Dancing the bachata

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(Readers, I appreciate you. This blog now has over 10,000 registered users. I especially appreciate the fact that you seem to be hanging in with me despite my apparent lack of any overall theme beyond the gargantuan topic of education. Here’s yet another orphan post on the topic of teaching Spanish.)

Kitchen and whatever 548

 (A marvelous teaching assistant from an earlier time when curriculum had not steamrolled over education.)

This post comes from reminiscences from three years ago when I taught high school Spanish. I taught Spanish for one year before returning to middle school bilingual classes with a sigh of relief that could probably be heard on the Starship Enterprise, even if sound waves can’t travel through space. I also ended up in the hospital at the end of that run and I don’t regard that fact as a coincidence. I called that year, “The Curriculum Death March”. My students had prewritten midterms and finals based on a curriculum that required getting through over 300 pages of their Spanish textbooks, a requirement shared across the multiple high schools of the district. I had to get through that book to get them ready for those finals. The amount of material and the speed at which we were covering that material made Spanish into an endurance marathon, forced on students who had been forced into Spanish. Since all students must be prepared for college, and colleges mostly want to see at least two years of a foreign language, administrators had decided those kids were going to learn a foreign language whether they wanted to or not. A fair number had zero interest in foreign language studies.

“Why should we have to learn Mexican?” one girl demanded in class. “They need to learn English.” She had a lot of support to judge by faces in the class — even some Hispanic faces. I had a diplomatic nightmare, since I had a fair number of “Mexican” students in that class.

Anyway, my observation for today:

Fun often falls off the educational radar as we push for higher test-score numbers, yet fun should be part of any curriculum discussion, especially one involving foreign languages and other electives. Spanish should be fun. Students should be making family trees as they memorize the nouns naming their various relatives. They should be learning to prepare ethnic cuisines and practicing Hispanic dances. Classes should compare rituals across South America, Central America and the United States.

In the Spanish class I taught three years ago, we had time for almost none of that as we pushed through our three to four pages of vocabulary and grammar for the day. I want to note here that I emphatically believe in grammar, and in explicitly teaching grammar. A class of nothing but vocabulary and grammar becomes pure drudgery, though.

What administrators and bureaucrats seem to forget is the marketing component of teaching. If we don’t sell Spanish, our students may not choose to buy Spanish. They will complete their two years, and then drop that language like the proverbial hot potato and never look back — not until they are out of school. Because I have taught Spanish, I have listened as many young and older adults told me they regretted dropping Spanish, having discovered too late the professional advantages that bilingualism might have provided.

When the curriculum makes Spanish so tedious that students find Spanish a burden, rather than a fun break in the academic day, we need to take a step back and look at that curriculum. Do we want children and adolescents to learn foreign languages? If so, we should make those languages appealing.

Here’s the missing piece: At least at first, slower works better. Doing group projects and having a good time while adding words and phrases naturally works better than sending home long, obligatory vocabulary lists as part of book assignments.

If I’d stayed with that Spanish position another year or two, I could have found ways to work around at least part of the Curriculum Death March. But I also taught bilingual that year, so I had four different classes to prepare for daily. In the end, I had to stick with the book, too, because administrators above me had already written the tests that would determine my students’ grades and I needed to teach to that book to get them ready for those tests.

Eduhonesty: Rigor wrecked those Spanish classes. Irrational targets made the class very demanding, even undoable for some students who did not have a natural ear for languages.

“Rigor” has become one of those words that makes me cringe. I am not against rigor, just as I am not against grammar. But I am against curricular choices that do not consider students. The question should not be, “What is the maximum amount of Spanish we can make students learn?” The question should be, “How will we convince them to keep taking Spanish and to go on with their language studies in college?”

Love of learning should be the goal. That goal is not always best served by tougher questions, harder material, and more rigorous demands.

Food for thought from the article “Not a Small World After All” (February 11, 2015, Colleen Flaherty)

“Overall enrollment in foreign language courses is down for the first time since about 1995, and enrollments in major European languages — including Spanish — are way down, according to a new report from the Modern Language Association. Language advocates aren’t sure what’s caused the drop, and say it’s too soon to tell whether it’s a fluke or the beginning of a new trend away from foreign language study. But they’re calling for a renewed effort in helping students see the value in upper-division language classes, which could be helpful to them in their careers.”

Language Enrollments and Percentage Change

Language Change from 2002-06 (%) Change from 2006-09 (%) Change from 2009-13 (%) 2013 Enrollment(students)
Spanish +10.3 +4.7 -8.2 790,756
French +2.0 +4.5 -8.1 197,757
American Sign +31.1 +15.5 +19.1 109,577
German +3.3 +1.6 -9.3 86,700
Italian +22.3 +2.7 -11.3 71,285
Japanese +25.2 +10.6 -7.8 66,740
Chinese +50.4 +16.5 +2 61,055
Arabic +126.6 +45.5 -7.5 32,286
Latin +7.8 +0.9 -16.2 27,192
Russian +3.5 +8.0 -17.9 21,962
Ancient Greek +12 -12.2 -35.5 12,917
Biblical Hebrew -0.3 -2.6 -8.7 12,551
Portuguese +23 +9.3 +10.1 12,415
Korean +37.1 +18.2 +44.7 12,229
Modern Hebrew 11.6 -13.6 -19.4 6,698
Other languages 33.6 21.4 -2.6 40,059
Total +12.9 +6.2 -6.7 1,562,179
 My take on the situation: I’d quit taking Spanish as soon as I could if I had to take the Spanish that I was required to teach. Yet I loved Spanish in high school, as well as French and Latin. I kept taking language classes in college, in part because they were such easy “A” grades. But in my time, we were not racing nonstop through textbooks. We took whole classes to greet each other and practice dialogs. We made posters. We played games. Latin was a bit more tedious, due to the written character of the language, but at least Marcus Tullius Cicero did not have to get to the forum in less than 5 minutes.
Maximizing requirements definitely does not always maximize learning.