Reply to Reducing Effects of Big Classes?

I’ve thought and thought about this.

The first image that comes to mind is of my old principal. Why was that? I realize that my first step is to see who I am working with. The principal is the key, not the dept chair or anyone else.

The relationship I had with him was what you might see when guys are golfing buddies – lots of kidding around but with an underlying seriousness that we both knew what it took to get the job done and what that job was. That came with chats taken here and there. No formal stuff.

My tendency here is to say what I see other teachers doing or not doing that make it difficult for them to make sure big classes and other obstacles didn’t hurt them or their students, but I think I’ll forego that.

So I knew what he was looking for. The next principal and I were much closer. The last one was a disaster and was one reason I quit as soon as I could.

Then there’s the students. Most come into my class with all sorts of habits and assumptions I find foolish and detrimental to the learning process. I am very explicit about what the problems are in my class eg too many students to do the job right and why that is, problems in the school, in the district, in the state, in the country and in the world. I don’t give them these all at once 🙂 but I hammer on it, most likely about every period. “Here’s the problem, how can we work around it?” That’s why I could never go to the L2 only approach. I found that the more I stayed in L2, the more of it the students learned, but I definitely lost a lot of kids that way; they needed my expectations, my grading system, even my personality explained to them. For instance, I think it’s important to point out stupidity; you can be polite about it but leave no doubt that it’s stupid and why it’s stupid, e.g. a zero for an assignment, SAT tests, etc. I know this is heresy, but it works for me and I never got in difficulties for it.

Students react differently to this heresy; some are delighted but think that means the class is going to be easy. I give tests, I give homework…. so they are a little stunned b/c they’ve been raised to believe that the nonsense that passes for teaching is “strict” and if a teacher doesn’t do those things, then the teacher doesn’t care what you do. As one kid said last year, “You didn’t sound like you were serious when you gave the assignment.” Well, he found out the hard way – no one should have to write an assignment on the board, you just tell them what the assignment is. It’s crazy how teachers cater to learned helplessness. BTW, I wrote ’learned helplessness’ on the board the first week of school and explained what it meant when they asked. I then used the term whenever anyone exhibited it.

Once that tone was set, and it often took about two months to bring everyone around (a sign that that had occurred is when someone pipes up with one of those inane questions and the rest of the class wearily tells them the answer), then I would ratchet up the work.

I’ll stick with Spanish because they were more typical of students, with the usual spread of types and big classes; my Latin and Russian classes were never big – just mixed level, which is another story.

So Sp classes could get very large and students came in at all levels – from not knowing hola to being monolingual Sp-speakers. Right here might be a spot to say that I tried to not directly make someone feel bad – I wasn’t always successful – so that when, for instance, I pointed out to the class how insane it is to put a native speaker of Sp, in some cases one who didn’t know English!, into a Sp 2 class, I made sure they felt welcome and not resented. So as I go along and mention some of the ’mean’ things I would do, keep in mind that I scoped out each kid individually first to ascertain whether they could handle the attention or a rough comment. Usually, I was successful. Once a principal got on my case for “singling a kid out”. “She was the only one who kept falling asleep in class” was my inadequate response. That’s the kind of ’protect their tender feelings’ stuff that creates the discipline problems we see – BTW, I had first offered to give her a pass to the nurse, reminding her there was no sleeping in class, and she kept going to sleep – drugs? Don’t know – I’m not a drug officer, I’m trying to teach here. Anyway, that was one complaint in 20 years and was pretty minor. There were maybe 5 or 6 others, all less serious than a parent complaining.

So then I judge the students individually. I am the Decider on assignments and grades. The question of standards always comes up here with teachers – never with students other than worry about being prepared for the next level (I would explain the articulation process at our school at that point, to assuage their concerns). Since no standards were applied in their first year Sp and no standards were applied in their elementary and junior high school education, it would make absolutely no sense for me to apply Sp academic standards with them at this point. They need the course to matriculate into an AZ university.

So I explained what my standards were – 3 in all: pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. All else flows from that. If you listen and read the Sp and respond as best you can in Sp, you will learn Sp by my definition of learning Sp (and here is where my knowledge of SLA came in b/c both the fl curriculum heads were big proponents of the Input Hypothesis and other current SLA theory, so I had their full backing. LIke with the principal: know who you’re working with). I spent a GREAT deal of time showing videos on language learning, on language and how it functions, etc. I also used many personal examples from the class, not only with students who used Sp but who used other languages as well. One of my last classes had a girl who went to Rumania a lot and spoke the language and wrote a story on the board so we could compare Sp and Rumanian, etc. But I did this, esp the work-related communication stories, to show that the class wasn’t about turning in worksheets and then forgetting about Sp until the test – no cramming for tests, I didn’t design them like that – it was about paying attention.

In that way, I would allow kids who were in no way prepared to get through a tough academic second year language class to get a good grade. A few of those would surprise me and go on to third, but most had no such intention. What would hurt them is to float through the class paying no attention, get a C or even a B, and never learn any Sp. My way, they actually learned some Sp, be it spoken or written or a bit of both. That was a great increase over the usual abysmal ignorance they came out of language classes with.

By grading individually and without a point system, it kept them on tenter hooks, never knowing what their grade was until they asked me, and even then sometimes I’d tell them the grades would be in the mail shortly – why did they need to know, didn’t they know what they were doing in class, were they insensate? What had they made last grading period? etc. If they had a legitimate reason for needing to know their grade, I’d give it to them, like for car insurance or to keep their parents from beating them (in one case I think that actually was the case – and the dad worked for the district !)

In this way I was free to do whatever I wanted when I wanted however I wanted. The kids got used to that. I told them that if they wanted structure, they could go to any one of their other classes, all of which (actually not, but they got the point) were highly structured. Who had gone to Mexico recently? (Plenty since we’re close to the border) How structured was your experience there? Did the guy you asked about the post office want you to use a specific tense? (laughter) No, you cannot structure language experiences b/c they are people experiences.

Nor can you structure learning experiences IF you want to bring out the best in each student. So how do we deal with the external pressures to routinize and regularize everything i.e. squeeze the humanity out of it? Go to next blog entry “Reducing Effects of Big Classes II”.

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