Dear Fear

We have a set of questions here that need our attention and responses:

Ben,

This is year 2 (really semester 2) of my Spanish 1 TCI odyssey and I’m feeling some serious self-doubt. I am curious if, when you were getting started, you felt overwhelmed, a bit lost, maybe a bit random in terms of what you were teaching, and felt like you were failing big time at this? I am OK at the jGR classroom management stuff but I feel like some kids don’t perceive it as real or, they don’t care. I don’t know which. Also, I feel like some kids view my class as a waste of time because along with stories, I’ve been pulling structures out of Pobre Ana and following your cRD process. I even feel like it is a bit random but I also feel like learning language naturally is kind of random. Also, I have to give actual book quizzes and tests along with this and nothing we do with stories and Pobre Ana is ever on the tests. Am I giving them the perception that all the work we do with the stories and Pobre Ana is worthless because it isn’t formally assessed on these quizzes and tests?

I also have been doing a free write periodically and I have some kids writing 145 words in ten minutes. But, largely they are only using the really early stuff we were doing like saying people’s names, describing them, saying how old they are, how they are doing, and not really writing a story. I’m not seeing many of the structures from our class stories coming up in these free writes. What is going wrong?

Then, Friday, we were doing an essential sentence activity with the chapter of Pobre Ana that we just finished the day before. To prep for the chapter we PQA’d a couple structures they didn’t know, did L & D with a painting on another structure they didn’t know, and finally read the chapter. It seemed to go well. I was hearing a pretty confident choral reading from the class without hesitation on the new structures. But, when we were working on the essential sentences, I saw a girl who was just sitting there. I walked over and asked if she was stuck on something and she said she didn’t really understand anything. And I mean anything. She wasn’t even recognizing “is.” This made me feel terrible. The rest of the class just worked without making a peep so I assume they understood it all but how did this girl not understand the very first word we learned in class and have used thousands of times???? WTF have I done?

How, when we are reading and doing stories do I really know if the kid understands? Can’t they just hide behind their more vocal classmates the entire time? I have tried to find out if she understands something by focusing directly on her but that just freaks her out so I stopped doing that. I try to look into her eyes when I say something but how do you really know if she understands? She’s got a fifty/fifty shot to answer most of my questions correctly and in the midst of everything it’s hard for me to remember to look at her after every question. She will never, ever give me the stop signal. She will never, ever tell me outside of class she doesn’t understand. I asked her if she is just completely lost during stories and she said no she understands just fine.

A similar thing is happening in my other class. I have some enthusiastic kids who read loud and proud. So it’s hard to tell if everyone is reading along with them. Do you stand there and look at all of them watching to make sure you see their mouths moving? I’ve been plowing ahead trying to do my best to make myself comprehensible but how do I really ever know if they are so good at fooling me?

I have no desire to go back to the book because that is a complete and utter waste of time. What I fear is that if rumors fly that my kids feel like they aren’t doing anything, it will be ammunition against what we are trying to do. I don’t want to be one of the teachers that gives TPRS/TCI a bad name because my inexperience doesn’t give me the foresight to see where they are headed. I’m really just flying by the seat of my pants. I know it would be a small outspoken minority of kids, if anyone, that would speak out against me but, that is exactly who seems to run things everywhere in our society these days. The loud selfish ones. This was a long rant and I apologize. I didn’t really want to put it on the forum. I just need to get these things off my chest periodically because I have no one at my school that understands what I’m trying to do. They just smile and nod.

Thank you,

J

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15 thoughts on “Dear Fear”

  1. My response is this:

    It’s a lot less serious than you think. You are doing it right and yes it feels very random at the start and STILL feels random to me bc as you say learning a language IS random.

    “Is” is hard to acquire in French by the way. Especially when you are a teenager and in constant stress about life. And this kid clearly is using the old model. That is what you are feeling. Kids are bringing to you what they bring to their other classes: nothing. That kid has never been asked to show up for a class and she is totally freaked. That is all there is on that deal.

    All those little fears you describe are really just that, little fears. It sounds great to me. I don’t mean to diss your concerns.

    I am going to post this as an article. You need more feedback than mine. But I think you are really blowing this thing up. Overreacting.

    If I think of other stuff I will add it to the anonymous post.

    That fear you feel is growth.

    Ben

    1. A professor at the University of Akron has a saying “learning is messy”. So in regards to it feeling random, it is. Especially when we open the floor up so much to students to give cute answers.

