Stink-o-Copter

A teacher has locked horns with a parent simply because he uses best practices in foreign language instruction. Again, right? Who in our group has NOT had to schlep this scene? I think that he handled it beautifully:
The parent:
Bonjour,
I wanted to follow up a bit to gain a better understanding of your curriculum and plans to introduce textbook and workbooks. What is the goal for year one of middle school French and how does it compare to first semester of high school French 1/2?
As a parent, I notice that James is not understanding avoir or etre and thinks “est” is spelled “a” and vice versa.  He also said he feels the reading time in class is frustrating because he can’t really understand what he’s reading. He is a pretty rote learner and loves worksheets (the opposite of me or his brother) but I also want to support him appropriately and better understand the curriculum so I can correct him when appropriate and ensure he is understanding the language correctly.
We had wanted to meet during the conferences as well but it didn’t work out with the timing of our block meeting. I’m happy to meet with you or have a quick chat on the phone if you have time as well.
Thanks,
Mrs. Nameless-Helicopter-Mom-Who-Thinks-She-Knows-How-To-Teach-French-Because-She Got-an-A-In-It-In-College-By-Memorizing-Verb-Charts
Our colleague’s response:
Thanks for following up and sharing your concerns.  I am passionate about all my students’ success in gaining proficiency in French and I appreciate your enthusiasm for the French language and James’ progress.
As you are writing this on a Sunday afternoon, I assume your concerns could be stemming from your son’s weekend homework.  When he looks at the word “est” in the reading, is he unable to say that it signifies “is”?  Can you clarify what you mean when you say he does not understand “avoir” or “être”?  Please provide me with more information on how he is doing at his homework, especially reading.
Or perhaps your concerns are more general. Is he complaining about class?  Does he not understand what is going on?  Is he not letting me know if I need to slow down or repeat? That is a key skill in my classroom. Language cannot happen when one party only is working at communication. Communication is now the established national standard of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language, my parent organization. I must work toward reciprocal and participatory back and forth communication with my students or I would be doing what they did 50 years ago. I can provide you with articles in support of that idea if you wish – just let me know.
I am working from research that says that humans learn languages by hearing and reading massive amounts of input before producing any language in the form of speech and writing. Oddly, there is no known research that supports the grammar translation approach, though that is how most of us now-adults were instructed. Here is an example of a 1967 article that I think you will agree is compelling:
http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED135245.pdf
Regarding reading time, perhaps I can be more structured by choosing a common easy text for the entire class to read. Let me try that and we can re-evaluate things in a few weeks on this reading.
I understand that you also have concerns about James’ success in French class at the high school.  You have a child who is struggling there currently, so I totally understand your desire to not repeat that experience.  I have met with the high school teachers and I keep a close eye on what they are doing in their French 1 course.
We also have a meeting scheduled for December, after which I will have more information on the plans for articulation and transitioning the students to a successful second-year experience.
I hear your concerns about your son being a “rote” learner.  I understand that acquiring a language might lead a rote learner into some frustrating territory, because languages, much like the skill of playing a musical instrument, are not acquired in a rote fashion.  Even for a rote learner, second (and third and fourth…) languages are acquired in the same fashion as our first language, through comprehensible interaction in the language.  This class is an opportunity for James to experience success in a different way of learning.  That in itself is almost as valuable as acquiring proficiency in French, in my experience of working with young adolescents.  As much as I might wish that I could give kids rote memorization to speed this process up, it would likely do more harm than good, by causing anxiety and low self-esteem in the learner.
