The Types of Students We Have in Our Community College Classes

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?

Please evaluate Conference 2016!

blogpicThe CCCFLC 2016 Conference was held at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, California, on October 22.  Please share your thoughts about the Conference with your colleagues by commenting below. Next year’s Conference will be at on a Saturday in October at College of the Canyons in Valencia, which is a few miles north of Los Angeles.

Four units or five?

I teach elementary Italian at two community colleges in two different districts. In district A the course is worth five units and the semester is compressed into 15 weeks. That class therefore meets for two hours and fifteen minutes two times a week. In district B the course is worth only four units and meets for one hour and fifty minutes twice a week over an 18 week period. The students and I can make so much more progress in the course in district A. Those additional 25 minutes per class are key. Why? Because building a language from the ground up takes lots of in-class time. Our non-language faculty, administrators and boards seem sometimes not to understand or appreciate the fact that language courses are performance courses. Students have to understand the material, learn the material, practice the material and internalize the material to be able to perform the task of speaking creatively, by which I mean say what they want to communicate, not merely repeat sentences they’ve memorized. Learning a language is not accomplished by merely memorizing some vocabulary and a few key sentences. That will not result in knowing the language. Students have to have ample in-class time to internalize, communicate and be creative, i.e., be able to compose original sentences within the framework of what they’ve learned in class. For the great majority of students, learning to do this is not going to happen outside of class. Solo work on a website, as far as I can tell, does not contribute much to student creativity. That is why a 4-unit class shortchanges the students. Teachers and students are expected to do more these days without being given more in-class time. Everyone should keep in mind the evolution of language teaching/learning over the last 50 years: In the 70’s we taught grammar with just enough vocabulary to illustrate the grammar, the students took notes, repeated, spoke to us once in a while (never to one another), went home and did their homework, then took the exams and finally the final. In the 80’s, in addition to all of the above, we were expected to flood the students with passive vocabulary and also give them time to do independent dyad or group activities in class. In the 2000’s we were told to add a lot of culture to that already rushed scenario. In order to attempt to accomplish all this in the same time frame, something had to give. I hear some instructorsare currently trying to teach the grammar and vocab using culture as a medium. Or maybe they teach culture, and the grammar and vocab are there to facilitate the learning of the culture. I’d have to experience such classes for myself to know what really goes on, how effective it is and if the students would be able to speak the language if their class time were spent in this manner. Because students’ being able to speak the language creatively must remain our ultimate goal. What’s more, to enable students to use the language for communication here and now, time must be spent on the vocabulary of daily life, i.e., the things we have and do and want and think, etc. That’s what students are most likely to talk about in the language outside of class. I’m not going to get that to happen by presenting units on Italian opera and the Renaissance, glorious as they are! Tracy Terrell once told me, “Students will be able to do outside of class what they do during class time.” Accordingly, to my mind it is obvious that all elementary language classes need to meet at least five hours a week and concentrate on communicating using the vocabulary of everyday life to for the ability to speak the language creatively to occur. Please let us know what your thoughts on this weighty matter are.

What are the traits of a dedicated, effective language instructor?

Here’s what I think, and I came up with quite a list! Do these things work for you? What would you omit, modify or add?
From my experience and observations, a dedicated, effective language instructor…
is the one who sets the tone for the class
creates a positive, open, friendly, fun-loving atmosphere in the classroom
inspires many or most of the students to want to learn the language
maintains control of the class firmly and gently
is flexible when necessary
treats each student with respect and dignity
makes learning interesting and fun
makes students feel welcome
makes students have such a positive experience that they want to come to class
gets to know each student by name (in time!)
gets to know each student’s capabilities, limits and needs (if possible!)
tries to insert humor into the lesson whenever possible
encourages each student to do his or her best
never mocks, berates, criticizes, belittles, ignores, or punishes students
never takes out his or her personal problems on the students
is lavish with praise
shows (appropriate) love and concern for every student

What do you think of Rate My Professor?

Is it possible that any instructor has not read the comments on his or her classes on the web site ratemyprofessors.com? My students (and my own three offspring) tell me they and everybody they know nearly always check out potential instructors on RMP before enrolling in those instructors’ classes. Do you check RMP from time to time? If you do, are the students (except for the occasional troll) usually accurate? Does it ever inspire you to continue a certain practice or attitude that is appreciated or praised by the students or modify or eliminate those that they might criticize? Do you think chairs and administrators can resist the temptation to look at RMP? Even though it’s not permissible to use RMP as a basis for disciplinary action, do you think the information might inform their opinion of you as an instructor and be used subtly to your advantage or disadvantage? Can one opt out of RMP?