What To Do When Attacked – Robert Harrell

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19 thoughts on “What To Do When Attacked – Robert Harrell”

  1. Thanks again for the really thoughtful reply, Robert. I am going to use your arguments and documents to create a protective buffer for myself. I know full well that I will likely never be able to win over my Latin colleagues with logic. However, evidence to support my best practices seems to be impressing the community and even my most stubborn administrators. Having all of the research and goodwill behind me will hopefully make a less desirable target.

    I just wish that I could magically convince my fellow Latin teachers to reexamine the effectiveness in assessing students almost exclusively with conjugating and declining. I can honestly say that I have yielded close to zero results in the explicit teaching of these skills. I have had students, whom I taught in the most traditional way possible, not only flunk Latin II in the high school, but then drop down and flunk Latin I! I have also had a number of middle schoolers skip Latin directly in Latin III and get a straight A’s. One of my first ever 7th graders took the Latin AP exam as a sophomore and got a perfect score! I genuinely suspect that I had NOTHING to do with any of those successes or failures. 4%ers are 4%ers. I could have deliberately tried to teach those kids incorrectly and they still would have thrived in a traditional course. By that same token 96%ers are 96%ers. I could spend every second of every class on drilling grammar charts for the two years I have these kids and my 96%ers will still be 96%ers. Some will be able to memorize a chart for long enough to pass a quiz or test and some won’t.

    Traditional grammar classes are a lot like standardized tests. They both wildly reward and punish students for factors outside of their control (i.e. income, education level of parents, ethnicity, neurology, frontal lobe development, relative age, gender, etc.). Maybe I was just the worst traditional teacher ever, but I never once turned a kid into a 4%er who wasn’t one already. I have tutored students for hours on end for years to try to help them find success in their high school Latin classes and never saw any real improvement in their grammar chart skills. The kid who doesn’t understand the difference between an ablative of means and an ablative of instrument the day it is introduced in class, doesn’t understand it any better after four years of direct instruction.

    Now I’m just ranting, I really think that this is at the heart of this issue. I have Professional Teacher Status (aka tenure) in a very affluent district where the parents are the ones who call the shots. Fortunately those parents are extremely supportive and my tenure makes it very unlikely that I will get fired because my colleagues are irritated with me. That being said, I am not sure how I can justify wasting my kids time with this grammar nonsense. When I spent all of my time trying to teach them grammar charts and parsing, those teachers were still complaining that I need to fail more kids because they are not well enough prepared for Latin II. No matter what I do in my classroom, I am unlikely to get the results that will satisfy them. Why then should I not pursue best practices if they’ll be upset with me all the same?

    I love your posts, Robert. They always excite my brain and motivate me to really think deeply about these matters. This PLC is really lucky to have you.

    1. We also have the dilemma of affluent schools having more of those 4%ers than regular schools. You might have, John, 20% or 25% of your kids at your school that can learn through the conscious analysis of grammar, while other neighborhood schools have maybe 1% (or the difference between affluent suburbs vs inner city or working class suburbs). So, you have many more kids that can excel with the traditional way of teaching, making it seem ok to the school community there.

      This is probably a big reason why Denver Public Schools has become a mecca for TCI. While DPS may have selective enrollment schools, I assume that most of DPS are open-enrollment, neighborhood schools where only 2% of DPS students could learn a FL the traditional way. Meanwhile a majority of DPS students not only didn’t learn but were disruptive and made life very difficult for the traditional teacher, that is, if that traditional teacher didn’t just have them color pictures of turkeys and label them “pavo,” “dinde,” or the like. Everyone in that class ended up being a turkey.

      1. Our best story in DPS happened in George Washington HS about four years ago. GW is an an example of educational apartheid, second only to East HS in the state in terms of raw numbers of kids in separate classes by race. There is an IB school within the school at GW. They have their own wing. It is far away from the main high school. All the kids in the IB wing are white. GW’s IB program has been rated the best in the nation year after year. AT GW, rich white parents live in parts of Denver that border poverty areas. A new principal came in three years ago, tried to dismantle the IB program’s structure, in the name of doing what is right for children, and was promptly fired. She is Asian. So Reuben Vyn’s inner city kids in his third year at that school comically outscored the IB traditionally trained white kids studying French. Their scores were light years ahead. Once my TPRS trained 8th graders did the same thing on the National French Exam level 2 test to those same IB kids at the state level; it was the same teacher and she really enjoyed spending a lot of time badmouthing us. You are right, Sean. We CAN’T teach traditionally in DPS. I have always felt how unfair it was in DPS to permit a few kids (3 or 4 in a class of 35) to dominate the classroom process. These kids of color at GW made the point about CI emphatically. All they needed was the chance. (This story was shared I know in Diana’s keynote address in Chicago but I share it here for those who may not have heard it.)

      2. Jeffery Brickler

        I teach at an affluent school very much like John and I have experienced things very similar to him. However, even if 25% of our wealthy white families can learn using traditional methods, that still leaves 75% who can’t. Moreover, the 25% of four percenters can and do learn with CI. Why should we limit ourselves to teaching 25% with direct grammar instruction when we can reach 100% with CI.

