kitchen table math, the sequel: in which Glen encounters the 6th grade

Friday, June 15, 2012

in which Glen encounters the 6th grade

As Amy P says, suitable for framing:
Chinese is the only language offered to sixth graders at the school my son will start attending in a few weeks. Many of us at middle school orientation were happy to see that Chinese would be offered to our kids. In fact, from the look of the group, it appeared as though we would have to fight each other to get our kids into the class.

Until they described the class. The kids would be "introduced" to Chinese language and culture. They would read stories about China. They would practice a few characters. They would memorize some greetings. They would even get to go on a field trip to local Chinese restaurant to witness the culture firsthand.

In a room full of Chinese parents jaws dropped. A few memorized greetings and a trip to a Chinese restaurant? WTF? (I think that stands for "What's That in French?")

We'd been afraid that competition for the Chinese class would look like Walmart on Black Friday. We were no longer afraid.

I suspect our school district will end up concluding from this that the demand for Chinese language isn't as strong as they had thought.


AmyP said...

How does this happen? Is it the problem that foreign languages (like Chinese right now) are desirable and trendy but hard, so that the schools want credit for teaching foreign languages, but don't want to actually teach them?

Or is it just that school administrator types are monolinguals and have no idea how much work is involved in really learning a language?

kcab said...

It's no different from how US schools, especially at that grade level, teach any second language. Languages are not taught for real. I'm not sure if the problem is monolingual school admins or just lack of exposure to something better.

Jen said...

Ahh, I have to say that whenever I feel that maybe my urban children are missing a great education by not growing up in a lovely suburb with high property values and taxes, your posts sure do reassure me!

Auntie Ann said...

Some schools have realized the futility of teaching a foreign language at that age (unless you are really serious about it...40-50 minutes a week isn't serious) and have reclaimed the time for other studies. Our girl wasted about 2,000 classroom hours in Spanish, and barely knows anything. I wish she had that time to learn something else.

Meanwhile, when she hit 6th, she took a 1-trimester Latin class and learned more in 3 months than she did in 6 years of half-a*&^% Spanish.

Allison said...

Who is competent to teach Chinese to as a second language to children?

What skills are necessary to teach children Chinese? Who has them?

Who could assess the program ? Who could tell if it were correctly being taught?

Who is funding the programs? Typically, the answer is the prc. Their goal is influence. They wish to influence people's perception of China and the Chinese. Their goal isn't actually language proficiency. (They have a billion Chinese speakers. Why would they want more?)

AmyP said...

"Our girl wasted about 2,000 classroom hours in Spanish, and barely knows anything."

I believe that sort of situation is not uncommon in Canada with French as learned by Anglophones. Of course, there you have active resistance on the part of the students. (I've heard that a "bilingual" Canadian is generally a Francophone Canadian, which is pretty swell for them for civil service jobs.)

"Meanwhile, when she hit 6th, she took a 1-trimester Latin class and learned more in 3 months than she did in 6 years of half-a*&^% Spanish."

We had a very similar experience with our daughter and Spanish vs. Latin. There was a time (fall 1st grade) when she seemed to be learning a lot of Spanish vocabulary, but ultimately it was a mirage and there was no progress. One year of 4th grade Latin has been very different, but they have homework several nights a week and a quiz every week. There's no reason you couldn't be equally serious with Spanish, but I guess it's not a priority.

Other countries seem to make a lot more headway with teaching English in the early grades. Some of that is probably due to the fact that students voluntarily soak in American media outside school, but it's also true that many foreign schools have totally different expectations of outcomes for language study. I taught two years in Russia for the Peace Corps, and while we often complained about the traditional style of English teaching, the Russian schools definitely approached it as a real academic subject and the schools not infrequently produced students who really did speak some English. (The really good ones often turned out to have a tutor somewhere in the background, but that's a chicken-vs.-egg question.)

AmyP said...

Theoretically, our Russian students had had English since 5th grade. I was a 10th and 11th grade teacher, so you'd think we would have been doing Shakespeare by then. The reality of the situation was that 1) not every student had had continuous English (some had had nothing or German) and 2) not everybody was paying attention. However, as I said earlier, there was a minority that became quite fluent in English by the end of high school.

