Getting Nasty

No, it’s not a line from a rap song; in my dialect, ’nasty’ means mean and mean-spirited (in my wife’s dialect, it means ’dirty’, ’perverse’, which is how it’s used in rap).

My nastiness toward some of the posts on fl teacher listservs derives, I finally realized, from a similar feeling that began just before Obama’s election. I have been a bridge-builder all my life; when the few liberals in my school would not talk to one of the arch-conservatives on staff, I developed a relationship and just the other day we chatted on the phone even though I’ve been retired from there for over two years.

But the tone taken in the election and now the Republican opposition has gone so far into the depths of depravity that I no longer have the desire to talk to people who say I am not a real American. My dad’s service in the South Pacific, my son’s service in the 82nd Airborne, mean nothing to these peope b/c I am a Liberal Democrat. In the minds of Republicans, it seems I hate America, want to replace the free enterprise system with socialism or communism, want to take people’s guns away from them (everyone had a gun when I was growing up, except my mom and dad), invite people to come into the country illegally, rip babies from mothers’ wombs, and excuse every weak-minded kid from doing his homework.

And that’s my take-off point for this entry. The teachers who firmly believe grammar must be taught explicitly express themselves on the listservs just fine. We hear from them. And they from us, those who think that language is learned through use, not through explanations. Are there patterns? Yes, there are, despite fierce denials. One camp sees the past as noble and heroic, with all students doing their homework. This camp tells us that in the good old days, teachers directly and forcefully instructed their students in proper English and students learned to speak and write properly. They tell us, flexing their history muscles, that Whole Language and a focus on feelings and expressiveness drove out order and accuracy.

The fl teachers in this camp tell us much the same thing. By carefully explaining and drilling on conjugational patterns, pronoun forms, the use of reflexive verbs, the subjunctive, and so on, students were able to learn to read and understand and speak fl with grammatical accuracy and a good vocabulary acquired (:-)) from memorizing word lists.

Just how much correlation there is between this camp and political camps is hard to say. I recall one person in particular who some years ago assured me he was a liberal who voted Democratic. Frankly, I doubted that. Then recently I read some posts which displayed all too clearly his conservative take on things, very conservative. It’s funny how when I write something like that, the response on listservs is, “What’s wrong with being conservative?” when I never said there was anything wrong with it. I think sheer stupidity plays a role here. It’s passing yourself off as something you are not that is wrong b/c it’s dishonest. There is enough confusion in the posts on these listservs that dishonesty makes dialogue impossible.

Nevertheless, the nostalgia for the past evidenced in so many posts betokens a conservative frame of mind. Again, NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. But it certainly argues for a similar conservative frame of mind concerning teaching methods.

At any rate, what I have noticed is that those who uphold the “traditional” way of doing things (often not so traditional but meaning only what that teacher experienced as a student) are often vituperative and vitriolic in their responses to those who keep asking embarrassing questions like “How do you know your students are learning?” “Are they learning to use the TL or just learn how it works?” “What do your tests test for?” “What is the evidence or rationale for doing what you do?” and so on.

It is so funny how that camp often characterizes those in the communicative camp as ideologues or True Believers haranguing others when in fact most of us came out of a grammar-based type of learning, taught that way ourselves, and only slowly came to the conclusion that that doesn’t work. Seldom do they ask us why we have come to those conclusions, meaning they have no respect for our ability to think and reason. Theirs is just a blind allegiance to the “way we KNOW works” without ever offering evidence that it does work.

It goes without saying that most teachers do not fall directly into either “camp”. In fact, many decry the very idea of camps. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the flames directed toward those of us who advocate using oral language in the classroom along with reading and treating it all as input as opposed to grist for another grammar exercise. I am sure that those who, for example, think speaking Latin is silly and a waste of time feel attacked by those who advocate for using spoken Latin in the classroom. My own intent was never to attack anyone just for not wanting to speak Latin in the classroom; what is taken as an attack may be my response to someone laying down a diktat with no other support than their umpteen years of experience.

Recently, a teacher voiced a sincere desire to understand why some of us use spoken Latin and do not use translation to teach the language. I responded at great length; it took me many hours to formulate my response. She responded that she would study it and get back to me. Most of us have all sorts of things on the back burner due to our heavy teaching schedules. I do hope she will respond. Again, I am not trying to convince her of anything other than that my lack of interest in translation, my use of oral Latin, my judicious use of grammar explanations, etc. are based on carefully thought-out ideas derived from extensive reading in Second Language Research plus my own experience and that of others. She may not agree with me but at least she will know on what I base my methods and techniques. My approach, based on a theory, is much deeper and must be explained by reference to theories of acquisition. I did include some of that but it is just not an area in which many fl teachers read. One, when I distributed a few practical books on communicative language teaching to the staff, said, “Ugh, that stuff reminds me of what I read in college.” People just want to teach the way they want to without basing it on anything other than intuition and they sure don’t want to delve into theory. That’s understandable but it makes it hard to design curriculum when you have no rationale for what you do other than, “Oh, that’d be neat.” Really? Why?

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