Monday, February 05, 2007

the horror... my own heart of darkness

A confession: sometimes I feel like humiliating certain students because...well, because they did it first... no matter hold I get I can't seem to completely escape the "neener neener" impulse that is the province of the child and the immature. For a teacher, this is a dangerous impulse. In it's most "refined" expression it becomes sarcasm, a tactic not altogether unkown to teachers here and back home. I was once given good advice about using sarcasm with teenagers - "it's like wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it."
And then there just plain old meanness. That's not something I've ever felt seriously inclined toward...then again a couple of weeks ago, I indulged myself in a way that might be construed by some as mean... at the time I thought it was funny....well, at least it felt good for a few moments.
There was Anthony sitting in the front row conspicuously ignoring me, blatantly talking and joking while I was attempting to carry on with my lesson without feeding his behavior with any kind of attention...but my efforts at extinction were failing spectacularly. And then, I flipped, almost before I was aware of having consciously changed tactics, I bored into Anthony, in flat, disspassionate, matter-of-fact, ratt-a-tatt English, full speed and nonstop.
Even on his "good days" Anthony doesn't get me at one third speed so I knew he wasn't understanding me at all, I also knew that the faster and the longer I talked that probably no one else in the room was understanding the words although my "performance" was pretty unambiguous in its stone cold intent.
At the beginning of my solo Anthony gave me that silly grin he wears when he thinks he's being funny, but it soon was displaced by a look of confusion. He shook his head, and shrugged, as if to signal me that he wasn't getting it...I nodded, smiling coldly, and continued my stream of consciousness riff unabated ...something like the following.. "you don't understand a single word I'm saying do you I know because not only do you not listen or pay attention or even care about what we're doing in here but you don't ever do your homeword either so it's really no wonder I'd be surprised if you did understand me and since you don't I'm going to continue to talk at you like this so at least you'll no what it feels like to truly be the sole object of someone's attention and also to know what it feels like to be quiet for ten seconds while someone else is talking I hope this experience is sufficiently uncomfortable for you to make you think twice about being such a pain in the butt all the time although it would be foolish and naive of me to hope for so much from someone who has displayed so little interest or aptitude in the subject at hand..."
Anthony had long sinced stopped looking at me or anyone else for that matter. He was doing his best to disappear altogether... I stopped and looked around. It was very quiet. Very strange circumstance, I thought. What I had just done had on one level been absolutely meaningless and on another level been an excercise of brute power and perhaps on another level an authentic (though self absorbed) linguistic performance such as they could never ever get from one of their home grown teachers here. Most curious of all was the fact that this event had only one witness who could unpack the verbal contents of what had Had I sworn like a sailor (which I didn't do, I swear I didn't) no one would have been the wiser. The whole episode left me wondering about myself, a bit like Marlowe going up that river...okay, that's a bit melodramatic. I don't think what I did was terrible, but neither am I comfortable with indulging myself in that way. I've told myself to not fall in love with this story.
A slightly related anecdote...good Kevin comes back.
I tried something with my students Friday. I had come to the conclusion that they needed some intensive oral and listening practice and that my conventional approaches were simply not creating the requisite level of concern and therefore investment in English. So I did a long dictation in English of the poem The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. It's a full twenty lines. The assignment was simple but labor intensive. First, record the words first via dictation and then recopy the text into the correct poetic format given the following two clues: nine syllables per line, four verses each with a rhyme scheme of abaab.
The dictation was painful for them because they were obliged to listen hard and for a long time. I went slowly, repeating words as often as necessary and spelling (but only in English) them when needed. When they finished they had to learn how to pronounce the words properly to verify the rhyme eg. both/undergrowth.
Eventually I'll have them read the poem aloud for a grade, I think.
Anyway at the end of the activity I congratulated them on having concentrated for so long in the target language. I then tried a little levity with them by offering to let them hear perfectly good English pronounced with a French accent. At first a couple of kids thought I might be making fun of them but pretty soon everyone was laughing. The funny thing was that they seemed to understand me better when I spoke English this way... the same thing happens in my French classes at home where inside the insular world of my classroom we develop a language that we call French but which no French person would readily recognize as his own. When your only points of reference in the language are your classmates who practice the same faults as you do, it becomes a perfect system for amplifying and embedding bad habits. One teacher is a rather thin line of defense against such environmental influences.
I told them that having an accent was not a problem, but that speaking clearly and precisely was. Make bold choices and you listeners will have a much better chance of understanding you.


Anonymous Brenna said...

Wow! And I thought learning French was difficult. This is a great story and really had me asking myself about the entire process of learning French. I love the part about you reading it in English with a French accent. It reminds me of one of my French prof. She was from France and said that even if you lived in France for 10 years an American French speaker would never be able to have the proper French accent. I'm not 100% sure about this, but thought it was interesting after reading your story because I have a friend from Germany and although she has lived in Eugene for over five years, she still has an accent. The first paragraph made me re-think becoming a teacher. Best wishes!

12:55 AM  
Blogger kc said...

I tend to sympathize with your friend's view, the number of years is debatable I've said elsewhere in this blog, fluency is much overused and abused term.

7:17 AM  

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