Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pronouns, by the numbers...

I start teaching students in the 9th grade, after they've had, ideally, a full 4 years of Spanish. One of the things I have to actively unteach is the overuse of subject pronouns. One of the things I have to teach and teach and reteach is the correct use of enclitic object and indirect object pronouns. For the 5+ years I've been teaching Spanish, this fact has driven me somewhat mad.

Below is a chart the explains why:

This chart lists a few common Spanish pronouns, followed by their rank in a word frequency list in Spanish, followed by the chapter in which they're taught in an online Spanish curriculum whose design mirrors most textbooks:
  • le - ranks 19th (3rd most common pronoun)... taught in chapter 44 (Unit 4)
  • me - ranks 33rd (5th most common pronoun)... taught in chapter 41 (Unit 4)
  • tú - ranks 554th (28th most common pronoun) taught in chapter 7 (Unit 1)

Needless to say, if we map the word frequencies of the English translations of the above, the chart seems much more logical...
This chart lists a few common Spanish pronouns, followed by their English translation's rank in a word frequency list, followed by the chapter in which they're taught in an online Spanish curriculum whose design mirrors most textbooks:
  • le - him - ranks 64th (10th most common pronoun)... taught in chapter 44 (Unit 4)
  • me - "me" ranks 76th (14th most common pronoun)... taught in chapter 41 (Unit 4)
  • tú - "you" ranks 15th (2nd most common pronoun) taught in chapter 7 (Unit 1)

There are a number of technicalities I could comment on here. Obviously, for example, translating "le" as "him" is not a simple equivalence. But nonetheless, the basic point stands. Also, it's worth noting that "you" (the #2 pronoun in English), is ranked 554th overall in the Spanish word frequency list. I'm quite sure that no living English pronoun ranks so low (we'll ignore "thou" and "thine" for obvious reasons). The reason, of course, has something to do with the fundamental structures of the languages (specifically, the fact that Spanish is a null-subject language), which is exactly why I have to work so hard to un-teach what is, traditionally, put front-and-center for students in Spanish 1 (chapter 7 of Unit 1 above, to be precise).

All of which begs the question, exactly which language do the textbook authors think we're teaching?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Struggling with the Rule of Least Restriction...

Two posts have me thinking about the construction of assignments.

First, Tom Hoffman wrote a nice post excoriating an assignment shockingly chosen as a "model" of good standards-based work:

Given that, for good reasons, we're normally much more polite when we talk about other teacher's work, it was nice to hear Tom let loose. How often do we really get a chance to take apart the tasks we assign to kids? How often to English teachers really define what rigor or analysis means and what it can reasonably mean to a student?

The assignment has me thinking about this post on "the rule of least power". What Dan calls the "rule of least power" I would rather call "The rule of least restriction" (oddly, for once, I'm turning town a computer science metaphor for a special education metaphor). The idea is that when you create an assignment, you should always impose the lease powerful (restrictive) frame on a problem possible. This allows as much re-use/re-interpretation as possible, including students taking things in directions you never dreamed of (just as web developers can take easily-scraped data in directions you'd never dream of).

Thinking back to the assignment Tom was attacking (which makes the standard five paragraph essay assignment look open-ended), I admit that it is more likely to get the kind of predictable essays on Anne Frank that some teachers (or some tests) seem to like getting. But, crucially, it doesn't invite the students to ask any questions themselves or to discover why they might be interested in doing so.

On the other hand, the kinds of open-ended tasks I would rather give students are much more open to failure. And that catch -- the fact that assignments that ask students to do real-world tasks or that ask students to think in an open-ended way are far more likely to end in messy, hard-to-grade work or in outright hands-in-the-air I-don't-know-what-to-do failure... well, that's the problem I've been unsuccessfully struggling with my whole teaching career.

Dan finishes his post by formulating his rule of least power in this way:

1. Tell no student to care.
2. Tell no student how to care.
3. Apply increasingly powerful frameworks to mathematical objects only as the class cares about them.

Please don't confuse this with hardcore, Waldorfian constructivism. I have an agenda, a standard to meet, a lesson objective. But I don't fence my students onto a narrow path to my objective. I instead pave the ground beneath them so that the path to my objective is the easiest and the most satisfying to walk.

It's a high bar he sets. It's hard to figure out how to "pave the ground" so that the path you want students to walk is "the most satisfying to walk". It also strikes me that the more authentic your task, the less control you have about how students approach it, ergo, the harder it is to make sure students reach a standard or meet an objective while carrying it out.

Nonetheless, I'll definitely be challenging myself to think about presenting grammar at least (the most mathy thing I do) in the terms he describes (i.e. set up a problem + least restrictive framework and let it lead the class to the learning I want). Meanwhile, I'll try to think about how this problem-solving framework can map onto the stickier world of open-ended humanities-type assignments.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Using data to remediate, teach, improve

I just found this inspiring math teaching blog, which has me somewhat down about my own teaching and classes. Dan's posts on keeping data in particular have me thinking quite a bit.

I've long maintained that traditional language programs simply ignore the fact that most students are learning virtually no conversational skills. You march the kids through a set of tests and drills designed to teach the language and assume it's worked (or it hasn't), but you don't measure whether they can converse. So what do I do -- I measure whether kids can converse. But that's costly in terms of classroom time and teacher resources, and so I can't actually do it nearly as frequently as I'd need to for it to be really effective.

Looking at the math blog has me thinking about the discrete skills that go into language -- whether that be recalling a piece of vocabulary of conjugating a verb or understanding how enclitic pronouns work. And I'm wondering whether it wouldn't be worth charting student's abilities with respect to these skills much as Dan does for his math students.

Of course, working toward that chart could start to look like that textbook march I was lambasting a paragraph ago... after all, having all the grammatical puzzle pieces that go into language is not the same thing as using language. However, if used with a linguistically informed approach to teaching the skills, and used alongside authentic assessments of actual linguistic skill (could answer comprehension questions on article / could converse for 2 minutes / etc), maybe just maybe something like what Dan's describing would be transformative in a language classroom (maybe, just maybe, in mine).

Does anyone know of any language teachers doing anything like this -- graphing student achievement, remediating quickly, making sure students have actually learned the concepts we think we're teaching... I'd like to think it would be commonplace.