There is Hope

This article first appeared here in June of 2008:

Jody Noble sent me, some months ago, a text written about foreign language education in our country by Dr. Jack Richards. Here is a portion of the text:

“In the last decade or so language teaching has also been influenced by concepts and practices from the corporate world. Schools are increasingly viewed as having similar characteristics to other kinds of complex organizations in terms of organizational activities and processes and can be studied as a system involving inputs, processes, and outputs.

“Teaching is embedded within an organizational and administrative context and [is] influenced by organizational constraints and processes. In order to manage schools efficiently and productively it is necessary to understand the nature of the organizational activities that occur in schools, the problems that these activities create, and how they can be effectively and efficiently managed and controlled….

“This management-view of education has brought into language teaching concepts and practices from the commercial world, with an emphasis on planning, efficiency, communication processes, targets and standards, staff development, learning outcomes and competencies, quality assurance, strategic planning, performance appraisal, and best practice. We have thus seen a movement away from an obsession with pedagogical processes to a focus on organizational systems and processes and their contribution to successful language programs.”

Jody then added:

“Ben, this article was very interesting to me in light of what you wrote in your Jonah Salk post [on this blog on Sunday, March 16th, 2008]… We forget how the history of our profession, the influence of politics and money, have influenced how we believe, not just how we think and act….

[This next is the part of what Jody wrote that got to me] –

“We squint through dirty glasses, have tissue stuffed in our ears, talk with gum in our mouths while we surrender to the forces around us as though they were real. I worry. We protect our jobs. We’ve given up. We have no heros. We assimilate the oppressors’ ideas as our own. Where is the rage?…”.

[My response to Jody follows}:

I would add a personal opinion to this. As long as even one person believes that reaching students in the classroom, and not all the things connected to the “business” of education described so well by Dr. Richards, has value, then we are going to be all right, even though it doesn’t seem like it right now. Lasting change happens slowly.

I base my optimism on the fact that the kids that I am seeing now are different somehow. Perhaps it their connection to the electronic spheres, or a kind of intolerence of teacher bullshit in the classroom that is new in kids. Whatever the reason, the kids have an edge today that they didn’t before, in my opinion.

As we speak, American kids just spent another year busting down, in various ways, on teachers who base their instruction on books and other traditional methods. They didn’t walk out of the classrooms physically, but they did mentally, which, I guess, is nothing new, but they did it with more style.

Book teachers in the past used to call the kids out for not hanging with them, the teachers, and they got away with it. Now, it’s reversing – kids are calling teachers out for not hanging with them. They are hearing language classes down the hallway where kids are acting, playing, and laughing their asses off. The actions of non-cooperation of these kids who want something better reflects the type of resistance done by Ghandi, or, if that is pushing it too much, at least Joan Baez.

And then, whenever I read about what we are doing and go to conferences and meet the people who are bringing the change, I just can’t take Richards’ description of the corporate death grip too seriously.

Jody, this was a great point you raised, and you describe it in terms that are poetic – those dirty glasses, those ears filled with tissue and the mouths full of gum. And it is, in fact, a very accurate description of the kind of junk going on in American foreign language classrooms.

But, honestly, we have so much to be hopeful about. We know better. We know from personal experience something that people who haven’t tried it don’t know yet – that even one good story can create an unbelievable buy-in from our students. It can instantly create clarity of purpose and joy, not just in the kids, but also in the teacher.

So it is my belief that these fears, very soon, will be shown to be largely unfounded. The worst is probably right now. We’ll be through it soon.

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