Erin’s Norms

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12 thoughts on “Erin’s Norms”

  1. Maybe as a thing to those of us who hate being interrupted by kids asking to go to the restroom, might I suggest something I learned a few years back? Instead of having the kid ask in target language if they can go, (because let’s deal with reality, outside of school when do you ever have to ask permission?), I have my students raise their hand with their index and middle finger crossed and that lets me know they have to use the facilities. This way you don’t have to interrupt what you’re doing or if you’re in the middle of delivering amazing CI that everyone is getting and that takes the wind out of the sails.

    Just an idea to those of you who are tired of the bathroom question or debate.

      1. Me, too. Some days I have a line during the brain break – I only let one boy and one girl out at a time. The bitter experience has taught me the one-child per bathroom principle. Rarely for an emergency besides that.

  2. Great! I have some rules re: bathroom. Kids can’t go if they are missing any work, and they have to put their cell phone on my desk, and they can’t go if they interrupt anything. Our school also has a policy: no bathroom within last 20 min of class.

  3. The hair on fire guy is Rafe Esquith, and it is the title of his book “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, inspired by his experience of actually catching his hair on fire while teaching a science class.

    Bathroom breaks: I agree that the simple gesture is best. I use ASL letter L, for “latrina.” Kids hold it up, and I nod if the time is right. If kids make a big deal about it, or use the gesture as a distraction, they don’t get to go. They see this a few times, and most of them get it. They know that letting me know discretely, when the time is right, will allow them to go. These are the rewards and perks of civilized behavior. The jerks will just have to sit there and suffer.

    I like your Parade image, Ben. Unfortunately, having a bunch of quiet and partially attentive spectators is the best we can do on some days–but at least the CI is going in. This is a hell of a lot better than disruptive talk/whispers and thousands of knowing glances being shot across the room for 50 minutes.

    Language education “authorities” who focus only on content/technique and don’t address this reality are either dishonest or deluded. Either way, they are doing teachers and their students a disservice by not cultivating teacher awareness of what Ben refers to as “the invisible world in our classrooms.” As long as teachers opt out of that world, kids run the show. That’s when the sub-humanity of bullying and overall disrespect takes over, lord of the flies style, even if everyone is sitting quietly. That totally aggressive silence is the worst. For me, that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to, mainly because I’m better at nipping it at the bud. But this requires a desire to plug in to that invisible world. And may teachers would rather just stay out of it and cover the unit vocabulary.

    1. The idea of the invisible world has never hit me before, but I think I am starting to get it. The invisible world is the only one that matters, isn’t it? It’s the one the kids will remember. And since it operates largely in the lower brain and in the “feel” of everything, it’s where acquisition takes place. We must own the invisible world. We cannot back away from these moments of silent survival of the fittest. It really is very primal, isn’t it? All the unspoken stuff, the quiet signals that kids give off and receive constantly. Thank you guys for this insight.

      For what it’s worth, I think I can hazard a guess as to why the invisible world is so scary. Like I just said I think this world operates in the lower brain, the primal part of everything that decides to social hierarchy and all that. Sorry if this sounds weird, but I don’t know how else to say it. The invisible world is so basic that it initiates a “fight or flight” response. Ben recently used the phrase “low grade fear” when talking about how it feels to confront snotty kids. For “low grade” I read “primal.”

      So let’s say I’ve just asked everyone to be quiet and a student keeps whispering to a neighbor. Why am I instinctively hesitant, even afraid, to look to accuser in the eye? Why do I have to overcome a fear reflex in myself to look at the kid and overpower him?

      1. Oh, the fear. The fear! I have to admit, there are certain students that I just don’t want to mess with. I guess my subconscious is picking up whatever vibe of “back off” they are putting out there, because I struggle to assert myself. Not with every student, certainly. But there’s always one or two each semester (I’m on the block) that ping my fear reflex! What is up with that? And how do you overcome it quickly before it escalates and you’ve lost that student entirely for the remainder of the term?

        1. Erin, you’ve described something really ugly that we all deal with. That feeling about certain kids is exactly what I would call a “primal” reflex. Like survival of the fittest primal. In frank terms, students like that are trying to be the alpha of the group. I don’t really know how to deal with it besides just faking it. I keep telling myself that in my room nobody’s the alpha but me.

          1. This really clicked with me when I read something Ben wrote in one of his first books (TPRS in a Year or in a Wink, I forget which one), about those kids “who want to piss all over your classroom” and assert their dominance, in a very primitive way, and how if you choose to ignore this in those crucial first days, you’ve lost control for the rest of the year, or will have a very hard time taking back control. Then, at NTPRS in Vegas, I saw Skip and another teacher do a role play of Teacher and Defiant Student. It quickly got really personal, and the room was vibrating, just like a real classroom full of adolescents. If I could design a credential program for FL teachers, a core class would be one in which teachers re-create these scenarios, and go through them again and again, until teachers became comfortable negotiating these interactions in productive ways without losing one’s temper.

        2. Ben, this is a really important and highly pertinent discussion, as well as something that every teacher must address. Of course, every situation is different and requires nuanced responses, but I think we are addressing the core of classroom discipline*. Most students do not want to do what we want them to do, and we have to be powerful, flexible, creative, and sensitive in dealing with them. I know I have gone through all of the emotions involved in dealing with various students and had varying degrees of success (and failure).

          *I deliberately avoided “management” because of the implications of control inherent in the modern use of the word; “discipline” also has connotations of control, but for me is more personal and less harsh. I wish I could find a word to express just what I mean, but I don’t think it exists.

          Just a few random thoughts and responses.

