself, and Billy gets to think he is better than everyone else because he is doing real work instead of silly games.
Any advice for how to deal with a parent who thinks this isn’t fair? What do I do with the kids who do get it the first time and don’t need the reps, and know it, and then try to stay out of trouble but can’t help themselves?



10 thoughts on “Educating Smart Ass Kids and Their Parents”

  1. This is one of the reasons I left my old school. Such parents (the kids merely reflect what they are hearing at home) must be educated as to the change in standards and current research. They are ignorant but nobody has called them on it. So they innocently think that, because the old ways worked for them, it’ll work for their kids. It is not their fault, but they must be stopped anyway, as all ignorance must be confronted. This requires a principal with intelligence and mettle and tact, one who can meet with those parents without caving and who can explain why his teacher has taken an approach to language instruction based on comprehensible input. But, as you write, John, in between the lines I sense your awareness that your principal won’t be strong enough in this situation. It is going to take your initiative. You are the educator here, of everyone involved. One thing to state clearly to them, to deconfuse them on the most basic level, is that the profiency guidelines of the national parent organization of all language teachers in the U.S. – ACTFL – states clearly that we are no longer to teach about the language, but we are to teach the language by speaking it at least 90% of the time in the classroom. I don’t know how this interfaces with your Latin teachers who still have both feet in the 19th century, so that is something you will have to address as well, obviously. Otherwise, if you don’t ask for a meeting or make the phone call and make some clear statements to deconfuse these haughty parents, then their darling little children, such perfect students (riiiight!!), will continue in what is in my mind a very alarming picture. Practice your smile – you’re going to need it. I’m sure Le Chevalier de l’Ouest will ride into this discussion with the best sentences for you to prepare. He always does. I think I hear horse hooves pounding down on the California soil now….

  2. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this topic. My Spanish I class is an 8th grade class for high school credit and its only the “cream of the crop” kids that are in it. So I will probably run into this problem soon as I already see some of the incredibly bright kids getting bored with the repetition.
    I also teach 7th grade and I will be making recommendations for Spanish I next year. I think the Spanish I classes next year will look a lot different than this year, there will be some straight A students that don’t find themselves in it because of my recent change in philosophy and use of TPRS. I already have some 7th graders who absolutely love my class and they don’t do very well in other classes.

    1. At the end of the day, we are still a democracy. If, in public education, we are to prevent communities from being divided along racial and economic and all sorts of blurred lines, then we are going to have to fight these battles one at a time. You are going to have to fight them individually in your schools. All of our students can learn a language and our class instruction is not just for the few. We are civil servants in a public theatre. The fact that a small group of (usually privileged) parents can be allowed to be blowhards on this issue of how we teach is truly ennervating and has been my #1 reason for loss of sleep over the years. I cannot express here the anguish it has caused me. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to say how teaching is a kind of emotional washing machine experience that deeply affects our own personal lives because the two are so intertwined, but it has been rough. With God’s help and after a ton of prayer, I am now clear of that, free from it’s sting, but only because of the hard work done by the WL team in my new school, especially Annick Chen, who has paved the way so that all kids and parents and principals and those above them have gotten over the foolishness of asserting one class of people over another, as is done in middle schools so often. This is a first year problem and it is going to put some battle scars on some good people this year. My scars, when they were earned, were deeply felt. Now, they feel like badges of honor. I know, it sounds a bit like blather, but not to my ears. We are fighting a serious battle here. It’s real and we need to know how to fight it. And yes, if you are reading between the lines, this comment is in support of public, not private, education. I am a patriot.

  3. I just had a bright kid ask me today if he could take the test on the unit because he had read all of the stories in the packet and knows he could pass the test. I need to convince him that it is not about just passing a test. it is about automaticity – getting so many repetitions that the language becomes completely effortless.
    The thing is we have been having fun, but he is starting to zone out of the banter and kidding and stories. he is a junior in a class of mainly freshmen (level I). I guess I got some splainin’ to do. Sigh.

  4. I’m dealing with a similar situation from a different angle. One of my students with ADHD has a mother who is convinced that her daughter will not do well unless she takes lecture notes, reviews them at night, reads the book and studies vocabulary lists. I have so far communicated with her by e-mail and explained what I do in class and why. (If you want more detail, contact me privately off the blog.) The reply, while civil, was essentially dismissive; the mind-set was, “That may be fine for everyone else, but it certainly won’t work for my daughter.”
    The additional wrinkle in this instance is that because the daughter has a diagnosed “learning disability” (ADHD), she has what is called a 504 that delineates various accommodations that must be made. So far there is nothing in the student’s 504 that isn’t what I already do anyway, but the counsellor (who has also been contacted by the mother with her “concerns”) said she would not be surprised if the mother asked for a meeting so that she could have the accommodations she wants written into the 504. As a result, I am doing the following pro-actively:
    -I have set up an Edmodo account ( for all my classes and am posting various documents and resources. (I had already done that before the mother contacted me.) One of the things I am posting is vocabulary. I’ve simply taken the vocabulary from Michael Miller’s Sabine und Michael and turned it into a list. It is available to anyone who wants to download it. (That might be a way to give a sop to the mother who wants her son to “study ahead” – make the list available to everyone online. Whoever wants will look at it; those who don’t won’t.)
    -Since my classroom has no desks, only chairs, I have available small white boards that students can use as writing tablets whenever they need to write.
    -I kept one table to use as a place to put certain materials; that table will be available to the student should she believe she needs it. (I doubt seriously that she will choose to do this because it will call attention to her.)
    -In my last e-mail to the mother I explained that acquiring a second language is a lot like learning a first language. What was successful for the mother is the basis of what I do in the language class. Here’s an edited version of what I wrote:
    I have posted the first quarter vocabulary. Your daughter can download that for study purposes. If you do not have access to the Internet or a printer, I can either burn it onto a CD or print it out for her. In class we will learn much more German than this because the language is not just a list of words in isolation, but if your daughter learns these words well enough to use them in sentences she will have a foundation for the other things we do.
    Another aspect of the class that you need to be aware of is that I do not lecture very often. That has been shown time and again to be the least effective way of teaching. The class is an extended conversation in which students participate with me to Construct Meaning and Communicate in German. I do not talk about the language, I talk to the students in the language about things that interest them. Acquiring a second language is in many ways very similar to learning the first language. As a parent I’m sure you remember that much of what you did was simply talk to your child and repeat things. As your daughter heard them over and over, she picked them up. I know you were successful using this method because your daughter speaks English well. I’m simply using a variant of the method you used so successfully.

