Report from the Field – Diane Neubauer

Diane reports:

Hi Ben –

I am sending you the copy, without names, of an email I wrote for a parent who complained about jGR – to my supervisors, not to me – recently. (My administrators are great! They are supportive of me.) I share it in case others would be helped by it. Feel free to use or not use.

Thanks!

Diane

Dear (Parent name),

I understand from (my administrators) that you have some concerns about the Interpersonal Communication Skills grade in Chinese class. They have told me some of your comments and questions, (parent’s name), so I will respond to those below. I would welcome meeting by phone or in person to talk through anything related to Chinese class.

One concern was the idea that this grade is new. Actually, I have been using the Interpersonal Communication mode as 25% of students’ grades all school year. Prior to this school year, I had a “Class Comportment” grade that was somewhat related, but students were uninvolved in determining that grade. Through research in foreign language instruction over the past two years, I have come to believe that all three modes of communication should be assessed in students’ grades in a clear way, with a rubric open to students and parents. The “new” part this semester was a better rubric that clarified what grade range was earned by what kind of observable, communicative behaviors during class. The class has discussed how Interpersonal Communication is the set of skills related to “normal” everyday conversations: listening, answering questions, contributing new ideas, asking for clarification when the message is unclear. To quote from the ACTFL standards document (at the bottom of the third page):

“Knowing how, when, and why to say what to whom”

All the linguistic and social knowledge required for effective human-to-human interaction is encompassed in those ten words. Formerly, most teaching in foreign language classrooms concentrated on the how (grammar) to say what (vocabulary). While these components of language are indeed crucial, the current organizing principle for foreign language study is communication, which also highlights the why, the whom, and the when. So, while grammar and vocabulary are essential tools for communication, it is the acquisition of the ability to communicate in meaningful and appropriate ways with users of other languages that is the ultimate goal of today’s foreign language classroom.

I would like (my school’s) Chinese students to excel in these communication skills. Practicing these skills during class, for a grade, is one way to encourage them to develop.

Another concern seemed to be from a misunderstanding of how often this grade is assessed. Last semester, students evaluated themselves about 8 times. I then gave my evaluation, and could talk through any differences of opinion (whether my assessment was higher or lower than the students’ own). I plan to do the same this semester: self-evaluating a few times early in the term to get a “baseline” for this grade, and then less often after that.

There seemed to be concern that this grade has too big an impact on student letter grades. In the case of students who showed improvement over time, I dropped early, low Interpersonal Skills grade from their record. I will do that for (child’s name), too, based on continuing with the improvement that he showed over the past week. He is regularly involved in class discussion and is especially enthusiastic about role playing. Channeling his energy from distracting comments and behaviors and into the flow of class communication is what made the difference. As I mentioned to him privately after school one day last week, I could see that he was in the “A” range most of the time during class that day, and that I knew he could do it. (Child’s name)’s semester 1 grade was in the same range as his grades last year. He finished semester 1 with a B+.

I believe there was also some concern that this grade is punishing to boys specifically. I aim for this grade to encourage more discussion from more introverted students and encourage extroverted students to direct their energy and attention in productive ways that lead to language acquisition. There are both girls and boys in (child’s name)’s class who fit both profiles.

I hope that these explanations help. I have copied (administrators) since you had contacted them with your concerns. Please let me know if you’d like to talk further. Most days after school would work for me (except Tuesdays and some Mondays). Thanks!

Diane

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15 thoughts on “Report from the Field – Diane Neubauer”

  1. this is way badass:

    …it is the acquisition of the ability to communicate in meaningful and appropriate ways with users of other languages that is the ultimate goal of today’s foreign language classroom….

    It’s a smackdown that challenges the parents to think beyond the old paradigm of “we are taking this class for the grade”.

    1. Thanks for posting this, Ben. I appreciate the supportive environment of this PLC (and my colleagues at my school, too). I will be meeting with the parents of this child tomorrow after school. Worst situation I’ve had to face in 6 years of teaching here. I’m blessed that it’s so rare. For many of my colleagues, it’s lots of these kinds of problems!

      That quote comes from this website: http://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/public/StandardsforFLLexecsumm_rev.pdf I have a bookmark to that site on my browser!

  2. This is excellent. If anybody cuts and pastes any of this (Diane has given permission), you may want to add a few things like this in there: (just some suggestions to add or not)

    “I might add that I can no longer focus only on the mechanics of language instruction and still be aligned with the national foreign language standard of Communication and the Three Modes of Communication as defined here:

    http://www.actfl.org/performance-guidelines-faq

    “If you study those standards, you can see how professionally irresponsible it would be on my part if I failed to align my instruction with them.”

