Monthly Archives: May 2008

Getting around points

I have to find a way of getting around “points” in class. If we structure a class around points the students will only do what they have to. If they want to be there, then they will do more than they have to. Points can be like a reward. Therefore, most kids will do whatever they have to to get the points. But for the ones that aren’t driven by parents, expectations, grades, college, and whatever else, they won’t strive for the points because they don’t care. Some of them just care only about how much learn and others are just apathetic.

The point that I am trying to make is that once points are the motivator for class, the students will only do what they have to. This does not tap into their intrinsic motivation. Students need to be there because they want to be there, not because of points.

This can happen in many ways, but here are a few.

1. Personalization [as individuals and also to their current culture]

2. The class must have a challenge [this is not to be confused with rigor. It doesn’t need to be rigorous and hard, just present a challenge so that they have to be attentive. This generation likes to be challenged, especially the video gamers. They are always looking to get to the next level.]

3. Web of connection [this is another Ben Slavic term. It is the relationship that is built between the teacher and the student as we connect with our hearts and our heads. If we win their hearts, they will want to be there]

When these kids are dedicated to something, it is amazing! They go way beyond any teachers expectations. Hollywood has capitalized on this fact. Think about how many movies and success stories have been written about it. This is the key to having the students be there because they want to instead of “points.”


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I know that at certain times I have just felt that the kids were so lazy. That they needed to just get with the program and be responsible. For some students, this is the case. However, I would say that most of the time they aren’t lazy. They are just bored and they don’t care. They want to do other things. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am dealing with a different group of people that grew up in different times. The world continues to change rapidly and as that happens the generations change rapidly. Life used to not change that much, but now it does. I can’t expect them to be like me when they have had a totally different experience.

When kids are showing signs of being lazy I need to evaluate why this is happening. Have I personalized enough? Are my assignments reasonable? Maybe I should talk to them and ask them why they aren’t getting things done. What do they have to say? I think that I would be surprised by their answers and closer to helping them not be lazy.

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I have been reading a little more on the list serve lately. It is the yahoo group moretprs. It has been so helpful and there are a lot of teachers out there who are posting on great issues. There were a couple of posts lately about assigning homework and apathy. They have really caused me to think about these two problems in education today.

Problems? What problems? Well I am sure that many teachers know that kids do not like doing homework. So what else is new? Well, if I am ever going to help kids to use Spanish I need to think about this. I know that most of the kids look for ways to not do the homework and even when they do they mostly just do what they have to instead of it being a useful tool.

So what is homework and why do we assign it? I think that at first, homework was meant to be extended practice so that the students could have more exposure to the material. Something happened, though. Homework became more about busy work and less about actual learning. Over the years maybe we have seen it in education as something that must be there in order for advanced learning to occur. It can be hard to imagine school without it. But this upcoming generation is not responding well to homework. Some may say that they just need to suck it up and get with the program.

To be honest, if I have 6 classes and I assign homework every night or every other night, I will not want to grade all of those papers. Teachers have to go through enough. Why should they spend their whole entire life planning and grading? Where is the room for reflection and growing in the subject you are teaching? I feel that the later are more important than spending hours grading papers, passing them back to a student who will throw it in the trash. Our time is worth more than that. Besides, we will not have the enthusiasm to give the feedback that they really need.

Some students do not even make an attempt to do the homework. This is a big sign to us as teachers. If students are not taking the time to do the homework they are communicating that it is not important to them. Which means that either they don’t understand why they are doing homework or they plain just don’t care, no matter how beneficial it is.

When students don’t do homework they are also communicating a rebellion to the educational system. It is their way of saying that what we do in school doesn’t matter to them. Many times when students do homework, they just do the bare minimum to get the points. They know what the system is. They have spent most of their educational life learning and beating the system. They know that homework = points = a good grade = whatever gets them what they want. So they do it for that reason, not because they want to learn Spanish and get better at it. So, rather than fight them, why don’t we think of a new way to reach them.

