09 October 2011

Critics and Converts

If I were a "worksheet queen" (and I was) exploring #langchat for the first time, I think I would be offended and hurt and never want to come back again. I do not think I would grow and become a better teacher. I think I would be insulted and overwhelmed and go back to doing what I knew how to do. Had I not already been through all of those emotions starting the National Boards process before discovering Thursday #langchat, I'm not sure I would have been back myself. 

With condescending references to "grammarians...worksheet teachers" and retweets of (my own) frustrated comments about language teachers who believe in "wkshts & grammr oriented "controllable" classes,"what message are we sending to our colleagues? New converts can be the harshest critics, and I'm proof. But will this ever help our kids or our cause?

"Opposition always inflames the enthusiast, never converts him." Friedrich Schiller

Of the four language teachers I had in junior high/high school, there was one I would not group strictly with the grammarians (she is kind of my idol and my daughter-to-be's namesake), and there was another (who wore go-go boots at 80) who did expose us to a movie from Haiti and some memoirs from French Indochina (I was a late convert to Spanish, too), in between all of the schema we had to make of every possible conjugation of every possible French verb. My German teachers? STRICT textbook addicts, though one did show us the little textbook videos about fake German kids.

I see myself trying to convert the Frau and Herr German teacher of my past education, even the Sras and Srtas with whom I've worked as a teacher myself...and I don't see it happening. What do I say to the teacher racing around the room explaining--in English--her worksheet about infinitives, roots, and subject pronouns? What about the teacher who was supposed to be demonstrating classroom control for me who took glazed eyes and open notebooks while she wrote charts on the board as "engagement"?

Who am I to challenge these people? How can we reform language education without buy-in beforehand?

“I believe that the very effort to convert anybody is violence, it is interfering in his individuality, in his uniqueness, into his freedom.” Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

I have not yet won a single colleague to join #langchat on Thursdays, perhaps because I am my own department and my graduate school colleagues are simply not that "techy." I'm too dubious about their receptiveness to tell almost-complete strangers to join in. And when another language teacher says to my face, "Fortunately, they don't think about it too much and just do the project and forget it," what middle ground is there between throwing a righteous hissy fit and smiling politely as if in agreement? How do I say to someone who has been teaching as long as I have--or longer--with the same credentials--or more--that what they are doing is wrong? 

If another teacher observing me told me that about my methods, I would be a livid bonfire of outrage. If another teacher had just questioned the validity of worksheets and games back when I started teaching, I would have melted into a confused puddle: that was pretty much the only way I learned myself, and I could not conceive of alternatives, much less how to make them happen.

“To convert somebody, go and take them by the hand and guide them.” St. Thomas Aquinas

If we can get our colleagues to a conference, then we have broken through the barrier. If a colleague asks for help and comes to us saying, "I want to make this better but don't know how," we have an in. These are people who are already receptive to change, and getting a hold of their proverbial hands to guide them is not so hard. I imagine offering a professional development workshop for my district, but I am plagued with doubt. Would people even want to show up? Would they be put out at having one more thing to do? Would I even be able to say things that they could hear?
I could probably get my friend from grad school in on it, since I am mostly an isolated unknown in my district, and we could make it sort of a vertical alignment planning session. Maybe with her help, we could get some buy-in...

"The greatest religions convert the world through stories." Ben Okri

Of course I could do a little razzle-dazzle with Twitter and #langchat summaries to show what's available at the click of a mouse, but I suspect that most people I would encounter are not, as my professor put it when I showed her #langchat, "language geeks" like I have become. I will have to show them what I have done and, if possible, get my colleague to do the same. We will have to bring evidence. (So THIS is what National Boards was setting me up for! Sneaky, sneaky National Boards...)
Things I could show:
  • Tweets and emails from Ayudando Ando, plus photos of the mountains of stuff to send to Colombia sitting in the corner of my room (until our bakesale to collect shipping) and perhaps the Donors Choose projects to get cameras to share with La Laja
  • Cooking shows from last year's Spanish 1
  • Glogs from students' trips to Plaza Latina
  • La llaman America and other picture books teachers could use for context
  • Symbaloos on Afrolatinos and Narcocorridos?
  • Video interviews of students (especially in Spanish 2 & 3)?
  • Video of grammar lessons in the TL?
"Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, or learning." Frederick William Faber

If I can put enough resources within their reach, get enough ideas going, maybe they can start experimenting like I did. We'll have to be in touch for when they get frustrated...like I did. And it will have to start small, digestible, like I wish I did.

If we are going to make converts of our colleagues, if we are going to make language learning meaningful for all students in all classrooms, I think we are going to have to be more careful with how we approach the unconverted. We are going to have to make conversion to things like teaching in the target language, interpersonal communication, community building, and surviving without worksheets accessible. People who still rely on the methods that taught me use them because they think they are the best option, because those methods are what they understand. 

"Grammarians" and "worksheet teachers" should not be treated as sinister opponents in the battle for the soul of language education or bumps to be steamrolled on our way to communicative nirvana. They should not feel attacked by people who (at least think they) already have the answers. They should be guided, shown what focusing on the 5 C's instead of conjugation and precision can do for their students. They should not be sidelined until they agree to cooperate: they should be incorporated in the movement.

So how can we make this possible in our weekly #langchats? How can we make this happen in our schools?


  1. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar! I have to admit I felt a little "judged" at times because I use TPRS which does have a translation component. I am thick-skinned enough to stick with langchat, but your points are totally valid!

  2. I love Twitter and the PLN I have now, but I have to say that not only do I agree with what you have written here, I have felt offended more than once by a few tweeters who feel like they have become the "experts" of all things language instruction and who forget that everyone is in a different place in their journey. Where we are in this journey is dictated by our access to resources and technology as much as it is to our teaching styles and discoveries. At the end of the day, none of us has arrived because there is no final destination. If we are truly good teachers then we have to be perpetual students: always learning and reaching for new places to go and things to learn.

