January 15, 2011

Language-learner Learns a Lesson

Earlier this week, I attended my first Spanish class at the local community college. After 10 years of studying German (and a semester of French and a crash course in Cambodian) I have lots of experience learning language--what to listen for and what to write down--most importantly, I enjoy the process of contorting my mouth into a new language's sounds. For the first activity in Spanish, we were given a sheet of Shakira song lyrics and asked to read paragraphs aloud--to assess our Spanish ability (mostly to butcher the song for the teacher's enjoyment). Being the total snob that I am, my ears burned as classmates murdered the words one-by-one in an unmelodious display of the perfect English pronunciation of Spanish words. Of course I found my own reading to be a delightful symphony of rolled RRR's and enunciated vowels, and I silently thanked some classmates for making it so easy to sound smart. I was able to ride the wave of snobbish pretense (and a decade's experience learning languages) though basic Spanish introductions with minimal struggle. I left the classroom feeling superior, a natural talent, a destined languagemeister with a multilingual brain, tongue and stomach.

You can imagine the bursting of my bubble when I arrived at Lincoln Public Schools Mentor training this morning. Instead of praising natural talent or intelligence, praise the effort and the struggle of hard work.

That was the idea we focused on at this morning's Mentors for the Highly Gifted training. The supervisor of the LPS Highly Gifted Program presented research and suggestions about how to most effectively praise learners. Dr. Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Standford University, suggests that high-ability learners have one of two mindsets: 1) the "fixed" mindset, or 2) the "growth" mindset. Learners who were often praised for being smart or having a certain IQ may fall into the fixed mindset in which they feel that their intelligence is a natural talent and that they shouldn't have to work hard to be successful. On the other hand, learners whose effort and struggles with difficult curriculum were acknowledged and praised tend to develop a  desire to learn and improve--the growth mindset. This research puts more pressure on the person giving the praise to think about what it is that he or she is praising: the noun (talent, test scores, IQ) or the verb (working, struggling, putting in effort).

This presentation resonated with me as a learner and as a teacher. Probably every day of my life I have wished I were naturally better at something, maybe running, cooking or singing--but I don't work on those things every day. Supposedly it takes 10,000 hours of doing something before you can be eminent. That's spending a year and half, without sleep, doing nothing but running or cooking or singing. If that's the case, I should be eminent at watching Law and Order, but little else. Worrying, maybe.

For highly gifted students, it is very easy to get by with little to no effort. In fact, these students become so accustomed to "being smart" that when they come across an actual challenge, they are very vulnerable to setbacks. Their self-worth has been based solely on IQ scores and easy straight-A report cards for so long that they haven't developed study skills. As a child in "gifted" programs, my intelligence was measured and praised, and I remember panicking in Calculus class because I wasn't getting an A. Actually, I wasn't even passing! I wasn't used to being confused and having to really think about my homework. It's completely ironic that the most gifted students can also have some of the poorest study habits and learning attitudes. If I'm not good at it, I won't do it. I'm not going to take on challenges because I might fail. Just so you know, I came in before school (between morning swim practice and school...that was a bad semester) several days a week to work and re-work problems with Mr. Campbell--a wonderful teacher. Even though that "B" would be the lowest grade I would receive in high school or college, I have never appreciated any grade more. I earned that "B."

During the presentation, I felt inspired about education again. I felt good that I would one day be a teacher, and that I would be ready to dole out proper praise to foster  "growth" mindsets in all of my students. Rainbows and Sunshine. Free Love. World Peace.

Then, he started speaking German--my mentoring subject area. He was another mentor at the session, a native of Bavaria (that's southern Germany), and he just came over to my chair and starting speaking auf Deutsch. Caught off guard, and very hungry for lunch, I struggled to flip the foreign language switch. It came down with a thud as I mangled an introduction that would've made my Spanish classmates proud. As I mis-conjugated and flubbed the easiest words, it was as though I could see the umlauted words leaving my mouth scribbled and crossed out. This really isn't fair, I thought. None of the math tutors introduced themselves via a quadratic equation or logarithm. As I told the guy, I can read and understand German very well, but to make organic conversation, well, I'm out of practice. Actually, the sentence amounted to, "I read and understand, but speak...I...not good...I don't have...practice...I must practice." He was a good sport and continued speaking German when most would have casually switched back to English. I, on the other hand, felt a tremendous defeat.

But wait. Is this not the situation we were talking about all morning? I struggled to make conversation, even though I've been studying German for 10 years. My delusions of natural talent were dashed, but did I walk to my car thinking about the right conjugations of the verbs and wanting to look up a few vocabulary words? You bet I did.  What a fabulous struggle I had!

But there's more! My humbling conversation made me think, "Wow, language teachers are important. Making conversation is a real key to everyday life! I'm going to be a language teacher. Take that, world!"

And, a final word about to Spanish classmates--The message in my blog is not meant to criticize your Spanish, but to poke fun at myself and to honestly praise every learner's struggle--even my own. Fellow Spanish-takers, we have 9,998 more hours until we are eminent. Let's go get 'em!