Truly Long Rant (no apologies)

I got this email today from a colleague who has dived deeply and fully into the waters of the Invisibles this year which, since she is in Southwest Asia, began for her and her students only five weeks ago.

Hi, Ben,

One of the hardest things about teaching in a foreign school is that the English teachers are the foreign ones, and the teachers in this country often don’t understand our struggles. So, we struggle alone on each grade level — working only with the local teachers for days or weeks at a time without another secondary English teacher to talk to, about the strategies that we’re trying out. 

I don’t think that even the questions I’m asking about the Invisibles characters are yet engaging enough that the students are always enjoying the story creating process. 

I responded:

You’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Just ask the next question that comes up in class. It doesn’t have to be cute all the time. Take it easier on you.  It can’t be wonderful all the time. 

You said: 

I really need to learn to ask better questions AND be more playful and goofy with the students too. 

My ranty response:

I don’t give that a thought. In other words, I don’t make it a problem for myself. You use the stative verb “be”. You don’t have to “be” anything – just yourself. Just ask the next logical question in the flow of ideas that so magically presents itself when you are not trying to be in control. That’s the real reason teachers have not embraced the Invisibles/NTCI more. First, they don’t know what it is and second, if they did it would mean that they would have to give up control of using comprehensible input to teach some list, some semantic set, some thematic unit, some high frequency verb list, some list of words to prepare kids to read novels. Giving up control means less novels (see, less this, less that, less thinking at night when you should be sleeping about how and what you’re going to teach the next day, the next week, all of which takes you further and further away from what the research tells us about how people learn languages – randomly. I’m not getting on your case, because probably every teacher in the history of the world has felt that they don’t deserve their paycheck, that they’re not “good enough”, if they’re not in total control of the instruction. But can you even plan humor? Can you plan how to engage students? No. Blaine never does that. He doesn’t command the stage like the wonderful master of ceremonies standing in the center ring of the circus. We are not meant to be more than we are, just communicators. All I see is teachers putting pressure on themselves to be better than they are and there is no need to be better. The only need you have is to provide understandable messages. You are so right to call into question the international nature of your work, with you being the foreigner. You are in an immense pedagogical spider web spread between countless trees in an ancient forest where there is no room for the most important thing in language education – the building of community and just to have fun. If you saw the movie Night at the Museum, the Amelia Earhart character at the end of the evening just before she gets in her plane tells the Ben Stiller character with conviction in her voice, the kind of conviction few actors except Amy Adams can bring, “Have fun!” That’s it. We’re here for that. And we can’t have fun if we think we can always do better. How do I know? I’ve lived that nightmare for 42 years now and I’m still trying to give up the perfectionism thing. The reality that I can’t seem to see is that I can’t do any better CI than I can do with any one group of kids at any one time. This is doubly true for you, where you are there on the international circuit, where so many classes have just too many uptight kids, especially those poor ones from rich families of privilege where they at their young age have lost the ability to laugh and play. So if you are nervous and fearful that you won’t “teach them enough” or be playful and goofy enough, they will pick up on that fear and then their experience as your students will fall more into alignment with what they think school is supposed to be – a very serious thing – and they will channel your fear back to you and fear will be there in your classroom. So, the less nervous and perfectionistic you are, the more they can relax, not because you tell them to, but because relaxation is something akin to love in that those who have it naturally transmute it to others with no effort. Relaxation is the key, and constantly trying to be better at this work is not the key. In Chapter 5 of Le Petit Prince, the author wonders aloud in his narrative why he drew the baobab trees so big – that picture was the biggest on in the book – and then he answers his questions by saying:

“Enfants! Faites attention aux baobabs!” C’est pour avertir mes amis du danger qu’ils frôlaient depuis longtemps, comme moi-même, sans le connaître, que j’ai tant travaillé ce dessin-là. La leçon que je donnais en valait la peine. Vous vous demanderez peut-être: Pourquoi n’y a-t-il pas dans ce livre, d’autres dessins aussi grandioses que le dessin des baobabs? La réponse est bien simple: J’ai essayé mais je n’ai pas pu réussir. Quand j’ai dessiné les baobabs j’ai été animé par le sentiment de l’urgence.” 

