Teaching Diary, 25 November 2016

0. Confession: I should be using this vacation time to adequately prepare for my classes over the coming month. I am constantly in a state of panic, flying by the seat of my pants, a sort of educational just-in-time production model unto myself. But then every so often, I need time to step back and look at the big picture. This need weighs even more heavily on me as someone who has been a political activist my entire adult life. Yet I’m often trapped in the minutiae of the day-to-day. So I’ve taken this time to think and write about where I’m at in my career as a foreign language teacher and a political thinker. I used to keep my activism much more separate from my career, but that has changed in the last few years. I am also changing my approach to foreign language teaching, and I think it may be creating new contradictions that I have not yet fully identified, let alone solved. Thus, this attempt to weave together the threads.

1.I actually want to be a good FL teacher. I think I have a certain amount of loyalty / recognition from students because of the ways I relate to them, take care of them, etc. And because of the ways I open their minds to the world. But I’m concerned that former students will say “didn’t learn much Spanish / French”. That is frustrating. I also feel like other teachers have her shit way more together, that they have more confidence in what they do and how they do it, that I just don’t measure up. I want to teach them well and to have real evidence of it at the end of the day.

2. I have spent years in the wilderness. I feel like I should be so much more advanced than I am at this point. But I am also realizing that support is essential, and that if/when we hire new people, I need to play a role in mentoring them. During my Spanish career, the “lead” was “do what you want and fly under the radar”, with a number of constraints added on. I do not think I had any real mentor in Spanish. My department chair was good for the first year, though too loose. After that, forget it. As a French teacher, I got some guidance (but also much stress) from one of my administrators. More importantly, I’ve had some connection with AATF et al. I would really like to expand that connection. I have found the French teacher community to be so supportive and helpful. But it’s difficult to be in daily, close contact. We are often confined to conferences every so often, or connection on social media—both useful and hazardous, as social media is in every aspect of life these days.

3. So what do I think? The goal of FL teaching in the US is (or should be) twofold: a) to open students’ minds to the cultural and linguistic differences that mean they are not the default setting, but one of many—to that end, they need substantial cultural content; b) to teach students the basics of language use in the target language, such that they can succeed on the AP exam, reach intermediate high proficiency, etc. I also believe, increasingly, that in order to be successful in these things, I myself need to have a higher level of proficiency and cultural awareness. That is difficult to do on one’s own, without a supportive linguistic community. I have found it much more difficult to find this community in French than it was in Spanish.

4. I believe that language is learned in context, and that it requires communicative, productive use in order for it to take hold. Context and production.

5. I believe that the goal should be for students to use the language to communicate what is useful or interesting to them. It is difficult to get students to use the language if the content is not important. It’s also tricky because correction on the language side can be taken as an attack on the content if the teacher is not careful. This is particularly true at Level 1, where students pour their hearts into projects like the family tree / presentation, but if they make incomprehensible sentences… well, it can be a disaster. Care must always be taken to encourage and validate students.

6. I believe that the AP French exam is, in fact, an excellent exam. I believe it is structured so as to test students on precisely those elements of French that we should be teaching. The speaking and writing tasks, in particular, are quite useful, even if the speaking is somewhat artificial. It does, in fact, reflect something important about interpersonal communication, and in order to prepare for it, students need a broad range of practice items and contexts. That said, I also think the test, as a test produced by the College Board in the US, can very much be taken too instrumentally, and that teachers can spend too much time on straight test prep, focusing too much on utilitarian approaches to the language, to the detriment of substantive cultural comparison.

7. Students in the upper levels should be introduced to authentic resources. The Internet has greatly facilitated our access as teachers to a broad range of materials—often an overwhelming range. None the less, the fact of this accessibility means that we can create lessons and even units of study that focus on particular aspects of the culture, particular episodes, that allow our students to go more in depth into the culture while also staying in the language. I have found that American-produced textbooks often fail at this, while French-produced materials are often excellent. I still supplement, of course, with my own sources and materials.

8. However, a contradiction I encountered on the way to the upper levels is that students need a solid foundation in the language at the lower levels, and the weakness of this side of my program has led me to reconsider language teaching in the lower levels. Once again, context and production are crucial, but in very different ways from the upper levels. It is at the lower levels that discreet aspects of language require more attention and focus, with an emphasis on production of sentences in the first year and strings of sentences to paragraphs in the second year—all frequent, with much repetition and/or theme and variations, and all in context.

9. Vocabulary teaching is, of course, the basis. It requires care and nuance. There are at least three different types of vocabulary that must be approached differently: 1) unit-based or thematic vocabulary, predominantly nouns with some verbs and adjectives as needed, which should be separated into essential and supplemental lists, and taught in connection with other words; 2) high-frequency words, generally composed of prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, articles, pronouns, and essential verbs, which should both be made readily available to students but should also be taught with specific focus at times so as to highlight the fundamentally different concepts underpinning their use; 3) vocabulary in context, on an as-needed basis, which is sometimes glossed, sometimes looked up by the student, sometimes derived from context clues, word roots, etc. While the first two are predominant in the lower levels, the third becomes more important in the upper levels.

