Editor’s note: The following is a speech that Skip Crosby gave to a few hundred foreign language teachers during the 2015 Foreign Language Association of Maine recognition ceremony. It has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
It all started with my senior English teacher who, in my last year of high school, took a victim of tracking, stuck in the C and D levels, invited me into his honors English class with all the smart kids, and convinced me to ignore the labels that had been given me.
He insisted that I could be or do anything I wanted to. It is because of him that I aspire to do the same for students today.
The closer to the end of my career I get, the more passionate I am about doing everything possible to help end monolingualism in our communities. We have generations of language students who have little more to say than “I took two years of French, Spanish or any other language, but I can’t speak it.”
The competition for education dollars is becoming greater, and greater, too, are the signs that we are losing ground. From French being cut at the University of Southern Maine, to stories of language staffs shrinking from nine teachers to three, I am petrified that if we are not able to show greater success in our efforts at language acquisition, the situation will only get worse.
I would like each of you to close your eyes. Now, think about the ideal foreign language student. Perhaps an actual student will come to mind. What characteristics are you seeing? Perhaps this student is highly motivated. Perhaps you see self confidence or a willingness to take risks. Perhaps you see combinations of all of these.
Now I would like you to think of the other nine. What do you see?
We must consider methods and language acquisition strategies that enable the masses and not just the top “4 percenters” (which most in this room are) to find success.
Moms have 100 percent success rates at creating language speakers. Language programs have tended to send the message that languages are hard or inaccessible, and something only the “really smart” students can attain.
Let us ask ourselves as educators what role we have in realizing the conditions needed to achieve proficiency in high school, such as starting language education earlier. How might we use our voice to lead such changes?
As we face the proficiency based report card, it is more imperative than ever that we see more success in helping students not only gain proficiency in language but confidence and even enjoyment.
You see, I was one of the “other nine.” School had convinced me that I was limited at best and dumb at worst. The stigma of being in the D track scars me to this day. As a result of being the other nine, I know that the other nine in our classes are not interested in learning the mechanics of the language.
It’s when language becomes the vehicle through which we talk about our students or other topics that are compelling to them that students become more interested, walls between the teacher and them are torn down, community is developed, and language acquisition occurs.
Please consider the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language’s recommendation that 90 percent of all instruction consist of “comprehensible input” — where educators and their students use the target language as exclusively as possible (up to 90 percent), both inside and outside the classroom.
We know that languages are acquired through significant levels of communication. For the communication to be effective, it must be 100 percent comprehensible, repetitive, personalized and compelling.
Each year I start classes by having students fill out a card on which they draw something they do, or that they are afraid of, or what they would do if they had a million dollars. On the back I put an information sheet where they share what is important to them and all of their favorite things.
Teacher trainer Carol Gaab encourages teachers to make their students their curriculum, and this is one way I have found to do just that. Each card that hangs prominently in my room for the year loudly proclaims that each and every student represented is more important than the language.
The language is just the means by which we can learn about and appreciate each other.
I am convinced that teaching with comprehensible input and the personalization that it allows is responsible for failure rates at Poland Regional High School falling from 40 to 50 a year to fewer than four or five. Enrollment in upper levels has gone from four to five, to 30 to 40.
We must allow all students to achieve success in second language acquisition. Our future depends on it. The other nine deserve it.
Skip Crosby, a Spanish teacher at Poland Regional High School, is the 2014 Androscoggin County Teacher of the Year and the 2015 Maine Foreign Language Teacher of the Year.