Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wanted: Consensus and Shared Purpose

Bernstein writes that "Even teachers who do not believe that writing instruction should have as its primary focus the development of linguistic competence may find it quite difficult to provide written commentary on content and rhetorical concerns in the manner they believe is effective because of pressure to respond to students' grammatical and lexical errors first and foremost" (p. 65). When I read this I was transported back in time about five years ago.

I was teaching in another French immersion school and we, like all of the other elementary schools in the district, were using a Writer's Workshop model to teach writing in our classrooms. It wasn't easy to do in an immersion setting, but we were experimenting with it and I was pretty impressed with the writing that I saw around the school. Then at a staff meeting one morning our principal said that she was approached by the father of a prospective student. He was a native French speaker and was, our principal said, "shocked" by some of the errors in grammar and spelling that he saw in students' writing displayed around the school. Our principal asked us to go around and correct the errors in our students' work. My colleague in kindergarten complied. She had to. It was like a police state over there. She carefully typed up corrected versions of the things that her kindergartners had written in French and posted them underneath all of her students' work.

I sometimes see the same thing happen where I work now. Students will make signs that advertise upcoming events and there are almost always mistakes in French. A few days after the posters go up, someone goes around and corrects the errors with a black marker. Is this good practice? I don't know. I get both sides. I know it's not good to have incorrect French on display for our students. They don't see French that often outside of school so what they do see at school tends to stick with them, for better or for worse. But all of this correcting also rubs me the wrong way as a teacher who believes strongly in a Workshop model and who believes that students should be allowed and, in fact, encouraged to make mistakes when they are learning to write.

I understand the accountability argument. I asked all of my students to make sure their word wall words were spelled correctly in published work when I taught second grade. And, of course, grammar is important. I try my very best to speak French as authentically as I can. But I also know personally (as a non-perfect French speaker) that nothing inhibits my ability to speak more than fear that I will be judged, not taken seriously or belittled if I make mistakes. I can only imagine that students feel the same way. If we focus on grammar at the exclusion of ideas and content, we are essentially telling our students "Don't speak or write until you can do it perfectly." And no one learns to write or talk like that in their native language. Why would we ever say that to children attempting to communicate in a second language?

What to do? Believe me, I don't know. I've been tiptoeing my way around this conflict for over five years. I do believe, as Bernstein argues, that programs and teachers need to carefully discuss and agree to common philosophies and expectations for writing assessment and instruction. Otherwise, teachers will continually butt heads. It's happening in my school right now. And that lack of clarity or consensus about a shared purpose slowly chips away at a program, and I think everyone ends up feeling discouraged.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post, Kelsey! I couldn't write all my thoughts here so I added them to my own post. Let's talk some more about this important issue.