By the way, one of the peculiarities of the Russian English-teaching system of the 90s was that students were expected to be able to produce (or at least memorize) big slabs of English on such subjects as "The Weather in England," "My Family," "My School," and "Sport." The massive exercise in memorization rather encouraged cheating by weaker students, but if students actually did that work, they automatically had access to many useful ready-made sentences. That's not really kosher under current language-teaching orthodoxy, but I think students did get a lot out of the practice.

Catherine Johnson said...

but if students actually did that work, they automatically had access to many useful ready-made sentences

Temple (Grandin) says that's exactly the way she talks.

She has a very large vocabulary of memorized chunks -- sentences and phrases - that she selects from as needed.

Her spoken language is quite good; I'm not sure any of us could tell she us autistic just from word choice & grammar.

Catherine Johnson said...

Their goal is influence. They wish to influence people's perception of China and the Chinese. Their goal isn't actually language proficiency.

Are you sure?

Of course, I had been operating on the belief that business in China is very similar to business in the US, so I had thought that China actually wants US students to learn Chinese, so as to facilitate US-Chinese business.

Otoh, if we're talking about a kleptocracy, China might still want American citizens who can speak Chinese (or believe they can).

(I haven't read the "Frauducation" paper yet...)

Your point about influence makes a lot of sense, though.

Anonymous said...

Re: English as a second language in Russian school.
Every subject was approached as a "science", including language. English as a foreign language was starting in 4th grade (maybe 5th now). Twice a week, and the class of 30 students was divided into two sections of 15.
There were rules to memorize (building gradually), just like in studying Russian. Yes, I remember memorizing "Weather" and such chunks of prose. But I can tell you, though my vocabulary was limited, I learned grammar rules pretty well, as well as I could read and write using dictionary. I remember that upon arriving to the US, before making any phone calls or speaking to someone (in formal conversation), I had to write what I will say down and possible responses, too - checking with dictionary.
But majority of my classmates were on the same page, many had expanded on that knowledge to the degree of being able to work abroad or communicate with foreign companies etc.
I wish I would see my son memorizing or learning rules of Spanish - but, of course, no... only coloring some pictures, making a collage with numbers in Spanish and naming some foods ...


Jen said...

Exo's comment may actually point to how this happened. In my suburban district, lo those many years ago, languages began in middle school. It was considered a sign that we were a good district that languages started before high school.

And we didn't color and "culture" activities weren't the main focus, but instead the fun, reward parts. And in HS we actually learned more "grammar words" as our language teachers had to explain to us what pronouns and objects and the like really were; we'd only vaguely touched on that in English classes.

BUT, I'm betting with the attempts to add languages down to the elementary level came the addition of singing little songs about the colors, coloring, spending a very long time drawing a picture of your family and 30 seconds writing Mere, Pere,...underneath.

And as with all things, the less demanding, less likely to cause whining thing caught on and spread, pushing out the learning of actual knowledge. Of course, these same kids rarely get to learn that actually learning and KNOWING stuff is actually pleasurable after you put in the hard work. Like sports, the one place we, as a society, still seem to accept and require that kids need lots of practice.

Amy P said...

"I wish I would see my son memorizing or learning rules of Spanish - but, of course, no... only coloring some pictures, making a collage with numbers in Spanish and naming some foods ..."

Amen. Is part of the problem the lack of use of a real textbook? Over four years of elementary Spanish, C never had a textbook, just a binder where she collected handouts, while she's had a real Latin textbook/workbook (Latin for Children). And I'm guessing that in the 7-languages-in-a-year classroom that they are not getting a textbook.

There are textbooks and there are textbooks, but working with a real book helps prevent pointless meanderings. I'm thinking that current language-teaching orthodoxy is rather constructivist, but even there, it is understood that you need to be learning grammatical constructions side by side with vocabulary. In the elementary grades in the US, they seem to think of language learning almost entirely in terms of vocabulary, which is one of the reasons why kids never seem to get anywhere with it. (Regular quizzes would help, too. My daughter had Spanish quizzes briefly in 1st grade, which was the only time I felt that she was making real progress with it.)

It is very easy to bamboozle American parents about language classes for kids, because so few of the native born have an idea of what real foreign language learning entails.

AmyP said...

