Not much time to write

Too much to do! Always too much to do!! I am teaching four different subjects in two different disciplines and I am never caught up. This is my first year teaching these classes.  I spend the nights getting ready for the next day. I spend the week-ends grading papers. I would like to return graded papers the next day, but I have to have instruction prepared first. As it is, I have been cutting sleep sometimes.

Too much to do! Always too much to do!!

Three Boys Skipped 7th Period

And like Robert Frost once said, it made all the difference. My seventh period was perfectly fine today. They listened. I wish somebody would have put my “D” students in a more appropriate class. If you get that “D” from me, it means you are not trying. I don’t care what the colleges want. These boys have zero desire to learn Spanish. Let them make pots instead.

Words, words, words… and why grammar instruction helps some of us

Least favorite line when assigning vocabulary: “That’s too many words!”

My 7th period was problematic today. Too much sugar. Too many toxic red Cheetohs. Whatever. Maybe it’s just adolescence. Buggers. It’s Monday and I am already behind. A neat trick on their part. They were not exactly uncooperative, but I hit multiple protests and multiple objections to work.

Some thoughts on the two-year foreign language requirement in high school:

French and Japanese teachers have an advantage over Spanish teachers because students chose their subjects. A student taking Japanese wants to be taking Japanese. Language teachers in all areas have common problems, though, especially the need to help students understand how language itself operates — that is, to teach a language’s grammar. For example, English mostly uses a S-V-O structure, subject followed by verb followed by object. Japanese mostly uses an S-O-V structure, putting the verb last, except Japanese doesn’t always need an object or even a subject.

Sometimes teachers skip grammar in favor of conversational methods that work around the lack of understanding that students bring to the formal structure of their language, but conversational approaches have one big drawback: They fall apart once you have forgotten your vocabulary.

If you know how to conjugate one type of verb, you can conjugate all regular verbs of that type. First, though, you must be able to recognize a verb. You also have to be able to recognize the subject of your sentence, since the subject will determine the form of the verb. You have to recognize objects, possibly assign them a gender, and then figure out where they fit in the sentence.

I took at 25 year break from using my foreign language skills except for a few chance conversations. When I needed to reclaim my rusty, high-school romance languages, though, I was in good shape thanks to a grammatical framework. I knew exactly what to do with a verb when handed its infinitive form. I knew the rules for past, present, future, gender, agreement, etc. I knew where to place my words in a sentence. While I had forgotten many words, I recalled the basic structure I needed, in large part thanks to endless, boring drilling on the part of middle school and high school language teachers. To recover fluency, I only had to brush up on my vocabulary.

But I reclaimed my lost languages because of drilling and repetition, because of grammar instruction and other approaches that are considered old-fashioned today. I did many worksheets. I recited dialogs. I wrote essays. I memorized lists of words.

Students today too often resent demands for memorization. They want to learn a language without word lists and grammar rules. We often oblige them by trying to teach through conversational approaches instead. There’s a place for conversational approaches. What’s the good of learning a language if you can’t wander the streets of another country and talk to the people who live there?

But I am writing this post because I see a problem as I listen to that whining phase, “That’s too many words!”

Twenty words over the week is not too many words. That’s eighty words in four weeks. That’s 720 words in a school year. Fortunately, learning verb forms provides a big boost to a student’s active vocabulary. to supplement those 720 words. Because 720 words is probably barely enough.

A number of students did not do enough of their week-end assignment for me to effectively do my Monday lesson plan. I understand they are pushing back against an unfamiliar requirement: The requirement to actually memorize something. There’s no alternative, though, and I hope we can all come together in understanding this fact soon.

 

 

Good morning, buenos días, bon jour, guten morgen, ohayou gozaimasu, bonan tagon

 

“All the information is out there on the internet,” education instructors and administrators say. “We need to teach them critical thinking skills, not just facts.”

But critical thinking skills only work when a person has a certain number of facts at their disposal to put into some sort of framework. That information on the internet is only useful within a framework. In language, the framework is called grammar. We have been moving away from teaching grammar. It’s not much fun, for one thing. I also suspect that we’ve reached the point where many of our elementary school teachers don’t know basic grammar.

In language studies, a formidable amount of new vocabulary comes packaged with unavoidable and often unfamiliar grammar. Since many districts now teach almost no grammar in elementary school, accordingly, many high school freshman and sophomores (plus a few juniors and seniors) cannot identify a subject and verb, much less a direct or indirect object. All first year language classes run up against these problems, and language teachers may become students first real grammar teachers.

(If you doubt that last statement, check with your school district. I was entertained in a staff meeting a couple of years ago when speakers brought up the greater success of local Catholic schools at state standardized testing. The pundit who had been trying to tease out the Catholic advantage told us, “One thing they do is teach grammar. That seems to help their students on the test.” A few teachers around the room expressed surprised, grammar being so old-school and out of fashion. The rest of us sat there thinking, “Duhh.”)