He was animated by a sense of urgency to warn children against the danger of the baobabs – which represent the desire to be a great teacher – exploding the planet (i.e. our classrooms) with their roots. Your students are under great pressure in your school, just as my students in New Delhi, were. They are under extreme pressure to succeed, to be the best, to outshine the other students, bref, to be successful. No one, least of all their rich parents, is telling them to relax and just enjoy. School is serious business! And then Krashen comes along and tells the world’s language teachers that relaxation and a quiet and calm focus on the message and NO WORK are according to the reseaerch, ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS in language instruction, but neither the parents, the administrators, the teachers and even the students want this. They don’t want to relax. Thus, they run the danger of exploding their own planets, exploding their own psyches, deracinating their lives because of those baobabs, those needs to be the best, the funniest, the most entertaining, make the best stories, etc. And so in our language instruction world we have been given a wonderful treasure trove of research that since the early 1970s from Krashen and Beniko Masoln and the rest has only been paid lip service by ACTFL and most of the language teachers in the U.S. – who are still in bed with the book corporations, etc. and we take that research and we ignore it – esp. the point about a relaxed focus on the message being essential to acquisition – and we return to our worried and worn pathway each new day, and we miss the entire point. And so you say this in your email to me:

I still get caught in wanting to teach a grammar point too much. They all have such fragmented English, where they’ve picked up bits & pieces over the past 8 years, but almost none of them are consistent in formulating even the simple present tense correctly [They don’t have tenses or subject-verb conjugation in Thai grammar!], and it drives me crazy. But I need to let go of caring about that — because I know that caring about the kids is infinitely more important, and whenever I spend more than 3 minutes on grammar, I loose about 50% of the kids, especially the boys, who may really need my attention/care far more than they need any grammar. 

My response:

No comment on that. I can’t give myself permission to comment on grammar because then I would be hypocritical. Even when I learned about TPRS in 2001 I still made grammar a hefty part of my instruction. It’s because I am first and foremost a grammarian. It is my one true love in French, even more than French literature. Ask me anything. I know it. Uses and forms of the pluperfect subjunctive? I know them. Even for irregular verbs? Even for irregular verbs. Agreement of participles with preceding direct objects? I own that. Even for crazy verbs like “to create” in French, with its participle that has three “e”s in a row? Piece of cake. Relative pronouns? I eat them for lunch. But one day you will drop the grammar explanations, just like I almost kinda did even though it took me over four decades to almost kinda do it. OK – I still do the grammar explanations. I admit it. But less! Although I often reasoned, very badly: Hey, if two kids in a class or 28 can follow me, we can make our own little class and do the Grammar Boogie all day long and so what if the other 26 kids don’t get any of it? Languages aren’t for everyone! Ooops. Sorry. I kind of haven’t completely dumped my Mr. Grammar personality yet, have I? Maybe by the time I’m 105 I’ll get what the research says about the complete ineffectiveness of teaching kids grammar….

You said:

In contrast, one of my story writers in Week 2, suddenly asked me when I was speaking a story line: Should that be in the present or the past tense? Their grammar levels are VASTLY differently. But the quick quizzes are helping me see that 95% of them have strong listening capacities and are getting the simple stories. But I’m tempted to take out 10% of the top students and let them go write their own stories, because they’re ready for it and have the creativity too — and they get BORED by the slowness of the rest of the class.

