Report from the Field – Rita Barrett

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17 thoughts on “Report from the Field – Rita Barrett”

  1. Sorry for your reading this at the end of the evening, Rita. Not fun. Is it at all appropriate to tell this student something to the effect of “ah, I’m familiar with the kind of language class that you’re now in” and indicating, gently and professionally, the differences in philosophy of language acquisition? She seems to think her new teacher is the “correct” one which is untrue. I think I would also want to explain how you demonstrated the structure and rules of the language (and they were absorbing them) without needing to give special terms and English instruction about those.

    How ironic though. The student says she aced the (only) actual language use portion of her new teacher’s test.

  2. Oh dear, Rita. This stuff is so hard to stomach. I like what Diane suggests: gently commenting on the differences between conscious learning and acquisition. This is a situation that we all find ourselves in sooner or later, knowing we are setting our kids up for great success in communicating while also setting them up to be “behind” in a grammar class. I don’t know if there is a true “solution” to this issue. I suppose the “solution” is what our work is about, one student at a time, until we finally reach a critical mass. It is so frustrating, though, to have a student “advise” us on our teaching methods and explain to us that we need to teach more technical information. Sigh.

  3. Four years ago Anne Matava got a similar letter. Her kids scored the top eight scores in Maine on the National German Exam without studying a scrap of grammar until right before they graduated.

    (When one of those kids in level 4 saw them for the first time conjugated in one place in a verb chart she expressed delight with the neat filing system. She knew all the forms of all the verbs only from using them over four years.)

    Then she got the same letter from the University of Maine that you got Rita. It bummed her out. Maybe she’ll read this and comment.

  4. I would love the PLC’s input on this possible response to my student’s letter. Comments? Too long?

    Dear K:
    Thanks so much for writing to me and sharing your honest observations about Spanish class. I’m proud of you for acing the translation part of your assessment. That’s wonderful that you’re able to use Spanish so well for communication.

    You are discovering that I purposely do things differently than many other high school teachers. I understand that you can’t feel appreciative of that difference right now when you feel that somehow you are “behind” other students.

    Do you remember a Powerpoint illustration I showed at the beginning of Spanish 1 when I compared learning a language to climbing a mountain? I told you then that language was huge like a mountain and that no one—not even a native speaker—knows the whole mountain. We only know the paths we have walked on. When we meet someone who has been on a different path on that mountain, we might feel that we missed out on something, but the truth is that person missed the path we were on, too. So personally, I don’t see acquiring language as a race where some people get behind or ahead. There is a lot of mountain to cover to become bilingual and the question is finding the most direct path.

    It seems to me that your current teacher values one path and I value another. I have purposely chosen teaching fluency (developing an ear for what sounds right, so that it comes out automatically without having to think about grammar) over learning names for rules. I have taught Spanish for 25 years. For many of those years I taught names for grammar rules and used a traditional textbook. I wasn’t happy with the results I got, so I searched for something else. I certainly plan to continue growing in my teaching skills, but I have to admit I’m enjoying some terrific success. For example, today someone who took Spanish 2 last year chatted with me in Spanish and used the correct past tense conjugation. He wasn’t an “Exceeds Standards” student, yet he used beautiful grammar, despite having been out of class all summer. He probably couldn’t tell me that he was using the first person preterit conjugation, but I doubt he would ever need to mention that fact in a conversation with a native speaker, anyway.

    So yes, I teach rules for grammar, but I try to teach them as naturally as possible, so that my students speak and write correctly, without having to consciously think about those rules. My guess is that you couldn’t name many of the rules of English, yet you speak it beautifully. There is definitely a place for dissecting the rules of a language—I simply believe that happens best after a person develops fluency. Obviously, it can be tricky when students move from one method of teaching to another, but I have good news for you. I think it is pretty easy to learn the grammar rules when you already have an ear for what sounds right. Even though you didn’t achieve the “Exceeds Standards” level of Spanish 1, I think you have begun to develop that “ear” and the fact that you did so well on your translation assessment tells me that is true.

    Again, I thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. I’d love to hear from you as the year goes on. I predict you will begin to discover things that you know that your classmates do not and that you will quickly learn the grammar language that you need to be successful in your new class.

    I hope you have a terrific year.
    Abrazos, Profe.

      1. *love*
        What an honest heartfelt letter. It’s perfect! I love the mountain metaphor too. It illustrates the differences without setting up an antagonistic dynamic, which would be so easy to do.

        Thank you for sharing this. I might steal the mountain bit 😉

  5. I would ask her to write her mom AND her English teachers the same letter because my bet is that she knows NO English grammar either. (Her mom got her speaking “perfect” English but didn’t, I suspect, teach her much grammar. 🙂

    I would be very surprised if she could give the present perfect first person singular of the verb “to go” or the past particple of “to think”

    Assuming I am correct, why doesn’t that bother her?

  6. skip, I assume you are correct. There is something blatantly obvious about what I’m now going to say. Perhaps it’s because this girl thinks the mediocre grade she’ll now be getting will sink her chances of getting into the college she wants to attend. What we discover is that the profession has not worked out a smooth way to reconcile CI with traditional classes, and because of the power and weight of tradition, CI teachers and students tend to lose, and lose big. I believe this is something that must be brought out publicly to the likes of our state and national professional organizations. It’s also why it is important to remain active in the professional organizations and to arrive en masse to their conferences.

  7. …the profession has not worked out a smooth way to reconcile CI with traditional classes….

    Well put. You also talk about

    …the power and weight of tradition….

    One day, if we practice our craft enough, college classes where CI trained kids in high school will be given CI trained college professors to read and discuss the classics.

    I can just see Mark Knowles striding around the CU Boulder campus throwing flyers at everyone if we could get this going, advertising CI based literature courses up there. The pre-requisite will have been met – the kids will have had the CI training in high school. An authentic articulation path would then exist between high school and college in world languages nationally.

    It would be a reversal of today. Kids trained from 9th grade doing CI – not necessarily four percenters but also kids going on to other careers – would be reading literature in college five or more years after starting their study of a language so that they would experience eight years of CI in a row and much of it reading authentic texts in the target language.

    Real student participation with real students in real and rich and vibrant language settings.

  8. Rita, I am sorry that you are in this situation. I believe it is mostly the responsibility of the student’s teacher in the new school. She could be praising your former student for her strengths, to help incorporate the new kid into the class. When I left my last job, the person who replaced me shamed and belittled all of the kids, because of their lack of grammar knowledge.

    I think your letter is great, very respectful, and validating of the student’s feelings. You are a better woman than I. I’d be tempted to say, I’m sorry that your new teacher sucks.

    Those kids Ben mentioned above had CI for 4 years. One of them said to me, it is absolutely true that we were completely unprepared for all of this grammar. The college course sucked and it kept me off the Dean’s List. I’ll never take another college German course. But do you know what? I would not have changed one second of what we did in 4 years with you. We are all fluent and we needed every word of CI that we got, to get fluent.

    You are doing the right thing. If you feel you need to give worksheets, give them. Not everyone is cut out to do this thing all the way, and very few are in school districts that let them. But just know that you are doing the right thing.

    1. And to add to that when Anne says fluent, which is a strong word that we all define differently, there are seventy teachers who were at my workshop in Maine three years ago who actually saw Anne’s class – she transported those Hogs from Searsport for the workshop – and I don’t think one of them who observed her demo with them (about 20 minutes as I recall) would say that they weren’t exhibiting fluency. It was a fourth year class that had done CI the entire time. They were something to behold, a once in a lifetime class. If anyone from Maine who was there would like to comment please do so. It was an amazing group of kids.

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