Paul’s Challenge

Nathaniel wrote in a comment this morning:

…Paul from Denver put out a challenge a few months ago. I cannot get away from it….

I went back and found Paul’s challenge, which was posted as a comment here back on February 15th:

Cher Ben,

We know what we know to be true. And we know that if we don’t do what we know to be true, then we betray our students and ourselves. Students are and have always been the reason we fight when we fight. I do not even do pop-up grammar anymore unless I can do it in 5 seconds or less as I do not want to lose them for 6 seconds, much less 6 weeks. I cannot indulge the one student for a whole minute while the great majority struggle to understand and then feel crappy for having no idea what I talking about. If I can’t explain it in 5 seconds I tell them to stay after class. They never do.

As for people keeping their jobs – I will not judge but do wonder how long one can last doing something you know is ineffective. Honestly, one might as well get into sales and actually make some money. This job is too difficult to do and still wind up feeling like a fake. And in many ways, lots textbook teachers are confronted with feeling like fakes, and that is what animates them. I would rather tell them, “You are not preparing your kids for my class. In my class we re-create the real world where making mistakes is completely natural and only remedied by more input, not rules. Your rules make kids feel stupid and inadequate and what’s even worse, they do not work.”

Parents are usually our allies. Most do not have an agenda that is pro-grammar or pro-ci. They want their students to be enjoying class and learning. Period. Which one does a better job? CI makes enormous sense to them when you explain it to them. They WISH they could have learned the way their kids are learning.

I sympathize with the battle fatigue. The irony is that we are working so much harder than the textbook people that there is an imbalance of energy! I do not know that the answer is to getting worn down other than that I am more miserable not fighting than fighting.

One of my classes the other day asked about learning grammar. I told them it is a separate skill and unrelated to communicating at this stage in their learning. The puzzled look on their faces begged for an example. I said, “You are all fluent speakers of English, some from birth, yes? Please, can someone conjugate the verb “to be” for me?” I have a room full of smart sophisticated kids. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. “So, you guys just told me that you that you were fluent speakers of English, and yet you cannot conjugate the verb “to be”. I guess I am mistaken. Apparently your ability to communicate in English is not what I thought it was.” They laughed. Of course, they wanted me to conjugate the verb. I did so. I could’ve gone on at length about how “be” is a copula verb and not a pseudo-copular verb like become, get, feel or seem. To their good fortune I refrained from impressing them with the gleanings of my graduate level generative grammar class. They said “Ohhh.” “So class, is it possible to speak the language without knowing how to conjugate verbs?” When it is all said and done, lawyers, doctors, scientists and artists all live their lives without being able to recite grammar rules.

A good number of our students will not get to the level of language required for grammar rules to make sense. The overwhelming majority of them will have no desire to continue language study if they are bored and annoyed and feeling inadequate with meaningless rules untethered to a language experience. If and when they do have their mojo working, then it will not be necessary to coerce them into building a monitor.

Fortunately for me – you understand me 100%. Can’t wait to see you this summer!

Love, Paul

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9 thoughts on “Paul’s Challenge”

  1. The irony is that we are working so much harder than the textbook people that there is an imbalance of energy!

    I know we work hard. We do! It is hard work to deliver input class after class week after week. It is hard emotional work to get up there and build community, day after day, with kids who do not even (some of them) know what true community feels like. That is why any little thing that lightens that load, like jettisoning targets, like student jobs, I jump on it.

    I also feel like this kind of hard work GIVES energy because it is real and authentic, as opposed to getting up every morning and dreaming up more “fun” and “creative” ways of putting lipstick on the grammar pig. That is an energy suck.

    Yes my parents – some of Oregon’s wealthiest, most influential, and most demanding parents – love what their kids are accomplishing in my classes. They truly (most of them) have no dog in the grammar – whole language fight. They just want their kids to feel good about language class and make progress in the language. They are an articulate bunch and they have almost unanimously articulated to me that they love our methods. It is not me, it is the methods, I tell them.

  2. One of my top Sp 2 students told me last week:
    1) He loves the way we have been doing class with stories, and prefers it to textbooks/grammar.
    2) It is much harder to follow along in class and be ready to participate.

  3. Oh yes. I remember this post. The following part jumped out at me before and still jumps out.

    “A good number of our students will not get to the level of language required for grammar rules to make sense. The overwhelming majority of them will have no desire to continue language study if they are bored and annoyed and feeling inadequate with meaningless rules untethered to a language experience. ”

    It is the response I try to give to everyone who tried to call me out after they nodded politely or even genuinely and said “that is a great creative method, I wish I learned that way in HS!” Inevitably after said comments there would be a big BUT, followed by 1) “…but are you preparing them to go into Spanish 2(3,4, etc) if they move to another district?” 2)”What about preparation for college language classes?”

    1) NO I AM NOT PREPARING THEM FOR ANOTHER PROGRAM IN ANOTHER SCHOOL THAT THEY MAY OR MAY NOT ATTEND. We are having a language experience as community NOW!!!

