ACTFL conference 2006 Nashville

This year at ACTFL did more to rally my spirits this last year of my tenure as a foreign language teacher than any except my first ACTFL. Then, when I returned, our AVID coordinator gave me an e-mail from a former student who thanked me for getting her into AVID. A Spanish-dominant kid, illegal by a stupid twist in regulations and therefore ineligible for the help she desperately needs, living in a family with no access to the higher culture of this county, she nevertheless was courted by Harvard and considered for numerous scholarships.

She apologized for not following up on the three years of Russian she had with me, citing her full computer engineering schedule.

As the short week wore on, other incidents underscored the concepts I heard at ACTFL or spurred my inventiveness in the classroom.

When I arrived on Thursday, the flteach gang had reserved a table. I will not use names here but only initials. B.H. and M.B. welcomed me and we were joined at dinner by J.Y., E.S., B.A., S.S., and several more.

Here are some of the nice things that happened over the next few days.

I ran into David Stillman, his wife, Ronni, and I met their lovely and accomplished daughter for the first time. I am still amazed at how many people find the friendship I feel for David somehow odd since we battle so much on flteach. Since when does disagreement have to run to hostility and churlishness? Have we become that immature?

I met a young lady from OK, R.A., a fellow Latin teacher, who was like a young colt, springing here and there, soaking up everything she could. That was so exciting and I am happy that she met several people who can give her the support she needs to continue jousting against the forces of inertia and “tradition”.

I did not attend J.F.’s workshop but had a chance to have a pretty good talk with him and was astounded by his broad grasp of the issues in the field. He is a strong tprs-er and sees clearly the application of this to the field as a whole. He has inspired quite a few people I’ve talked to or read on Listservs and it was great to meet him.

A researcher did a poster presentation of her research, V.R. We talked at length and were joined by a very young teacher from Texas who reminded me of R.A. in her bucking against the traces. Her self-confidence was well placed. V.R. herself showed great interest in getting a h.s. teacher’s perspective on her direction toward the necessity of output. To me, this is the huge issue in the field now.

C.K., a proper Scottish Latin master, showed herself to be on the cutting edge of teaching language. It all came out of curiosity about how the modern languages were approaching language teaching. She read the theory and the research and put it to practice teaching Latin. She has been teaching Latin for, shall we say, a while, so she obviously came out of a traditional setting and has worked in one for some time, so for her to break out of the mold was truly inspiring.

One session on error correction was all I was able to attend although there were several that looked very interesting. H. (sorry, I can’t find the first name) presented coherently and with a measured approach to correcting errors. My own take on it is that if you feel offended by mistakes (but I TAUGHT them that!!!), you shouldn’t do error correction.

I dropped by J.K.’s presentation on tprs and she was so gracious, considering that I didn’t actually attend. She even remembered me from last year where she dropped by the SWCOLT table.

I also missed one on what’s happening to male teachers because it was cancelled (the guy’s wife wouldn’t let him come?). I was very interested in that because I see some problems for the decision making and communication processes in schools as the balance of male to female staff gets off toward one or the other. This affects students. We often decry the sexist boy who won’t listen to female teachers, but if the classroom is set up in favor of female styles in communication and setting, that is no different from classrooms set up in favor of one ethnic group over another.

Wandering around the reception for awardees (SWCOLT’s own C.L. was selected Teacher of the Year by ACTFL), feeling a bit out of touch, I was nabbed by T.A. and carried off to dinner. This is a person who has taught me a great deal and has encouraged me to look more deeply into social criticism and constructivism (I don’t know what I’m talking about!!!). She is a professor at Amherst and we met several years ago at ACTFL. Her approach to language includes an emphasis on the social constructs that surround teaching and impinge on classroom practice.

I’ve always shied away from terms like “oppression,? as in “pedagogy of the…? and “hegemony’. The word “critical” figures prominently. It sounded so….. well, Marxist. Being a child of the Cold War, I was always suspicious of social planners who commanded ten thousand snow plows for central Florida. I know that sounds very confused to a normal person, but the Cold War unbalanced a lot of us.

