Our Part Is Simply To Relax

In the old foreign language classroom, the dynamic was very different. The teacher would only approve of the student if they did what they were supposed to do. The message was, “I will approve of you if you do what I want you to do.”
But if we release the kid to be fully in charge of their 50% of the comprehensible input  (https://benslavic.com/blog/?p=4753), realizing that the class will happen as it happens, the resultant detachment of the need to impose our will on our students can become a very empowering thing for the overall quality of our instruction.
We are not in our classrooms to try to get anything. We are there to give and receive information that is fun and interesting to all involved, merely using the language as the medium for that interchange. We are there to have fun on a fully human and personal level, and not to burn out by trying to (fruitlessly) control our students’ learning.
This “get them to learn what I want them to learn” mentality is not a very receptive mentality. It is a professionally self destructive mentality. When we are busy in the moment of teaching trying to “get them to learn something”, we can’t really be aware in those moments of any possible intuitive moments – thin slicing – with our students. The lessons take on a hardened quality. They become dry and without imagination or softness. Such lessons are very hard to personalize. When the instruction is about the content and not the kids, everything is dry.
Our part in any moment of developing comprehensible input via intuitive repetitive questioning is simply to relax. If we’re there to dominate the room, make it happen, figure it all out, then we’re off the intuitive highway.
The task of teaching is to understand that the end doesn’t justify the means. Outcome based instruction, especially the Advanced Placement Exam but really all such tests, make the teacher half crazy and take them out of the area of serenity and intuition. They diminish the teacher.
Language is a process, not an end. To get into a place of intuition and serenity in our comprehensible input, we can’t worry about the test all the time, basing our instruction on the test, worrying about how we we would look if an administrator walked into our classroom.
When the language is correctly used as merely the medium of communication between the instructor and the students, and not the focus of the class, we align with Krashen. We come to deeper levels of understanding of how keeping the instruction in the conscious/analytical faculty of the student has led us to the embarrassing point we as a profession are in these days.
Krashen told me last month that the following blog entries supported his point that language learning is an unconscious process. He expressed concern that, in spite of their message, the point is often missed:
To repeat a point made here in the past few days, moving our instruction into one in which our students’ minds are wrapped around the message so much that they aren’t even aware that they are learning the language is a function of silence, which is a function of enforcing the rules, which is a function of active communication in the first weeks of the year with parents, deans, counselors, etc.



6 thoughts on “Our Part Is Simply To Relax”

  1. “If we’re there to dominate the room, make it happen, figure it all out, then we’re off the intuitive highway.”
    This control issue keeps coming back and coming back for me. Lately it is in the form of scripted stories. When my script is developed in my mind and my story skeleton has anything beyond a backbone when I start, then it’s ME trying to give it flesh and form. If I just start with something that is only barely identifiable as a vertebrate, then I relax and things can really flow.
    Today Michele came and observed. One of my classes began with a last-minute idea I had, reworking yesterday’s story. We started with a dictation and it evolved into a back story from the previous one. Michele said it seemed totally scripted because of the natural way it flowed from structure to structure, but the reality is I came in with no plans and was working on the fly. I’m finding that having just one single structure, or one vocabulary item, is plenty. The less I have in terms of stuff to “cover,” the more I listen.

  2. “…when my script is developed in my mind and my story skeleton has anything beyond a backbone when I start, then it’s ME trying to give it flesh and form. If I just start with something that is only barely identifiable as a vertebrate, then I relax and things can really flow…”.
    This idea has two edges. On the one hand, the scripted story brings us safety. We are safe because we have a plan to follow – a plan that is a bit heavier, in fact, but a safe plan.
    On the other hand, since we don’t want to tell the script to the kids as written, we have to really work hard to give it, as you say above, flesh and form. Rarely does it take the form we would like. Usually it’s not that interesting.
    Now, this idea of starting with a near formless vertebrate, as I have done with One Word Images and also, to a lesser extent, Circling with Balls (both are described at benslavic.com/resources/workshop handouts), I – we both – feel the plane get off the ground much more often than with the heavier, more developed, vertebral structures that we call stories.
    Now, when you were in my classroom and did that work with my kids last year, do you remember which one you did? I can’t remember. What was it? But my reaction to that day was much like Michele’s, that it flowed really well. Is it possible that we give too much energy to relying on stories to make our comprehensible input work?
    I know that, over the years, a ton of people have turned away from stories precisely because it felt too heavy and a bit ridiculous to try to flesh out a story in the way that was common five or six years ago. It was just too heavy and too “much”.
    You acknowledged the need to give up control in the forming of the CI. If that means moving away from stories, so be it. Stories, that big vertebrae item, require a huge effort of the will to get through. The One Word Image and all that stuff doesn’t.
    To me, it’s the Kierkegaard quote. We just keep our intuition alive and well, nurturing our capacity to “see the possible”. It makes sense that the simpler the model we start from, the more room for innovation there is, the greater will be our capacity to thin slice the comprehensible input.
    (I must add that I’ve been back and forth on this one twenty times over the past ten years. There is a real magic to stories that must be mentioned as well.)
    The new culture plan we have been discussing here lately will likely start from a reading. Does that mean that a lot of the comprehensible input we do in the future will originate in a reading and lead to auditory CI, as opposed to stories, which originate in auditory CI and move to readings?
    I think I just confused myself. I know of one sentence above, Jennie, that most certainly did not confuse me, a sentence that certainly gives credence to the unformed vertebrate theory, and that is:
    “…the less I have in terms of stuff to “cover,” the more I listen…”.