    1a) YES! I am preparing them by giving them language experience rather than linguistics class taught in English. They are participating in a Spanish speaking community here in this class. Whatever language gains they make will stay with them. They have the advantage of hearing and interacting IN the language. If/when they go to another program they will have that advantage. They will also likely learn a lot of charts. But guess what? The kids already in that program doing the charts forget them right after the test, so lil’ Johnny won’t really be all that “behind.”

    2)The colleges are the last ones to get on the acquisition bus, so NO. I am not preparing them for their college grammar fest.

    2a) I am not going to design my program based on a micro-percentage of kids likely to take a college Spanish course, let alone micro mini percentage of kids who *may* become Spanish majors. My job is not to create Spanish majors. My job is to listen to kids and do my best to mirror to them their innate greatness at whatever it is they love. We have many students who choose other options besides college. I’m designing my program as a course in relevant life skills: listening, taking turns speaking, asking for clarification, being open and curious about the conversation partner in front of you, seeing them as a person, sustaining a conversation, being open to finding out something new, building a community out of many different types of people, practicing kindness. The Spanish they pick up from this process will stay with them because they got it from real interacting and not memorizing.

    2b) If they do go to college, they will be prepared because they interacted in the language and participated in a Spanish speaking community. By the time they get to college, if they have taken several semesters of Spanish with me, the verb charts and stuff will be so easy because they will be ready for that analysis and monitoring piece. They will still rely on “what sounds right” and then the charts will give them a filing system and maybe even spark another aspect of their interest in language. But no, I am not going to speculate on what their future Spanish classes will be about.

    I feel the “work” part of this. It is real work, and if we are not careful and we get into that martyr / savior syndrome that is expected of teachers, it is unsustainable. AND the real work we do, that is difficult and challenging and sometimes even grueling, is also sparkling in a way that we cannot reach if we did not do this! Balance. Equanimity. From Patañjali Yoga Sutra: “Sthira sukham asanam.” Posture is to be cultivated with the two qualities of steadiness and ease. (“Posture” is not just on the mat…it’s anything to which we direct attention and effort.)

    1. Jen was asked:
      1) “…but are you preparing them to go into Spanish 2(3,4, etc) if they move to another district?”

      “Are you referring to the type of class where they use English to talk about Spanish grammar?” Why are people so worried about where they might go? And while we are trying to imagine where all these students will go who are leaving our district… What if they go to Fort Collins or Denver? What if they get transferred to Spain?

      2)”What about preparation for college language classes?”

      Agreed, Jen. What do college teachers want at the advanced level? My recollection is that they wanted students who could read, follow along, write essays, take notes without continuously slowing down the class. Fluency is more important than grammar, as I recall.

      I had an “entrance exam” at UCONN as a transfer student. The professor pulled a book off of his shelf, opened it to page one, and asked me to translate the first sentence. I did not know “river bank.” He was satisfied that I was ready for culture and lit courses conducted in the target language.

      Professors as a lot are not trained in SLA, as BVP wrote some time back. But they want lit/culture students who can communicate. There may be a disconnect in there goal and the path they try to take to get to that goal, but they take that path because it is the only path they know. Admittedly, there are a few grammar perfectionists out there in university land, but nobody is going to prepare them for those professors.

      Blaine just wanted to train kids to answer his questions and he got 100 AP passes in three years.

      1. Yes Nathaniel it is not a challenge at all now to get a 3 or above on the AP exam in level 3, for average students who just pay attention. That’s cake. My best example is the student who got a 4 on the French AP exam in level 2 while answering all 70 questions correctly on the National French Exam that year. I remember looking at that kid while doing stories. It was like feeding a computer. Cake.

    2. But guess what? The kids already in that program doing the charts forget them right after the test, so lil’ Johnny won’t really be all that “behind.”

      THIS IS EXACTLY MY THINKING JEN!

      Oh my, you just put into words what I have felt for years. The second year teachers slice off arbitrary hunks of language – e.g. the imperfect tense. Then the class dissects, studies, memorizes, manipulates forms, etc. So the more scientifically- and mathematically-inclined kids “get it” and everyone else either crams it in for the test or doesn’t get it and concludes “French is not for me”. But WHAT does knowing the “content” (grammar/vocab) from the year one textbook do for kids in that situation? Does knowing the random slices of language that one would “cover” in a grammar-based year one class make a kid ready to tackle other, different random language slices in year two? I think not and I am betting the farm on that. I am betting the farm that not only will little Johnny not be all that far behind, but he will also be more motivated to persevere, through the grammar lessons, because he had a real, authentic connection to the language in my class back in eighth grade at the middle school.

    3. My job is to listen to kids and do my best to mirror to them their innate greatness at whatever it is they love.

      jen you are so on it in this reply. I want this on a poster in the back of the room. I want this on my CV. Or maybe on my grave. No better epilogue:

      She listened to kids and mirrored their innate greatness back to them.

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