White Lies

I was just watching The Office and Phyllis said, “We all have the right to be with somebody who wants to be with us.” I love that. Applied to our classroom, it puts into perspective the incredible weeding out of students over the past decades by teachers who tell kids, at each successive level of study, that they have the right to not be with those kids, telling them that said students do not have the ability to learn a language beyond a certain point determined by them. Those teachers think that it is their right to tell those kids that. It ends up pretty white. White lies, we could call them.
The only problem with that, of course, is that those teachers are lying. They are lying to taxpayers and to parents and students, and most principals have been, until recently, hoodwinked about this. If principals and curriculum superintendents knew that millions of kids over the past decades have been lied to about what they are capable of in languages, heads would roll. Why lie to kids about what they are capable of?
The answer is that those teachers lie to protect their own pedagogical agendas. They want everything all nice and white and academic. They want to perpetuate the myth that languages are hard to learn.
But languages are not hard to learn, not with what we are finding out now. And they are not all nice and white and academic. In fact, if teachers are in public education, they categorically DO NOT have the right to exclude kids because they don’t measure up to some soon-to-be-outdated standards that have infected level 3, 4 and 5 language education for too long now.  
The right to exclude kids from learning because of some “academic loophole” is a despicable distortion of the sacred trust that all teachers hold to. Teachers who break the trust don’t really give much thought to the fact that, with each passing year, they leave a trail of wrecked self-esteems in their wake.
Now, as those teachers retire or implode under the full weight of their sheer incompetence, wonder of wonders, we are finding out that kids, all kids, all people, regardless of how much their parents make or what part of town they live in, can learn a language. It just depends on how it’s presented.
[Note: I don’t think for one moment that the teachers described above lie consciously. Of course they don’t! But can we stop thinking about the teachers’ egos for just one minute and rather concentrate on the kids’ egos here? The Zen part of all of this is that great damage and mental suffering has been done and things needs to change. My purpose is not to insult my colleagues, or myself, such as I was for 24 years, for that matter – my purpose is to simply shine a light on Krashen’s work and what I have come to see is possible in a foreign language classroom, mainly thanks to Susan Gross. It is so easy to take things personally, especially in our profession where we invest so much into proving that we are good people by being teachers. And all that is fine. We are all learning. But, having seen what I have seen these past nine years, all I want to do is get some mojo going on this tsunami that, if you haven’t been down to the beach lately, is, by now, just over our heads and not slowing down.]



8 thoughts on “White Lies”

  1. Just this morning I had a counselor approach me about all of the ELL kids she has who are enrolling in French. She was asking me if I was sure I wanted to allow it. I said, “Of course!! I encouraged them to sign up!” She looked sideways at me like I am half crazy and said, “Well, I guess they like you or something.” Could it be that they’ve heard from me and from their peers currently in French 1 that they CAN do this, when everything else in school is kinda hard??? I can’t wait to help them learn French next year!!! 🙂

  2. This is what it’s all about – honoring kids and believing in them. I am so happy to read what you wrote above. Thank you. The Age of Exclusion of kids, the concrete block that we called the Achievement Gap (that nobody knew what to do with because it was too heavy to move), is now being chipped away at by teachers like you with open heart, respect for the academic dignity and pure potential of all kids, and a good hammer purchased from Krashen Hardware.
    Keep hammering away and we’ll soon have a pile of concrete dust on the floors of our classrooms and all we’ll have to do is take a broom and sweep it away, with a flourish. Thank you again Michelle. This kicks ass.

