Sunday, October 5, 2014

Things That Have Made Me a Little Sad Lately

by Ann Abbott

The Tutoring Room

When I walk past the Spanish tutoring room, it's great to see students in there, using the resource. It makes me sad, though, to hear what they are using it for. Every single time I walk past, I hear them going over grammar rules with the TA. Now of course I know that grammar is important. But it's not everything. And it's not what makes learning a language wonderful and perspective-changing. For most people, at least. 

I never hear anyone talking to the TA about culture. About ideas. About a reading that caught their attention and they want to understand a little better. About an idea for their composition that they want to talk through before sitting down to actually write it.

The Tutoring Room seems to be the Grammar Room. 

Students pay attention to what we grade, not what we say. We must be grading a lot of grammar. Or maybe I have it all wrong and it's just that students think that a foreign language is grammar. Maybe.

"I'm Not Ready for This Course Yet"

If you're a little lost in a language class, you're exactly where you're supposed to be. Don't drop a course that is challenging for you. That is how you improve--you challenge yourself; you soak it in; you work hard to pay attention; you celebrate getting the gist; you raise your hand and give incomplete, grammatically incorrect answers; and you celebrate the fact that you raised your hand at all!; and you look back at around mid-November and say, "Wow, I've come a long way."

In my Business Spanish class, I've done away with exams. They work on projects. They collaborate. If your Spanish isn't great, you'll be working with someone whose Spanish is somewhat or a whole lot better. Your non-linguistic ideas and talents will count! Speaking fluently isn't the only measure of success in my (and others') Spanish classes.

Please stay in my class. We'll get you through, and you will have learned, really learned something on the other side. In a Spanish class, I am convinced that it is as much about the experience as about "proficiency." I have a note on my desk that says, "It's not about getting it done. It's about doing it." I truly believe that.

Students Judging Students

It works two ways. First, you have the students who feel that everyone in the class speaks better Spanish than they do. Yes, there are students at many different proficiency levels in our classes. However, students who feel intimidated by others' Spanish often mistake fluency for proficiency. They don't catch the mistakes those students actually do make. They don't realize that what students say is so much more important than just how they say it. They fail to consider that to become able to speak at the level of those other students you have to go through this level, you must go through this level, you cannot get around going through this level. The one you're at. The one where you're going to be for a while. You can't wish your way out of it. You have to practice your way out of it. The only way to "level up" is take care of your business as your current level.

And then there are a few students who judge the students who don't speak as well as them. Who haven't had all the classes they have had. Who haven't studied abroad. Who don't know as much about the world. Honestly, though, those students are very few and far between. I look around my classes and I see lovely, caring students who help each other out. They lift each other up. They answer their questions in English once they get into a small group. (No, speaking a little English to help out a classmate is not a sin, though we do need to keep it under control.) They'll point out the place on the page when the "weaker" student loses his place. They'll play the role of editor on the team project. They'll give that scared student some words to say when their group has to get up and present, but they'll carry most of the load.

I wish I could give these students the gift of confidence. I wish they would look at the students with stronger Spanish as role models, as something to work towards instead of feeling intimidated.

And I wish that students of Spanish who really do want to get better would work at it more. (And I don't mean more homework! More memorization.) I mean incorporate it into their lives more. If you're going to go out for lunch anyway, why not invite an international student from a Spanish-speaking country to go with you. If you're going to listen to your iPod while walking to class, subscribe to the Radio Ambulante podcast and listen to it. If you're going to relax in the evening by watching a movie, watch one that was filmed in Spanish. Or put on the Spanish subtitles while you watch a movie in English. You really do have to work on it. Three hours of class per week just isn't enough.


This one isn't about students.

It's not that meetings per se make me a little sad. It's meetings run the same way yet expecting a different outcome that make me a little sad.

If you regularly have meetings with a regular group of people and the outcomes of those meetings are regularly not that great, you'll always get the same results if you don't change something. You could change the people. Or you could change the meeting. (Hint: it's really hard to change people.)

This is especially sad when difficult, complex issues need to be addressed in a meeting, and we know perfectly well how it will go before it even happens: these people will talk often and authoritatively; those people will be silent throughout; that person will get into the weeds; this person will throw out a big-picture statement that derails what seemed like progress; most people will leave the meeting feeling like real change is out of reach.

But I am an optimist by nature

Even though this has been a difficult summer/early fall (children at our border; bombing of Gaza; Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Missouri #handsup #dontshoot; the Salaita case at my university), I am a naturally happy person. I like people. I like life. I love my job. But I'm also an honest person, so I try to honestly talk about both the good and the bad.

Has anything been bothering you lately? Or the opposite: has something made you particularly happy lately? Tell me the good and the bad in a comment. Let's keep it real, together.

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