The current retrieval/critical thinking approach to education has various flaws. While I am not objecting to teaching information retrieval and critical thinking — vital components for today’s students without doubt — I think teachers and others should stand up for memorization. Memorization provides the girders we use to build critical-thinking skills. Memorization also gives students practice doing something tedious that provides them with long-term benefit. For that matter, I think teachers should stand up for tedium, for the many benefits that come from doing activities that are not fun.

Our students will be the better for that tedium in the long-run. With practice, maybe when that first job turns out to be boring, they won’t just quit. Maybe when that engineering program proves difficult, they won’t switch majors to something easier but less likely to provide them with the life they desire. Maybe when marriage becomes less exciting than expected, they will understand that quiet commitment can be a better choice than the endless search for more fireworks. The research clearly indicates that learning also postpones dementia in the elderly, with luck even preventing that loss of skill, understanding, and personhood entirely.

Retrieval can be a gateway to learning. But our students have to open the gate. They won’t do that by cutting and pasting facts into word documents.

I believe foreign language classes highlight a flaw in current educational methodology. We rely on our machines to provide us with answers. Educational administrations love Smart Boards and computers, IPads and graphing calculators. All these tools have a place and, please, don’t get me wrong: I love technology too.

But learning is grittier than that. Learning requires mental sweat. Learning requires a time commitment. Before anyone can think critically, they need to gain knowledge and marshal facts to form their arguments.

Here’s why I am writing this: I am hitting a remarkable amount of resistance to having to memorize words in my language classes. Most students understand the necessity to know the words in the chapter by the time of the chapter test. But a solid minority keep looking for a quick fix. They want to be able to look up words on their phone instead. This minority really does not see the point in learning.

They want learning to occur incidentally during games with Skittles and Jolly Ranchers. They want to be able to half-learn some half-baked version of a foreign language that will be “good enough.” But “good enough” comes back to bite people regularly. Almost “good-enough” may be just enough to get fired or to prevent getting hired in the first place.

Life is not always fun and does not always provide Skittles. (The candy comes out mostly on Thursdays before the quiz.) Retrieval does not necessarily build a knowledge-base. Critical thinking requires data and retrieved data is seldom as well-understood as learned data.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2: Girders for the framework

I suggested teachers and parents ought to stand up for grammar. Now I’d like to make a second suggestion: Let’s stand up for memorization. Current pedagogical thinking discourages so-called rote memorization as old-fashioned, viewing this activity as too tedious for an engaged classroom. Where possible, we are encouraged to teach retrieval instead.

The multiplication tables (now often called math facts) are still expected to be memorized, but teachers may perform this feat as quickly as possible, frequently passing out candy to encourage the effort, and then move on from this regrettable necessity as soon as all students can pass “the test.”. I am convinced this is why I have taught math to seventh and eighth graders who can’t tell me the answer to 6 X 7 without counting on fingers. I’ve seen a few students count on both fingers and toes.

Memorization provides the girders we use to build critical-thinking skills. Memorization builds memory pathways and connections. Memorization also gives students practice doing something tedious that provides them with long-term benefits.

While we are standing up for memorization, I think teachers and parents should also stand up for tedium, for the many benefits that come from doing activities that are not fun. Our students will be the better for learning to manage tedium in the long-run. With practice, maybe when their first job turns out to be boring, they won’t just quit. Maybe when the engineering program proves difficult, they won’t switch majors to something that will pay them $1,000,000 less over their lifetimes. Maybe when their marriages becomes less exciting than expected, they will understand that quiet commitment is a better choice than the endless search for more fireworks.

Or, if nothing else, maybe they will at least be ready to move out of the basement or the attic of their parents house after college, ready to shoulder the sometimes tedious responsibility of their own lives.

 

A disquieting observation about learning languages and teaching retrieval skills

So I am teaching … let’s say Esperanto. It doesn’t really matter. Spanish, French, Japanese or German, the problems are mostly the same. Spanish problems are somewhat worse . Too many students effectively have been obliged to learn Spanish. Counselors set them up with the two required years of a foreign language for college applications and, if students have no particular interest in any foreign language, they are usually channelled into Spanish, which is perceived as useful and easiest to learn.

But it takes about 5,000 words in a language to manage daily life and more like 10,000 – 20,000 to be effectively fluent. Well-educated speakers of English may have a vocabulary in excess of 50,000 or even 75,000 words. That’s a lot of words to stuff into a brain, especially a reluctant brain.

