“Are” is not an adverb

“No, ‘are’ is an adverb,” the student said. Then she began to frantically leaf through a stack of notes, convinced her English teacher had said this. She is in high school.

I don’t fault the kid. I don’t fault her teachers, either. I strongly suspect any responsibility lies with the curriculum that ducked grammar and verbs, leaving this girl lost at sea in her foreign language class.

I quit

The district will have to find another Spanish teacher. For me, the Curriculum Death March is over. I am returning to bilingual education. This first year high-school position is famous for its high turnover rate and I now understand why. For the sake of my students, I regret being part of that turnover, but I am so immeasurably glad to see the end of this year.
Eduhonesty: My hands were tied by that curriculum. I could have made Spanish much more fun while also teaching considerably more useful Spanish — if I had been allowed to step off the tracks. But the structure of the class, combined with that district-wide test, did not allow the train to derail.

Is "Rigor" Sucking the Life Out of Teaching and Learning?

A musing following a conversation with a colleague:

My colleague was feeling guilty because she had promised to show one of her classes pictures and mementos from a trip to the Holy Land, but she never found time. Somehow, the immediate curricular demands of the year never allowed for that presentation. At year’s end, one student expressed his disappointment, reminding her of the unkept promise.

My last school has banned all parties. They take time away from instruction, after all. We must never waste time nowadays on material that does not affect testing or curricular requirements.

But I will freely confess the curricular train derailed a few times in my Spanish 2 class this year — and I think we were all the better for it. I doubt many of my Spanish 1 students want to go on to Spanish 2. I kept the train rolling in those classes, aware that students needed to cover this year’s material to get ready for next year. We were supposed to do eight chapters and I endlessly pushed onward in an attempt to get through those 307 pages.

I suspect that if some of those Spanish 2 students get stuck with Spanish 3 as one of their few elective options, they may well continue on in Spanish. A number have told me enjoyed the class despite their lack of interest in Spanish itself.

In contrast, I can’t imagine why my Spanish 1 students would want to take Spanish 2. A total of 307 pages represents drudgery in its purest form, an example of rigor run amuck. Most highly motivated students can barely hit that target. Since the large majority of students taking the class only wanted to fulfill a graduation requirement known to be useful for college applications, those 307 pages proved an unrelenting grind for the majority. We ended up glossing over many topics since we had no time to go into depth.

Spanish provides students with future employment opportunities and, more importantly, a bridge to other countries and worlds. Will my Spanish 1 students see benefit from their language studies? In spite of my best efforts (or worse, because of them), I doubt they will benefit. It’s very difficult to learn a language in four years and some students in those classes were already sophomores. To gain fluency in Spanish, those students will have to pursue language learning independently as well as take classes. But the district curriculum and book made Spanish wretchedly rigorous.

Eduhonesty: Student motivation remains a mysterious topic. I’m sure of one thing, though. When the work is too laborious, when the classes are too unrelentingly demanding, students become demotivated. If that second year of Spanish were not nearly a requirement, I think many of those Spanish 1 students would head for ceramics like desperate lemmings in search of a sea.

We spent a school year sucking the life out of a subject that ought be fun. Because the class midterm and final are created in a district office, I had to prepare them for tests I would not create and could not adapt. This meant I could not abandon the Curriculum Death March or my students would not be ready for their summative tests.



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.







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.

Dual-language for all?

We have all these students who speak Spanish at home. We should be teaching them to read and write Spanish as well, starting at the elementary level. Too often, we push them towards English and don’t take advantage of their natural facility with Spanish.

The truth is that we should be moving toward dual-language programs for all of America’s children. Spanish is the second language of the United States. It’s profoundly useful for employment nowadays. There’s also research suggesting that learning a second language can help stave off dementia in later life. Languages lay new pathways in the brain.

We ought to begin dual-language programs in kindergarten or first grade, whether the language is Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Polish, French, German, Italian or something else. Learning a language is vastly easier at six years than at sixteen years of age. It’s likely to  be a lot more fun, too. The curricula for high school language classes can be very demanding, while studies indicate that the actual learning process has become more difficult due to structural changes in the brain.