    “Moreover, is it not a chief complaint of employers that they are currently having to choose new hires from an increasingly large group of graduates who noticeably lack basic communication skills, whether due to ipods, iphones, social media sites, etc. and just being plugged in?”

    “I would think that, besides the goal of proficiency in a foreign language, a parent would want to have a child who has consciously worked on developing good communication skills in at least some of her secondary school classes. Good communication skills just don’t happen – they have to be developed, like all the other skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace.”

  3. This is great! I also just had to sit down and write a letter to a parent who didn’t agree with my teaching style. Her son “is a straight A student”. This information will be great for me to use.

  4. I’m preparing to meet with the parents of an unhappy 7th grade boy today after school. They say he wants “to be more actively involved”. Given that I am constantly seeking every student’s active involvement, as we all are, I said (in our emails to arrange the meeting) that I would be interested in understanding what he means by “more actively involved.” Dad says? He wants more variety of competitions, activities, role playing, simulations. Their son never wanted to take Chinese but they forced him. Son still doesn’t want to take Chinese, and now they’re blaming me for how I run class and how often their son “feels that I call him out on behavior.”

    There are so many things incorrect in their thinking that I won’t take time here to list. Of course, this is a student in my least cooperative class EVER. They’ve lost many opportunities to play CI-based games or competitions because they argue with me & each other, yell, run around the room, and even wrestle and roll on the floor (in the case of about 3-4 boys most often). These are 12-year-olds, not 5-year-olds. They are not civilized.

    So what I plan to do in that meeting:
    – Hear the parent and reflectively listen. (“Your son tells you that in class, they only sit silently and are allowed to speak.” Oops, that was still a little snarky… how about, “You are concerned that your son does not find class interesting. He tells you that they only read boring stories in class.”)
    – Discuss my priorities in class planning:
    1. CI
    2. Personalization & fun
    3. Classroom management
    And then demonstrate that by, if they will listen, to 2 or 3 days’ lesson plans. Unfortunately, his son’s class causes such problems with #3 to eliminate many #2 options, options that other classes enjoy on a regular basis. His son has been one reason why, though not anymore the main one. They need to understand that must be considered in conducting a class.
    And last goal for the meeting:
    – See if there are ways to increase #2 in my classroom while maintaining #3 sanity. I can always learn more. The Carol Gaab slideshow is going to be very helpful. The “illusion of novelty” is a daily need with that group of kids.

    1. Follow-up: the meeting went very, very well. There were several very big misunderstandings about what my class is like, for one, and those got cleared up. Ex: strong assumptions that I don’t know how to motivate boys who are hyper-competitive, that I want silence in the room and that one interruption means a C grade. These people have no idea what they are talking about! I got to list behavioral issues that would be regular issues in class apart from very careful planning (some happen anyway): blurting, talking over, singing at random times, acting turning into nonsense, competitive games turning into yelling and arguing, wrestling, standing up and walking (or running) around the room.

      I got to illustrate the kinds of activities and expectations for class involvement that I have for every student. I talked about why they have few role plays or games – the above list of behaviors. They had no argument. I think they were taken aback by what these children do when given leeway. So that was good to clear up.

      I got to discuss my supposed “reprimanding” their son frequently & in a way he feels picked on. (This is also preposterous.) After a few minutes they ended up telling me to be direct and firm with him whenever he interrupts class with random comments, English jokes, singing — things I listed as historic problems for their son. They ended up actually saying I should be sharper with him than I am in front of other kids (!).

      I also think that it came off very, very well that I could articulate clearly, referring to research on language acquisition and the brain, my principles for planning class:
      1. CI. I gave them printed information about Comprehensible Input (Helena Curtain article, ACTFL 90% use statement, ACTFL standards FAQ page). Then I described that in examples of class activities (and without the fancy term, I used the concept of i+1). Then I gave recent examples of things my 5th, 6th, and 8th graders are able to do with the language that never happened before focusing on CI. Seemed to come off as really powerful. I talked about the rough transition the 7th grade class had: coming from a lot of textbook use last year, it took them and me time in the fall to adjust. I told them I was (wrongly) expecting them to remember words from the previous school year – and finally came to understand that I was making things way too hard for them. I have since found the level of complexity that they can handle. That got sorted out in the fall.
      2. Personalization and fun. Again, with examples: learning new words, we make up silly gestures and talk about the kids using them (including pretending if the kids will play!); using their ideas into stories and readings; acting; reader’s theater.
      3. Classroom management issues. This, I think I made very clear, is the clincher. I can do a lot with the 5th, 6th, and 8th grades that I cannot do with the 7th. They heard clearly why with examples.

