My Mom Says I Have to Have an A

This is going up on the Primers hard link and also staying here as a sticky post for awhile. Since it is in the Primers, we can all just go and copy it when we need it. This is a must-have document.  I will share it with my students next week by projecting it up on the screen. It would be a great move right before first term grades come out in each new academic year. This is a major document for us, like so many other of the Primer articles.

Robert Harrell shares:

Hi Ben,

With some of the conversation that has been going on recently on the blog, I thought I would share the following e-mail exchange I had with a student today. Since the student asked, I decided to be straightforward and blunt. Names have been redacted to protect identities. Earlier in my career and before jGR, I probably would not have written a reply quite like this, but I certainly have assessed the situation.

Robert

On 5 May 2016 at 13:30, [concerned student] wrote:

Hello Herr Harrell,
I was just wondering if there was anything that I can do to makeup my grade to an A. Please let me know because a B is not okay with me or my mom! haha. Let me know what I can do to improve.
Thanks!!!!!!
-[concerned student] (P:3)

Hi [Concerned Student],

Thanks for your e-mail. The best thing that you can do to improve your grade is actually very simple yet deceptively difficult. You know that a significant portion of your grade is based on the Interpersonal Communication Rubric. This is because Interpersonal Communication is actually the primary means by which people acquire a foreign language since it is based on making certain that the German you hear is understandable and gives you ample opportunity to indicatewhen it is not and then negotiate meaning so that it becomes understandable. The Rubric is adapted from the guidelines of the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages and describes what Interpersonal Communication looks like. You know it as the orange (goldenrod) sign that I point to regularly. As indicated by the rubric, a key component of Interpersonal Communication is actually participating in the communication, and that is where your grade reflects your struggle to meet the standard shown on the rubric.

Sustaining Focus, a key component of rigor, is more difficult for some people than for others, so I try to find ways to help with that focus. One of those mechanisms is the brain break that I try to give at various times during the period. Another support mechanism is assigned seating so that you are less distracted by sitting next to your friends. That is why I assigned you, [guy student], and [girl student] seats away from one another. However, you have chosen to move so that you can sit next to [guy student], and you spend your time in class talking to him and [girl student]. That means you are not participating in the class’s conversation, not listening with the intent to understand, not clarifying when you don’t understand, not contributing to the class conversation in German, not focusing on the class, and not giving 100% effort to your part of the conversation – all elements of the Interpersonal Communication Rubric. As a result, your Interpersonal Communication grade is lower than it could be, and even then it is as high as it is because I am being gracious to you.

I would like for your concern to be about how much German you are acquiring. If you were actively interested in acquiring German, your grade would not be an issue, but since you asked specifically about the grade, here is what you need to do:
– Choose to engage in a single conversation with the entire class in German (This may mean moving back to your assigned seat and away from [guy student] and [girl student], but you will have to decide what is more important to you.)
– Choose to sustain focus on what the class is doing, and not on what [guy student]and [girl student] have to say.
– Choose to listen with the intent to understand and ask for clarification when the German is not comprehensible.
– Choose to contribute to the whole-class conversation
– Choose to give 100% to doing your job in the class
As I indicated above, this is really quite simple but deceptively difficult. You have to begin by deciding what you want. If it is to acquire German, I am more than happy to help.

Thanks again for your e-mail.

Herr Harrell

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44 thoughts on “My Mom Says I Have to Have an A”

  1. Vinatage Robert. If more teachers required this from their students, we wouldn’t have such a mess in education. The students would actually have to become STUDENTS and not MANIPULATORS.

    1. And how much less [guy student], and [girl student] drama would be have? If boys and girls were expected to communicate more as intellectuals?

      1. Little girls feeling like they’re just a distraction in school is not okay. Until we do what Robert does and call out little boys who treat girls that way, invading our space when we’re trying to communicate-nothing’s gonna change. TPRS in Robert’s class might be the only chance girls get to be treated like they get to “show up.”

