Five Weeks – Step by Step 2nd installment

To continue………

I don’t mean by their being entranced that I spoke French that it was my ability to do so that entranced them but rather that a French teacher would speak French in class. I spoke French to them a lot, initially. Now I changed that and we’ll take a look at why, at what goes on and why we go to English despite the teachers who have wonderful rationales for why we should always stay in the TL.

There were some objections to my speaking French. Students would say, “I can’t understand what you’re saying, I need to get this material, and you can’t hold me responsible…”, what I call the A mongers, and I know people take offense at that but these are kids who only care about their grade and learning has no interest for them, they think. They are totally bored with learning because of the way learning has been portrayed in their classes: it is boring. No one in their right mind would want to learn anything, given the way these kids have been taught. But they are ready to defend themselves; they do not want to be held responsible for material that is being presented to them in a language they don’t understand. And so I had to show them – and it took a couple of day – that they could understand. Now of course what I am doing at this early point is using context clues and familiar vocabulary to show them that they will understand if they pay attention. And we’ll get to my maxims on how to learn a fl ….

and how to learn in general, how to get along in a classroom and how to make it in a college classroom.

I’ve been attacked for this because you’re just supposed to teach the language and it takes so many hours to learn the disjunctive pronoun and the past anterior historic present or something and we should not even teach culture much because they’ll never learn all 16 tenses of the verb. The reality is these kids are there to be educated and education has never been one particular topic. That’s training, and there’s all kind of room for training in a school, although these kids are still learning how to learn but nevertheless there are certain classes where you could just do training. But generally speaking, especially the general education classes like history and fl and English and math and science…. you’re there to be broadly educated and that’s where TAC (teaching across the curriculum) comes in. Kids resent that and the reason is that they are terrified of being given a test that they have to pass in order to get a scholarship – they’re worried about scholarships and GPAs – and this is so contrary to what I read on these Lists: that the kids don’t care about grades. They are consumed by grades and so they are defending themselves and they also know that grades are the only thing teachers and parents care about. They are never asked about what they are learning, there is no conversation. The conversation is a quiz, similar to what the teachers give and the emphasis is on what they miss, what they don’t know, the faults, the negatives, the wrong answers, the zeros – that’s all anyone cares about and the kid knows this and he knows that he’ll be evaluated entirely on test results.

Voila – you get cheating. Who wouldn’t cheat under those circumstances. You’re not rewarded for anything else, you’re not rewarded for honesty and your integrity and your respect for others. No one cares about those things; they say they do but they don’t talk about them. All they ever ask is what did you score on the test, how many points do you have, what’s your percentage and so forth. Some of the grade sheets that come around, the weekly and sometimes daily grade checks, some have ’comments’ but that’s for their behavior. Are they sitting there doing their work and not bothering the teacher with their own individual personalities? It’s do what you’re told, do your work, get a good grade, and move on.

And I’m here to tell you that I’ve been told that all my life: why do you care about this stuff? Just get the grade, get the point, get the credit, just move on. And I sometimes wonder what the goal is. Where am I going? And these are the folks these kids encounter. I’m not saying everyone is like that but those are the kinds of things people ask them. They want to know how well they scored. That’s what the colleges care about. So it’s very hard to blame these kids for having this attitude but OTOH it’s so contrary to what I read on these Lists where they say the kids don’t care about their grades – that’s ALL they care about.

So what you have to do is to persuade them – and this is the hard part, when you start speaking the TL – you have to persuade them that:

#1 their grade is not going to suffer if they don’t understand everything I say but if they focus and concentrate, they can understand; they actually can. So I use context, words they already know, all kinds of clues to help them understand. And I use the kids themselves as some of them begin to understand and they start shouting out things and they get excited. Then it spreads to the recalcitrant ones and they begin to try to follow what I’m saying and once they understand, they get excited and it spreads and this is what happened when I first began speaking to them and they found they could understand French and they could understand Spanish.

So one of my maxims is that the three secrets to success in Mr. Barrett’s class are: pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. I have to admit I got that from a Zen book of stories, and I tell them that if all they do is pay attention, they will be successful in my class. Now I know the concrete thinkers out there will say, “If they just pay attention and if you give them a test on the pronouns, shouldn’t you tell them to study?” No, because if they pay attention, they’ll get the pronouns because they are in there. I don’t test them on things they haven’t learned, or, in the jargon of the field, acquired. They haven’t acquired that language, so I don’t test them on it.

The first test I gave were the teacher’s tests. They were the typical grammar test: write the definite article or the indefinite article that matches the given noun in gender and number. The kids did not know which articles were definite and which were indefinite; strictly a terminology problem, showed by the fact that a lot of them did get the gender and number right even if they got definite and indefinite mixed up. The fact that ’les’ in French was always pronounced ’less’ tells you how much French they had heard.

I gave them those tests and of course you had some really dutiful students in there and they scored so-so, and I graded the tests and I gave them back. The second year French class had to match unclear pictures with words. The previous Friday had an association game and I think it did help them to learn the words as a list but I don’t think it did anything to get them actually using the words. The teacher obviously works hard to have games and activities that will teach the grammar.

So I made a point in the next couple of weeks to use those words. One way I did this was to pull pictures out of the hundreds of picture files I have. These are not commercially prepared for school rooms but are mostly pictures from the New York Times magazine. The word ’suitable’ has several applications here because the New York Times has a tendency to print some pretty provocative pictures. One photo I had was to illustrate ’tall’ and ’short’ and was a picture of two guys standing next to each other, one short and one tall. When I showed it to the class they burst out laughing and I asked why. “They’re holding hands” and I looked, and sure enough, it was two men obviously in love and holding hands. In my devotion to teaching antonyms I had not noticed this salient aspect. Pictures of that sort really provoke high school kids…. if you didn’t already know that. I did use it as a teachable moment regarding homophobia but I did sense there was less hostility in this class than I had run into at my old school.

These pictures have a lot of ’stuff’ in them, distractors, so they have to learn what my focus for that picture is. It may have a pig in it but the pig is wearing a party hat, so it could be ’pig’, or ’a pig at a party’, or ’a pig partying’. Languages use numbers in different ways:

To be continued……..

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