THE DECISION to respond to Ms. Kim’s opinion piece was not an easy one. Initially, I considered talking to her face to face, or just mentioning it in the classroom; in the end, I chose to use the same forum as Ms. Kim had- The Classic.
I found it unfortunate that Ms. Kim chose to describe the work done in the Spanish class in terms of “bulk” and “monotony”, when this is far from an impression my students seem to share. In order to explore “how the language shapes the thoughts, feelings…”, one must possess solid foundation, and this is what we are trying to provide. “To explore freely” requires independence, autonomy and initiative, as well as a certain amount of personal effort and the investment of time, on the part of the student. Ms. Kim speaks about “a correct perspective of the language”, but she fails to explain clearly what she means or what that actually is, in the framework of the public education today. She also questions the possibility of being able to “own” a language if one cannot speak it, which she uses to support her thesis, but indeed, it is quite possible to know a language in depth, even, as translators often do, without being able to speak it with the desired fluency.
In the recent years, the ongoing presence and looming threat of budget cuts, and oversized classes plague students and teachers alike. This was not always the case. The study of language was considered a collaboration, a two-way road, and several former Townsend Harris students bear out the truth of this. Many are majoring and/or minoring in Spanish, are studying abroad in Europe, are in Peace Corps in Central America, have gotten Fulbright Fellowships in South America, are teaching English in Spain, or working for American companies in France. These students remain in touch with us. For them, language wasn’t just a course “to pass”.
Now, however, a forty-two minute class of 30-34 students, all with different levels of knowledge and motivation does not allow for the satisfaction of certain legitimate ambitions. We live in a time of tests and standards; the oral portions of the language requirement are measured by the artificiality of the Regents dialogues, or the even more artificial tape recording in the AP level. Perhaps we might propose to the Board of Regents and the College Board other strategies to resolve the matter of the oral portions of the exams, but in the meantime, and whether we like or not, we have to train students to take these exams successfully. And the teacher’s rating depends on those results, and in some cases, his/her career. Yes, teachers are rated and evaluated, and are the target of an undeserved criticism these days. How unfortunate that “Foreign Language: let’s speak more, write less” comes at such a time and adds so little to a productive discussion that might foster change.