          The invisible world is very real, and we ignore it to our own detriment. I’ve seen teachers who had lost the battle without ever realizing there was one. My Spanish teacher in 10th grade was one of those, and for me the class was a waste of an entire year because the football players in the room ran things, and they weren’t interested in learning Spanish. We definitely have to be aware of the “intangibles” that become tangible: mood, hierarchy, esoteric signs and signals, glances, etc.

          Part of that struggle is for the position of leadership. As James put it, who is the alpha in the room? We have to not only tell ourselves that we are the alpha, we have to believe it – because it’s true. If the adult in the room doesn’t assert his or her alpha-ness (I just made up that word), everyone loses. While visiting my brother in Kenya, I read a report about issues with elephant herds in the country. Because poachers had killed the adult males in some herds for their ivory, these herds became unmanageable; the younger elephants no longer had anyone to keep them in line and teach them proper behavior, so they began to run wild, abandoning their normal places and behavior while trampling and destroying crops, villages, etc. I believe the same is true for our students. When the adults are missing – either literally or figuratively – from their lives, the students have no guidelines for proper behavior and “run wild”.

          There is truly a primal element to all of this, but there is also a spiritual dimension. We often do not wrestle against flesh and blood …

          Fear is likely our greatest enemy in all of this. Here are two quotes about fear that I really like.
          The first is a German proverb: “Die Angst macht den Wolf größer als er ist.” (Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.) How true this is – our own fear makes that unruly kid with the “bad vibes” far more potent than he truly is.
          The second comes from Dune by Frank Herbert: “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
          The first one describes the result of fear, and the second one gives a way to deal with fear.

          So how do we apply this in classroom interactions? Surprisingly (or not), some of the practices we encourage in TPRS are classroom discipline/management techniques. “Teach to the eyes” makes us look at our students and engage them. When I truly do that, I get into the habit of eye contact; when it comes time to confront an unruly student, I have developed the habit of engaging the student actively. It’s amazing what just that will do. I’m not talking about “The Look” (teacher glare) that so many class management books describe; I’m talking about truly looking at the person with whom I am interacting. Many students have difficulty with this sort of openness between individuals.

          Wait and live in the moment. Giving students processing time trains us to embrace silence comfortably. When we can do that, it becomes powerful; students have neither the patience nor the practice for extended silence and become uneasy while we maintain utter calm. That immediately gives us the upper hand in all interactions so that we can guide the responses appropriately.

          Show your students that you genuinely like them and take them seriously – so much so that you will hold them to high standards of conduct. CS Lewis noted that “God has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable way” – and this love is more than mere kindness. “Because [God] loves us, he must labor to make us lovable.” (The Problem of Pain, pp. 33, 41) If my motivation is genuine concern for my students, that will take me a lot farther than merely setting up class rules and procedures for my own convenience.

          Establish that you are legitimate authority. Not only do you administer the rules fairly, consistently, and equitably, but you do it with a view to everyone’s benefit, not just your own. (I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath.)

          Remember that it really does get better. I am having such an enjoyable time with my students this year, especially my 3/4/AP class, that I almost feel guilty. Today that class literally just sat and chatted in German for a full 45 minutes with no one feeling the need for a brain break, going to the bathroom, etc. I got nowhere near the lesson I had planned, but so what? One student even suggested that the class do Secret Santas, so he is in charge of arranging that tomorrow. You can’t buy that kind of relationship.

          Genuinely enjoy being with your students (which is different from the attitude of liking them). Today during fourth period – just before lunch – one girl had some crackers and was sharing them with other students. Another student simply commented, “She’s dealing CRACK-ers!” A gentle chuckle gradually built to the point that the class was dying laughing. One student had to say to his neighbor, “Breathe, J.!” Of course, different people had to add comments. I must confess to adding my own: “Oh nein! Oh nein! Oh nein! Herr B. [our principal] wird sagen: ‘They’re dealing Crackers in German class’.” It was a thoroughly unplanned brain break. When we finally got back into German, everyone was in a good humor and left the class that way.

          So as long as I am now rambling, here are a couple of other things I have been wanting to share.

          Today I gave a demonstration lesson in Spanish for one of my colleagues. She is a newbie to TPRS and just needed some encouragement, so I was able to come to her sixth period class and demonstrate the start of a Matava story. Her takeaway was how limited my vocabulary was, but students were attentive and didn’t seem bored. That gave me the chance to talk to her and her student teacher about the fact that students usually get bored because they don’t understand, not because they think it’s too easy. (I don’t know how many times I have had to discover anew the enduring truth that when I slow down my students get less bored; speeding up merely gets them more lost and therefore more “bored”.)

          On Thursday of next week (Dec. 19) I have an appointment with my district’s director of 7-12 instruction to talk about Teaching with Comprehensible Input and other things. I have sent him a copy of my FAQ sheet, my Scope and Sequence idea, my comparison of the different rating schemes (ACTFL, CEFR, ILT, etc.), and the addendum from Denver Public Schools’ LEAP Document. We’ll have to see what sort of conversation this sparks, but this is the first time I have truly had a district administrator’s ear. Pray that I don’t blow it.

          I’m sure there was more I wanted to write, but I need to go so I can get to choir practice. Our Christmas program is on Friday and Saturday.

          1. I could read your comment here, Robert, once a week for the rest of the year and be all the better for it.

            “Because [God] loves us, he must labor to make us lovable.” (The Problem of Pain, pp. 33, 41)

            This is a wonderful quote, succinctly comparing what we do with our students.

            And, I’ll have to read that “David and Goliath” book. You mentioned before a week or two ago.

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