        The fact is research on girls in the classroom is horrifying. In the average classroom, girls are 3 times more likely to be interrupted, and every study out there shows that even when we go out of our way to call on students fairly, we don’t really. Dale Spender did a study where girls only contributed 15% of the classroom discussion, but that number increased to 38% (still unfair) when teachers were actively trying to get girls to talk; although the boys reported they “felt neglected during the teaching ex­periment.” Other studies show when males (male instructors and male students) are asked to rate their perception on how much girls talked, while females were more accurate, the males in the room dramatically over-estimated how often females talk. They perceive us as verbose , if our talk time goes from 15% to 38% because we’re female, so we’re supposed to be quiet, right? And then we wonder why anorexia and teenage pregnancy plague our schools. And why girls grow up and end up in bad relationships where they are supposed to just be quiet.

        1. Oops, I just realized Robert was writing to a female student. Sorry, I’ve been listening to too much Lana recently.

          1. I deliberately did not state whether the student was male or female because that part was irrelevant, really. All three of those students have approached me recently about their grades, and I have told all of them essentially the same thing. So far it has produced no significant or lasting change in behavior.

          2. The period in question just started, and [Concerned Student] came in and sat down with [Boy Student] and [Girl Student], so once again nothing has changed.

  2. Haha, I don’t know why but I also assumed it was a guy Robert was responding too. I guess I’m just as prejudiced as the next person – how awful!

  3. Thanks for this, Robert. It is so good for me to know that you veterans have these same behaviors going on, and it does not bring down the department. It’s just part of the job that we have to learn to manage. I’m going to get more subtle, more honest, and more confident at managing the class as the years go on. I’m writing that to remind myself. Even Robert has kids who don’t stay in their assigned seats and who disengage from the CI.

  4. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Ugh. Thank goodness I can just tell my lil kiddies to please trade seats or take a hallway break til they’re ready to rejoin! I dunno how I’d deal with a constant distracter ‘thumbing’ my efforts like that…

    1. I have two other students who are usually pretty good, but this week were having “issues”. The girl said she couldn’t be in the same room with the guy – the same guy that she wanted to sit next to last week. It was obviously interfering with my ability to conduct class, so yesterday I put them in the glass-enclosed atrium across the hall from my room and told them to get it settled. They were there for pretty much the whole period yelling at each other. At the end of the period, I said that I hoped they had gotten things settled, but whatever they did outside of class, they were to leave it outside when they walked into my room. Today they were in different parts of the room and managed to ignore one another.

      Wish we could limit the drama to the theater.

  5. Steven Ordiano

    Conflict and drama are inevitable. In our trainings they are saying that it is a natural part of life. What?! I see it as normalized rather than natural.

  6. Robert I keep reading this again and again. It’s going in my new book because you already gave me permission to put anything you wrote in my books. I feel so liberated, supported, and vindicated as a teacher when I read the words that you plainly laid out for this kid. It is a truly great document. Any of us who fail to “tell this story” to our students by projecting the above to them in the first few months of any academic year are missing a golden opportunity to avoid problems later in the year. Notice when he asks for the A. When it’s too late. I don’t know, but I get the feeling that when teachers roll over to requests like this, which they do by the millions especially at this time of year, we are creating the next generation of Donald Trumps, who think, “Aren’t people SUPPOSED to do what I want in life?”

  7. This is a priceless thread. We all have these kids. We all have the same conversation / point to rubric / explain rubric / give examples, etc. The truth is that (at least from my own observations) we seem to be the only teachers who are addressing this issue head on. “This issue” meaning insisting on students practicing the rigor of attention and sustained focus in a face to face group conversation.

    Just yesterday I witnessed two examples of egregious inattentiveness that really made me aware that I’m doing more than I thought (despite my frustrations and constant battle with inattentive students). 1) I was invited to be on a panel to “judge” student silent films for an English class. The teacher is a well-loved and well-respected young English teacher who won Teacher of the Year a couple years ago. I was astounded at the behavior. Compared to what I have in my class with many of the same students, it made me feel “I am ok!” Nonstop talking and joking and rude comments. Her management style is different from mine, but students still disregarded it. I don’t take this to be a “typical” class for her and I don’t judge it, but it was helpful for me to see that we ALL struggle. Doesn’t matter what we teach, or how “popular” or “rigorous” we are in our subject areas. It also made me realize that I have been beating myself up a lot more than I needed to. I know this teacher has impeccable unit plans, creative projects, strong use of the school wide rubrics and “doesn’t give many As.” Egregious disrespect in the classroom was not something I expected to see.

