Laura Avila on COVID

Hi Ben,

I’ve browsed through some of the postings and comments on your blog after the closure of schools. One comment from you resonates in my mind and I paraphrase: that the future of the teaching of FL will be online.

Maybe you are right, and that is the sad direction we are moving in, a regression. What I can say from my experience in online “teaching,” is that there can’t ever be true acquisiton of a language without face to face interaction. Maybe some learning.

I have explored everything I think there is to explore in trying to come up with assignments for my classes at each level. I produce assignments, but I think they are a joke, a box we are all checking: for me to justify still getting paid; for my students to justify their grade; for the parents to keep their kids busy doing something that is not playing video-games or banging around the house. All a charade, in my opinion. It is what we do because we have no other choice, given the current circumstances.

I have either checked, used, or created different resources for  “busy time,” The following comments are only my own opinion:

Duolingo is shameful. I have tried it with other languages far from the romance languages, such as Norwegian and Arabic. You advance from level to level thinking you are doing great, but at the end nothing really sticks, everything is so out of context that you can’t remember a full sentence about anything. No human interaction. A box checked.

Another shameful resource is Fluency Fast, with their expensive packets of readings with activities and quizzes. It looks good for administrators and checking a box. My district was willing to pay for this, but I would be ripping them off if I had created a P.O. Their product is based on a class reading the same book that I would have to choose. No student choice for what they feel comfortable reading. No reflection of what you say about how the novels are a ripoff in disguise. No human interaction. A box checked.  

Then there are short videos, audios etc. I have created listening assignments with my voice, used other’s narrations of stories, adapted videos into slideshows, readings with activities, you name it. Maybe with some luck, some students will remember in September what they were able to acquire before the closedown. But as far as growth, the growth in acquisition that I was counting on seeing in June to lead us into the next year, that is impossible for online “teaching.”

Online “teaching” also leaves behind the slow processors, the ones that need to hear and read the language much more than the rest, the ones that are in my class because they feel good, accepted and part of the group (human interaction) but don’t see themselves doing anything with Spanish, not just after the year ends, but right after the bell rings.

Finally, some might see the future of FL in video conferencing a la Zoom. It is another fallacy in thinking, if we want acquisition. Maybe the grammar teachers can make this (or the flipped class) work. There is no need for face to face interaction in that kind of language instruction. You present the content and students can ask questions while in the video conference and then do work on their own.

Without human interaction we can only expect to perpetuate the teaching models we’ve had up to now: exposition of content and, to quote Alisa, “workshits.” But maybe this is the only true possibility for FL in the school system. I am one of three FL teachers, the only that teaches with The Invisibles. I have a truck load of students, between 40-50% more than my French colleague textbook teacher.

However, I know that many students don’t take my Spanish classes because they don’t like not having the security of a book, the memorization, a robotic plan, and they don’t like the interaction, don’t want to be bothered by having to make eye contact (God forbid).

There are many such students and teachers throughout this country that can’t handle that lack of control. So you might be right about the direction the teaching that FL will take after Covid-19, but it certainly won’t mean acquiring a language.




8 thoughts on “Laura Avila on COVID”

  1. I have, surprisingly, in discussion with three teachers about online teaching in the past week, heard some good things about reaching kids over the internet with language instruction. I think Carly is succeeding. What I mean by “succeeding” is “engaging without force”. (That is my definition of success in FL instruction.)

    The three are, of course, our Carly and our new group member Diego Ojeda in KY as well, and also Corinne Bourne in CA. I’ll post an email I just got from Corinne here after I finish writing this comment.

    On the other hand, I’ve never read anything by Laura that wasn’t true. All I can say for myself at this point in my work with the Invisibles is that I do have hope. I think they might be able to do it. The new Zoom trainings for teachers will show me yea or nay whether they will work or not with students, because if they don’t work online with them, they won’t work with any kids. There is maybe a 10%-20% chance. If they don’t, at least I tried.

    We’re not talking about getting everyone to actually show up in our Zoom classes, are we? That ain’t gonna happen. The BIGGEST problem with the Zoom format is attendance, is it not? Aren’t we talking here about figuring out ways to reach the kids and make them acquire? (We know that the only kids who will show up are the ones who want to learn, which in the USA in our schools is by my guess probably about 20% of them.)

    All that said, I am inclined – at the end of the day if I had to vote yes or no on this – to completely agree, in spite of the reservations mentioned in this comment, with what Jenna says.

  2. And why is this discussion important? It is, in my opinion, that if our jobs do involve greater and greater amounts of online teaching, many of us could soon be out of jobs, such is the stress on all parts of our society right now. (Greg told me that Krashen has been talking about this new “blended” teaching in FL for the future – where we don’t go into the building five days a week but do it online for one or two days a week.)

    Just yesterday, there was a headline in Yahoo news (I think) that says that 275,000 teachers are already out of jobs.

    I am so glad that in 1988 I made the decision to leave Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, SC , a private school, to go teach at the public Myrtle Beach High School. I did that based on a sudden realization that private schools divide communities along social, racial and economic lines. I wasn’t gonna be a part of that. I was fortunate, but still lost six years to my retirement income bc back then private in SC private schools were not included in the state retirement system.

    If you are a young teacher in a private school, think about these things. Public schools may be shit crazy to teach in, but at least they won’t crumble in economic downturns.

