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?

What do you do the first week of class?

Here’s what I do. On the first day I enter the classroom right on time, smile at the students, put my stuff on the table and write my name and other info on the board. Usually the students are silent; they don’t know each other yet, and for some of them this is their first time in a college class. Then I turn around, smile at the students again and say “Buongiorno!” and motion for them repeat “Buongiorno, professore!” I reiterate in English what I wrote on the board and then I call roll. I smile at each student and ask him or her why he or she is taking Italian. If a student is at a loss for words, I ask “curiosity, you love languages, you need credits, your life would be empty if you didn’t know Italian?” They all chuckle. This sets the tone. I’m in charge, serious about them learning Italian and well organized but they can see right off the bat that I’m fun-loving. And they find out immediately that they are not anonymous faces in a full room. Each one has name and a voice. Each one is special. After roll call I ask, “Do you guys want to read the syllabus now, or shall we do some Italian?” The answer is invariably “Do some Italian!” and I start the Lezioni Preliminari that I have thoughtfully prepared over the years. I tell them to get out a pencil and paper and get ready to write down everything I write on the board. As I write I pronounce the Italian and translate it bit by bit, and ask them to repeat every so often. When I’m done with the first chunk of language I ask them if they have any questions. Then I say, “OK, now stand up and have this conversation (the one we just wrote on the board) with at least five different people! By the time you get to the fifth person you’ll know it by heart!” They are amazed, but they do it. All of a sudden the classroom is noisy and raucous as 50 nineteen-year-olds get busy introducing themselves, smiling at each other, shaking hands, saying “Sorry, gotta go now” and going on to the next person. The conversation is all in Italian, but it goes like this:

—Good morning, sir/ma’am.
My name is Dave Pardess.
What is your name?
—My name is Joe/Lisette García.
(We shake hands while we say…)
—It’s a pleasure.
—The pleasure’s mine.
(I look at my watch and make a sorrowful face.)
—Well, I have to go now.
—Me, too.
—Good-bye.
—See you later.

We do as much of the Lezioni Preliminari in this fashion as time allows. About fifteen minutes before class ends, I pass out the xeroxed Lezioni Preliminari packets so they can see and read what we’ve done in black and white. I distribute these packets free of charge so we can get right to work the first week of class. I tell them to make sure they buy the text materials at the student store by the beginning of the next week. I take care of adds right after class, and invariably at least one student tells me “This class is so much fun. I can’t believe I learned so much in one day. I can’t wait for the next class. Thank you so much, professore.”
At the next class meeting we have fun doing more of the Lezioni Preliminari and then we read the syllabus (except for some technical info) as a class. In fact, the students do all the reading by taking turns, and “snaking” around the room. I also have students fill out a student info sheet, which I collect to get to know more about each one and how to contact them if the need arises.

