In The Bosom Of Abraham

Ben,
 
I know this topic has come up on your blog a few times in the past. Traditional language programs appear to “weed students out.” All but the best students end up dropping out of language programs. Only 4% of students acquire anything resembling fluency. Etc.
 
This year, our department chair reminded us to talk up the program. We need to keep our numbers up. We need to keep ourselves employed.
I did my duty. I spoke to the students, in English, about all the benefits of knowing another language. It can improve your IQ, your SAT scores, your GPA, your chances of getting a coveted scholarship, etc. We talked about different careers where knowing a language would be helpful.
 
And now, the truth comes out. I am feeling a little betrayed, honestly. Here I am, putting my heart on my sleeve, selling this program to these kids, telling stories, etc. And they come at us with these little sheets of paper asking us to sign recommendations that they continue for another year. And would you believe that these teachers are refusing to sign? This student doesn’t strike me as a third year student. This student doesn’t have what it takes.
 
Who do they think they are? How can we deny these kids a class in something they actually want, just because they don’t fit our paradigm of what a “good” language student is?  I am livid.  It’s like overhearing the conversation in the hallway where my colleague was “counseling” my former student into dropping the class (a requirement for graduation, by the way), because she “might not be cut out for learning languages.”
 
Here, we have kids who want to learn. Who like learning. And we are refusing to see them. We are refusing to see them as human beings. We are refusing to see what they bring. We see only what we want to see, their handicaps. And then we wonder why our enrollment is so low. It’s because we don’t sign the slips of the people who really wanted to be here.
 
I don’t know if I have any profound thoughts. But, I thought that, of all the people I know, you would understand this feeling of futile rage. And, perhaps would sing your soul, or rage with me, or remind me that this old system is crumbling down. Remind me that I too am a person. That it is ok to care about these kids. And maybe even urge my perverse streak that wants to sign everybody’s papers just because.
 
Maybe I will hang a poster up in the hall – “will sign your request for world language classes for free. No need to know me. No need to speak my language. Just hand me your papers and I will sign.”
 
On the other hand, maybe I will hide in my hole another year, get tenure, and then come out swinging.
 
Jennifer
My response:
Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham,
rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham,
oh rock my soul….

… and if Abraham isn’t around, lost behind the couch or taped to the back of a TV set, tell your kids to ask a teacher for guidance and solace. Kids can count on teachers to have their best interests at heart. That’s what teachers do, they have their – the teachers – best interests at heart. The kids are so easy to fool! Tell them that they can’t do something, and they believe it! All you have to do is say, “I’m sorry, Lakisha, you aren’t cut out for language study – I wish I could sign your form but I just can’t, based on what I saw you not do in my classroom this past year.” And Lakisha says, “Yes, ma’am.” or “I’m sorry, Fernando, you just won’t be comfortable at level three next year. I can’t sign this.” And Fernando thinks, “… but I’m fluent in Spanish” but says, “Yes, ma’am.” and “Ronnie, your average this year is a 65%, and we both know that you don’t know enough about verbs to go to French 2. So I’m going to have to say no.” Who needs Abraham?

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9 thoughts on “In The Bosom Of Abraham”

  1. I’m reading a book on classroom management, “Teaching With Love and Logic,” and the authors (Jim Fay and David Funk) said the following in the chapter I just read:
    “In his research decades ago, Ferdinand Hoppe established that when we are allowed to set our own goals (i.e., have some control over our own learning), we will inevitably perform between a level that is too easy to be satisfying and another too difficult to be accomplished.” (pp. 150)
    Why would students who perform poorly in a class want to proceed to a more difficult foreign language class? Maybe inside they can tell that they ARE learning despite what their official grades may say. Maybe they feel a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment because even if they fail a series of tests, they know that they understand more of the language than they did at the beginning. Maybe something inside them is telling them that if they can just get more exposure to the language, they will understand even more of it.
    Thanks for sharing, Jennifer.

  2. What a tremendous quote, Stephen. I need to be reminded that kids need to be able to walk according to their own drummer.

  3. Jennifer, I had a visceral reaction to your story for it was mine before I embraced TPRS as much as a philosophy as a methodology. March was typically the month when I had to give the “recommended for level three list” to guidance. How heartbreaking to have to tell a student that it might be better for them to take a course that speaks more to their strenghts. That was the kindest way I ever came up with steering them away from my upper level class. It took a lot to look in the mirror and admit that my traditional way of teaching was not working for all my kids – okay- not working for most of my kids. I was killing the language that I love, turning kids off to language study, and worst of all hurting their feelings. It was all so unecessary. This year, I sent in no list. When the guidance folks asked me what the deal was, I told them that all the level 2 kids were ready for blastoff into level 3. I feel so much better and know that you do too. At the end of the day, it’s the top kids who make us look good. We can all point with pride to the student who has “learned” the intracacies of the subjuntive tense. The measure of what we really do is reaching out to all who want to learn and never looking into the face of someone’s child and telling them they don’t cut muster. Good for you, Jennifer!