    2. Hi “J”, I was freaked out the other day with kids not knowing “is” too, and it wasn’t just one kid in my case. And then there’s “have!” It seems like the shorter the word, the more trouble they have. Makes sense, confusing vowel sounds. And then some suddenly forgot all the subject pronouns! Tu? Il? Good grief!

      Ben, I am interested to hear you say that “is” is hard to acquire in French. I guess so. It’s such a high frequency word, I think I assumed they were all getting it. Sometimes the momentum and flow of a story brings them along without really having acquired each individual word. I see that in both the creation of the story orally and the reading of it after.

      1. Perhaps we don’t need to know the individual word when it is to be and to have. Those really are weird verbs. Like if when we were cave men and a saber tooth tiger came looking at us through the trees and somebody yelled “Run!” we would get that. But what do those verbs do? They are completely dependent on the words around them. Thus you said:

        …the momentum and flow of a story brings them along without really having acquired each individual word….

        So by asking the child to “know” what “est” or “a” mean as individual words we maybe ask too much. If we said a sentence with those words in it they would most likely get the meaning. Isn’t that what we are after?

        Krashen didn’t say we need to know the meaning of the word but the meaning of the message. There is a big difference there. In the first, we are asking the child to render a conscious response. Not necessary. Languages are acquired unconsciously:

        https://benslavic.com/blog/bubbling-soup/

        A few years ago I started using ASL each time with those verbs. Each time. I don’t think it makes any difference. I’m going to stop with that. All I do if I am unsure of their comprehension of a sentence with to be or to have in it is to constantly ask, “What did I just say?” Of course I use that for every sentence I say when I am not feeling a strong group response.

        Just to add a tangential point here. When Von told me in Las Vegas to keep on checking for strong responses, he gave me a great secret there. Here is the article for those interested:

        https://benslavic.com/blog/checking-for-understanding-we-verify-by-asking-more-yn-and-one-word-answer-questions-than-we-ever-thought-we-could/

        1. There are languages that do not use “to be” as a copula: Hebrew for example. If I want to say something like “Ben is a teacher”, it is simply “Ben teacher”. In Arabic I would use “he”: “Ben he teacher”. If you stop to think about it, “is” in those sentences is a throw-away as far as meaning is concerned; I can get the meaning of the message without ever getting the translation of every single word (and in the two languages I cited, I have to add things in English that aren’t there in the original). In German I very, very seldom have a problem with “is” (it’s “ist” in German*), but students definitely struggle with other forms of the verb (bist, seid, sind – all of which translate as “are”).

          *I’m fairly certain that many students don’t hear “ist” when I’m speaking; they hear “is” instead.

  2. Dear “J”: As I read your post, I thought, “WOW! did she hear me talking today? Did she hear my inner demons talking to each other about what a crappy job *I* am doing this year?” (and BTW, I am in my 3rd year of TPRS/CI….and like everyone else, I am still learning. UNlike everyone else, I am scared to death that I am doing this method a disservice, because I, too, feel VERY random!
    We only have semester-long classes, so I am very torn — I want them to “acquire” (which takes TIME…something I just do not have!!!) SO…I try to intermingle the blasphemous grammar worksheets, telling myself that they “need” these when they move on and out of my room. I have “taught” two grammar-verb lessons with the requisite packets and worksheets, then a test to “sum” it up. The looks on their faces, the way I felt, and then the results of the tests reminded me of why I chose NOT to do that!!!!!
    I am just riding out the rest of this week, and providing retakes of the stupid quizzes. Then next week I will be searching through this blog’s archives and getting pumped up again.
    I think what is wrong is that I am so overwhelmed with all the changes going on at school, I am feeling “down” with all the chatter about where education is heading, and my personal life is very busy right now too. I have been trying to figure out a quick fix to having very little time, and I haven’t had much time to do any planning – yup, flying by the seat of my pants!
    Life is pretty overwhelming for most teachers this year….you have made a great first step by identifying WHY you think you are floundering….now search the archives for articles to help you get back on track, and articles that will reinforce to you why what you are doing is RIGHT.
    This is a very different way to teach, albeit extremely HARD and TIRING; however, it is the BEST way to teach a foreign language hands down! Good luck!

  3. J, I understand what you are feeling. One suggestion, if you are concerned about whether they are really getting and what more checks, you could throw in reading around the circle occasionally as a change up. If it’s their turn you will see whether they get it or not. Most of the time even the ones I worry about it times will get there sentences with little assistance in my third year class, but I have some as well that love to passively disappear.