A Short History of Approaches to Teaching Foreign Languages

This is how I understand it. Please correct me if I’m wrong. One of the old fashioned methods—the Grammar-Translation Method—was originally used for teaching Latin and Greek, both of them highly inflected languages. The idea was for students to learn some grammar and some vocabulary so they could read and translate into English a literary text written by one of the Classical authors and then go on to do the same for other such texts. At that time, knowing Latin and Greek was the hallmark of a cultured, highly educated European or American. Modern French and German were originally taught using the Grammar-Translation Method because it was felt that the goal was to be able to read French and German literature in the original. If a person wanted to learn to speak the language they could hire a tutor or go live, work or study for a while in the country where the language was spoken. A few people were auto-didacts, i.e., people who could teach themselves a language and how to communicate in it. Before World War II, universities in the western world taught all foreign languages more or less using the Grammar-Translation Method. During the war, American military personnel were taught phrases in French, German, Italian, etc., to help them function in European countries. I still have my uncle’s government issue French Phrase Book. After the war, it was felt for the first time that language learners should be taught to speak the language while learning to read and write it. To force instructors to give spoken language top priority, the Audio-Lingual Method or Aural-Oral Method of the 60’s was mandated for most American high schools. Although the totality of my high school French was traditionally taught, I learned German and Spanish with textbooks from the Holt, Rinehart and Winston aural-oral series such as Verstehen und Sprechen and Entender y Hablar. After I caught on that it was all memorization I aced every test and my high school GPA began to soar! I was such a fanatic that I bought personal copies of all my language textbooks at a local bookstore in San Pedro and also all the A-LM (Harcourt, Brace and World’s Audio-Lingual Materials) textbooks that they used in the Palos Verdes USD, and I still have all of them! When I got to UCLA the college versions of the Audio-Lingual method were being used in a few departments, but not in the Department of French. UCLA professors Oreste Pucciani and Jacqueline Hamel had written Langue et Langage, an all-French textbook based on the theories and practices of Pucciani’s high school French teacher Ferdinand de Sauzé, which had been dubbed the Direct Method. The Direct Method was in vogue at UCLA and at Cal and Stanford (Jian and Hester’s Découverte et Création) for decades. In Direct Method classes the instructor never uttered a word in English. English was totally banned from the classroom from day one. Students had to answer instructors’ questions in French and then go up and write their answers on the board. The textbooks were grammar driven and logically ordered so that students were always learning new grammar and vocabulary based on that of previous lessons. It worked for many students, but not all. Several of my fraternity brothers frequently asked me for help with grammar and vocab. Direct Method works for French because of the huge number of cognates French and English share. It is more of a challenge to teach the other Romance languages via DM. I have the German version, Deutsch durch Deutsch, but I don’t think it was a big seller. Even though English and German are both Germanic languages, the big words in German are usually opaque to English speakers. Compare the French word ‘conversation’ with the German equivalent ‘Unterhaltung’. I took a summer course at UCLA on teaching via the Direct Method and the instructor assured me that it was the best way to teach any of the world’s languages. I sensed that that was bogus right off. Just try explaining Japanese SOV syntax and turn-of-phrase to English speakers in Japanese with no recourse to English. What a waste of time! Right up until the 1980’s, American universities tried to get through all the verb tenses in European languages in the first year, which left little or no time for students to talk to one another in class. Oreste Pucciani once said something like “Oh, no. We don’t want them to talk to each other in class; they’ll teach each other their mistakes!” Those who wanted to speak the language were provided with an optional year of conversation classes they could take while continuing second-year study of the language. In the mid 1980’s the Communicative Approach of Tracy Terrell (UCSD), partially based on the theories of Stephen Krashen (USC), swept the nation. Students were expected to study grammar before coming to class so they could spend class time doing Activities. To keep students’ anxiety levels down, instruction began with a rather long Silent Period, during which students could absorb the language with their Affective Filters (or “guards”) down and mostly respond physically instead of verbally to the instructor and textbook (Total Physical Response or TPR). After the Silent Period students could speak, but their utterances were not to be corrected (at least directly) by the instructor. The goal was to get students to speak the language even if they weren’t sure their grammar was perfect. Communicative Approach textbooks contained a huge amount of vocabulary. Tracy Terrell’s reasoning was that since most students take only one year of a language, they cannot be expected to speak error free, and that exposing them to a lot of vocabulary would make it possible for them to understand the answers of native speakers. Some of my good students told me that they were frustrated because they were never quite sure what they were saying was correct and were therefore hesitant to speak. After a year or two of teaching via the Communicative Approach, I decided to do my own thing, and I got vastly better results. The current in-vogue approach seems to be Flipping the Classroom, which means that students learn on their own by studying grammar, vocabulary and culture online before coming to class and doing mostly group work during class time with the instructor acting largely as consultant. I have tried this student-centered approach in two community college classes. For Spanish 1 it seemed to work kind of OK, but I suspect it was because many of the students had already had a year or two of high school Spanish. Most of them did not prepare for class. In Italian 1 it was a train wreck for multiple reasons, and I made the decision to switch methods mid-semester. I, for one, do not appreciate being forced to use any methodology I determine will not bring superior results. We are not university Teaching Assistants who are required to use current departmental methodology to teach mostly highly motivated students. I think we need text- and maybe cyber- materials that will give us the freedom to best serve the needs of our CC students.