As I implied above, recent research has shown that learning a language through memorization, manipulation of forms, or even through forced output does not lead to true acquisition, fluency, and proficiency in the language.  What has been shown to lead to fluency is comprehensible input–messages that the learner hears, reads, and understands.  That is why I think it would be best if I went to a common text through which I can guide him as we work together in class.
Another concern you might have is James’ limited output abilities.  Again, research has shown that a flood of comprehensible input is needed before even a smidgen of output can happen.  At this point in his language acquisition journey, he has been exposed to 55 class periods of input.  He is just taking his first steps in French.  As long as he is able to understand the class’ readings (the weird ones we create together), and our conversations in class, at this point, that is what I expect from him.  For more on that, again, I can provide you with the concrete research on just how long it takes for speech mastery to happen – just let me know. My one goal in teaching is to teach in full alignment with current research.
In my previous position, I sent three groups of middle school French students on to another high school, where they went into second-year French after one year of instruction and were successful.   Their instructor at the high school gave them great feedback on their abilities.  I am confident that James will have a very solid base for his second-year French studies.
Regarding the use of the text/workbook, I do not plan to use those resources until next year, towards the end of eighth grade.  I would not use them at all, because they do not fit with my understanding of best practices in language acquisition.  However, since as of now the students are heading into a grammar-based environment, I will help them in learning how to navigate the text/workbook.
Please know that I am very pleased with the students’ progress and I think that James is exactly where he should be after approximately 50 hours of French exposure.  We are currently, in November 2015, less than 3/16 of the way through our time together.  I understand that it can be frustrating working with human brains and the natural order of acquisition, when our language learning experience was so different.  However, please be patient with his progress.  By the end of the next two years, I expect him to have a thorough, solid understanding of the basics of the French language and be very well-prepared to succeed in high school French.
Sincerely,
Our teacher
A related question for the group from our teacher:
Hey Ben,
Do you think I really should put that kid on worksheets?  Like make him sit at a separate place and work independently?
My response and I think it’s the best one I’ve ever employed in situations like this:
Great question. One thing you an do, and this is working with my current singleton version of this type of kid is that I tell them privately that since their learning style is not lined up with my teaching style (act as if it happens and is normal, no shaming), he can work on grammar worksheets at any time in class. ANY time. This gives HIM the choice of what to do in class. Tell him that if we were to do nothing but work sheets he would be adequately prepared for next year. Next, do lots of SSR read and discuss as per that recent comment here about how to start a class with SSR and expand it into an entire class (so easy!) and watch the kid stay in the class so as not to be embarrassed and if the SSR text chosen is sufficiently low level he will actually get into it. Now you have turned the tables on the kid. Instead of being forced to learn a certain way, they have a choice. It changes everything. When he feels that it is he who makes the decision about how he is taught, and when he chooses to stay with the class and do the SSR or story or whatever (you have to make it so simple that he can!), then the entire dynamic of complaints against you is neutralized. Mom can no longer fly her stink-o-copter into your room and complain – you have given him the option to learn as he will in high school and he has chosen to stay with the class. But I would start with SSR bc it is reading and easy (did I mention the importance of choosing a really easy text!).
 
