Being The 96%

I got this email from John. I read it on a gut level. What he did was what students of language who feel the same way should also do. No exceptions. This is very strong!


I just wanted to share an anecdote about an experience I had playing music which relates to our work:

Last year for St. Patrick’s day, a few of us teachers at my school got together and played a few Irish tunes in the cafeteria during lunch. None of us knew the songs very well, we met a few times to rehearse, and we just sort of flubbed our way through them, but we had fun, and everyone enjoyed it. This year, the music teacher (who was on sabbatical last year) is leading the effort. He is a 4%er and a very talented multi-instrumentalist. So he’s taking a few of us through some of the tunes we played last year, and he’s stopping and correcting us every time we miss a note. And he’s going to insist that we play every note of the complicated melodies exactly as written. All of a sudden, I simply cannot play songs I played last year. Affective filter in full effect!  I just walked out of the room during the practice session. I refuse to be intimidated, and if I’m not having fun doing it, I have better things to do with my time. All of a sudden, I was in the shoes of 96% of the students in most language classrooms. At least I had the freedom to walk out.




7 thoughts on “Being The 96%”

  1. Still, it took courage to walk out. My people pleasing ass would have stayed in there. Such is the power of bullying when wearing the guise of instruction by an expert who, if the expert cannot convey to the students that they ARE GOOD, is not an expert at all, but rather a self absorbed boor. I just spent over thirty years trying to drop my boorish instructor personality. It doesn’t go easily.

    Some day I’ll finally get – through God’s goodness and grace – that it’s not about being perfect, and it’s not all about me, but rather it is about having fun and enjoying our time on this planet. Bless that music director guy who still thinks the old way. We can change. That’s what comprehensible input means to me – it’s a chance to become the teacher I’ve always wanted to become.

    1. “It’s not about being perfect, and it’s not all about me…We can change.”

      That’s something I really needed to be reminded of this week–thanks. A reminder that there is very much a place for those of us who feel very much “less than perfect” but want to have fun singing the song.

  2. I am just back from a spring break trip. My favorite nephew is taking Spanish 1 in an elite town in Oregon. He needed me to fill out his graph of interview questions about eating habits. Because I’ve had four days with Blaine and am a language teacher, it was pretty easy to answer his questions in Spanish, especially since he had a vocabulary list sitting in front of him and in spite of the fact that he had copied some of the interview questions incorrectly. One of the many things that got my attention was that because I answered him in TL, he thought I was a fluent speaker of Spanish. That made me think that he probably doesn’t hear much TL in class. The next bit that got me almost angry was that after I explained that I wasn’t fluent, but learned through TPRS and reading, he explained to me that to speak Spanish, you have to learn the grammar first. He said that when he wants to talk, first he thinks through the kinds of verbs he’s going to need, and then he puts the pieces of the sentences together.

    “Almost angry” isn’t quite right. I wanted to chew his teacher to little bits. Here’s this hard-working, smart kid, who has bought into the idea that he isn’t going to be able to say anything until he knows all the grammar. At some point, I told him that I thought that was garbage, but then I backed off and changed the subject.

    I don’t speak my brand of Spanish in front of the Spanish teachers in our school any more than John was willing to play music for that teacher. I do, however have up to 20-minute conversations with my custodian about his kids, his dislike of his boss, the mess in the other relocatable classrooms, the fact that he thinks my husband is lucky…probably if he didn’t want to complain a bit and then flirt with me, I wouldn’t get so much CI, but the fact remains that I am able to respond, ask him questions, tell him when I don’t understand, and communicate advice, sympathy, and opinions. Spanish flows out of me. When I get in front of those Spanish teachers, I can’t even think of how to tell them “Good Morning.”

    1. The first time I went on a work team trip to Mexico–I was not a Spanish teacher then–I noticed the same sort of phenomenon. I was with a Spanish teacher (my sister, actually!) who complained about the “poor Spanish” of some of the American workers. And yet,I noticed how these workers were able to communicate with the Mexican staff and kids without any problem. I, with my 6 years of school Spanish, could read any signs put in front of me, but I couldn’t follow or initiate conversations at all. I was wistfully longing for some of that “poor Spanish” ability…

  3. “he explained to me that to speak Spanish, you have to learn the grammar first. He said that when he wants to talk, first he thinks through the kinds of verbs he’s going to need, and then he puts the pieces of the sentences together.”

    Didn’t I just say this exact thing yesterday? Depressing, but in my eyes, depressingly true. This paradigm is alive and well at the very best schools and among the very best teachers and students in the land. His teacher probably didn’t even have to say the above to him out loud. He just figured it out, logically, from participating in his project-based, communication-based, textbook-driven, modes-driven, standards-driven (no matter WHAT we think), rubric-graded class. I think that, in some ways, his ideas are just an intuitive response based on how most of us believe we learn most other things–not EVIL, just logical.