      Then at the end, son was brought in. Mom confronted him with some examples I gave of his disruptions to class; I pulled it back and said I had given some examples – but that I had thought I was seeing a change from him lately. I told him my principles for planning class. I said that if he has ideas of ways to make CI happen in ways he thinks would be fun and that his classmates will be able to handle, I am really interested to hear. In fact, I spend 1-2 hours per day reading ideas from other teachers (you all plus books & notes!). In fact, I have tried many new ideas with his class, and I estimate that 50% of them failed because of student reaction. (He grinned. Honestly, I think this whiny boy starts to see what I’m talking about.) Not everything will fit them. I also talked about how the 5th and 6th graders as they leave class – they have a blast. New thought for him: other kids get this and like it.

      I have now actively recruited one of my most problematic students to be my CI idea man. (Not something to say to very many kids, but in this case it seemed right.) I set it up so that CI is the guiding principle with personalization & fun and classroom management, as the secondary points. So if he gives me lame-o ideas, I can point to these as reasons why that doesn’t fit. But still listen to him and make him feel heard – making it clear that has to be outside of class time or by email. Hey, I’m willing to get good CI ideas from anyone.

      I finished up talking about how one C+ on his Interpersonal Communication grade can be dropped later if he changes (and actually, if he keeps up how he’s already changed in class since that grade). He is acting much more like an A student now and I said so. He looked relieved. And he was silent. Mr. Talker was silenced.

      What this parent conflict has done for me is drive me to condense my principles of teaching into 3 points that are well-documented. My own thinking is clearer which will help to streamline my preparation for classes. I can clearly articulate what and why I do what I do. I feel powerful and confident. I feel like I can go into that 7th grade class and bring a sense of joy in a new, deeper way! I’m there to have fun myself and I’ll see which students can go with me. Aw, too bad, some might not. We’ll just have to find a way to keep them from messing it up for the rest of us.

      Well, like others have said, thanks for letting me use this blog as a place to record my thoughts!

      1. …I think they were taken aback by what these children do when given leeway….

        Love this. Yes, when we can convince a parent just how rude their little Fauntleroys are, it’s a major victory. Very nice indeed.

  5. What you have described above, conflict with students leading to discussions with parents, often crushes teachers, or at least messes them up for about a week and a half. But you flew your airplane up into the cloud and came out in that sunny air beyond it. I am so genuinely impressed by this. I think we all are. You owned it and took action. You are to be congratulated!

  6. I’m going to have to try to channel my inner Diane next time I’m in that boat. Thanks for showing us how it’s done! You rock!!!

  7. Today went quite well with my new Idea Man. He acted like he was anticipating that he’d like whatever I had planned for them to do… a refreshingly cooperative attitude. And turns out he did. Another A in the jGR (I guess I should take the honor of becoming an acronym… dGR.2.

    Another boy that feels “bored” in class and seems to prioritize his personal sense of entertainment, thinking that’s what a foreign language class should do for him. His parents now think that I am asking for silence in the room (ha! the opposite!) and other ridiculous things because their own Fauntleroy tells them so, it appears. So I have just invited them to meet in person, without any complaint from them, only obvious unhappiness from their son. Mom says yes and will tell me when next week will work for them. I invited them in a similar way in an email:
    – I see your son is miserable, at least sometimes, in my class;
    – I want happy students who enjoy learning;
    – I think your son & I have very different takes on what is happening in class;
    – I’d like to find ways to improve things for your son. Would you meet with me?

    The third point is where I will explain my principles for determining class activities, and list specific examples of behaviors that disrupt class. The family apparently think I am an ogre who wants strict silence, no movement, and no student involvement or direction. This is so far from the truth that it must be addressed. They also must understand (or at least respect that I understand) language acquisition through CI, and that is therefore my priority in the class (not what their son thinks sounds like fun to do). Whether or not it gets through, and I pray it does get through, it’s worth doing for my peace and the possible benefit to this child and his classmates if he turns around.

    1. Quick note on this parent and student meeting: went even better, I would say, than with the previous family. This second set of parents seemed more aware and believing the behavior issues of (particularly) a group of boys in the class. They were not upset or defensive as I had expected they might start out. Got those principles of planning class out there & talked about behavioral issues. Also got to contrast with what’s happening in other grade levels.

      Also along the way in talking with them, I got to illustrate why the textbook is not something I am using to guide instruction. (This boy has once or twice acted like not using stuff from the textbook is cheating them somehow.) They acted like CI must indeed be how languages should be taught and acted supportive about how I am conducting class. That’s good. When we had their son back in the room for a closing recap, he said he’d like to have more student ideas in the stories we use. Excellent! I told him about how I didn’t think his class could do “live” stories (and he agreed) but that there are other ways to get their input on content that I think will work. I’m going to use that recently posted fill-in-the-blank approach next time with them. I was pleased that the kid has accepted/bought into somewhat the idea that using stories that we make up is legitimate language learning. That has been an issue with them, too.

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