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We Are Not Alone: Discovering a Nation of Advocates

One of the central challenges we are trying to address in this blog (that of shrinking and/or homogeneous classes) is magnified in, but not limited to, Latin programs. Although I was frustrated and disappointed to hear it, I was also somewhat relieved to learn that modern language teachers and programs frequently suffer from the same problems that Latin programs suffer from: lack of retention beyond the first two years; homogeneous and exclusive upper-level classes, consisting mostly of white children whose parents are highly educated and/or wealthy; an increasing focus on study of the language itself as preparation for the reading of too-difficult texts in the 3rd and 4th years; and test preparation becoming an increasing priority in “honors” courses.

Does this sound familiar? It does to me, after over a decade spent teaching Latin and interacting with other Latin teachers. But I was happy to discover that there are many many more modern language teachers out there who, like us, are trying to address these problems in order to save their programs and maintain a sense of relevance to their school culture.  In an excellent example of this effort, Grant Boulanger, a Spanish teacher in Minnesota and finalist for ACTFL’s 2016 teacher of the year, has isolated this problem as he sees it in modern language programs. In this article, he argues that if teachers can focus on the 90% target language goal set out by the ACTFL (and by making sure 100% of that 90% is comprehensible and relevant to students’ lives), teachers can realistically work toward a second goal of 90% retention through all four years of a language.

In addition to pointing out the problem, he is suggesting a few solutions and strategies which are rooted in the research of how people learn language, and the fact that anyone can learn a second or third language if it is presented as a tool of communication rather than a subject of study (i.e. linguistics, philology). What, specifically, does Boulanger suggest for making this happen? I offer a few quotes from his article, with my own reflections on how they could have a positive impact on Latin classrooms

“Language educators are gatekeepers. We impact students’ ability to be accepted by post secondary schools.”

The history of our discipline is tied in with the notion of exclusivity. Whether or not we realize it, Latin teachers in particular serve as gatekeepers. This can happen on-campus, to the extent that Latin students are likely part of a cohort who organize their entire schedule around an academic track, which others do not have access to. Beyond high school, we know that Latin looks very good on college applications. If we do not allow all kinds of students to be successful in our Latin classes, we deny certain students this important benefit. Again, we are gatekeepers within the school and beyond.

“Conversations must shift from simply retaining students to ensuring that programmatic and pedagogical decisions intentionally acknowledge and address educational equity for students of all backgrounds.”

Here Boulanger is addressing the important causal connection between pedagogy and retention. Sometimes teachers think of equity as providing individualized attention outside of class (a burden that many teachers take on without compensation). But if teachers are implementing more equitable practices in their daily work with students, meeting their needs in class, this may in fact mitigate, or at least reduce, the additional work that so many teachers do for the sake of their struggling students

“…when the focus is on learning about the language, with an unbalanced emphasis on manipulating discrete elements of the language, we unintentionally advantage some students. Well-meaning teachers may inadvertently be contributing to the problem. What we teach and assess, how we teach it and, most importantly, why we are teaching are all factors that contribute to the confidence and trust our students have in us and in the language learning process. Without high levels of confidence and trust, our students will not voluntarily enroll in higher-level language courses.”

In the interests of “rigor” and “high standards,” language teachers often provide instruction and assessments that are not necessarily effective in promoting acquisition, but which reinforce the gatekeeping and exclusionary practices that the teachers themselves thrived in, while undermining the confidence and success of students who are from different backgrounds.

“Emphasizing comprehension allows all of our students to experience high degrees of success, without added anxiety associated with production before they are ready. ”

When we require students to produce spoken and written language too early and to a degree of accuracy that is not level-appropriate, we often do so at the expense of providing input, which studies show is more effective in fostering production of language, than output-oriented practice.  One takeaway here is that focusing on providing comprehensible input will allow all students to have a successful experience in the language, while more efficiently helping them make progress in their language proficiency in terms of what we know about how the brain acquires language.

I think an understandable and legitimate response to this line of argument could be: “Why can’t we help marginalized students to reach these high standards, rather than change the nature of curriculum and assessment? Isn’t it discriminatory not to expect the same results from all students?”

This would be indisputable if (a big “if”) the high standards and results assumed in this objection actually represented language proficiency. Boulanger’s article (and this blog) is inviting teachers to re-think our traditional notions of what it means to be proficient in a language. He is asking us to consider the important distinction between proficiency (which is based on using a language for the purpose of communication, something that pretty much everyone is capable of doing well),  and a set of skills on the other hand, which may have some overlap with proficiency, but by its very nature rewards students who have been prepared by their upbringing, and who have more support in their lives and communities.

Notice that this is not a compromise of rigor or academic seriousness. Rather, we are channeling this rigor into developing skills which are content-based and communicative in nature, and therefore in line with what we know about how language functions in the brain. By setting high standards that are acquisition and proficiency-based and therefore are by nature equitable and do not favor one socio-economic or cultural group over another, we can move forward in our work with confidence that we are supporting all students in our classrooms, and not leaving any of them behind because of where they come from or where they’ve been.