I should mention that my daughter's 4th grade Latin for Children program had a lot of little grammar jingles for the kids to learn. C would sing them at home and she eventually taught the amos jingle to her 1st grade brother. I'm very pleased with Latin for Children as a program. Of course, they're not doing Latin conversation, but that's not necessary. I'm just hoping that when it's time for the next go-around with modern languages, that radically different methods will be used. (C's kind of bummed that she didn't learn her father's native Polish, but I have to say, Polish is HARD and neither of her parents speaks it as an educated grown up native speaker. Maybe just some work differentiating all those sh's and ch's and zh's?)

Jen's got a good point about the poor fit between serious language instruction and US elementary school. I've never taught an elementary language class, but I see the difficulty. But it's not like nobody has ever done this effectively before anywhere on the planet. You'd maybe do more songs (Frere Jacques is not inappropriate for 1st graders) and maybe lots of French kids' cartoons (using the French subtitles sometimes), stopping frequently to get the kids talking about the story (in French, naturally). Plus, throw in some grammar jingles like my daughter has in Latin. It's not technically hard, it's just that there has to be a plan and you can't just roll into class every day with a pile of worksheets.

AmyP said...

I was just googling teaching Spanish to elementary students. One of the first things I found was a desperate query from a college student in North Dakota (!) taking a class on teaching Spanish to elementary students.

"I am a college student minoring in Elementary Spanish (unfortunately my college is requiring I finish the degree in order to graduate in December!)
I am currently enrolled in a class - teaching spanish in elementary grades. Unfortunately my professor has never taught elementary and is of no use to us students, he has to teach it because he is the only one with a doctorate. Anyway, we are to write 2 weeks worth of lesson plans....and I am lost. I don't have a clue how fast or slow concepts should be taught, what vocabulary is appropriate for what age group and when do you start conjugating verbs!!"

That explains a lot.

Amy P said...

At the risk of monopolizing the blog today, I just realized an interesting omission in that plea for help from the elementary Spanish teacher-in-training. It really doesn't sound like the professor has them working with an elementary Spanish textbook. It sounds like they're supposed to write two weeks worth of Spanish lessons with no textbook. Madness! A beginning teacher should be learning to work intelligently and creatively with a textbook, not just fly by the seat of her pants.

Anonymous said...

Amy, I am glad you noticed that ... The scary thing is that it's TRUE not only for elementary Spanish teacher prep - that's exactly what I experienced in science teaching methods classes in ed school - MS and HS. Writing tons of lesson plans - with differentiation for learning styles, for ELL, for SpEd,with group work activities, with any other possible ed fad... but without the textbook or even the topic sequence guide in a subject. The idea, apparently, is: the ed school do not know what textbook (if any)is used in a school the teacher candidate will teach in, or what program/curriculum is used, so they just "play with ideas".
The sad thing was that when I got hired to teach Regents Living Environment for middle school honors, there was NO textbook for students; I've got a textbook used in one of the city HS where I did my student teaching, I looked at the regents exams to see what's tested, and I made my own sequence using my own understanding of the logic of the subject, wrote my labs (except the 4 mandated), and had to rely on having students take very detailed notes during my lessons - that was the only source of information for them.
Unfortunately, I also have experienced writing everything from scratch in a catholic HS where I taught for a year. In my current HS, there was a customary list of topics, but I also re-wrote the curriculum and put things in sequence...


TerriW said...

Speaking of foreign language texts, I was delighted to stumble across an old Nous Sommes Amis text in a thrift store this year -- that was the text we used 25ish years ago when I started French in the 8th grade. I wish I could find more to go with it, but it appears to have flown almost completely beneath Google's radar and no one is selling old copies on eBay, etc.

I loved, loved, loved French. I loved my teacher, Mrs. Carlson. In my head, I can still hear the chant:

E, E-S, E
O-N-S, E-Zed, E ... N ... T!

(The letters pronounced the French way, of course.)

I don't think I will ever forget that chant. Heh. Now, those French classes were my only experience learning a foreign language, so I don't know if my experience was typical of the time or not (it was the mid-eighties) -- but we learned grammar, we learned a *lot* in that class. After my 10th grade year, I spent the summer in France, and while I certainly wasn't fluent, I got along quite well.

Glen said...

Me:I think Chinese is a very valuable 21C skill

Catherine: Why so? (I'm curious.)...AND: that's not to say I think kids **shouldn't** learn Chinese...