 

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12 thoughts on “Stink-o-Copter”

  1. Love every single word of that response. Every. Single. Word.
    As for worksheets, I would not go there. It’s more work for you, and I don’t believe in students dictating a teacher’s teaching style. (Our CI-educated students don’t get to complain to grammar-based teachers and overthrow their worksheets when they move on after our classes!) There are all sorts of more structured ways to deliver CI (dictation, novel reading) that might help a ‘rote’ student feel more comfortable in the classroom, but I would steer clear of changing my curriculum for just one student.

  2. …or not, and it’s the only way to quell that kid and parent. He might not want to acquire French. Is it our job to force him? I presict that the worksheet thing doesn’t last long. The “i + 1” for that kid is higher, but he can toooootally hit his limit. It’s a sneaky move, but if he wants worksheets just give him enough to stay busy until he’s bored or it gets too hard and then wants to play ball. Use assessment from readings as evidence after a couple weeks when you say to mom “he’s understanding less because he’s spending too much time on the worksheets.”

  3. I agree in principle Eric but can’t recall a single instance of a child staying with worksheets on their own more than a week or so. Usually one period of isolation brings them back with redoubled effort to make the class work for them, because most teens are such social animals. It’s just a ploy, a trick to get them to appreciate class. In more extreme cases, if we catch it early enough, they drop the class. If we aren’t so lucky, they sit in class and learn nothing*, which is no different than what happens so often in grammar classes. The worksheets have always worked for me in the few cases I have actually used them because when we have these really rote learners and they sit in class with their mom-inspired negative attitude about having to show up as a real person in class, they lose because every single kid sitting around them is rocking the house. They are really hiding from real social interaction. My offender yesterday, when I suddenly stated in the middle of class yesterday that I was grading them right then and there by looking in their eyes for light, actually put the book in front of her face and peeked out from behind it about four times during read and discuss of our SSR text. It was funny and kind of sad, to see a human being avoid human contact with those around her. Those rote learners are such sad people. The world is sad when robots run it. No blame. Just sayin’.
    *we do much damage to ourselves when we don’t recognize and emotionally avoid kids who are not prepared to benefit from us. This is a factor in teacher burnout. Another is our desire to be the best language teacher in the world. Re: those kids who are in too much pain to learn – would a medical doctor run around frantically trying to save every sick person in their vicinity? And those people WANT to be healed. It’s like in the Serenity Prayer from Reinhold Niebuhr: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

    1. You just reminded me of a story we read in my (totally unrelated to Spanish) 9th grade seminar class. Have you read “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman”? A world run by robots indeed.
      It actually makes me kind of sad to have a parent describe their own kid as a ‘rote’ learner. It’s a limiting word, and shouldn’t a parent see more potential than that?
      When I get those, though, I point them to Quizlet.com. They can drill flashcards on their own time if they feel they need that. It certainly couldn’t hurt. And I know that StudySpanish.com is good for conjugation drills (surely there’s a French equivalent?) if that satisfies the parents’ need for rote learning.

      1. “It actually makes me kind of sad to have a parent describe their own kid as a ‘rote’ learner.”
        Kind of like saying, “My kid is a stuff it in and regurgitate it back type of learner.” What was the parent thinking? Or was he? Maybe just a line he memorized from a book somewhere.

  4. I am both impressed and frightened by this letter. I know I don’t have the chops to write something like that. What would I even say to a parent? I’m still getting my feet wet in my first year teaching foreign language (ESL has limited parent engagement for a variety of reasons) and I am legitimately scared of parents now.
    I wonder if there is a way for teachers to ward off parent calls/letters. Maybe portfolio assessment and/or sending home examples of student work pre-emptively?
    Thank you for sharing this. I may be less blind-sided when this happens to me.

  5. I wonder if we should have a category for responses to parents. I have a couple that I could share. They do take some crafting and maybe we could save one another some work.

  6. Good suggestion Angie. I added “Parent Letters”. I’ve got “Parent Conferences”, “Parents Night” and “Parent Letters”. What should I do about that? Keep them separate or have only one category for “Parents’? My concern is that too few categories is that they get so big that they are hard to negotiate. Like the category here for TPRS has almost 3,000 articles which would take some time to go through. We are down now from 649 to 46 categories. One thing is certain, if people want to find something, the search bar is best.

    1. “Parents” makes sense to me as a category, because a lot of the things we might say or need would overlap — any kind of interacting with parents.
      In this kind of situation, I think I might make a phone call (even though I really prefer writing) and inviting the family to meet in person, if possible, to share most of what’s in the response email. Then, after meeting, send a shorter email with the main points discussed so that you have a written record, too. I also like Ben’s idea to OFFER the kind of worksheets the family believes fit the student’s “learning style” and let the student choose what to do. I wouldn’t require the student to do separate work. I’d discuss that in the meeting, too.
      I have a long story from earlier this school year that makes me say both of those things. Even if you have admin support, it can come back as a hassle later that you removed a student from general class activities or even that you communicated with parents by email (rather than call; even though it’s good to have a written record). That’s where I am with my situation now.
      The student hiding behind her book, Ben, wow. That is sad.

  7. “Mrs. Nameless-Helicopter-Mom-Who-Thinks-She-Knows-How-To-Teach-French-Because-She Got-an-A-In-It-In-College-By-Memorizing-Verb-Charts”
    Hahaha. I loved this Ben. Sadly I know too many of these moms!

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