There’s no shortcut either. There’s no magic Spanish or German calculator that will get a student around the fact that they don’t know how to construct a sentence. Yes, they can look up words on their phone. But they can’t simply plug in words and have some electronic device spit out the answer.

(Actually, they can if they know enough. I used an online translation program to write a thank-you letter in Portuguese once. But I know a great deal about romance languages. A beginning language student often can’t tell if a translation program is giving correct answers. Students try to use these programs and the cheating is apparent and sometimes pretty funny. For example, I put a line from a French version of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” into a translation engine. I left out the accents, as students frequently do. “On n’avait encore jamais vu dans Privet Drive quelque chose qui ressemblat a cette homme” became “We had never yet seen in Harry’s Adventure Begins At Number Four Privet Drive something that ressemblat has this man.” Then I tried the Spanish for the same line: “En Privet Drive nunca se habia visto un hombre asi.” and got  “On Privet Drive had never seen a man as well. The correct English translation is something like “No one had ever seen a man like this on Privet Drive.” I can’t give the word-for-word translation because I loaned my English copy of this Potter book to a Spanish-speaking student. I will say this: I have done my part to help make J.K. Rowling rich. That Number Four Privet Drive in the French translation is especially interesting because the original phrase has nothing like “Number Four” in it. I seem to have stumbled into some associated translation. I checked and put the phrase in twice. That’s an intriguing glitch in the translation company software.)

To get back on track: Teachers are taught to emphasize information retrieval skills using available technology. They are taught to use critical thinking questions to stimulate making connections between disciplines. The problem is that these approaches do not work well in early foreign language studies.

Teaching retrieval skills may be fine for history or or psychology, but languages require drilling and memorization. Even if you take a conversational approach, forcing a word into long-term memory requires repetition. What does it take for a person to become fluent in another language? Among other things, he or she has to learn and remember a great many new words and ideas.

I am seeing far too many students who consider the idea of memorization an imposition. More importantly, I am seeing far too many students who don’t know how to memorize new words, facts or ideas. I help them by making suggestions: 1) Play an online language game. 2) Make some flashcards. 3) Write your notes so that you can cover up a word or its definition and work your way down a list. 4) Ask a friend to go through new vocabulary with you. Etc.

I shouldn’t have to be teaching this to fifteen and sixteen year olds.

In search of the girders for the framework

“All the information is out there on the internet,” education instructors and administrators say. “We need to teach retrieval skills, not just facts. We need to teach students critical thinking skills, not just facts.”

But critical thinking skills only work when a person has a certain number of facts at their disposal to put into some sort of framework. That information on the internet is only useful within a framework. In language, the framework is called grammar. We have been moving away from teaching grammar. It’s not much fun, for one thing. I also suspect that we’ve reached the point where many of our elementary school teachers don’t know basic grammar.

In language studies, a formidable amount of new vocabulary comes packaged with unavoidable and often unfamiliar grammar. Since many districts now teach almost no grammar in elementary school, accordingly, many high school freshman and sophomores (plus a few juniors and seniors) cannot identify a subject and verb, much less a direct or indirect object. All first year foreign language classes run up against these problems, and foreign language teachers often become grammar teachers, filling in the blanks for students who don’t understand the basic structure of language.

(If you doubt that last statement, check with your school district. I was entertained in a staff meeting a couple of years ago when speakers brought up the greater success of local Catholic schools at state standardized testing. The pundit who had been trying to tease out the Catholic advantage told us, “One thing they do is teach grammar. That seems to help their students on the test.” A few teachers around the room expressed surprised, grammar being so old-school and out of fashion. The rest of us sat there thinking, “Duhh.”)

The current retrieval/critical thinking approach to education has various flaws. While I am not objecting to teaching information retrieval and critical thinking — vital components for today’s students without doubt — I think teachers and others should stand up for grammar.

If we are going to teach writing — and we do — then we ought to teach more grammar. If you’re reading this blog, on some level you know English grammar You can put words in an order that makes sense with endings that tell where you are in time. But if we want our students to develop critical thinking skills, one place we might start is with the structure of language itself. Do we need formal instruction in grammar? Probably not. Most of us probably don’t need algebra either.

But if we want to develop critical thinking skills, we need to learn to break down how processes work. We need to understand how the parts of processes fit into the whole. What better place to work on developing this understanding of processes than the English language itself?

 

You can’t retrieve the stick you never had

Retrieval can be a gateway to learning. But our students have to open the gate. They won’t do that by cutting and pasting facts into word documents.

We rely on our machines to provide us with answers. Educational administrations love Smart Boards and computers, IPads and graphing calculators. All these tools have a place and, please, don’t get me wrong: I love technology too.

But learning is grittier than that. Learning requires mental sweat. Learning requires a time commitment. Before anyone can think critically, they need to gain knowledge and marshal facts to form their arguments.