  3. The task of teaching is to understand that the end doesn’t justify the means.
    This is certainly one task for the teacher and one that our profession – as well as our society in general – needs to apply. In reality, if we want to achieve a just end, we must use just means. Otherwise the means pervert the end.
    Also, I just wanted to share a couple of items from the opening of school. (We don’t start until after Labor Day, so I get the benefit of reading everyone else’s comments before I have to face the issue.)
    I have five football players in one of my level one classes. They had a game on Thursday afternoon. On Thursday morning I wanted to encourage other students to come out to their game, so I started asking questions about the team, their positions, etc. We found out that the tight end plays guitar – on the field during the game. Just as I was getting them up to do some acting, the bell rang. It took everyone (yes, all of the students) by surprise.
    No matter what our intentions, sometimes things will go wrong. I have a student in first year who put a full baseball field on his name card. (Nicely drawn, by the way) So I circled away about him playing baseball and being the greatest baseball player on the moon. (This class is putting everything on the moon – me playing the organ in the aquarium, Stephanie sleeping, Meshach playing volleyball with a football, etc.) Then I got an e-mail from his mother. There was a divorce about 5 years ago, and dad hasn’t spent much time with son, and the son hasn’t developed his baseball skills, so he believes he isn’t “good enough” to play high school baseball – so he doesn’t play at all. Outside of class he was getting teasing from his “friends” who know he doesn’t play. Of course, I apologized and will find another way to let him shine. Sometimes there are just land mines we don’t know about. (There are so many things “wrong” about this kid’s situation that I know he needs some acceptance for simply who he is.)
    My principal stopped by this morning to look in on my 3/4/AP class. Later in the day we were talking, and she talked about how packed the class was (38 students), but everyone was engaged. This year I have a total of 187 students with more clamoring to get in. I’m a victim of my own success! One freshman is trying to get into German 1, but his counsellor is not working with the situation at all. (On one level I appreciate this, because my level 1 classes have 40 students each.) I asked the mother to have her son stop by and talk to me. He has spent time in Germany and Austria with relatives, and his father has worked extensively in Germany. My plan is to ask the counsellor to put the guy in level 2. Then we’ll see how that works with a “multi-level” class.

  4. One more incident to mention. This illustrates how much of acquisition is unconscious/subconscious.
    Today I ran into one of my former students, who spent his senior year in Germany under the US Congress / German Bundestag exchange program. This student was simply head and shoulders above everyone else. He spent the entire year with a family in a suburb of Cologne – living with a local family, going to a local school, interacting with local fellow students, etc. For the entire year he heard the local dialect and accent. Nonetheless, at the end of the year all of his friends in Cologne said he still spoke German with a Swabian accent. (Swabia is the area around Stuttgart and southwest; this is where I learned German and lived for several years, even attending university in Tübingen. Obviously, then, my German has been influenced by the Swabian accent.) This student had heard and “learned” not only the content of the language but also the delivery. I’m sure when he returns and spends more time in Cologne – he has a girlfriend there, after all – he will lose the accent, but it was an interesting revelation to me.

  5. For me the issue of “control” is really that of “ownership.” When I throw out a story that I’m marching my class through to try and hit the main points, and if it derails for some reason–no cute answers, me going too fast, me getting too wide with the vocabulary, lack of engagement, etc.– the fault of that in their minds is never their lack of involvement or my lack of technique. They blame the story itself, and by association me for trotting out such a clunker.
    This is one huge reason I depend so heavily now on student-generated stories. The stress is on them to develop the cute answers to either defend ownership (by the writers) or claim ownership (by everybody else) in the story process.
    My big eye-opening moment to this was at the end of last year when I started a class by having to rebuke my class for some seriously inappropriate material that had been turned in by several groups on student generated stories, so I knew they would be cranky. Then one student chose to defend himself and got in a fight with another student as they both redirected their embarrasment, causing me needing to take some disciplinary action. On top of that, this was the period that yearbook called random people out of class for organization pictures, so there was every reason to throw in the towel on this day, and some students tried to encourage me to do so.
    I think my response was “I’m just stubborn this way”, so I plowed on with the appropriate student stories I could use, and then the buy-in slowly came on. We “oohed” and “aahed” at the pictures one student drew to illustrate his story, then got into a story about security guards arresting a visitor who was extreme ironing on the inside of the U.S. Capitol dome. With a quick ad-lib from an actor, all of a sudden the security guards became Jedi knights, and we were rolling. When one student I had disciplined returned a few minutes later from a picture shoot, her first question was “What did I miss? Jedis? Awwwww. No fair.”
    There is REAL power in using a system designed to move on the winds of student involvement rather than by straining at the oars of teacher authority alone. Both means of propulsion are necessary (as every class gets becalmed now and then) but this stuff works.

  6. That’s funny, Nathan–as Jennie mentioned, I was able to go watch her classes yesterday (what an experience!) and in the class that was the one Jennie says she has the hardest time teaching, a couple of kids had been out and were trying to figure out what had happened in the story while they were gone. “All the great stuff happens when I’m not here,” someone whined. Isn’t it wonderful that the kids have that reaction to missing language class?

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