    -I have suggested that we allow the daughter a chance to hear some more language and have a couple of formal assessments. I also guaranteed that if the student is present – both physically and mentally – in class every day, she will not fail German.
    As far as the “smart” students are concerned, everything depends on attitude. Julie Baird put together a great list of “10 Levels of Acquisition”. The last level is “can easily re-tell a story German from a different perspective and/or time frame”. I tell “bored” students that until they can do that, they aren’t ready to move on, and then I invite them to show me they are ready for something else. I do have one student in German AP who is probably the smartest student I have ever taught. He can be horribly obnoxious, but at least he gets it that the class goes at the pace needed by the slower processors. Sometimes I answer his questions right away, sometimes I tell him he has to wait for an answer, sometimes I tell him to find the answer on his own – and he’s fine with all of those responses. Attitude is key. Incidentally, he’s a lot better this year, and the last couple of years I have often simply looked at him and said, “Sei nett” (be nice). (As an example of this kid’s mind: this week I had my AP students draw a name card showing where they went and what they did over the summer. This student put down something I had mentioned at the start of German 1 and never mentioned again as what he had done, and he had the changed perspective right.)
    I’m not sure how much this ramble helps – take it for what it’s worth. I’ll look for Julie’s Levels of Acquisition and put them in a comment (and send an e-mail to Ben) if I find them.

  5. Robert you are an amazing person and teacher is all I can think of to say here. You’re response to that parent is exemplary. Many of us can cut and paste some of the content you’ve provided above to prepare ourselves to educate those who challenge us. Thank you for all the great stuff over the years and keep it coming. Wow. Very befitting of a knight, the Knight of the West.

  6. OK, here are the ten Levels of Language Acquisition per Julie Baird. She shares freely, has made these available to anyone who is interested and won’t mind your using them. Please give her credit. I have these on two posters (5 levels per poster) in my room. I refer to them when I ask students to do some self evaluation. This is a sliding scale – at the lower levels, proficient is lower than at the upper levels. It’s also a good tool to remind students that they haven’t “arrived” in language acquisition until they are at ten in every area.
    10 = can easily retell the story in German from a different perspective or tense
    9 = can retell the story with ease adding relevant details that were not presented in class
    8 = can retell the story in German with ease
    7 = can retell most of the story with a decent flow and consistency
    6 = can retell the story in German slowly but with a few smooth parts
    5 = can retell the story all in German, but it is very rough
    4 = can retell the story in German with partner’s help
    3 = can retell the story mixing German and English
    2 = can retell the entire story in English
    1 = can understand the gist of the story
    Ben, thank you for your words. They mean a lot because I genuinely strive to incorporate the ideals of chivalry into my life. A significant influence in this regard has been C.S. Lewis’s essay “The Necessity of Chivalry”, in which he maintains that the modern world needs people who strive to attain these ideals.

    1. We all know that we are missing something living now, in these times that are so difficult. By upholding the best of what mankind has created in the past, we stay in touch with them, even if those ideals are not readily available right now, hidden under the muck of greed and egoism. But we can keep our eyes on what is possible. I offer this quote from Soren Kierkegaard:
      “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible.”
      This is the eye that we must employ when we work as teachers. It’s not such an easy profession, as few know (only teachers can really know), and the struggles that raise their ugly head right about now almost like clockwork here at this time of year can be overcome. We shall overcome and we might just as well sleep well at night while doing it so we can be that much stronger for the fighting by day. Blather? I think not. We’re in a war.

  7. Fast processors can also be requested to take notes on the story and create extra details as they go, whether in TL or not. Some of my faster processors have written out the story in TL and let me correct it. They think that’s learning. For them, sometimes it is. When they go to retell a story with a partner, their job is to add in all the extra details. The partner tells the story, but they elaborate.
    I do type up as many class stories as I can and post them on a class site. There are lots of links to places to practice. I’ve put in my class website on the link above, and you’re welcome to go check it out. It’s bare bones in some ways–just the story of the day and sometimes some extra stuff. Look at Period 3 (level 1), period 4 (mixed upper levels) or period 5 (mixed intermediate levels). The links have lots of stuff for the kids to do, and the song sheets let them practice their favorites. I’ve taught kids to use on-line dictionaries, and how to get to our practice sites. Every other week we go into the lab with a goal of using some of those links (or of just reading everything I’ve posted lately). No one has complained yet…I found myself quoting Susie and the “grammar is lost after three months” idea yesterday when I had to tell a kid why I wasn’t going to give her grammar practice other than in reading.
    Not sure this helps, but it made me feel better! Great work, Robert!!

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