    If you want to hear others, you can ask the loud and proud kids to drop out of reading out loud for a time (while still reading to themselves and following), then just keep going back to the same sentence if the others aren’t picking up the slack. I sometimes will start excusing people in the order that I hear them.

    I am sorry to hear that you have to do other tests, but if they are doing well on them don’t worry on that account. Even in very traditional classrooms, most books are tested separately if at all in my experience.

    I experience much of this too and think the passivity is what I’d like to see changed the most.

  4. And I would add that we tend to overthink unnecessarily sometimes. We are in a very judgmental situation in schools. Judgment everywhere. Kids and admins and many parents are out of control with power over teachers. We’re pincushions for the needles of just about every unhappy admin out there, who gets some kind of weird power over us that they neither have earned nor deserve. We get to thinking stuff about our work that doesn’t make any sense. Just keep stayin’ with it. Think about your salary and then that really puts it in perspective. Think about how our kids don’t know enough to care and are in react mode in every one of their classes, have lost the will to learn from joy because they themselves are targets of teachers and parents, and you can see the impossibility of our situation. We want them to learn with joy and they don’t know what that means because they have never seen it. We cannot grow into the warriors whom we must become unless we see how completely broken the system in our nation is right now. A lot of what you are feeling is the imploding sound of a system around us, and, true to form, the system is programmed to make us think that we are the ones who are screwing up. We’re not. We’re just doing our best. Everybody needs to relax on that point. Or we really will think that we can be wrong and bad at this work, and each time we doubt striking out in a new career direction incorporating comprehensible input into this work of teaching a language – it can be such a beautiful thing – each time we doubt ourselves in those little moments in class, we prolong the inevitable crashing down of the old building. We prolong it because we fail to bring the change the overall system is now screaming for. The old way has to fall, it is falling, it is about to hit the ground, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Just don’t think it’s you. You represent the new and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, when there is such chaos and ignorance in just about every falling building. Those people around us are scared. They are witnessing the end of their dream about themselves as effective teachers. The kids are scared, the admins have no idea, as a general rule, of what is going on, the parents are out of the loop, and our traditional colleagues, raised to teach using lengthy explanations in English and having mistakenly chosen this profession because they were good at grammar, with no talent for CI, are freaked every time they walk down the hallway and hear even one kid enjoying our CI based class. Because they don’t know how to do that, they miss the entire point about what Krashen has really brought to the table (the end of the old way) and then we have the kinds of doubts you express above, and we waver on this thing. Wouldn’t you want to attack that upstart down the hallway who is a threat to your job? Doesn’t the attack from that sad colleague look real? It isn’t real. No. Stop fearing. Rebuke the idea that you are wrong when it crawls into your head during a lesson. You will get better at this. You will. It will take time. You are running at full speed down the CI runway trying to get your CI plane up in the air. Running on your legs. But the CI wings will bring lift off, unexpectedly in some class when you are trying a story or something. And then with that liftoff you won’t have to run so damn hard on your legs. You will be lifted off the ground into an entirely new dispensation of what teaching even is. You will feel the joy of a good story. Your initial efforts to become airborne with CI will finally work and you will know something. Just don’t break. Fly your freak flag as you gather altitude. We can do this. We will do this. A future generation of bored kids is at stake. Gear up. Fly high.

  5. The text below was written by a colleague. I won’t tell you who wrote it but it is someone in a western state. It shows how intense what we are going through can be. It is so honest and shows that you are not alone in feeling intense emotions/doubts about this work and about how robotic admins are coming after us and failing to understand our work, making us respond to an administrative cookie cutter plan when their plan, their ideas listed below, don’t really work for us. I can feel the frustration in this. I don’t care if you take offense to this. It’s my blog:

    Fuck Google docs.
    Fuck the curriculum guide, the standards, the rubrics.
    Fuck the essential questions.
    Fuck the cultural comparisons.
    Fuck the units.
    Fuck the authentic assessments.
    Fuck corporations that have infiltrated the school I work in with the intention to indoctrinate and eventually take over the whole thing.
    Fuck their scary Orwellian consultants who lurk about, find their places at leadership meetings, and show up unannounced and uninvited to classes and type furiously onto little computers.
    Fuck their jargon.

    Like the string quartet on the Titanic, I will play my sweet CI melody until the icy waves engulf me.

  6. I love this blog and this community! The peloton that gives us momentum and reduces the drag, whatever is dragging us down. Or is it a flock of geese flying strong in all kinds of weather?

