Engagement and the Left-Handed Language Learner

So lately everyone’s excited about the “DEA” — the Daily Engagement Assessment. Engagement is crucial to language acquisition, right? And how can the teacher know if the students are engaged unless they show that they are engaged, by responding using specific behaviors that can be observed? (Hmmm…starting to sound a lot like the Evil Danielson Framework. But I digress.)

Engagement is definitely something we seek in the classroom. But should engagement be measured and graded? Those who support these systems say yes. You have a responsibility as a student to come into the classroom and do what you are told to do. And hey, it’s all really simple stuff, right? Make eye contact. Answer out loud. The claim is that these systems are measuring “engagement”, not behavior or participation, and that the behaviors being rated are “correlated with the principles of CI.”

Except that they aren’t.

Comprehensible Input means that the brain hears language it matches to meaning, and in this way, it constructs a grammar and lexicon (essentially a list of rules and vocabulary words) for the language that’s coming in. It has NOTHING at all to do with what the acquirer looks like or does while that is happening — other than some listening has to take place.

Now, it might seem very innocuous to give a grade based on students adhering to a simple set of rules (which, I’m sorry, still look a lot like a list of behaviors to me). And that’s great if that list were composed of things that everyone in your classroom was naturally comfortable doing.

Let’s turn the clock back a few years. Quite a few. But anyway. Remember “back in the day” when it was not acceptable to be left-handed? Students who showed up to school favoring their left hand or insisting stubbornly on writing using their left hands were forced to use their right hands instead. Some had their left hands tied up; others were actually beaten or otherwise punished to make them “behave correctly”. Because they “obviously” could, and should, be doing things the way everyone else did.

We would never dream of forcing a left-handed student to use his right hand in a classroom today. No language teacher would take away points if a left-handed student wrote on the board using his left hand, or raised his left hand to answer, or whatever.

In today’s classrooms, we have a significant group of students who are non-neurotypical. Many are somewhere on the autism spectrum. For these students, behaviors that are “easy” for others can be uncomfortable or downright impossible. (Affective filter, anyone?) Add to this a phenomenon called “autistic inertia” that sometimes prevents autistic people from doing things they have decided they want to do — actually prevents them from beginning the action or task, even though they want to do it. And before anyone claims that every one of these students will have an IEP in place, let me tell you that they do not. There are many, many kids out there who have not been identified, especially when they are otherwise “smart” or “good in school”.

Still sound like a good idea to mark down for lack of eye contact or answering out loud?

As TPRS teachers, we teach to the eyes. Actually, that is a misnomer. We teach to the eyes of our NT (neurotypical) students. But for many of our neurodivergent students, we have to teach to the heart, not the eyes. We need to take our students where they are — not ONLY in terms of language skills, something we all agree on, but also in terms of their neurology. Any system that rates behaviors across the board on minutae like eye contact is only for the convenience of the teacher, not for the betterment of language acquisition.

Don’t do it. Just don’t do it. You don’t know who you’ll be turning away from the language. Even those kids who are perhaps neurotypical but aren’t making eye contact as you’d like — ever asked yourself why? Is your input really as interesting and student-centered as you think? Are you going at a pace that ensures that  everyone really does understand? Is there anything else going on in that kid’s life that could just possibly be impacting the way he presents in class?

The possible collateral damage is enormous. The benefit is slim. Don’t do it.

Late edit (8/19/16): wow, this “Whole Body Listening Larry” sure sounds a lot like DEA, doesn’t it? And, as the author points out, it’s not about listening. It’s about reassuring the speaker: https://danialexis.net/2015/04/17/deconstructing-active-listening/

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