My response:

OK, so what to do with the faster processors? Here’s my answer. Actually two answers: (1) make them write out or draw the story that you are doing in class and hand it in in the TL for a grade. Guess what? You will find that they really aren’t that bored. The fact is that those particular kids and I know them well don’t understand as much as they say to make them claim that they are bored. They lie out of conceit. How can listening to a sentence more than they want to hurt them? It only helps and is necessary in fact. So shut that song down in them. It’s conceit. (2) Tell them directly that they are in a group and that you will honor the processing speeds of everyone in the class, not just them. Tell them that if they are bored then listen anyway and insist that they write or draw the story as it happens. Guess what? As I said above, their rudeness will go away when they realize how hard it is to write or draw the story while you are creating it. It is very important that we in our overall function as their teachers to make it clear to them how to respect the processing speeds of their classmates. That’s how real communities work – by taking the needs of all the people in the group into consideration.

You said:

Though, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by more of the boys this term than last term, in their gentle kind and quirky ways of relating with me. That alone makes me think that I’m doing a better job this term of teaching, in spite of the struggles. 

My response:

No kidding. Boys are given almost impossible tasks in most classrooms. They feel stupid. Their nature as boys conflicts with most instruction. But not with the Invisibles as you are using them now, bravely, tossing caution to the wind, tossing all the safe things that you know and have been doing as a doctorate in education. Putting a focus on reaching the boys by embracing my books, which are about INCLUDING ALL OF OUR STUDENTS, is really hard work, and so you are to be congratulated. The Invisibles only get better the deeper and longer you get into them. The engagement from the kids becomes immense. But as said the learning curve is bodacious, so most people would rather stick with simple things like One Word Images, which are only a part of the Invisibles/Star Sequence curriculum.

You said: 

It’s still discouraging though that they prefer watching Disney movies more than being in class. 

My response: 

That’s about comfort and brain wave activity for them. In a true NTCI class they have to work their brains. [New readers here search the word “rigor” in the search bar for more on that important topic.] And they have to work their brains all day and all night doing excessive, egregious, even punitive amounts of homework. So of course they want a break. But that desire for movies will go away as each day they slowly (you’ve only been doing the Invisibles with them for five weeks!) bloom and they aren’t just green anymore and as trust gets built. Then they would rather make their own movies!

You said:

Maybe one of my goals is that by January/February they can enjoy English class time as much as they enjoy watching a Disney movie! [Is that being too hopeful?!)

My response:

No, it’s not too hopeful. It will happen. In fact, by spring as you ramp things up for the spring end-of-year celebrations (described in ANATTY), yours will be the only classroom in the building where the kids won’t all be watching videos. Wait, and notice when some kid suggests a movie in April how the class turns on them like someone said a dirty word. Look – we got ourselves into the cyber movie matrix mess, and now we have to teach our way out of it. How? By providing our students with a truly enjoyable classroom experience.

OK rant over. No apologies. I know what really happens with rants, because I have been doing them here for many many years. Rants are my teaching soul’s way of getting a chance to express itself in a world of false education, in a world of teachers who are mere robots, really, and I don’t care who gets offended by that, because if there is anything we need to be doing right now in our field, it is to be finding ways to reach down into the mud where our children, the children of this swollen world, are dying mutely, and pulling them up with a good story back into belief that they count for something and that can learn a language. Can we do it? Not with the book and for me anyway not with TPRS. 

Final thought: I defend the rights of teachers to teach as they see fit, but not at the expense of children. I say wake up. You and each of us who are bravely embracing the new in these trying times and dropping the old are as much soldiers as the ones on the ground. Keep doing it. Just ask the next question. Find new things about the Invisibles that are not in the books.

As Rabelais said, pull out not just the bones of life, but the marrow:

« C’est pourquoi fault ouvrir le livre et soigneusement peser ce que y est déduict. […] Puis, par curieuse leçon et meditation frequente, rompre l’os, et sugcer la substantificque moelle, […]. »

— François RabelaisLa vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel, jadis composée par M. Alcofribas abstracteur de quintessence. Livre plein de Pantagruélisme, 1534

OK rant now officially over. 




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