        I have struggled much over the last 3 years and I still struggle with so many things. I have taken abuse from students and parents and some from admins. I want my kids to succeed, all of them. I want the speech and writing output to be natural rather than thinking in their head that the verb needs to be 3rd person plural, present tense. Maybe this is folly.

  2. Aren’t we ? Robert has evolved and continues to evolve and I love reading where his mind and heart are. John, you’ve hit the “sweet spot”, the point of no return, and you are not realizing that it is now about how to go forward from this new place. It’s a challenge and a gift.

    I’m watching Super Soul Sunday with Oprah and Tim Shriver. He is talking about the people that he works with in the Special Olympics and he just said, “If you can accept that a 12 year old with Down’s Syndrome is indeed an exceptionally beautifully human being, you will then find your entire world change right in front of you.”

    Isn’t this what has happed to us? We began with the concept that all of our students we have in our classes are there to be amazing language learners (for our joy and glory). Instead, we have learned to see each child as a unique and precious human being, who happens to be in our language class……and it has changed our world.

    with love,

    1. Sorry I rambled after reading your comment Laurie. Nothing new here, just another out of control Ben ramble:

      This is really profound stuff Laurie. Our culture has always been about who is smarter, better looking, stronger, richer, etc. but this work about honoring every single student that we teach, including those who have been labeled by society as defective in some way, then what we do offers an option, a more honoring option to move education in the direction of inclusion of all and not exclusion of most, which is currently the way schools work.

      We have waited for this a long time, me and you and Robert and chill and some of the others here in our group who have for many years not seen the kind of energy we are seeing now when teachers like John Bracey suddenly show up with their stories about being hated on in their buildings but who calmly and quietly pick up and move the building in the direction of inclusion of all kids. Look at James Hosler, with his eight Latin classes a day. He would probably have more if he could fit them into the day.

      What is happening there? People are being drawn to good things. Kids are signing up for our classes because the word in the hallways is that something new and exciting is happening in our language classes that is fun and that you don’t have to be a certain way (a memorizer) to succeed at it.

      And back to the point you made – this shift you touch on above is not just about a better way to teach, it is much more than that. It is a fundamental shift in how we perceive others, those whom we have been given to teach, as well as each other professionally. As we see examples every day of what competition has done to our society, how it has ruined it, so we are we now seeing little green shoots of life in the concrete hell that has defined and driven down our schools for decades. I think of Brian Cass Peck in Detroit ande Sean Lawler in inner city Chicago when I think of this work. Those are two studs there.

      Having spent my time in urban Charleston, SC and urban Denver, I know what that felt like. I remember how I sometimes had to feel like I was sacrificing my sanity to do this work. This is big stuff that we are doing Laurie.

      And, touching on what we briefly said to each other in Chicago this summer, it’s not just about destroying the sense of competition within our students, the feeling that some are better than others, and replacing it with inclusion of all students. The competition among teachers in the TPRS community can only be met with an attitude like the one you express above. There are no experts. There is no one person to say the way things are to be done in this work.

      We all are just growing and we will take from all the ideas now out there those that work best for us and no one of us will teach in the same way. What this site has become is what I wanted – a big sharing of ideas that we pick and choose from.

      So Laurie I am with you on what you said yesterday about not attacking others. The ACTFL discussion was fun but what good did it do, really? It just pissed people off. That is not the venue in which the change will happen.

      There are more and more really talented John Braceys out there and they are coming around really fast now and there are lots of them and their work is marked by a clear and loud feeling of cooperation as we all learn and get better at this together. We fall on our faces, teaching really bad classes, then we get up and fix it, and that feeling of not being good enough as a teacher is going away.

      This is exciting. Thank you Laurie. Maybe we have arrived at the next station we have waited so long to get to.

  3. When referring to Laurie’s point in a comment here yesterday about how to deal with the ACTFL folks, I specifically meant this and we should all read the last sentence in this paragraph very carefully:

    …honor their strengths. In doing so, you give them permission to accept yours rather than fight them. When we even hint that they might be doing something wrong, because they are not doing what we are doing, we have thrown down the gauntlet and opened the door for a fight. When we let them know that our job is grow proficiency and we are trying to do the best job possible while at the same time acknowledge that other teachers have chosen to excel at a different job (grammar and analysis), we AT LEAST allow for differences. If we do not allow for differences, we do not give them permission to accept our approach….

    And then John’s response to Laurie was about making room for his colleagues:

    …I have to allow room for them to consider making some very subtle changes to their approach to teaching Latin….

    and his comment on confrontation was this:

    …if I go looking to pick a fight, I will most certainly find one. You are also right that being intolerant, negative and confrontational will make a professional disagreement turn into a toxic feud. I do very much love my fellow Latin teachers. They are both wonderful people with whom I have always gotten along very well….