  3. “Blended” teaching? The way teachers have their students pull out their laptops or Chromebooks from bell to bell, they might as well just teach from home. I grieve about this.

    But, in schools like mine, where 20% + of students have IEPs, and 95%+ have free-reduced lunch, as is the case for just about every neighborhood high school in Chicago, the school building is the only space where students can get away from distractions that keep them from reading or writing. So, I don’t think anyone invested in my school community, or invested in just about any of the Chicago Public Schools for that matter, want teachers to teach classes remotely. We see it, rather, as a necessary evil. I assure you, the mighty Chicago Teachers Union would fight against undue, extended remote learning. I read the CTU’s emails all the time and many of them lament the inequity of remote learning.

    So, yeah. I’ll take your call to teach in public schools even further, Ben. Teaching in marginalized communities is the where future of CI may just as well live.

    Even if CI teaching works remotely, who, by the love of God, has the motivation to teach to a screen?

    1. Passionately said, my brother. I’ve taught in 7 buildings over my 40 years. 3 were for the rich, 1 was a mix, which translates into “for the rich” because of the inherent racism of the system, and 3 were for kids like yours. Helping the few/rich kids get a shinier portfolio always made me feel small, like a 19th c. tutor. Helping the kids who had nothing always made me feel bigger, and more important. Once in a big class of 40 in Denver, one of my students was on an IEP. At his meetings with his mom, a waitress, with no dad in the picture, I would listen to the other teachers explain how he struggled, with nothing positive to say. Then, always going last, I would praise him to the sky, because he deserved it, because he got what I was trying to do. This gave me a chance to lecture the other “professionals” in the room about how language learning only requires positivity and what Melvin brought to class. So yeah, Sean, you have my full support on the great truth contained in what you said above that teaching “in marginalized communities is the where future of CI may just as well live.” We’re gonna win this one. All of us together, we’re gonna take the struggle further down the road and give it life and not let it end. I never thought I would get all riled up so late in life. I thought those fights back in the day, the fight for equality, would go away. But it never did. If anything, once I got my teeth into language teaching and started bowling for equity in our profession, my life has been better. Why is it that way? It doesn’t matter. There’s a fight to fight and we will fight to the end.

      I’ve always felt like this song could have been written about the Struggle:

  4. Laura, I am so happy you wrote this and shared it with us!

    I’ve been able to slip by during this remote teaching, COVID, situation. I really haven’t “taught” much at all and been able to get away with it since my admin knows I have 3 little kids at home. They also have a favorable opinion of me, anyways. Phew!

    I’m sure I could have squeezed in a teaching video here or there a couple of times a week if I was really motivated to do so. But I am not. No motivation whatsoever. I’ve been following my heart these days. Not only has my heart has been telling me to get up from the computer and walk the baby when it cries, but to avoid the computer altogether. Or, at least, avoid that extra school-work BS like “engagement trackers” and “advisory meetings” yadda yadda yadda. Rather, I finished reading Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, a book I had been staring down for months. Then Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (a great read about the death penalty and injustice) and now on El bosque de los pigmeos, a young adult fiction by Isabel Allende.

    It’s been a real pleasure to sleep more, get more time with the kids, and read more, all in one! I’m not trying to ruin it with school-work BS. And my students aren’t into the BS either. If they really want to work on something, they can do Khan Academy for math. That seems straightforward enough, if they’re motivated. And they can pleasure read. I’d like to think that they pleasure reading habits we’ve cultivated in class have carried over into these COVID times. Maybe a little bit, it has. And I’ve been prodding, here and there, to encourage kids to read (English is fine, of course) through Google Classroom or email.

    I’m saying all this, Laura, to show how much I appreciate you trying to make the remote learning work. It’s as much of an awakening to have tried and failed as having tried and succeeded. I appreciate you for keeping up at it, too, Ben. But I’m doubtful. If foreign language teachers are being pushed to do remote learning indefinitely, we need to find alternatives.

  5. “If foreign language teachers are being pushed to do remote learning indefinitely, we need to find alternatives.”
    This is pretty much my point Sean.
    I’ve had many zoom meetings with my classes. Our administrators require them. About 30% show up. The motivated ones. The ones that get up by 1PM when meetings start. They mostly want to visit. I like them, so I like seeing them and visiting.
    However, trying to pull off a story as in the Invisibles is just crazy to me. What are they looking at??? I get the stare, no feedback. I feel I am talking to a great big void. Absolutely NO ENERGY. And without energy, there is no joy, without joy, there is no point in the Invisibles.
    Online learning of a FL is not for acquisition. I don’t know what Krashen is talking about with “blended teaching”. Does he mean acquisition? He probably knows something I don’t and can’t see because I am not a master teacher or thinker.

  6. Well this is a fine cup of tea. The next two days I’ve got two Zoom Invisibles trials with two groups of teachers. So by Tuesday afternoon I’ll know if I can pull off the Invisibles in a Zoom setting. I totally hear you Laura and you are always direct and honest and always right. So we will see. I have hope, but I’m not a dumbass either. We’ll see. Even if I can’t get classroom level mojo going, I’ll be training these teachers for when they get back in their classrooms. It’s just that the state of the art on the Invisibles since we did that work in Maine in 2017 has really gone up. It’s so good.

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