Administrator Re-Education

This is a lengthy post that is intended simply to gather together in one place some of the ideas/comments on what Ben Lev started, and hasn’t stopped (see in red below), in drawing the attention of his principal to how the new CA standards might really be interpreted by teachers if they were to stop and think about them for real in terms of real language acquisition. I felt it important to put various comments from Jody, Robert and Michele below, just to have them all in one place. It’s weird on this blog how truly important comments get scrolled into the past and so I am putting them here even if it is a big mess.

First, here is Ben’s comment, in response to my question as to whether his principal was really interested in the 90% use term or was merely concerned about being in compliance (Ben tells us it is the latter):

…my daughter’s HS principal did 100% CYA (cover your ass) for the teacher in question and backed the dept chair who claimed that all the teachers addresses the CA stds (pure BS). I thought I respected that dept chair until I read that, because it’s a grammar/textbook/fill-in-the-blank dept and the 2009 CA standards are communication/3 modes-based. So I’m organizing other parents to write to the principal and superintendent.

I do NOT have the 90% TL hammer to swing. I do have the 3 modes hammer, and that will have to be enough for now. I figure this is a 2-3 year project, so I’m going to take my time and do it right. In the meantime, I wonder what needs to happen to get the 90% guideline written into the CA content standards. I wonder…

And then Michele said, elsewhere:

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.

And then in another, earlier, comment, Jody said this:

They will say the same thing they always have and will believe it to their core–also believing that it does NOT conflict with standards:

Students need to learn the structure (grammar) of the language first and consciously. They need to be able to name the grammar and spout out verb endings at machine-gun speed. Then, they will be able to consciously put the pieces together to speak and write. Ergo: the easiest way to “learn” the structure is by having it explained in English. (They also believe that if students knew how to do this in English, they would be better speakers and writers of their first language.)

Reductionist theory FL theory at its best.

Without dismantling this fundamental paradigm, I don’t see how this behemoth will ever change. 90% won’t do it. Logical argument won’t do it. I can’t tell you how many very-well “educated”, powerful people stand by this way of thinking about how classes should be organized.

And, in another earlier comment, Robert said this:

1. To answer Ben Lev’s questions:

-the CA State Standards do not have any percentage statement in them
-CA teachers are expected to teach to the State standards, not the national standards; the 90% statement isn’t even in the national standards, it’s in a position statement about “best practices”

There is also nothing that says a school or district cannot require teachers to go beyond the standards, e.g. put a 95% target language goal in place. In many ways the standards are minimums. Unfortunately, most people perceive them as maximums, i.e. if I “teach to the standard” I have done everything I need to do.

In Standards=Based Grading, that attitude is likely to get you an assessment of Basic. “I did everything you told me I had to do and nothing more.” Then the question is, “How well did you do it?” If someone meets all of the standards well, then you might give them a Proficient rating, but most teachers who have that attitude will have deficiencies in how well they perform. A teacher will never be Advanced (read “Highly Qualified”) unless he goes beyond the standards – just as students must go beyond what we emphasize in class to be considered Advanced.

I really like Jody’s statement:

Shouldn’t it just be: Instruction shall be delivered in the target language and shall be comprehensible to the student at all times.

2. The answer to Ben Lev’s fourth question is in the first paragraph of the CA Standards:

In order to succeed in the 21st century, today’s students need to develop linguistic and cultural literacy, including academic knowledge, proficiency in English, and functional proficiency in several of the world’s languages and cultures. The ability to communicate in linguistically and culturally appropriate ways in a variety of settings will ensure success i global community and increase intercultural cooperation and economic opportunity. As a result of linguistically and culturally appropriate language use, students will emily linguistic systems in a variety of global networks while carrying out a wide range of interactions. We can no longer afford simply to learn about languages and cultures but rather, we must provide students with opportunities to learn languages and cultures by participating in communicative interactions that prepare for real-world language use and global citizenship.

From the glossary: real-world: Behaviors that occur in the target culture

The CA Standards definitely imply less focus on explicit grammar instruction, unless someone can show that this represents “behaviors that occur in the target culture” (i.e. discussing their grammar in a different language) and that it contributes to learning the language rather than learning about the language.

Emphases are in the original document.

3. How would the principal react if all of the teachers in the school started “teaching to the contract”? By that I mean things like:

-no meetings of any kind outside the contractual hours
-no coverage of another teacher’s class unless required by the contract
-no grading or lesson preparation outside contractual hours
-no helping administrators with things like covering detention unless required by the contract
-no coming in early
-no staying late
-no volunteering to be on committees
-minimal involvement in accreditation process (only what is absolutely required by the contract)

I can guarantee you that administrators would brand that kind of faculty as “uncooperative” and “difficult” and, no matter what their public statements, would complain in private that these teachers were not doing their job.

While this principal is technically correct that the 90% guideline “doesn’t apply” as part of the requirements of the State Standards, he is totally ignoring the ethical component of any endeavor. As ethical professionals, we are required to give our students the best education of which we are capable given our circumstances. If there is a known “best practice” that is key to the teaching of my content area (as using the target language key to learning the language and not just learning about it), and I willfully disregard it, I am being unethical. Since we teach more by example than by precept, is this principal comfortable teaching students to disregard known facts, wise counsel and “best practices” for the sake of their own comfort or ease? Will he exhibit the same equanimity when students decide to ignore his advice to them?

(I know, I’ve probably overstated the case, but I genuinely believe that deliberately giving students less than the best is unethical to say the least.)

Anyway, keep going back to the opening statement of the California State Standards and ask the principal and teacher to explain to you just how learning about Spanish in English accomplishes the stated goal of learning Spanish.

And then Jody said today:

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.

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1 thought on “Administrator Re-Education”

  1. Ben: Good idea to put it all together.
    Jody: I was thinking today about my daughter’s high school and whether it’s worth all the work it’s going to take to move that super-tanker just a few degrees to a new course. I felt good knowing that I’m in a unique position: I’m a well-informed parent (terrifying prospect to our children’s teachers). I’m passionate about promoting bilingualism with good instruction. I’m a good listener. I’m persistent. I’m a part-time teacher so I have the extra time to do this right. I know a lot of the students in my girl’s grade who are in these classes. I’m the right person for this job.

    Then I wondered, how would I feel if, for the next six years (until my younger girl graduates that high school) I just sat back and only focused on my own classroom. It was clear to me: It would be a significant failure of parenting. I would feel like I missed an important opportunity.

    So I’m going forward. Anyone know how to have significant input into state (California) language standards? How often they get revised or amended?
    Ben Lev

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