I feel that there is a new way of teaching that is coming to the surface. What is important? That they do their homework or that they learn the material. In my case, that they learn and use Spanish. That is the goal, right? If we focus our time around this concept, then we are heading in the right direction. I not saying never assign homework. What I am saying is that it does not have to be there. If it is there, then it should be meaningful and not just busy work. How does the homework make them want to learn more Spanish? How does it help them to learn more Spanish? Is this something that they can receive feedback on? Do I really want to grade a hundred of these? These are some of the questions that I ask before I assign something. If we assign something, there should be quality feedback so they know how they are doing.

I think that a lot of what the students need to know can be accomplished in class. Then the students will be more refreshed and excited to learn each day because they are not bogged down with homework. Let’s be honest. Is what we do each day so complicated that it can’t be covered in a class? If it is then we are trying to teach too much in a class period.

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Sports and Activities

I was teaching the other day and looked out my window on beautiful spring day and I saw the baseball team warming up. They warm up and have a practice before every game. I had to stop for a second and think about what was happening. It sent a message to me about what the school valued.

I have been really feeling lately that sports and activities have taken over school. Students are so focused on the activities that they forget about their school. On top of this, the school seems to value and pump tons of money into activities.

Now, it is statistically proven that students who are involved in activities do better in school. I do not dispute that, not am I saying get rid of all activities. What I am saying is that we need to look at the role of activities. I can imagine that when activities first started they were just a time for school chums to get together outside of school and do something. A way to spend more time with your school friends.

Now activities have been totally been blown out of proportion and it seems to be more important than the reason that we go to school. It also doesn’t help that our society places such and emphasis on professional sports. It is just like American Idol. A lot of athletes put all they have into their sport for the hope that they will be chosen.

I don’t think that students should be pulled out of class to have practice. It sends the message that school values activities more than scholastics. If this attitude is promoted how can we expect students to take school seriously? They will just do what they have to to get by. They will not achieve their potential.

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School size

There is a recent trend in education that the student to teacher ratio needs to change. The class size needs to become smaller. I would say that this is a correct evaluation, but I feel that there is more to it. When the total population of the school is quite large, but the classes are small, this only treats the symptoms and ignores the source.

Schools have become too large these days. Students are not getting the personalized attention that they need to do well. It seems that schools have become an unsafe place. The most serious indication of this problem is the shootings that occur. I feel that this is a big sign that students are being overlooked and not receiving the care that they need.

So, what is the answer. What if we had several small schools spread out instead of huge schools. I have noticed that the graduation rate is often times 100% in these small communities. I know that it may be different because they are small rural schools. But what can be learned from this. The small rural schools have small class sizes as well as a small total school size. Each student is known by the principal and staff. The students have a place and are taken care of. I have even been to K-12 schools where the superintendent knows every single student and their family.

In large schools it is easy for a student to get lost and not feel important, which is especially difficult during adolescence. In large schools it is not likely that the principal will know even half the students. The superintendent will probably only know a couple of the students, if any. What is wrong with this picture? It is a system that does not promote a caring society and when the students leave they will go into a world that does not care, either.

What if several small schools were set up so that the students were cared for. This would mean that when they left school, the society as a whole would be more caring for each other because they learned how to socially interact. It would mean that our society as a whole would be more community based which would reduce some of the problems that we have. It would also mean that our kids would do better in school because somebody was caring for the students and keeping an eye on their progress. Students would be challenged to their potential and the students that needed extra help would receive it.

Call me an idealist, but I feel that it is time to downsize the school system. As schools continue to grow in population we will continue to see the existence of the educational gap. This will produce a system that students will try to beat, instead of promoting authentic learning.

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Teaching multiple tenses

I just read this in Ben Slavic’s blog and it offers such and interesting perspective. I have always wanted to teach more than one tense at a time, but was concerned that it would throw the students into disequilibrium. I have found that when I did my children’s books that the students handled it just fine. In fact, the first year students understood it just as much if not more than the second year students. Here is what been has to say:

Verbs are fluid. The brain handles complex tense changes naturally in every day speech from a very early age. It does so with ease.