    2) WE had a meeting in the library of junior class advisories. Principal was presenting many (truly exciting) options for students to get credit for internships, dual enrollment with a local community college (free!!!) and also “Extended Learning Opportunities” where kids can literally find something they love to do / try something out, mentored by a community member. Everything kids complain about (boring, lame classes, being trapped in a building, etc)…could be eliminated from their days!!!! OMG! So cool!!! BUT…side conversations, kids with their backs to the speaker, CLASS OFFICERS (aka 4% er white girls )ON THEIR PHONES?!?! , heads down on the table, no interaction (“good afternoon everyone!” / dead silence).

    So if the principal accepts this behavior (?) how are we supported in insisting on eye contact, posture, responding, etc. Stunning. My kids know better (even my more obnoxious kids tell others “one person speaks, others listen” or “adiós teléfonos”), and so I gave a few of them the gesture for “look” so they turned around to face him. but really??? Wow.

    Like Angie said, it’s refreshing (though sad) to know that even the veterans have the same struggle. It helps to know that we are not isolated! Just as the “Facebook culture” has this warped reality that others’ lives are awesome and fun and filled with (externally attractive) beauty and delight and nonstop adventure…our worlds as teachers can feel like “everyone else has a perfect L2 classroom that goes from bell to bell with all students perfectly engaged.” Probably not the reality for most of us.

    As usual, timing for this post is impeccable. In the last 6 weeks of class, with the frenzy of the end of the year, my main commitment is to myself and my own sense of ease. I’ve adopted the “Peter” attitude (Office Space). It is so effective! Wow! And I really don’t mean it in a snarky/ slacker way like in the movie ( well maybe a little), but this past week I’ve been able to shake things off (that are not my “stuff”) more easily than ever. A lot of this has to do with the confidence I’ve gained from this group, esp with the authentic assessment thread. That has literally taken this creepy feeling away (creepy feeling = “what if someone notices that I don’t have “tests” what if a kid tells their parents we don’t have tests , etc). My energy at the end of the day has been amazing! I’ve actually created a “life” outside of school…got together with my adult Spanish group from last year that I abandoned this year and can now imagine doing another adult session next fall, just because it’s so fun. 😀 Yippee!

    Anyway, this ties in with a couple of documents I’m preparing for my students in order for all of us to negotiate the next few weeks with minimal to no stress. One is about the 15-min nonnegotiable group conversation; another one is about our book groups; another is about “extra credit / competency recovery” and now I will add Robert’s letter (adapted for my community). Obviously this will dovetail with all of the above.

    Happy weekend everyone! 😀

    1. jen you say: Like Angie said, it’s refreshing (though sad) to know that even the veterans have the same struggle. It helps to know that we are not isolated! Just as the “Facebook culture” has this warped reality that others’ lives are awesome and fun and filled with (externally attractive) beauty and delight and nonstop adventure…our worlds as teachers can feel like “everyone else has a perfect L2 classroom that goes from bell to bell with all students perfectly engaged.” Probably not the reality for most of us.

      So I am going to quote you quoting Angie. 🙂 But I love what you said after that, too. It is so true! I always used to picture Ben teaching smooth beautiful perfect classes, like the videos I have seen of him, and then he shared all this about his kids’ behavior last month. Dude, even my TPRS Guide for Life, Ben, has bad days and deals with behavior. Heck, we all do! They are KIDS, and they would test anyone, maybe not on the first day (like when Blaine swoops in to demo) and the teacher is a novelty. But ironically and rip-your-heart-out hurtfully, kids will test you more if they like you and feel comfortable with you! So I need to realize that we ALL think we are on an island, and our island sucks and everyone else’s islands are better, and in reality each island is its own reality and in the big scheme of things there is probably some important reason each of us is on the island we are on. Like for our growth as people and educators and to be with our specific group at that particular time.

      I have had a very very difficult week on my island. The other residents of my island are restless and they sometimes turn against each other and me and all that is decent. But, have I learned? YOU BETCHA! 😉

      This is healing to read jen, like so much of your writing. Thanks and hang in there.

    2. Yes, jen! I had the same experience recently of visiting a math class. The kids were very loud and social. Many off-task conversations. I assume they got to their work from time to time. The teacher circulated around after giving a mini-lesson at the beginning. A great teacher too, I must add.