  3. This issue tugs at me. So much of what we “see” in the situation depends on our experience and our education. But most of our perspective on this issue comes from the degree to which we are WILLING to consider that there is an inequity.
    That’s Hurdle #1.
    Next we have to have resources to understand the thoughts and feelings of kids who are in this position. (I recommend the author Ruby Payne if you have never read her work….it’s life-changing)
    That’s Hurdle #2.
    Then, of course, there is the system that we work and live in. To what extent can we identify its power and how can we work with it, within it, around it?
    That’s Hurdle #3.
    The individual student must be interested in, and willing to, “buck the system” and work towards his or her advancement.
    That’s Hurdle #4.
    The individual student must have a belief in him or herself….or a willingness to consider that he or she might have a unique and significant worth…in order to move away from a victim mentality.
    That is Hurdle #5.
    It is the biggest hurdle for many of us as individuals…and the one we have the most power to affect. By continously treating our students (and ourselves and our colleagues and our families) as if they are important, intelligent, interesting and capable we can make a difference. We can reaffirm self-worth, we can be role models, we can lay groundwork, we can plant and water small seeds of inner strength.
    It makes me want to run hurdles!! TPRS is wired for this. So are we. We just need practice.
    with love,

  4. Laurie right on. A film that I just watched last night may shed some light numbers #1 and #5 that you describe so beautifully above:
    “Entre Les Murs” (“The Class”) is a recent French film (2008) that very accurately depicts what kids of mixed backgrounds may experience on a daily basis in classrooms in cultures that are economically controlled by people of a single color.
    Superbly directed by Laurent Cantet, it reveals how attempts at personalizing a classroom can backfire on us. It shows how children can be blamed and victimized as a result of the shortcomings of the adults in their lives. It shows how easily trust can be lost between a teacher and a child.
    The film shows how we as teachers may not be aware that what we may consider innocuous comments can cut a child deeply. Set in the eastern suburbs of Paris, it gives strong, virtuoso level, insights into how the various overseas French-speaking nations – Tunisia, Mali, Carribean, Moroccan, etc. cultures can both clash and be unified in one classroom. The viewer’s heart melts in seeing the kind of pressure that these kids endure every day. The film is perhaps reminiscent of what American classrooms may have been like at the height of our own Ellis Island era a century ago.
    In his role as French teacher M. Marin, François Bégaudeau allows us through his performance to feel a measure of compassion for ourselves as teachers, something we never do enough, as we see in this film the incredibly emotional nature of our profession, and how burn out and extremely stressful situations are often the norm in our careers.
    The difference between what France used to be and what it is now is characterized by some highly amusing dialogue about the pluperfect subjunctive, which Diana Noonan would surely enjoy, and any other French teacher who is, as I am, secretly in love with French grammar, the most kick ass grammar system in the history of the world.
    I highly recommend this film, and will definitely show it to my own urban students. Talking about cultural understanding is one thing; seeing this film is another. Michelle’s embracing of those ELL kids, instead of keeping her classroom door safely closed, reflects your comment above that “TPRS is wired for [this kind of teaching].

  5. I’m a firm believer that every student can succeed in my class. Recently, though, I’ve had quite a puzzler. I have a student who pays attention, really wants to do well, but does not. He is certainly willing to do stuff outside of class to help…but I’m not quite sure what to tell him to do… When he takes a test, I see him doing gestures to himself, but then he’ll get the quesiton wrong. What is going on and how can I help this student? We’ve talked about stopping me when he doesn’t understand…
    PS-This doesn’t really fall under achievement gap as this is a very WASP male from an incredibly supportive family.

  6. Is this a special ed student? Is this related to a learning disability? Earlier this school year I posted about one of my students with a similar situation. Recently we had his IEP meeting. At the meeting I talked about how my student is able to respond in class, knows answers when I call on him, does well on the end-of-class questions, but on longer assessments leaves any writing section totally blank. My comment was that he has trouble putting what he knows on paper. His case manager and mother said, “You’ve just described his learning disability exactly.” So we are working on accommodations that will permit him to be successful with writing as well. It’s worth checking into whether or not there is a learning disability.

  7. Bess,
    what happens with the student in his other classes, particularly English? In the past when I have had such students (in Spanish), I have found them to have language processing difficulties–dyslexia or other processing issues. In fact, it was Spanish class that caused the students to be diagnosed. Could this be the problem?

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