  4. Some insight on the ACTFL discussion: We had our TCI Chicagoland meeting yesterday, with Alisa and Carla representing the Winnetka3. Alisa knows Helena Curtain well and actually talked with Helena on the phone during the ACTFL discussion. Helena felt attacked, and I assume, intimidated. I take it that’s why she didn’t respond on the thread or to Eric’s email. From what I gather, Helena agrees that stories are a great way to deliver instruction. However, it sounds like Helena really doesn’t know what we do to provide comprehensible input during our story-asking sessions, and the variety of ways we engage students in our conversations and story-askings.

    Oh well. It’s got to be hard to know that your professional career was flawed in certain ways. But we all have to check our egos. Right? This is where Ben stands out. He taught the traditional way for decades and is open about the struggle he went through in turning that around. I also think of Diane Ravitch, who lead the U.S. Dept of Ed supporting privatization of schools. Then, some years later, she realized that she was wrong. Since, she has been perhaps the most influential in putting an end to privatizing our public schools. To Ben and Diane, I tip my hat. (Chicago Public Schools decided not to close any more schools this year. Yay!)

    A message that Alisa wanted me to share with the tribe here: members of ACTFL are ready for CI. They are thirsty for CI. Alisa got reports from colleagues at the ACTFL conference about Carol Gaab’s popularity. In her session it was standing room only.

  5. Thank you Sean for sharing some insider scoops. You are so right in saying that teachers like Ben, Robert, Susie and many others stand out by their courage to reflect and turn their thinking
    around. In some earlier thread I remember Robert discussing this very fact.

    What I have a hard time accepting is the lack of integrity on the part of many highly influencial professors, ACTFL moderators and FL authors, not to mention names anymore. TPRS has been around since 1992, and for an experienced FL teacher not to have attended a TPRS presentation and given it some thought, is difficult to believe.

  6. In a slight amount of defense to some of them, people who went way back when and go now always note how different everything seems. Both my department chair and my former German teacher noted how different everything is from when they first went to a session. The focus and training is probably much better now, although that is an area that can still be improved considerably. Also the resources and support we have are much better and more visible. I have gone to early presentations of ideas before and sometimes the lack of refinement in presenting can be offputting, even if the core idea is valuable. Frankly we need to get Blaine and Carol to allow free or discounted admission for ACTFL officers, college language professors, and student teaching supervisors like they do for Administrators. We need to try to get them to attend a national conference and see how it looks now.

  7. I would imagine that many teachers are afraid for some of the same reasons that I had. I learned Spanish later in life and don’t feel super confident with my speaking. That was one of the biggest hold backs for me when I learned about CI last year. When I found out that the goal is 90% of the time in the target language, I was really nervous. But the beauty of it is that I can plan ahead what to say and staying in bounds keeps me from having to know low frequency vocabulary at the drop of a hat. It is so much easier than I thought it would be to stay in the TL. Non-native speakers who have taught a grammar approach for years have their own affective filter when it comes to speaking comprehensibly for 90% of the time.

    1. I think you’re right, Katie. However, it’s also an opportunity for teachers to show themselves as lifelong acquirers of language, which is good. It’s also a chance to improve one’s own language. My ability to think in Chinese increased for sure. I no longer feel bad when I don’t know a word; I can check a dictionary if I need it, and I can tell the students so. I actually had a brain break along these lines… quiz the teacher. Students had a beginner’s dictionary and they’d look for a word they think I might not know. They’d say it, and if I got it right, I got a point. If I missed it (generously considered), they got a point. My 7th graders really liked this. (It also taught them how to use the Chinese side of the dictionary.)

      Also, I think that the push for authentic materials makes some non-native speakers feel like second-class teachers. I think non-native and native teachers have a lot to benefit from each other actually, and I wish that were more openly noted.

  8. This is the great dynamic in a CI class. The demonstration that language is a vast sea and so not about knowing specific words, yet at the same time modeling “I don’t know…let’s look it up!” Curiosity in schools is all but dead. This is such an important asset to develop. It also shows how and why to use a dictionary (translator, etc) and what the limitations of that are.

    Shifting to CI as a non-native speaker is a leap, for sure, and self-doubt is always lurking around the corner. I agree with Diane that it has helped my own skills and confidence so much. In my French classes I am not afraid to say “hmmm…not sure, let’s check word reference.” or “I’ll email Sabrina tonight!” I suppose for some kids that is an admission of weakness, and more fuel for them to judge me and not trust what I offer. But it is really healthy to know what you don’t know (discernment / awareness) admit it up front (truth) and use a strategy to help you find out (resourcefulness/ self-advocacy) . Way better than pretending to know! And the qualities in parentheses are really what we are getting at…heh heh…all stealth like…and we think we are “just” teaching language 🙂

    There will always be words and expressions we do not know. Most of the stuff that kids ask “how do you say ‘x’ in Spanish?” These are mostly slang / idiomatic expressions so they vary greatly by region. Not to mention generation. What a great thing to be in a group and all wonder about something, really genuinely, and try to find out! Exciting!

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