Every semester we start off fresh thinking that every student is going to focus their attention on what we say and do in class, learn it, and be able to use it. Gradually it dawns on us that only a few students seem to be benefiting from our instruction. Others may seem lost, distracted, distant, even defiant. We who teach in the community colleges have a clientele unlike that of four-year colleges and universities. As Father Andrew Greeley said about the nature of the Catholic church, “here comes everybody.”
What types of students do you have in your classes? Should an instructor try to reach every student? Should he or she use an “umbrella approach” where there’s something for everybody?
How big are your elementary-level language classes? Mine usually contain from thirty to fifty students. Class size determines how much money each college gets from Sacramento, so administrators want classes big. That’s why at one of my gigs I teach Italian 1 every semester. Never Italian 2. Because of the 40 or so students who finish Italian 1 only 15 or so go on to Italian 2. Maybe it’s because they’re expecting an Italian course to be all about pizza, pasta, Maseratis, The Godfather, the mafia, and simple phrases and find out that the language is much more morphologically complex than English and that they have to work hard to internalize the grammar if they ever hope to speak or write it. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that many of my students are not really willing to do what it takes to acquire Italian, i.e., learn each lesson so well that they could teach it. Reasons they say they take the course include curiosity, being Italian-American, needing a semester of a foreign language to get into a CSU, having had Spanish in high school and thinking Italian will be a piece of cake because it kind of looks like Spanish, needing units in humanities and so forth.
In the community colleges we are not dealing with a select group of academincally oriented students such as those admitted to CSU and UC. On the contrary, almost anybody can enroll in our classes. Most of my CC students seem to be of average intelligence or above but each semester there are a few who never “get it” despite my best efforts, and I sometimes wonder if it might be due to their having a lower-than-average IQ. Others have documented learning disabilities; some tell me they have ADD, ADHD, OCD, SAD (Social Anxiety Disorder), and dyslexia. Others’ minds seem to be elsewhere; they don’t even make an attempt to concentrate on the lesson and reach out for the knowledge. Instead they just seem to sit there and soak up whatever they soak up. I’ve had a few draw elaborate pictures in their notebooks or on their desk tops during presentations and activities. Even though I have them stow their smartphones for the duration of the class, some sneak theirs out and fiddle with them furtively on their laps. When you have 50 students in your class you can’t see everything that’s going on. One student told me the only thing she wanted to do was make flash cards of vocabulary and memorize them for the tests. But then there are the few who are seriously intent on being able to understand, speak, read and write Italian and accordingly rivet their attention on each lesson and participate at every step. They are the joy of every instructor’s heart. But I can’t just teach to the eager, capable students. I think my job is to provide a learning experience for everyone, so I never stop trying to include every student to the extent that that’s possible. I call this my “umbrella” approach. It’s a big umbrella that arches over the entire class. How heterogeneous are your classes, and how do you deal with the big mix?