    I would caution all of my tweeps to check yourselves before you hit send. Make sure the comment or criticism you send would be something that has the same nurturing spirit that you would use with your students. No one I have met on Twitter knows it all or is perfect yet.

    Props to you for being brave or angry enough to write this. I have wanted to tell a few tweeters off a handful of times.

    Good job!

  3. I agree with what you are expressing, but I also believe that Twitter is the place for teachers to communicate how they feel about teaching and the methods (all methods) that they are using which may work or does not work in their classrooms.

    I may also be someone who sometimes needs to watch what she says before hitting "send" but I also believe that Twitter is for those teachers who are willing to grow and learn through communication. There is definitely a place for grammar in language learning (or else no one could communicate with an L1 learner) and I think we all have different ways we can learn from each other and by offering our different opinions, we are improving our lessons. I love reading different opinions, and integrating them into my lessons even if they don't match my own opinions about language acquisition.

    I agree though, the tweets should not sound condescending and should be open for discussion. I apologize if mine have ever sounded like that, and especially if #langchat is ever used as a "weapon" in that sense. Twitter for Teachers is meant to be a tool and a great world of free professional development. It is not a place for feelings to get hurt...

  4. I think we agree a lot. I also think Twitter is a place for teachers to learn and grow, share opinions and resources, but I think what you said sums up my experiences so far. I have had so many good experiences, but sometimes there are those who post things that are patronizing and that can discourage some from participating in the dialog, and this dialog is so very important!

  5. Okay, I have to differ here. I have never felt bullied or intimidated on Twitter. Sure, people are opinionated about the best way to teach, but that's because they are passionate about the subject. With only 140 characters, there is no room for pussy-footing so they may come across as stronger than necessary. Of course there is room for many different opinions on #langchat. Just tweet what you believe in and be open to listen to other peoples' ideas. Only you can prevent yourself from feeling undervalued.

  6. Thank you for sharing your concerns. As one of the moderators on #LangChat, I consider it a serious part of my job to make sure all language professionals feel welcome to participate. However, it is impossible to envision how each tweet might be perceived by the wide range of participants. Regardless of how difficult it may be, we (the moderators and participants) clearly need to do better based on what you've shared here. I apologize for any ways in which we have failed to do so. I also encourage anyone who has specific concerns to privately message one of the moderators so that we can better understand frustrations and concerns as we work towards creating a positive community environment in our weekly chats.

    As Amy states, we are each in different places in our teaching journey. Please know that I recognize that there are many ways to accomplish a task and I agree that we must encourage and exhort one another to try innovative strategies in our classrooms while not insulting those who are not ready to try something new or abandon something old.

    I hope that as a community of professionals we can continue to explore the amazing opportunities to collaborate and do so with increasing kindness and appreciation for one another.


  7. This is why I no longer participate in #LangChat the condescending tone that certain people have. It's usually the same people, and they're like that in person too. It's one of the most annoying parts of being an educator, dealing with those who believe that their way is the only way, and they are somehow inherently superior. Just because we work with children doesn't mean we have to act like them...

  8. I have enjoyed your contributions to our weekly chats, and I am so sorry to hear you have felt hurt by some posts. You bring much to our discussions, so I hope you will not give up! Please accept my personal apology for any comments I may have posted which caused you concern.

    I think it is easy to become passionate about the things we are doing and in which we believe. I have a passion for Project based learning, for example. I do not mean to make it sound as if PBL is the only way to teach, but I do hope to share ideas which may help others explore PBL or even inspire them to try something new. I think we all need to figure out our own personal gifts, talents and abilities, to play to our strengths so we may give our best to our students. I hope I have not "imposed" upon others a sense of being less than others, or of me personally, by sharing my enthusiasm. Still, I have benefited from others sharing, and have tried to collaborate in kind. It is in this spirit that we hold our weekly #langchat.

    I hope this encourages you, dear colleague! On behalf of our #langchat team, we welcome and encourage your involvement and your questions, comments, and even disagreements! The best part about our chats is the exchange, pro and con, of our diverse experiences and perspectives. Please don't leave your voice out of the conversation!

    Don, aka dr_dmd on Twitter

  9. Dear friends,
    I'm sorry that Laura and a few others feel that way about #langchat. As co-founder, co-moderator of this valuable Twitter chat I guarantee that it has never been our intention to make anyone uncomfortable or not welcomed. I appreciate this blog post in the sense that it adds to the discussion about best practices in teaching world languages.
    It is hard for us “language geeks” not to be passionate about what we believe on, no matter what. I agree with Laura that you must show before you talk. I would like to invite all of you visit #langchat’s co-founders, co-moderators websites, blogs and wikis. You’ll see a lot of evidence that what we stand for during these conversations is supported by our own teaching experiences.
    I can guarantee that no #langchat team member feels like they own the truth when it comes about teaching world languages. In fact, we are always amazed at how much we learn every week from those willing to share and collaborate. Let’s use this situation as an opportunity to understand that behind the keyboard we are all human beings and that it is ok to see the world in different ways.

    Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.
    Mohandas Gandhi

  10. A thought-provoking post - thank you. I think we all need to remember, online or off, that the schools we work in contain a range of teaching styles, and in my experience a golden rule type of approach to dealing with one's colleagues tends to foster more good will and cooperation in the long run.

  11. I really enjoy #langchat. It is a great opportunity to network and apply new ideas in the classroom. I never felt bullied,insulted or judged because a participant did not agree with me or does not think a strategy or technique is useful.
    All of us who participate in #langchat do so because we want to learn!