5.0120 Teaching Languages Redux (1/82)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Wed, 5 Jun 91 16:07:20 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0120. Wednesday, 5 Jun 1991.

[Note from the Editors: This letter was unaccountably overlooked when
the discussion on teaching languages was in full swing. Our apologies.]

Date: Fri, 17 May 91 21:49:14 EDT
From: "Peg Kershenbaum" <kersh@watson.ibm.com>
Subject: teaching a required language course

You have already gotten many good responses (especially David Schaps')
to your question about teaching Old Church Slavic. Fortunately you are
dealing with bright college students even if they don't have the taste
required to love learning "useless" required languages.

Experiences that I have had with two courses may help you. On one end of
the rainbow is the Latin for Reading Knowledge course. This is offered
to graduate students whose doctoral programs demand that they show some
proficiency in reading classical texts. Most students are just about at
the point of writing a dissertation and are more than a little resentful
of yet another requirement. But they know how to learn and they really
do enjoy an intellectual challenge. They are usually disarmed within the
first few minutes. The goal of the course, I tell them, is to get them to
pass their reading exam and, secondarily, to have them leave rather
liking Latin. I say this in a way that is a cross between candor and
a conspiratorial tone. By respecting their plight I gain their cooperation
and trust. I also put in so much energy and treat them with such great
kindness that they work harder than they ever thought possible. Before
they realize it, they are learning, sweating and conquering the language
and liking it. They don't like getting grades lower than 90%. Most of them
haven't seen Bs in a very long time. Those who are just plain weak get
more attention even if I have to meet them before class in the cafeteria.
If you want a horse to jump an impossible hurdle, throw your heart over

Now, these are special people. They learn a year of Latin in 6 weeks. We
have no time for games and state-of-the-art methods (although my large
chalk cartoon of Pericula Paulinae for teaching fear clauses does elicit
cheers and there are many slightly off-color remarks and puns). Most of
them learn in spite of old methods, as I know they will.

The other end of the rainbow is the class of students who failed their
basic skills assessment exams. They have failed many times in many classes.
None has ever failed Latin. We offer a simplified course to help them
with vocabulary building, grammatical skills, language awareness, etc.
These are people who REALLY don't want to be taking Latin. For them, the
work is explained very simply and clearly as many times as it takes for
it to sink in. Each time I answer their questions, it is as if it were the
first time anyone ever asked. There are no stupid questions (oh, yes there
are, but they'll never hear it from me!) These students cannot defer the
pleasure of using the language as the graduate students can. Simple useful
phrases help.Constant reminders of why Latin is useful are important.
Using collaborative learning groups works for these students. They learn
from one another and see that they are all in the same boat.
Computerized instruction is also fine--even just drilling (We use my
program SCIO). Combining the groups and the computer is even better.
One thing you ought to consider is the use of a peer tutor. Better than
a graduate assistant is a real live person who has survived your course.
This person helps with drill-and-practice or anything you feel comfortable
assigning. The students usually feel free to blow off steam to a peer and
the peer can listen sympathetically, even acting as a go-between in some
cases. (We really don't know it all.)

Write your own material and get the class to help. You'll never find a
book that does exactly what you want anyhow.

Keep your ears and eyes open. Often students who complain about language
or do poorly have mild-to-serious learning disabilities and cannot yet
cope with a new language and alphabet. Having students read their answers
aloud often reveals what writing may not. Have surly students get their
vision and hearing tested. Find out what psychological counseling your
school offers and don't feel shy about suggesting that a student speak
with a counselor. Many undergraduates are under terrible stress. Your
course may be the last straw.

It doesn't matter much whether you use an old fashioned approach or a
new-fangled one. Love your subject and your students. Balance the
deductive, the inductive, the real text with the made-up text, the fun
with the boring, the practical with the necessary. Let any enthusiasm
they may have dictate some of the topics covered. Don't be afraid of
following interesting side paths.

Not all the students will do well. But if you nurture their love of
learning even in a required course, you may be paid the ultimate
compliment "Hey, this wasn't as boring as I thought it would be."
Good luck. Always make them think they are the brightest and most
promising of students even if they aren't. They may surprise you.

---Peg Kershenbaum
Brooklyn College Dept of Classics
& Foreign Language Institute, CUNY
Graduate Center