  4. Jennie the other Jennifer from Alaska who is visiting this week just taught a few classes and, as I looked at my students from behind the flip camera on the side of the room, I saw kids who were really enjoying the French, and I thought a number of times what they would be experiencing in another classroom. I was so proud of them, because they didn’t know Jennie as a teacher, but Jennie was so clear, so slow, and the CI so interesting (leprechauns, smurfs, unicorns, and a boy digging for gold) that ALL OF THEM, yes all of my students, were following Jennie. Yet these same students would NOT have survived my grammar classes of old, and yet there they were having tons of success and it was clear in their eyes and faces. Jennie kicked it, by the way, Michele. I am glad she made the journey, and not just for the 70 degree weather this week. We’re both getting better at this. But Chill and East Coast Jennifer, I agree. The old way is not the best way for kids, if we indeed are teaching because we really want to help them grow up and do what is best for their self esteem. If indeed we don’t want to do the kind of stuff described above. Jennie was really building some self esteem today in certain kids that I have not been able to reach this year. I’ll try to figure that one out. I think it had to do with her ability to go slow and park and keep the line of drive simple, whereas I need, at times, to be tasered in class.

  5. Jennie’s home run in your classroom links back to what we were talking about the other day–that if we all used TPRS to teach languages, any same-language teacher could take over for any other same language teacher, just the way that Blaine does when he walks into a classroom at whichever school he is visiting that week. A Russian colleague who has been studying TPRS took a set of my kids to read with her for an hour. She came back and had only covered a paragraph, but she and the kids had talked about all sorts of topics connected to that paragraph. She said they were amazing and smart and funny. I still think that you need a period of introduction for first year kids (maybe three-six weeks as long as people are motivated), during which you get basic structures firmly into their ears, but after that, the classes could all be mixed. Hmmm…maybe it’s better not to advertise that you could fill an auditorium every hour with varying levels of kids of a single language, as the “Blow to his Confidence” student teacher is doing.

  6. Yeah, that 14 year old student teacher. I see where you are going with this, Michele – multi level 0pen classrooms/auditoriums, more combinations of students (more actors!), students learning from groups of those of us who have command of the language, not from just one of us, more fun, more transparency, more trust, an endless conversation in the presence of people you like to be with, and, thus, more acquisition of language. Large groups of mixed classes. Groups mixing in huge stories. Thanks K!

  7. Sadly, if I were to have signed those request forms, I would be consigning these kids to failure.
    I remember lat year I had this really great kid. He was funny too. He had this pirate ship that would enter any story, as soon as things got too boring, or as soon as he started checking out. He also had pretty severe dyslexia and Asperger’s (a form of autism). I didn’t think it was fair to sign his recommendation form for level III. So, I had an honest talk with him and his mother. I explained that he really knew his stuff and he could talk in Spanish very well. Then, I explained that in Spanish II and III there was going to be a very strong emphasis on grammar and spelling. And that given his learning difficulties, he would probably be better served taking level two where he could focus almost exclusively on the mechanics because he knew the content so well.

  8. Jennifer what if he just took your class again and the heck with the levels? Languages don’t exist in levels, but in one big flow of sound. The kid succeeds with you, fails with someone else. It is a no-brainer to me. Protect the child from even that level two class, which will be the end of his language study, certainly.

  9. I’ve been rereading the blog all day, trying to find a particular entry on embedded readings. While I have not found that entry, a few of the other posts I have read have just slammed home into my heart again.
    That boy could not have had me again, because he was moving on to high school next year and I was at the middle school. But more than that, it seems the entire system is designed to perpetuate itself. We cannot do multi-level classes because that would mess up the students’ credits for graduation, etc. We cannot let students select their teachers or teachers select their students because they need exposure to a variety of teaching styles.
    But, I think I made the right decision not to sign everyone’s slips that week. I have been like the little stream of water working its way through a dam. We’re not at breakthrough yet, but I can see a steady trickle of water. My most traditional colleague (from Spain) has compimented my Spanish several times recently. She has borrowed some of the texts I have prepared for my students. And, today, I was talking to her about the lack of benefits for homework. She said she is going to try offering students no homework if they work well in class. It’s a start. Another teacher has asked me for the frequency vocabulary list. She wants to make sure she includes these words in her lessons.

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