    The difficult part is that his teacher firmly believes he/she is following the standards to a “t”. He/she also believes she delivers instruction in the target language. If we don’t pay attention to how this “reality” works, we are crazy.

    Beating that teacher over the head with the “new” standards, 90% TL, the modes, or whatever is NOT going to change this endemic paradigm. They will just squeeze the standards to fit what they’re doing–just like WE’VE been doing for so many years with standards that made no sense to us at all. Can I tell you how many times I bull-shitted my way through accreditation documents, program descriptions, etc.—aligning them to the blessed standards, knowing that I was doing something very different in my classroom? It’s a good thing nobody tried to fire me because I wasn’t a “standards hound”.

    I feel like a miscreant, but I actually believe that this beating people over the head with “the standards” or us, poring over the standards with fine-toothed combs, looking for ammunition for our cause, does NOT create better teachers or teaching–not us or anybody else, either.

    AND, if we then use the standards to PUNISH people who are not following them, I think we are in big trouble. The more I think about this whole thing, the more I believe that more “facts” and “rightness” do not convince people to change their minds/paradigms and those “facts/rightness” become dangerous tools for “wrong” (teacher scape-goating, for instance).

    It sort of feels like what is happening in the rest of education right now, so seeing any of us bearing that banner frightens me. We blame the teachers and their shoddy thinking and practices for poor outcomes–and don’t look much farther than that. Personally, I think that is a “shoddy paradigm”. Textbook companies and university education programs are a couple of other responsible parties that come to mind–too hard to go after them. They are not on the front lines.

    I don’t mean we should take our eyes off of our own practice. I guess what I’d really like is for us to keep our eyes on OUR practice, investigate OUR ideas (making sure they are very, very sound, not just fun, interesting, or “seem” to work), make certain our ideas and practices TRULY lead to greater fluency–oral and written, and continue to practice at becoming excellent language teachers.

    Language acquisition is a very holistic process, not easily pigeon holed by standards, assessments, or research. Old-style, ineffective language teaching seems to be merely a way to “make concrete” that which is “not concrete”. They are never going to be able to do it, nor are we. We’ll get closer than they do and will have more fun with our students, however.

    Ruminations on a Sunday night (filtered through pain medication and having watched a lauded Oscar-nominated film this afternoon of zero substance, with poor story and no character development. Why is it that I feel I am watching the emperor running around in his “chonies” lately while everyone else comments on how lovely his outfit is?)

    BTW-Michelle, this was a very poignant and well-written post. Forgive my wanderings. Brought up a bunch of feelings I have had lately about this topic.

    1. Dear Jody,

      At the risk of being late to school this morning, the first after spring break, when we get just five days with kids before we start weighing them in sacred silence for an entire week, I have to just stop and say thank you.

      You are right…we are still on the part of the land where Dr. Krashen has said we’re the best, but we haven’t made the leap yet to what is perfect. The only practices we can truly stand against are those that hurt children. My nephew was impressed enough by my “fluent” Spanish that I suspect he’s going to want to continue for a long time, so by the time he’s done, he will probably be fluent.

      I learn so much from this blog and this community that I sometimes forget that other teachers don’t have support for what they’re doing and even for their mistakes. I never used to want to admit my mistakes, because I felt like doing so made me even worse. Now I can put them out there and this community can tell me where I went wrong without thinking less of me. What a relief!

      As Lori says below, you have really hit close to home. I do pull out whatever pieces of my teaching fit the rubrics when necessary, even though it doesn’t mean that those rubrics have changed my teaching. And the fact that my nephew is so happily sure that he’s got the true road to fluency means that he’s confident in his teacher. The fact that some of my kids think I’m too easy and that things should move faster means that I’m not as successful as I could be, or they would have that confidence in me. It doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong (or partly right). That’s a bit of the Emperor’s new clothes that I am wearing myself.

      I don’t mean to put myself down at all, by the way. I am simply agreeing that my focus needs to be on how to be a better teacher myself, given all the limitations from inside and out, and using the resources that I know to be best. I hope I’m going to get to meet you this summer, Jody!

  4. Jody, thanks for your ruminations. That hit a bit too close to home, the part about

    “They will just squeeze the standards to fit what they’re doing–just like WE’VE been doing for so many years with standards that made no sense to us at all. Can I tell you how many times I bull-shitted my way through accreditation documents, program descriptions, etc.—aligning them to the blessed standards, knowing that I was doing something very different in my classroom?”

    Ouch. We have to be careful of the weapons we use on others, because they may be turned back against us. And we have to be careful that we are doing what really works, not just what we like to do or what the students think is “fun”

    I bite my tongue about the “emperor’s new clothes” as well…in my case, that giving every student a laptop in class will solve everything. If the emperor is naked, why are we afraid to say so? Are we afraid that we are naked too?

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