Response to Alison’s post on the disconnect between A students & learning

My friend, Brian Barabe, came up with the term A-Mongers. Once when I used the term on this List, I got pummeled for disparaging students who try to do well in school, a rather typical tin ear response. An A Monger is someone who sacrifices learning for the sake of points and, often, seems to be totally unaware of, or, worse, contemptuous of, what they are sacrificing.

You can quarrel with the expression but you cannot deny the reality of students who give up learning for the sake of points nor teachers who give up teaching for the sake of calculating points and judging students based on points. If the points reflected learning, I might see some value in the points, but they more commonly reflect an ability to “knock out” the work. The old saw about the information coming off the professor’s notes and onto the student’s notes with none of it passing through the brain of either characterizes this process well. There are some to-the-point letters in the NYT editorial section today, Sunday, June 13..

Alison wrote:
” not about a mathematical/logical formula insertion (I’m not knocking grammar instruction here.”

I used the term ’algorithm’. Let’s face it: many students and many teachers see learning as nothing more than a mindless, thoughtless absorption of facts (another educator coined the term “bunch o’ facts” to designate this approach). The Chinese and Japanese and Koreans are mining our ed system to find ways to break through to creative thinking while so-called reformers here are trying to fit us into the copy-and-drill method, their focus being solely on test scores. I remember a social worker back in the 70s who was outraged by the low test scores of Black kids in the districts around us. Her solution? Give them the answers. After many discussions, I gave up trying to convince her that it didn’t work that way. That’s the path of NCLB.

This blog entry is a response to the following, excellent post:

Hi all–

>I’ve been to a professional development workshop this week because we’re switching schedules and one of the things the leader of the workshop (also my principal) “hit on” was that we “need to encourage students to be risk-takers and independent thinkers.” His point was that one of the great strengths of American education was developing risk-taking qualities in students. I love this idea because I truly believe (as many of us do) that the students who make the most progress and actually use the TL they are learning are the ones who throw themselves at it without a safety net and who are not devastated by making a mistake. I guess they really need to have the soul of a gambler.? When I am teaching, I impress this idea on my students and I point out risk-taking behaviors when I see them in class and praise them.

However, try as I might, I find it difficult to reconcile their grades with this idea. I have weighted speaking to be equal to writing, I have tried to make the classroom a place where we communicate in the TL?in a comprehensible if not always grammatical way, I try to do the activities that get them actually using the TL for what it was intended for (communicating with someone somewhere) and not about a mathematical/logical formula insertion (I’m not knocking grammar instruction here). But still, there is a disconnect. When I have my French Honorary Society induction, I have one group of kids with the prescribed GPA requirements and they are a methodical and hard-working group of kids who kept their grades up and were always prepared for class. On the whole, I would say that they only talk when they have to and don’t put themselves out there. When I go to the state French competition, the risk-takers who are ready to potentially humiliate themselves in front of an unknown judge are a completely different group of kids from the FHS group, with few exceptions. When we go to the computer lab and hook up with a class of French kids learning English via Skype, the kids who want to skip their other classes and talk to the French kids all day in French are not my FHS kids.

Now, it’s not true that I don’t have A students who are also risk-takers. It just isn’t the norm, as I see it. I guess my question is this:? is there anything to do about this?? Is it just inherent in the nature of the risk-taker to not be concerned with the grade?? I have often found with my beloved group of risk-takers whom I praise and recognize that they eventually get better and better grades in French as they go on, because they believe my pep talks and they come to crave the outward recognition that they believe an A to mean.

One particular situation this year that just fascinated me was that one of my French IIIs (our highest level to date; next year we add French IV) was?acknowledged by the other French IIIs, the French IIs, and the French Is as being “best at French” in our school. He was constantly using French in other classes, helping the lower level kids with their work, having conversations with me or anyone else in French, ad-libbing in French when we put on a short French play for the lower levels, etc. He was fearless and magnificent and I agreed with the kids’ assessment of him. However, over the course of his three years, he had been sloppy with his grades in French I?and II?and he didn’t make it into the French Honorary Society and so he was not recognized in the Senior Awards Ceremony with the other kids who met the requirements. After the ceremony, another teacher told me that a group?of?my French students were in her room discussing the total travesty of justice that this boy
>had not made FHS (they know the requirements). I was so proud, I can’t even tell you, that they felt and said all these things, but what to do?? Clearly, I can make up a school award for “Best at French” if that kid didn’t also make FHS, but I feel that this a huge philosophical issue that I am trying to address in my own mind.?
>
>If you have an opinion, I’d be glad to hear it.
>
>Thanks,
>Alison
>
>P.S. If you haven’t seen the independent film, Chalk, please do. It was made by two guys who were beginning teachers and starts with the quote that 50% of new teachers quit the profession in the first three years. It just made my day when I watched it. It doesn’t have anything to do with foreign language, but it’s an irreverent and tongue-in-cheek look at teaching.

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