The Hard Truths

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In 2015, I attended the Ohio Foreign Language Association’s annual conference. I don’t live in Ohio, I live in Michigan, but I really felt that my state’s conference wasn’t offering sessions that aligned to my professional interests. I mean, I’m sure there are some people that get excited by sessions like Strategies for teaching the gerund in French but those people are not me.

That year, Dave Burgess of Teach Like a Pirate fame was the keynote speaker. I thought it was a little weird – Dave doesn’t teach a World Language – but his message really resonated with me. If you’ve never seen Dave present, he is extremely high energy and passionate about hooking his students into the content he teaches. At one point in his message, Dave addressed the fact that people often tell him things like, “What you do is amazing! I could never do that, though – I’m just not that creative.” What Dave said next was like a punch in the gut (I’m paraphrasing here):

“I’m not creative” is a bad excuse and a cop-out to avoid change, because change is hard and uncomfortable.

It’s a materials adoption year in my district and over the last two years, we’ve been talking a LOT about proficiency and what that means. It has not been an easy process. I am not trying to be egotistical at ALL when I say that awareness of proficiency standards (and proficiency-oriented teaching methods) is…limited amongst my colleagues (who are wonderful people and, like all of us, do the best they know how to do). It tends to move in a cycle that looks a little bit like this:

  1. We agree that we want to be a more proficiency-focused department.
  2. We examine the proficiency guidelines and discuss their implications.
  3. We come to a consensus that Novice Mid (or even High) is a reasonable outcome for French 1.
  4. We try to design a level 1 class, but it ends up being based entirely on grammatical targets and say – should we introduce the past tenses at the end of the first year, or very beginning of level 2? And how early should we train them for the AP exam? But the grammar!!
  5. Well, that’s not really the point of proficiency and is probably going to set us up for frustration…
  6. Argument, then repeat from step 1.

So you know what? Like Dave Burgess, I am going to deliver a few hard truths.

Not because I think I have all the answers, or because I want to shame anyone who doesn’t think this way, but because once believed all of these things below to be false until someone else took the time to help my viewpoint evolve.

1. Proficiency is a REAL THING.

Language proficiency is a real thing, even if you personally don’t “believe” in it. When I say that novice mid students (those that are often in level one) cannot reliably speak in complete sentences, that is a fact rooted in DECADES of research by trained professionals. This means that your level one students, if administered a true proficiency test, will MOST LIKELY not use perfect subject-verb agreement, with extra details, in a nicely complete sentence. In the instances that they do exhibit “perfect” grammar, it is likely because they memorized a particular language chunk. Creating with language and sentence-level discourse does not happen reliably until the intermediate stage.

2. If you build it, they will come.

Or, in language educator jargon, if you provide [comprehensible] input, the students will acquireThey will. Even Johnny Boy who never does his homework or brings his textbook to class, or Sally Girl who is afraid to verbally participate in class but who can rock a timed writing. Therefore, conversely, if you don’t provide comprehensible input, your students will not acquire and the age-old paradigm of only the strong (or 4%-ers) survive will probably begin to manifest.

3. You do not need a special aptitude to acquire a second language.

Everyone on earth has acquired a language. EVERY. PERSON. ON. EARTH. How did they acquire a language? Nothing but input from another source (usually mom and dad). So why do so few high school students acquire Spanish (or French, or German, or any other second language)?

Because we stop providing input and start providing “knowledge.” We provide verb endings, stem-changers, DR MRS VANDERTRAMPP and basically a calculus formula for the uses and formation of the subjunctive. The “good at traditional school” kids thrive, and everyone else crashes and burns and drops out after level 2 because it’s “too hard” and now they feel like they’re not good at Spanish (or French, or whatever). And then teachers say the phrase I loathe more than anything – “Well, little Bobby really shouldn’t have been in level two anyway.” To me, that is a Dave Burgess-level cop out. When I hear that, what I hear is I’m only going to accommodate you if you can learn within my comfortable, familiar teaching style and not What can I, the teacher and the content expert, do to make sure that ALL students are successful in my classroom? 

4. Yes, ALL students.

All students who go through your language program should exit with some degree of language proficiency (NOT necessarily explicit knowledge OF a language system). Yes – every student. Even that student who only makes it through level 2. Even the one who never did a single workbook page. Even the one who still insists on saying “J’ai allé” even after you “teach” them the right way to say it (he’s still demonstrating comprehension of the concept, right?). Your AP students should not be the only students who go on to remember and use their French.

5. It’s not about you.

Change is hard. Change is uncomfortable. Change is time consuming, and slow, and frustrating. Teaching is a deeply, deeply personal profession and confronting areas for improvement within ourselves is often an emotional and difficult journey. But at the end of the day, our jobs are not about us; they’re about the kids who rely on us every day. If we want to foster a growth mindset in the youngsters around us, we as teachers NEED to model that growth mindset by making purposeful, intentional attempts to try new things and expand our horizons.

The bottom line is, don’t close yourself off to something that at first seems unfamiliar and strange – embrace it. Use it as an opportunity to discover, to stretch your thinking. It’s the hard truths that make us better than we were before!

 

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