Our Actions Say Otherwise

The study of world languages has been popping up quite often in the webosphere lately, and some of my colleagues have been extremely helpful in sending articles my way for review. The first article, which appeared recently in the New York Times, asked the question “Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?” Five notable authors take a crack at the question:

Some highlights:

from Susan Jacoby:

The situation is, needless to say, worse today as the recession has squeezed education at every level. But the utilitarian problem — we don’t have enough diplomats, spies and business people who know other languages — is rooted in the much larger dumbing down of the American concept of what it means to be an educated person.

from Ingrid Pufahl

In contrast, many U.S. elementary and middle school language programs only offer general exposure to languages but don’t expect proficiency. The only programs here that achieve high proficiency levels are immersion programs, where at least 50 percent of the school day is taught in a second language

from Bruce Fuller:

We must learn the language and engage them at a human scale as first steps in appreciating the strengths of East Asian cultures. These virtues already lift America’s best universities. Over half of Berkeley’s undergraduates are now of East Asian descent.

My initial response to the title was skeptical after having sat through some of our Mandarin classes and been in awe of what these students were doing, but in light of the fact that my view of language is much similar to most of my generations’ which is that of learning language through grammatical structure and conjugation, I think we have a fair shot at being successful in the near future. Dan Fost’s recent post in Edutopia regarding the benefits to the teaching of world language, quotes Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society describing the language learning experiences of past generations and how they affect our attitudes towards it now:

In fact, some of the greatest obstacles to world-language education are parents who recall their own miserable experiences. Many Americans were introduced to foreign languages in middle school or high school classes that emphasized conjugation of verbs and other dull grammatical tasks rather than relevant communication skills. “Language teaching in the U.S. has been ineffective,” Stewart says. “We start it at the wrong age. Teacher skills are not great. There’s a focus on grammar and translation.” The result: “Adults who took three years of French don’t speak a word,” she states.

That’s it. That perfectly describes the ways in which I was taught languages. Here in New Jersey, our World Language standards were entirely streamlined last year from three strands into one. The name of that strand–no it’s not conjugation–is Communication. So when I think back to my days in a Latin class or a Spanish class, I think of all of the grammar I learned, the cases and the tenses, and wonder why I can no longer recall any conversational bits, but only how to conjugate jugar in the present tense (yo juego, tú juegas, él juega, nosotros jugamos, vosotros jugáis, ellos juegan–so there). Our focus, in any language, should first and foremost be communication. To do that, as Fost points out, there are many ways to connect your students to native speakers that don’t involve a large parental bankroll and a passport. Let’s immerse our kids in the richness of another culture, because I feel that if we don’t do this for them, they won’t do it for themselves. Just ask ol’ Teddy Roosevelt about American attitudes towards other languages:

“We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language”

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Heidi Hayes Jacobs: Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World

On my desk yesterday sat an unwrapped copy from of Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ latest book “Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World” my monthly gift from ASCD. In all honesty, I immediately balk at most things labeled with the ordinal number “21” as a result of its saturated use in educational circles these days. Rarely does a memo leave the offices in Trenton without mention of this initiative or that program designed to incorporate the 21st Century in some manner.

I am just a little over the term, that’s all.

Being that today is a day of airports and the requisite time-suck that they, and the airlines, put you through, I knew that I’d have time to get through some of the book on the way down. My intent was to use some of it as a springboard for FETC, as some of the themes presented are concurrent with some of my aims at the conference.

The book is laid out in an interesting format, in that Jacobs is the editor, but the first four chapters are hers. Following her are chapters from: Stephen Wilmarth, Vivien Stewart, Tim Tyson (of Mabry Middle School fame), Frank W. Baker (who is also creating a ton of great content over that the Making Curriculum Pop Ning), Daivd Niguidula, Jaimie Cloud, Alan November, Bill Sheskey, Aurther Costa and Bena Kallick.

Since this is mid-flight, and I am nowhere near through the entire book, I thought I’d start with some reactions to the first chapter authored by Jacobs. The thrid through fourth chapters dealing with the structural change to schools and curriculum at the systems level, also Jacobs’ chapters, I’d like to treat on their own, especially after some of the sessions I plan on attending tomorrow.

“The good old days are still good enough.”

In chapter one, I enjoyed the three myths that she believes need addressing when talking about school reform, especially curricular reform. The first myth is a sentiment anyone involved in moving schools and districts forward encounters on a daily basis. Very much the same as the TTWWADI mentality, this one extends beyond schools typically and into the community that surrounds it. There are methodologies that are timeless in education, and there are those that are fleeting. Without careful examination and experimentation with these ideas, we lose the ability to know what works best in given situations. Schools or communities, Jacobs states, are “shackled by memories,” and many times paralyzed by the insecurity of change.

“We’re better off if we all think alike–and not too much.”

The second myth addresses what Jacobs calls “America’s love/hate relationship with being educated.” The myth, is as unsettling as it is hilarious. The glorification of the self-made man who rises out of poverty with little or no formal education to millionaire status is revered among the general population of the United States. Jacobs points to Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” here with its examination of the fracturing of American discourse into factional discord, whereby thinkers surround themselves with those who share their own ideas. This for is evidenced by the consistent battle between the viewers of Fox News and those of every other major media outlet. We now have the ability and what’s worse, the desire to surround ourselves, rather insulate ourselves with those who think like us. What is missing and necessary in any future of curricular change, according to Jacobs, is a return to active, open discourse between factional thinkers. We were founded amid chaos, and our students need to understand that disagreement is not disloyalty.

“Too much creativity is dangerous–and the arts are frills”

Even though we have much data showing the correlation between study of the arts and music and future academic success, as a society we marginalize the study of these disciplines in times of extreme panic or budget shortfall. Jacobs looks to Dan Pink to help characterize the future skill-set of the 21st Century worker (ugh, I used it as an adjective). Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as this: an original thought or idea that has merit. In that capacity it cannot be limited to the realm of arts and music. We don’t have innovation fields like accounting unless there is someone who sits in his or her chair and conceives of a whole new way to crunch numbers and manipulate their trade. Eliminating or denigrating arts as “frills” does a complete disservice to the students we teach today who will become tomorrow’s leaders.