What T.A. taught me was that these terms simply allowed us to discuss the very things I saw happening in classrooms out of my experience entering the Af-Am culture from my White working-class background. My work the first 20 years of my working life gave me more than a personal look at this. T.A. has been showing me how whatever you want to call it – I guess the sociocultural framework of SLA – allows us to talk about what I see and have commented on these many years.

At that reception T.A. introduced me to two people who wound up enlightening me and taking me to the airport. Y.F. demonstrated what it takes to get through a Ph.D. program. Now I know why I don’t have a Ph.D. Dedication, determination, perseverance, cleverness, high intelligence, and on and on. And K. I. showered me with insights into Russian culture at the rate of 3 or 4 to the minute, to the point where I lost track of whether she was speaking English or Russian. She gave me a real look at deeper levels of cultural analysis.

The conversation was so good over an airport lunch, believe it or not, that I jauntily set off for my gate right on time….. only to run into the security line. I really need to travel more.

My first day I sat down next to a lady who invited me to an A.P. session. No thanks, I said. No interest in A.P. No, no, you must come; it’s the Russian A.P. Even worse, I said. Fogeddaboutit. She persuaded me and I saw an A.P. that was totally proficiency – no grammar. One person asked about the grammar component and one of the presenters wept. I’m looking forward to this coming out.

My last session was put on my B.H. and M.B. Many arguments I’ve had with M.B. and she often appears as a defender of better times. But when she presented I heard an iconoclast who cuts through so much of the b.s. that permeates education. The steel in her voice is emblematic of her determination to teach. Sometimes I clash with her on flteach over her attacks on true-believers when she attacks something I am partial to, but then I see where her fine focus is directed: it’s at the b.s. part.

B.H. presented with M.B. and I was struck by the multiplicity of learning channels he taps into when he operates in the classroom. In the web of their presentation, grammar was only one out of eight dimensions of the lesson. PACE, tprs, the Latin reading programs, Krashen, VanPatten, Terrell, etc. all have grammar components. The crux of it is whether grammar acts as a guarantor of communication a la DeMado or is an end in itself.

Speaking of John DeMado (I use his full name b/c he represents commercial interests), he was disguised as a rapper. You might have missed him among all the hustlers and hucksters but he was loud. He presented something I had never heard: the road to proficiency. His homing in on proficiency sweeps away a lot of the dross around teaching fl. The fact that he does it with humor and is in touch with youth culture and even street culture turns off some people, yet he always reduces my sense of isolation. In the face of the moral certitude of those defending paradigm memorization and the fear of isolation, rejection and failure they provoke, John’s insistence on evidence and clear results emboldens me to ignore the junk coming out of administration and keep teaching.

The defenders of paradigm memorization were certainly there and it is good to talk with them. They are in no more need of being demonized than I am. Cultish defensiveness and supercilious proclamations do not make for a good profession and ACTFL always helps me balance myself.

Here are some things that are important to me in my teaching and for which I found validation among the comments made by these people. Their initials follow the item and if anyone demurs, send a comment or address me directly at These items sometimes cause me to feel marginalized and they appear to fly in the face of accepted practice, and they are often intuitive for me so that I am unsure why I do them.

Not using the textbook if it’s not good M.B

Using stories K.P.

Not planning “till the night before b/c you have to see how the students are progressing M.B.

Going at a pace at which students learn Many

Differentiated instruction Various

Multiple Intelligences DeMado

Deep culture M.B., B.H., K.I.

Strength of our students and their cultures E.S.

Mysteries of English Japanese man from Deseret Institute in Philly

Mysteries of the mind C.K. and co-presenter on Korean

Lady from Georgia who reads my blog

Dinner Thursday night

Dinner Friday night

Keeping your eye on the ball F.S. (keynote speaker)

Use of visuals K.P. & K.I.

Dangerous world for kids (myspace, etc.) R.A.

Need to find money for public school teachers to attend Af.Am. Student SIG

Failure of Russian professoriate in AZ to support Russian presenters K.I.

The person who said students shouldn’t “respond to” but “interact with” CAM

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