      I think that’s what most students expect in most of their classes, a mini-lesson at the beginning of class and then independent or small group work. It’s a reality that is very important for us to realize. A reality of how our classes are so different. And a testament to how talented we are, even if only once in a while 🙂

      1. leigh anne munoz

        Very well-spoken, jen and Sean!

        Thank you for the fresh perspective on life in the ‘normal’ classroom…

        🙂

        It really helps!

      2. Robert Harrell

        Yes, I think it is important for us to recognize how different our class is from most classes and how difficult that can be for some students. It is also important to understand that the parents’ and students’ focus on a grade rather than learning is the result of acclimation to the school system.

        Throughout their entire experience, students have heard that they must achieve a certain grade or grade point average to go on. They have (almost) never heard that they must know certain things, have specific skills, or be able to think critically in order to progress to the next level. The assumption – which I hope we all recognize as invalid – is that the grade accurately reflects the knowledge and ability of the student. This invalid assumption is given the lie time and again in meetings, but no one seems to recognize the situation. For example, this morning in a Student Study Team meeting, one of the teachers said, “Student X does pretty well on his tests and quizzes. If he would do his homework and get it in on time, he could have an A or B in the class.” Without seeing this teacher’s grade book or grading policy, I know that 1) the student is able to show good retention and understanding of the course content and 2) his grade in the class is not based on this retention and understanding – at least not primarily – but on his work habits, which are admittedly a shambles. Thus, his grade in the class does not accurately reflect his knowledge, skills, or critical thinking. I don’t know how many times I have heard this comment in meetings, and no one seems to notice the discrepancy between the grade and the knowledge.

        I think the whole thing with Present – Practice – Perform is a result of and perpetuated by the misperception that a “student-centered classroom” is simply students talking to one another, whether in person or via electronic devices*. As I told Jim Tripp in an interview, one of the most rigorous things I do is ask students to participate in a single conversation with the entire class in the target language. Insisting that students listen to one another and the teacher, as well as keep their cell phones put away, genuinely pushes the envelope with some students. They have an extremely difficult time doing this, and it is a huge departure from their “normal” class structure.

        *Bob Patrick and co. are doing some interesting things with allowing students to drive the entire curriculum. I want to do some research on that and see if I can apply some of their work and ideas to the German program.

        1. Ex.
          “Class, would you like to learn about Roman coins, Hercules, or the invasion of Britain?” The students say that they find coins boring, and this is ‘Merica, so they choose Hercules. You find/write a text about Hercules appropriate for their level, create embedded versions, ask parallel stories, read about Hercules.

          Imagine if the curriculum included coins and Britain, but excluded Hercules. Flop. In the long run, is it really THAT crucial to know about one over the other? These kids can go read about coins later once they know enough Latin. They were interested in Hercules. Give them Hercules.

  8. Jen said:

    …a lot of this has to do with the confidence I’ve gained from this group, esp. with the authentic assessment thread. That has literally taken this creepy feeling away (creepy feeling = “what if someone notices that I don’t have “tests” …”)

    Yeah the authentic assessement thread really helped me in the same way to not feel guilty about being so slack. Man I’m not slack at all. You should see me enforce my rules in class. I’m a mad dog. If one kid trails off in the wrong direction I walk over and wait with a smile for them to return to us. While waiting the vibe is, “Man, it looks like something broke in your motor but since I am so nice I’m going to stand here until you fix it so you don’t have to miss any of this valuable instruction.” But then I’ll not give a test in two months (I see no need to, I watch them like a hawk all class long and could write a chapter in a book on what they can do and cannot do – one of the benefits of teaching small classes!) so now I’m gaining a lot of confidence on this point. Really nice!

    1. With you entirely about testing and knowing much, much more about the students and what they can do or not do. I miss reports (in some ways) that required me to write a paragraph about each student. Now I only give a letter grade on report cards. I have increased emails to parents this spring to tell them good things about their child in class.

      1. That is really cool of you to do Diane, taking the time to convey positives. Maybe I will go do that right now. Like I said above to jen it was a hard week, probably the hardest of my career so far, and sharing some positive energy will feel good.

        1. Isn’t Diane the most positive, heartbreakingly-sweet little cheater ever? When I asked who wanted to room with the loudest snorer in Tennessee, she couldn’t volunteer fast enough. She actively tries to see the good in people and make share success with families in her uplifting emails. It’s so humane and sweet.

