"Everybody Shut Up – I've Got To Get My French On!"

I just can’t see making reading competitive and that is largely what class novels/readers/chapter books do. How can the slower reading kids enjoy their learning experience when they can be seen, perceived, there is a feeling in the room, that (as usual) they are not as good as the frontrunners? This is very much about equity and inclusion and self perception and availability to books and where the kids went to elementary and middle school and what they think of themselves as readers.
Even in an all white school where kids, usually in the suburbs, experience a fair amount of social equity and no racism, it’s still about equity because I define equity in terms of guaranteeing to a child that they are not going to be judged, marginalized, subtlety bullied intellectually, or seen to be not as good as another no matter what their skin color is.
I remember one girl who was physically very imposing and was always wearing black clothes. Her trademark was her chains and she had no small amount of tattoos. As one would expect, on the first day of school – for the first few weeks in fact – she went into the only role she had known – that of outsider. She sat in the back. She was absent to me until, in about week 3, she realized that she could express herself AS HERSELF and NOT AS AN OUTSIDER who didn’t belong. She was able to do this because of the way I was teaching her and because of the curriculum decisions I had infused into my instructional program.
One day in the first month of school when the honeymoon was over and we all realized that we were going to have to be together for the rest of the year with no way out of it for any of us, this girl  came into class as she usually did – slightly angry. I was delaying the start of class by talking to someone. (I am sure other teachers never do that, but I used to do it all the time – delay the start of class from some deep weariness in me that I still could use some counseling about.)
So anyway this girl then stood up in front of 35 East High School urban kids – a three way mix of the richest snots and the poorest kids and the invisible kids – and yes there was a racial pattern to that so SORRY (said snarkily) – and she said, “Yo! Everybody shut up! I got to get my French on!” It was a moment.
In that moment that girl was casting off a role she had probably played in all her other classes up to that point because, although HIGHLY INTELLIGENT, she probably didn’t read a lot of books in middle school because she had already gone/been put into ROLE by the pecking order that her previous teachers HAD ALLOWED AND EVEN BEEN COMPLICIT IN CREATING IN THEIR CLASSROOMS BY THE WAY THEY TAUGHT before she came into my classroom and started owning her education.
That day I could see that this girl had become intrinsically motivated to learn because of the way I had designed my class. She started sitting in the front of class. She became a kind of class leader because she would physically intimidate anyone who messed up her learning. Why would I not teach her as well if I actually cared about ALL OF MY STUDENTS AND NOT JUST THE FEW, which is what this topic of novels and all CI instruction in general really should be about – equity and inclusion first and only secondly about language gains*.
Or are we all going to lie down and let the few take over this country and just let the “lazy” ones rot?
*Here’s some food for thought. With equity and inclusion firmly in place in our classroom because of the way we have decided to teach our languages, what will the language gains by our students look like? If, after thinking about the question, or after having read the last two books Tina and I have written about the “natural approach/Invisibles”, you answered something like their gains will increase exponentially, then you – IMHO – are indeed correct and you will now begin to see a profound shift in your teaching to a much more comfortable and fulfilling place. It is because language is in my view an expression of the shared expression of a community that life is. It is my belief, and I have moved ever closer and closer to this conclusion only after forty years of thinking about it, that if the community is not healthy then the language learning cannot be healthy.

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7 thoughts on “"Everybody Shut Up – I've Got To Get My French On!"”

  1. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Wow, Ben.
    Your cognitive and emotional stretching (in a good way) never cease to amaze me.
    In other disciplines the content/subject matter, according to some, ‘speaks for itself.’
    But we are affirming a very Progressive Ed foundational belief here: Who we are and what we bring to the hidden curriculum is paramount. How we interact with each community member; what/whom we value; who decides; how far it will/can go.
    If a teacher doesn’t have socio-economic diversity, surely there is academic diversity. Teaching like Ben describes levels the playing field and access for all – no matter what side of the tracks, or traditional ‘readiness to learn.’

  2. I’ve been away, slightly busy and staying sane thanks to my tenure. Anyway, this article is short and hard-hitting. Thanks Ben.
    “if the community is not healthy then the language learning cannot be healthy.”
    YES! My last class was unhealthy. Tired, battling home and school drama, academically stressed due to fear of failure etc… Not to mention heritage speakers from all over the city. There was a nice run of time 1st semester of good CI but it was always an uphill battle. Then there were cliques so they didn’t really know each other or probably had beef with each other.
    “Who we are and what we bring to the hidden curriculum is paramount. ”
    Yes Alisa. Our presence, mood and heck even making things comprehensible is part of that hidden curriculum for students– SLA is a subconscious process right? I had very quiet asian students who said that I was their favorite teacher. There was even a student who needed their friend to talk for them to give suggestions for stories–in English. These students were silenced. How sad. Anyway, during our 10 minute interviews these students had smiles on their faces while I was providing one-on-one CI. I’ll send you a link of a student to post here on the blog. These interviews are CRAZY surprising.

  3. Wow, wow. Thank you! I needed this. I’m fairly new to language teaching after 20+ years practicing and teaching social work. I don’t have teacher training, and while I love the work I’m doing now (teaching social work & teaching English) I feel out of my depth often with the language teaching piece. This helped connect it all for me. Thanks!

  4. “if the community is not healthy then the language learning cannot be healthy.”
    As usual, Ben goes right for the heart of the matter. I wonder if anyone in this group teaches in a “healthy community?” What does that look like? I am genuinely curious. There is always so much going on in the lives of our students that is playing out constantly and affecting their core self-worth. I do not know the answer to “guiding them” or “modeling what we want to see” or any of that, since I often feel completely tossed about by the tsunami of the community issues.
    What if the leadership in the school is ineffective? Then it is even more on the shoulders of classroom teachers to make the changes we want to see. I will always default to trusting and listening to a student. Until over and over they show dishonesty, then I lose my trust. Then I am not sure what to do. When school leadership is lacking, the cycles of negativity perpetuate and solidify into real live ruts.
    We are losing 1/3 of our faculty because everyone is getting out and finding new jobs in other districts. I do not blame them. They are in their late 20s and early 30s, have young families to raise and need steady work in a school where there is solid leadership and where they will not have to wonder about getting pink slipped each year because the city council does not value the schools.
    Needless to say this is not a “healthy community.” I don’t know how else to increase the “health” other than making a safe space in my own classroom. I do get feed back from my students saying that my classroom is a “safe space” and they can “relax” and it is a “sanctuary” (actual student quotes) But is that enough?

    1. Yes, it’s enough to simply make our own space safe and not worry about the rest. Once we try to reach out beyond were our arms can go, we set the stage for our own burnout, which then keeps us from helping anyone. I know you know that but it can’t be said enough.

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