10. Phonology—the “sound system” of a language—is extremely important, and also generally overlooked. I am still struggling to figure out how best to deal with this aspect of language teaching, which I think must be tackled in Level 1. I very much subscribe to the notion that mastery of phonology facilitates language learning later on, and in particular that third type of vocabulary learning. Modern society is complex, and the average lexicon of a high school student today is far larger than the average lexicon of a peasant farmer in Medieval Europe. Major credit for this is due to the fact of the printing press, mass telecommunications, and the spread of near-universal literacy. But spoken language is still fundamental, and if you can’t “hear” a new word when you see it printed, it’s harder to learn it.

11. Grammar, while not a useful tool for young children learning a language, is actually quite important for adolescent and young adult learners. Once again, though, it must be taught in context and with care for the sensibilities of the student. This is where I think it’s useful to start grammatical teaching subtly, at first as a form of vocabulary to be used in a specific context. Then, with enough examples, the grammatical rule can be taught inductively, as an act of exploration. But I also think it requires much in the way of practice, and this is where it can be tricky. That traditional worksheet with fill-in-the-blank items is really useful only to show that the student got it, or didn’t. Beyond the basic practice, though, students should be provided with communicative tasks, set-up but open-ended role plays, etc., in order to really master the use of the grammatical elements, but again in context and through production.

12. Culture is crucial. To be perfectly honest, I think the best teacher of culture is one who has a deep connection with the culture they teach. It was always a question for me when I taught Spanish: which Spanish-speaking culture? As a French teacher, I’m more engaged with contemporary France, and to a certain degree Québec. It’s easier to focus, and parsing the cultures does not raise nearly so many thorny questions for Americans as teaching Spanish does. (More on foreign language in Trump’s America below). But it requires a real engagement, a deeper knowledge than what the textbook provides, and a passion. When I teach about Québec, it is with admiration, a certain commitment (as an outsider and an internationalist) to Québec sovereigntism, but also a real critical eye toward what Canada represents. When I teach about France, I am equally committed to teaching about social democracy and about the rise of the National Front—both are crucial to understanding contemporary France, and (by extension) the contemporary U.S.

13. If the US were to take language teaching and acquisition seriously—if our school system were actually geared toward equalizing opportunity through quality education—we would have a thoroughly bilingual educational system, geared toward meeting the linguistic needs of the children in any school. Every school would need to evaluate their particular population and its needs, but in general I would propose the following: a) two-way bilingual instruction in English and Spanish from Kindergarten on up; b) around 12 years of age (7th grade), a choice between French, German or Latin as a third language of academic study; c) in high school (10th or 11th), the choice of a fourth, non-European language (Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic, etc.—all of them on the Foreign Service Institute’s fifth tier of difficulty!) as an elective. This would be the proper way to gear our students toward “21st Century Skills” and “Global Learning”.

14. A word about the Trump effect. Children have been deeply affected, of course, by the wave of xenophobia that is associated, in this country, with the rhetoric of president-elect Donald Trump. It is important for Americans to understand that the Trump phenomenon is not just here, that it’s not a “new discovery” about “ignorant Americans”. It is rather much more of an international phenomenon, a rejection of the neoliberal economic and political framework of the last forty years, but organized ideologically and politically by the far right. Trump, Brexit, the National Front and the various far-right parties throughout Europe, Modi and the BJP in India, Duterte in the Philippines—all of these are terrifying examples of a global society in the throes of political and social decay. It requires deeper study and greater connections with the larger social and political picture of the world—and this is a particular task for foreign language teachers.

15. It is, of course, a tremendous challenge—much more so for Spanish teachers than anyone else. How can a Spanish teacher proceed with students who talk about “build that wall”? It is an automatic, a priori rejection of learning Spanish from the students. How can students learn anything when they have already dismissed the object of study as less than valuable? This is why it’s crucial for Spanish teachers to be conscious anti-racists. It can be quite tricky, as well, when one call from an irate parent (many of whom harbor much deeper racism) can be so damaging to a teacher’s career. For French teachers, the situation is quite a bit easier precisely because America does not maintain a relationship of racialized labor exploitation with the French-speaking world. But this imposes on us an even greater mission of making the comparisons of metropolis to colony. France stands in much the same relationship to Africa and to the African peoples as the US does to Latin America—not in all aspects, of course, but the major structural elements are comparable in their fundamentals. It bears upon us, as teachers of culture, to draw out the comparisons, to use France as the mirror for the US, to lead our students to a greater consciousness of themselves as residents of an empire within the context of a global society.

16. Foreign Language teaching carries with it a moral and political duty. Particularly with the rise of the xenophobic far-right in practically every country, it is our responsibility to teach foreign language with an eye to internationalism—or more appropriately, international solidarity. It is not a question of teaching some liberal notion of what America (or France, or wherever) “should be”, but rather a task of exposing to students what actually is in each country, to make comparisons while initially withholding judgment, but then to draw conclusions about the international relations and future of humanity. It requires foreign language teachers to be historically conscious of the roots of our languages and cultures, the interactions and interconnections, the developments over time. Ultimately, it requires us to view the modern era—the capitalist era—as a stage in the development of human language and culture, one that has brought with it tremendous advances and well as tremendous violence, and one that will eventually pass away. Whether or not we as foreign language teachers are consciously anti-racist and anti-capitalist, the objective fact of our profession propels us in this direction.

About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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