          Tina, you’ve been amazing this week. I wish I shared more positive energy and spent more kind words fluffing your aura, because you deserve more support. You ladies are so kindhearted.

          1. You have shared with me something very precious. The opportunity to be a friend and to give and receive support. That’s huge for me.

          2. Aw, thanks, Claire. I’ve got some admins I’d like to hear you say that. That is not the impression they have of me. I’m excited to see you in TN! And I sleep through thunderstorms!

            Sending those positive emails has often gotten a nice reply from the parents. They don’t get enough good news either.

      2. Thanks for this idea Diane! I used to have reports too and now just a grade in a machine. I will try to send some notes this week. It’s always fun to brag about kids to their parents 🙂

        1. I just emailed about forty parents and they’re starting to write back. It’s beautiful what they’re saying. And they’re so proud of their kids. It was worth the hour and a half I spent on the emails by faaar!!
          Russ don’t worry. Today I’ll try to be lots lazier. Gotta start in the running for that competition

          1. I do in fact teach middle school. In a mom’s response to one kid’s email, I got invited to Zadie’s bat mitzvah this summer, so it was a stellar day today. Thanks to you Diane!

          2. Yep I got you beat right now I am not doing anything. Ha! but that is super cool of you so maybe y’all should be in the running for most loving teachers. Sorry I can’t win that one.

    1. I second that. Do you have the students come up with a/several conversation question(s)? If so, that is a great idea instead of the teacher always being expected to come up with the questions.

  9. Oh it is nothing new. Either story or movie talk or star of the day or whatever I can engage them in. I just had to call it that bc it is the end of the year and I still want to do at least a minimal amount of TL interaction. I have a timer student and we stop after 15 if it is going nowhere. For every 5 min beyond the 15 they get extra credit. And if they don’t make it to 15 (like on wed when 1 group never stopped the side chat… Well I just gave them a 1 and we moved on.

    I am going to try the suggestion box idea though. I thought of that earlier this week when I got exasperated when during the discussion about the room it instantly devolved. I’m finding that some groups can’t seem to keep it together when we are talking about something compelling. It’s weird. I think it’s bc they all have something to say and they just talk over each other bc that is what they do in real life.

    Also I think maybe when we talk about things they actually want to talk about ( bc I listen as they walk in and try to pick up a thread from that) they still do not realize that is the “learning objective” for the day. I guess I really do have to write that on the board.

    1. I’m sorry, I haven been able to follow the various threads as much as I would like to – would you mind explaining what the suggestion box is?

  10. Haven’t tried it yet Brigitte. It is a place where students can suggest a topic for conversation, a youtube video, meme, etc that they think is fun (appropriate of course)instead of me coming in with a story script or movie talk, etc.

  11. Got it, thanks Jen! Actually, we already do that quite a bit – especially at the upper levels, usually it’s a song or something like that but last week we talked for 4 days about a scandal that a German TV host is involved in (he insulted the Turkish president). The kids got so into it that they are now following the developments on their own.

  12. This reminds me of something I used to do when I was teaching in the lycée. It’s more or less French tradition that during the last class before the “conseil de classe” when grades become definite and go into their reports, the teacher reads out all the students’ grades, so if there’s a problem it can be settled before the meeting. Kids know what they have on written work, but they don’t know what “oral participation” grades they have been given by the teacher. I assigned my students a grade over fifteen based on the number of times they had raised their hands and participated in class, as noted by the class secretaries. This changed every time, so it seemed fairly objective and kids could come and look at the end of class tp see what they had. But that didn’t help the shy students who were attentive. So I gave another grade over 5 for attention, which also let me take into account the ones who were blurting in French. I told the students that this grade was completely subjective, based on how attentive they seemed to be. But when I announced the grade for “attention” I first asked the student what he thought he had earned. Most of the time his grade matched mine. I was surprised how honest the blurters were. Some of them even gave themselves lower grades than I had. Discrepancies were almost never in their favor. If a student did give themselves a higher grade, I reconsidered mine and sometimes revised it. I attribute their honesty to the fact that they were giving their self-assessments in front of the entire class. A blurter who tried to give himself a better grade than he deserved immediately got hooted down.

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