(A little late, but just got back from a weekend trip). I have my own version of 21C skills. Some of these are skills that I believe will be valuable as a general foundation for every kid. Some are specialty skills that I believe will be valuable for those who do the extra work necessary to add them to their arsenals. Chinese is in this category.

Catherine, you mentioned the waves of interest in Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. I've been surfing the last two waves nonstop since the "Japan as #1" days. For me, it has been an Endless Summer of opportunities and amazing experiences.

Back during the Japanese wave, it was common for old friends of mine to get excited about what they were reading about Japan and hearing from me, and they'd announce that they were "thinking about learning a little Japanese." I never knew what to say. "Don't bother, you'll never make it" seemed appropriate--yet inappropriate.

It's not that they lacked the ability; it's that their wording demonstrated a lack of understanding of the nature and magnitude of the challenge. The people I knew who had become proficient in Japanese had done it by significantly altering the course of their lives, not by "learning a little."

Schools are now thinking about teaching a little Chinese. I'm afraid my first reaction to them is the same as it was to my friends. Unlike my friends, though, the schools don't always give up when their efforts prove fruitless. If they're serious about Chinese as a skill and not just a progressive ed checkmark item, I would suggest they get in touch with their friends in the PRC and arrange for a few Chinese kids to be sent over each semester. Chinese class here would be lunch and recess with the Chinese kids. We would offer our kids extra recess each day if they would spend it playing and talking with the Chinese kids. Any use of English and you'd lose the rest of your recess, but once or twice a week there would be time with a "specialist" teacher who would answer whatever questions had come up during the week. You could talk to her in English. How do you say this? How do you say that? What does Bing-Bing mean when he always yells "Jar, jar!" at me? ("Oh, that's 'here, here!' He wants you to pass him the ball. You know 'zheli' means 'here' right? In his part of China, sometimes they say 'zher' or even 'zhar', but you should probably say, "zheli, zheli" when you want the ball.")

Of course if optimizing skill development is not the real point then I guess they'll do what they do, and we'll have our kids spend more time with their cousins in Shanghai.

Amy P said...

"The people I knew who had become proficient in Japanese had done it by significantly altering the course of their lives, not by "learning a little.""

Right. For me, Russian involved a 10 year commitment.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Agree about the commitment. I had 2 years of Russian in college and later 2 years of Japanese, and have forgotten essentially all of both.

The 4 years of German I had in high school stuck better, mainly because I had some subsequent use of the language,but also because I learned it when younger.

My son got some decent education in Spanish in public elementary school, but not the way the school intended. He was in a bilingual program, and since he did not need literacy instruction in English, we had him take Spanish literacy in Spanish with the native Spanish speakers. That got him up to 3rd grade literacy by the end of 3rd grade, though his vocabulary and grammar were still rudimentary. There was a gap, in which he lost a lot, then he started Spanish instruction again in middle school, at a private school that had pretty solid grammar and vocabulary instruction. He had Spanish 3 in the public high school (which turned out to be a repeat of the Spanish 2 at the private school) then Spanish 3 and Intermediate conversation courses at community college. I think that after another year he'll be moderately fluent in Spanish, though a 3-month immersion program would help a lot.

jtidwell said...

Elementary Spanish provided my first big clue that progressive education wasn't all that.

I was looking for an elementary school for my son (who is now 5, and will be attending a Catholic school). There's a very highly regarded progressive school in a neighboring town, and I visited one of their open houses. Beautiful place, and I loved a lot of what they did.

When I entered the Spanish classroom, I saw a lovely work of art on the wall -- the Spanish color words, all drawn lovingly in the colors of the rainbow, arranged into a tree shape. "That's beautiful," I said to the teacher. "Who made this? A first-grader?" She replied cheerfully, "Oh, no. That was made by a fifth grader." I kept my mouth shut but thought, a fifth grader is still working on Spanish color words? After (presumably) five years of Spanish? Oh...kay.

Then I asked her, "After a child goes through X School all the way through eighth grade, what year of Spanish do they usually enter in high school?" She said that most of their eighth graders know enough to skip Spanish I and to start with Spanish II as a freshman.

And I thought, that's it? That's all they get for EIGHT YEARS OF SPANISH in a supposedly excellent school? (Excuse the all-cap shouting, please. I was flabbergasted.)