You just gotta want it.

I was talking with a student who works in our center on Friday and he reported that he had slept about 2 hours in the past 24 or so, studying hard, and yet he was still not caught up on the work he had been assigned to do for the end of the semester. It was as if, he said, the teachers realize there are only 10 more days to go and therefore have to cram everything into the syllabus (and into the students’ sleep-deprived brains) in order to get to the finish line.

But does anyone actually learn anything when this happens? Does anyone ever stop and take a look to see if learning really occurs in those last frantic days before the term ends?

I know of one faculty member who front loads his class…all of the heavy lifting is at the beginning of the semester because he knows that the end of the semester is when people get hammered by all of their other profs. Plus it is springtime here… springtime in Ohio feels like a huge reward after winter and many weeks of almost-spring in Ohio…and it is hard to work when the weather is so fine.

But why do we tend to burden our students (and ourselves!) at the end of the term if we know deep down that they forget almost everything they cram under duress? I have that wonderful recurring nightmare about being told I need to retake my Algebra 2 final in the 10th grade because “they” need to see if I was just parroting my answers or if I really truly understood the concepts. I wake up in a cold sweat every time. I wonder if other people have those same dreams when they teach.

In language education there is a debate about “learning” vs “acquiring” a language that seems appropriate to mention here. If you “learn” something, it is in your short term memory…and not for long. But if you “acquire” it, that means what you have learned has become permanently welded into your brain, something you can rely on being there for the long haul.

How one goes about “acquiring” a language is a bit of a mystery, and it varies from person to person. Everyone has their way of moving along the language acquisition continuum. But one thing theorists are saying with certitude is that cramming a second language rarely leads to language acquisition.

So why do we do this to ourselves and to our students? Why do we, time and time again, create syllabi that are chock-a-block full of tasks that are impossible to accomplish wisely and well?

I understand the logic that says that in Spanish 101 you need to teach the first half of the book because Spanish 102 (the next course in the series) will begin at the second half. So you had better hurry up and get there… and cover it all, dagnabbit.

But if people would just stop and look up for second they would see something: the first two chapters in Spanish 102, that is the middle two chapters of the textbook, are usually REVIEW chapters. And what do they review? Why, the stuff from the last two chapters that they know most people jet-skiied right through in order to get to the end of the semester.

In my mind, the really good teachers are the ones who can follow the syllabus but also figure out when the class needs or wants to go deeper into the material and then helps them do so. S/he also is able to articulate what the intended outcomes of the class are meant to be w/o being wedded to a syllabus and then helps to get everyone there, alive and in one piece and able to reflect upon what they have acquired along the way.

But where does that courage come from? The courage to say, um, hold on here…this is not working. The courage to stop, reflect, look around, assess and redirect. These are all things that folks like McKeachie and Skorczewski have asked us to do…but we don’t Do it. Why?

Ryan and I were having our weekly staff meeting and he came up with this thought: for any change to happen, any real change… you just gotta want it. How true. And once you want it, really want it, and once you can clearly articulate why you want it, and once you can articulate what you want the outcome(s) to be… the rest all falls into place.

This time of year we all feel and act like automotons…we are going through the motions, one foot in front of the other. Once the summer comes and the blood begins to coarse through our veins again, my hope is that everyone will stop and think for just a moment about where they want their students to be, what they want them to be able to do, by the end of the next term. Resist the temptation to pull out the same ole crusty syllabus. Resist the temptation to go through the motions and the patterns of the past.

Be bold: Just gotta want it.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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  1. Colleen · May 5, 2008 Reply

    stuffing sausages …. We know it too well. I will never forget when Maureen Garrity came to facilitate our OPI training. We lined up one language learner after the other and probed and spiraled them from floor to ceiling to try to appropriately rate their oral proficiency. What a profound experience… the proof is in the pudding. What we teach them means nothing if they haven’t learned… if they cannot do anything with the knowledge. So here is to change. Gone go the days of creating a syllabus by page numbers in a book. I write this as I avoid correcting 40 final compositions… signed a recovering sausage stuffer:)

  2. Barbara · May 6, 2008 Reply

    Thanks, Colleen, for commenting..and for admitting that you too are sucked into the vortex as well.

    Am seriously considering polling my students tonight and asking them whether we should even have a final exit interview for my conversation class or not. Will anything actually come of it aside from more stress for everyone involved? Will there be learning outcomes achieved through this exercise that we could not achieve otherwise or have not already achieved? Am I doing it because I feel I have to?

    Would I like a break from exam mayhem? absolutely. Will I miss teaching these students and watching them morph into sensible, sensitive and (thank you urban dictionary) sensical, language speakers? Oh you betcha. The ending this year will be particularly hard…it has been an amazing group.


  3. Doug · May 30, 2008 Reply

    You know, for all the “wisdom” we as language teacher possess, we really drop the ball when it comes to following certain trends coming out of the education field. We choose to ignore all of the studies on cognitive load, surface learning and motivation and “cover” concepts. Front-load, back-load, midterm-load…it’s all “load” that students forget 5 minutes after the test. Our answer, rather than some serious introspection as to our pedagogical practices, is usually to tell students to keep plugging along or they’ll forget it all! Just keep going until you get you requirement out of the way…nevermind actually trying to convert students into the profession by teaching/arranging curriculum out of the box.

    Yeah, students have to want it. But are we giving them something they would want to want?

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