Five weeks – step by step – 1st installment

This is regarding my adventures at a high school I have been subbing in since September. I was asked to take this class over and I had had the class before. I had taken the 6th hour alone another time and it was always terrible. The other classes were French and the behavior there was not as obstreperous as in the Spanish class which was crazy out-of-hand, the type of nightmare class with kids walking around as they pleased and talking as they pleased and throwing things and swearing; just a complete zoo. And so I said, “You know, I don’t think this is something I want to take on”.

I did have the experience in that Spanish class of gaining some control over it and that is an issue that’s going to come up here: control and the role that control plays in the problems that teachers run into. Exerting control has to be done in an extremely subtle and informed way; otherwise attempts to assert control simply provoke resistance.

So anyway, I had had the experience of managing to corral these kids by the use of an absolutely pointless, grammar-focused worksheet. I told them, “Well listen, let me help you guys with this and I’ll do the first one for you, go through it all with you, help you with the rest so you can get this done.” That attracted the attention of the ’good’ students, who made up about 80% of the class, and remember, this is the worst class. As the others started to get the answers, the loudmouths began to try to sabotage it.. that’s how they do things. But what i did was say something…I looked for something, anything, in their insincere attempts to answer the questions that I could focus on…eg a number of the loudmouths were atually native Spanish speakers……..and here’s another whole area we’re going to get into….how much can you ask a teacher to do when you put native-speaker Spanish speakers, Mexican-Americans, Mexican kids from Mexico who’ve probably gone to school in Mexico – in a first year Spanish class? Give me the rationale for that; tell me why the school board has any right to expect anything from a teacher who is given a piece of garbage class like that? (and anyone who construes that as saying anything negative about the students themselves needs to get off this blog now – you’re too dense to read this).

Now, having said that, several of the native speaker kids – as I said, several of the loudmouths were native speakers, would throw some things out and I would make positive comments about that. I’d say something in Spanish or make a joke in Spanish…. that’s another thing: I’d make a joke in Spanish that they laughed at and the other kids would say, “What’s that? What’s that?” and so I would take the loudmouths – a couple anyway – and I would draw them in, using Spanish with the ones who knew Spanish. With the other kids I would take a comment they made – they were making 20 a minute – and say something positive about it. I would point to them and say, “That’s ok,” and grab another kid and say, “You’re on the right track; yeah, here we go, this is going to come up…” etc. Well, it didn’t take long for the loudmouths, the knuckleheads, to decide they wanted to try to get the answers.. and, of course, these kids are often very bright. That’s why they create so many problems: they’re bored out of their skulls. So i would try to go through ….

Now, let me interrupt at this point and say that if a kid deliberately tried to sabotage another kid trying to give an answer or another group trying to find out what was going on, would get up out of his chair, go over and mess with somone in a totally inappropriate way, then I would get real angry, just really angry, like one of these things out of the monster movies. And I’ll mention that when I took the class over I came down on this girl really hard and she was pretty good ever since… she tried anyway. But we got through the worksheet and they had quieted down and finished the worksheet. So I knew from that experience before that I could handle the class.

Now to look at this worksheet that they had to do is to look at the failure of foreign language education in the U.S. It was nothing but pointless grammar exercises; in the first semester of the first year it made absolutely no sense to anybody. There was a code to it, a cognitive code; it’s what is called cognitive code instruction. You teach a code – you teach the code of masculine and feminine, indefinite and definite articles, possesssive adjectives and possessive pronouns, and blah blah blah. It’s the same thing that fascinates that tiny group of people who are into foreign languages and linguistics but absolutely freezes the mind of most people.. Andthat’s all the class was, doing these worksheets. Now you’ll see that when I took the class over that there was a lot to this.

So I felt I could do something with that 6th hour and I was sure I could do something with the French classes. The first day I was greeted with this one girl who never really came around – well, she came around a little bit, but that one day the first semester I had subbed in the class, she was very suspicious and skeptical of me and wanted to know if what I was having them do was what the teacher had assigned and she was going to keep me on task. There seems to be one in every class.. she asked the same question when I took the class over. I said yes, which was true….. her problem though was that I was speaking French and it turns out the kids were not used to hearing their teacher speak French at all and this was a first year class. Anyway, so she pulled this on me. But everyone else was ok. And then of course you always had the groups who talked a lot. Before the first year French class, fortunately, I had a first hour prep so I had a full hour to wrap up any loose ends, so I felt little pressure. That next class had several boys who liked to talk, but they were nice guys; they were not out to sabotage anything. but here’s the key: to an unassertive person who is small and frail and who has the notion that all students should be as interested in French as he is.. these are 3 huge boys, one of them is a minority and we have to face facts: for some of our teachers that is a problem. The rest of that class was pretty good. The next two classes were smaller, they were French II classes. There were a few kids in those classes who just liked to talk a lot and they used their cel lphones and that’s one of the things that I think all schools should ban: not keep them out of sight because that makes the teacher a policeman, checking for cell phones; taking roll, checking seating charts, handing out papers that have been graded because they had been handed in the day before and they must be graded and returned the next day for immediate feedback, blah blah blah…. by that time the period is almost over and no teaching happens. Well, it turns out with these kids – and this is true for the first year kids as well…. and that includes the fifth hour, which is a first year French class… they were entranced by the fact that I spoke French.

As an aside, I have two quick grandkid stories to tell that show the sort of kid teachers are dealing with. My granddaughter was plotting to do in a sub. The plot was discovered when she asked her mother for rope; her piece in the plot was to secure the rope to tie the sub up with. They were going to tape her mouth as well. Her cirme? She went out of order in the day’s activities. She’s in Kindergarten.

My grandson was asked by me to be careful in climbing a tree. He replied, “I know, Grandpa, I’ve been doing this my whole life.” He’s six.

I will continue the saga of the French/Spanish classes when I get my computer back from the shop. Thanks for reading and comments are welcome. This is very hard to do b/c I first recorded it on tape and type it up as I listen to the tape. I would love to do things like not capitalize the word “I”, but I know some readers will see me as lazy and just stop reading, assuming I take the easy way out of everything. Another problem is the people who think that superficial “niceness”, like not referring to kids as knuckleheads and never yelling at them, is the way to win them over. They’ll stop reading, too. Everyone else can comment, criticize and question. I look forward to responding. This is being written for foreign language teachers so I may refer to things unfamiliar to you; feel free to ask for definitions and explanations.

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