Nice Letter

Every once in a while I catch up with one of the great Spanish teachers in this world – Laura Avila. She teaches in Maine, not far from Anne Matava. Old timers here know that she has had her finger on the pulse of best practices in our field for years and years. Here is a letter I got from her today, which I proudly share below. Laura’s ideas run against the grain of the CI movement of today, and the letter is lengthy, but I apologize for neither. As Ben Franklin said, here paraphrased: ” Nobody is thinking if everyone is thinking alike.” Laura is a true CI warrior, a fighter for the pure research, and in my ears her words below about our crazy profession ring true as a bell:

Hi Ben,

I have decided to go back this coming school year to true teaching, that is teaching for acquisition via the Ultimate CI approach. 

This past school year for me was as bad as it gets. Our school was in hybrid mode all year. This meant that I had two cohorts for each class (=twelve classes for me). Students had one class per week for every course they took, and one-half hour zoom class per week per course. Administration wanted 70 to 80% of the grade to be summative assessments, and they requested we give weekly homework. 

We had a few days throughout the year that were fully remote for that day’s cohort because of quarantine or snow. I initially tried to do some meaningful teaching with a story during such days, but quickly gave up after a parent got extremely irate at me for having asked her daughter (how dare I) to leave her phone down and show her face and not her head. Not worth my sanity. 

So I decided that in this context – the year of Covid – I did not have the energy or motivation to find a way to teach using your ideas. It was a big loss to all, especially to the kids. My colleagues in the FL department kept doing what they were doing before the pandemic with their grammar-based instruction. For them it was a pretty easy year. 

So I taught with TPRS, using what it has become, having now strayed so far from Blaine’s original vision. I taught for learning and not acquisition. I used tprs stories, plus some other good ones I had accumulated from the ‘old’ days. Most of the kids—there’s always a few sour grapes—did their best to make the stories come alive. I can be a performer if I want, and my performance plus the good heartedness of the kids allowed for some good times throughout the year. 

I spent countless hours preparing assignments (interactive slideshows, google forms, what not) so that assignments could have some meaning and reinforce what we did in class. I also was ready to quit in November when I got attacked by three mothers who didn’t like that I followed administrations instructions for homework. I offered the principal my resignation in February when one mother wouldn’t relent on her borderline racist attacks. To his credit, he supported me, but it all left me very drained.

I really appreciate—and couldn’t agree more with—your comments throughout your ‘Ultimate’ books about the limitations of teaching with TPRS. As I said, I had mostly really good kids that put their best foot forward in trying to make something out of what I presented to them. 

Targeted vocabulary takes the life out of all of us. I found that for me, once I had that script and assignment prepared, I felt the ‘safety’ of my plan, and the teaching was really easy to do. We all pretended. We pretended we were having fun. We tried, but we all knew it wasn’t real. It was a farce just as what my colleagues did before and during the pandemic with their grammar points and worksheets. 

Targeted vocabulary, no matter how great the story line is, to me, is still targeted vocabulary. Students are allowed to “fill-in the blanks”, and the teacher—through the two/three structures—tells  the class what it is they need to remember (aka, know). There is no collective creation, no image, no heart to bind us and the language together in a meaningful way, and of course no ownership and limited doings of the ‘unconscious’. Boredom was oozing out of my skull (plus exhaustion, plus sadness) much like it was before you came up with your new books.

Throughout this past year, I could clearly see that what the students trained with the Ultimate CI ideas from pre-pandemic times (your masterpiece: A Natural Approach to Stories) could remember, came from their past characters or OWIs. Time and time again they would long for the pants with lips who didn’t want to get washed, or the avocado who was afraid of becoming guacamole, etc. and they not only had the image in their minds, they could easily retrieve the language from many months prior (the seniors too from when they were freshmen!). 

I could also very clearly see that the freshmen not trained with The Invisibles were automatons. All students in every class could only remember the language for their assessment, but there was not much left in the unconscious mind that could be retrieved at the end of the year. We survived because even tprs is better than the “Pierre et Marie voient par la fenetre” of my long ago high school years. Of course, there are always a few that are very happy to go memorize and come back to show off to their classmates how much better they are (these students will have some adapting to do in the fall if they are to stay in Spanish).

I really needed to get my head back into the world of true acquisition that you have worked so hard to put together. I like how you’ve made the StarChart Curriculum more clear to see and understand. It was all there in The Invisibles book too but a little less clear. There is a lot to take in and understand, especially for newer teachers. 

I like how you emphasize the WBYT rule, the ‘new’ Jesús rule and the classroom management piece that is instrumental in the success of the class. You’ve simplified the reading options and you got rid of the time line. I’ve thought about this. I don’t need a time line for the different activities on the Create phase. I know that after a while they all die down, and you move on to the next or you vary what you’ve been doing. I just wonder if someone newer would find it helpful to have such a time line? 

You’ve added a Culture activity on the Extend phase. Maybe this is good for those trying to switch over from teaching for learning to acquisition. It is also a crack in the door for “time off” from the intensity of teaching if one wanted to take a break. I see myself using this activity only if I already have something in my files that suits the purpose of the week/class and that I don’t have to go out of my way to find and prepare. I have always thought, and still do, that teaching “Culture” is at best a waste of time. I don’t see culture as separate from the language itself or who I am and the way most people understand ‘culture’ is a bag full of stereotypes. 

I’ve never had the consistency to follow through with the videographer jobs. Mostly because I forget. I am going to try harder this year because I think it could be really good to have the recordings at the end of the year when we are all dried out from interacting and creating—that stretch after April vacation can be never ending.

You really cleaned things up and made your books for true acquisition! You had already done this with The Invisibles, but it is clearer in the Ultimate CI books…” The older books like ANATTY that you co-authored just weren’t that useful to me. So good not to have that “Spa week” in there. I always try things out and see what works for me and my students. This “Spa” week was no spa for me or for my kids. I tried it one quarter and never again because it was a drain for all. I haven’t been following anyone in the CI community – they have strayed from the goal badly, in my humble opinion.

Another good thing that I see in your last two books is that you give considerable space to The Research. There is plenty in there to defend one’s work if one gets questioned. I’m hoping that this coming year I won’t have to do this. Maybe I will have to if/when I get questioned by one of those angry parents when I hold their ‘perfect’ child accountable using the ISR. Maybe I’ll need it when the curriculum coordinator of the district summons FL to review our curriculum which is a time of negotiation between me and the French teacher who of course has the coordinator’s ear. I will come ready with my spatial Star Curriculum—what a beauty it is—and give her the ‘one-two punch’. Now I am ‘older’, I’m on the side of the research, being a native speaker can have its advantages, and I’m not afraid. 

Finally, I wanted to purchase from your website a Star Curriculum (without all the activities) so the tech lady at school could print it for me, but it is nowhere to be found. I will check again next month to see if it is available for purchase. Having the Star printed out in front of the class will be handy when kids ask the inevitable: What are we doing today? I can just answer: Where did we leave off on the Star last class/week? 

Thank you so much Ben, for what you’ve contributed to teaching FL: being true to the research and to acquisition, for your honesty, for your efforts and for trusting in me and all of us who know you are plain right. 

Laura

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