    I’m home from school today because need a break and have been feeling all those gloomy feelings described above and thinking I don’t know what I’m doing and I am such a beginner and I just couldn’t deal with the sea of faces today and all the energy I need to put out. High hopes for the beginning of a new term but somehow feeling shaky and unsure; my feet are clay.
    So I come here to the blog to talk to my people, to hear my new comrades I’ve never met, to give my support when I can even if it is just another voice sharing the bumpy ride. Have I combined enough metaphors here?

    Thanks again to everyone and to you, Ben, for being open, honest, spontaneous, understanding, compassionate, random, helpful, cranky, insightful, eloquent, and for providing this space and inviting us into your world.

    Now, time to get practical and plan the rest of the week with renewed optimism!

    1. How nice to say such things, Ruth. Thank you. And yes, cranky describes me well. I know why. For 24 years I taught AP French lang and lit and failed to reach all but the brightest and best mainly white females and other robotic souls who did exactly what I needed them to do to get the passing grade on the AP exams so that people would like me and think that I was a good teacher so that I could feel that I was worth something. (It had nothing to do with the kids then – I was still a kid myself.) That would make anybody cranky, because we are not here to serve the elite. We are here to serve each other. So that quarter century in hell, my seasons in hell, have made me just plain intense. I apologize if I offend. Can’t help it. I’m pissed, and I’m not dead yet, and I’ve been knocked down so much by people who don’t want to accept the new paradigm, that as I currently lay there on the ground with my tempered steel Krashen made hatchet in my hand, I take swipes at anybody who doesn’t want this change.

      (To add yet another metaphor with the hatchet. It’s Metaphor Morning here on the site, Ruth! Love your metaphors! Fight on! But so proud that you are taking a day. I am taking Monday and Friday this week. It helps so much. We must learn to rest in this work. It is dangerous work mentally. As we all know. Esp. in the current educational climate. It’s Mordor and we’re in it. And Gandalf is gone. It’s just us now.)

  7. Thanks for the musings and the multitude of metaphors (hey, alliteration is pretty good too, right?). Anyway, it was nice to start today hearing that others are challenged and persevering. It seems like little things hurt me – for me this morning, a note from a parent about her son, and reading between the lines I didn’t like it. The opinion of this child is really not important (and is really warped), yet it still hurts not to be liked or appreciated unless there is a ridiculous game throughout class. Look, he’s here to acquire Chinese, right? That is happening. They should be thrilled at every opportunity for that to occur.

  8. …they should be thrilled at every opportunity….

    This is a core point. We have a way of teaching that is much more effective than verb sheets and page turning. And the world is also round. So when this kid grouses, and you feel that little sting from the mom in the note, you immediately remember that you are correct, in those little moments when you are asked to buy into old thinking, and that you owe this mom and her ignorant son nothing. No. Ain’t playin’. Doin’ it my way.

  9. Like Ruth and Diane and others here are saying, I find myself feeling like I’m standing under a waterfall when I open up and read your blog, Ben. The water washes over me, washing away the grime and sweat I collect during the day. This rush of water; pure, honest feelings sprung from a deep care and concern for teaching and learning.

    Here in Chicago Public Schools, where schools are closing and teachers are getting laid off; where charter schools are popping up and hiring young Teach for America kids; where the public schools can’t afford to hire an experienced teacher; where everyone is posturing and positioning to find or keep their jobs, we are losing our grasp on building community … I am losing my teaching community.

    As such, I so appreciate hearing from the experienced teachers here on the blog. You guys are worth more your weight in gold!

  10. Thank you Sean. We are very much like a waterfall right now. What combined experience we have here! We are in a rush of change, good future with bad past, new with old, and its all plummeting now. Once that water was in the form of stagnant pools of tired teachers who were unhappy with their jobs and didn’t know why – that describes me twenty years ago. It was horrible. I had no one to talk to. I was so lonely for over two decades. But then Bertie and Susan and Blaine and Jason and the others brought movement to those still waters and we see this plummeting change now. It is indeed refreshing and mentally and emotionally cleansing, this water that dear Stephen discovered and pushed into movement! I never thought that we experienced ones would be able to help so many young super talents (no solicitation there, you and Hosler and so many other young ones are about to change the world) and it is an honor to read the words you have written above. We are indeed tired but let’s not get into that. We know we are tired, some precious ones of us more than others but I won’t get into that either. The fact is that you describe a situation in Chicago that we can only wonder about. Sabrina left there, and is now safe here in Denver, and learning big things from Diana every day. Maybe to take back to Chicago one day. We don’t even know what we are doing, really, do we? But we can feel it. And yes, it is a waterfall, and no doubt about it anymore.

    Related: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QiOAM1FquQ

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