So, as counterintuitive as it may seem, if we could but return to real intuition, we would feel how natural it is to ask stories in the past tense and read them in the present.

Of course the imperfect, twin sister of the preterite, would have to join the other two for a three tense rainbow. And the subjunctive, being a mood and somewhat capricious and emotional, would show up just about anywhere, and so now we are up to a four verb rainbow. And, of course, in any good story, there is some kind of ridiculous demand being made on someone, so the imperative mood usually finds its way into a story, mostly during dialogues, as rainbow stripe number five.

When we thus just speak naturally to the kids, not dumbing anything down, they respond magnificently. Indeed, it is the teacher who, by teaching a story in only one tense and then having the kids read in the same tense, limits the learning.

Textbooks further complicate the myth that the kids can’t learn more than one tense at a time by presenting tenses in different levels in different chapters and books. This practice is beginning to come to an end now, as communicative based teaching takes hold in our nation’s classrooms.

When teaching is for authentic communication, students emerge after the first year of study with  a healthy relationship with this rainbow of verbs that is based on sound and meaning, not cognition. Each new sentence the students decode for meaning in a story is yet one more stroke of the brush on the verb rainbow, deepening further and enriching more deeply the color of that stripe, until, finally, a deep and vibrant knowledge based on sound and meaning, not mere cognition, overarches our students’ learning.

To reiterate, we don’t learn languages one tense, one level, or one chapter at a time over many years in stratified form. That’s not how we learn. I used a subjunctive in a story today. The kids didn’t bat an eyelash. It was a form of the verb “to be”. They knew that it was a form of the verb “to be” and that’s all they cared to know about it.

That is because their listening was based on sound and meaning – they were focused on the message, not the medium – with apologies to Marshall Mcluhan. They were not focused on anything resembling the breaking down of language into little pieces using cognition, learning things for points on a test, or to get the right spelling, or  similar drivel. They were decoding sound into meaning. That is the beauty of it. Any grammar explanation would have confused over 90% of them and interrupted the delicate neurological processes that were then going on at the time of the English grammar explanation.

We teach grammar by using proper speech when we speak to our students. Proper speech includes an entire rainbow of verbs. Who ever heard of a rainbow with just one color? It is a fine thing that the old colorless rainbows offered to language students in the last century, rainbows of drab grammar sadness, are finally being replaced by real rainbows.

I wonder if this requires a teacher who is comfortable and fluent. I can admit that I need to be more confident in the language. I have been scarred by years of poor language instruction. The kind of instruction that leads to analyzation and not fluency. I want to give my kids the best, though. I want them to have what I didn’t have. I know that they can achieve so much if they are shown the way.

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Meaning based grammar teaching

Often I hear different teachers say something like: “My main objective is to teach the difference between the preterit and imperfect during this unit” or “Now we are focusing on gender and verb agreement within the sentence.” etc.

I don’t know what it is, but I just get so turned off to statements like these. I feel that grammar is important and I teach it every day, through presenting comprehensible input in grammar structures. But my goal is more meaning based. I would rather that the student would be able to say, “Cuando era un chico” or “La semana anterior fue a un restaurante con mi familia”

I don’t think there needs to be a focus on the specific parts of grammar in the beginning levels. If a teacher states this as their objective I think that there may be a chance that the importance of their lesson will shift to grammar instead of meaning. In my experience the students are much more interested in meaning rather than grammar. Therefore, my mind frame should be more on meaning than grammar.

Another point is that focusing on meaning is much more personal. You can communicate personal ideas much more with meaning by involving the students or setting their imagination on story. This is what language truly is, a form of communication. Not something to divide up and chop into compartments that will lead to too much analyzation. Focusing on meaning is what leads to fluency. Isn’t that my goal?

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