This is the time of year when darkness surrounds us; it is also the time when richly varied strands of American society celebrate light, birth and rededication to the values of community.
These days I am spending one evening every week with a small community of learners who are working to master a new language, or, at least, try to. Enlightenment comes slowly. In the room are business people, a medical doctor, teachers and some retirees. We all struggle together toward the light of fluency. I am humbled by my lack of knowledge, annoyed by my slow pace, and envious of the children next door who speak both languages fluently.
I have come face-to-face once again with the difficulty of actually remembering whatever I have heard or read repeatedly during class. I can recognize that a given noun or verb is familiar, yet I cannot dredge up any semblance of a reasonable response. I feel stuck, frozen. Poor Gabby Giffords must experience this frustration 24/7. Experiencing such gaps in knowledge gives me sympathy for what my students must be living through.
Oh sure, I have taken Marzano training; I can recite the fact that it takes upwards of 12 encounters to learn a new word. But knowing a fact is not the same as feeling the fact. It is so easy to forget the sense of “lostness” I feel when I need a word and cannot find it in my brain, a feeling which, I assume, my students often experience too. They must certainly also feel the same hypersensitivity and frustration I do when confronting knowledge holes or chasms.
Another thing I am rediscovering is the inconsistency of my own learning. Last week, in addition to my weekly class, I started a beginning language course on CD. It’s based on the Pimsleur method which is designed to give many, many chances to respond. How curious, I think as I go through each lesson, that I can recall and say a word or phrase correctly at 7:02, and then, at 7:05, mutely search for what I knew three minutes earlier. I would certainly exasperate even a patient teacher.
For me the takeaway message has to do with light and birth and community. Struggling toward the light of learning—while satisfying—is hard, continuous work. I do it better in the company of other learners. When I struggle myself, and reveal this to the students I work with, they find out that learning new things challenges adults just as much as it does young people. They need to know that there is nothing wrong with them if the process takes a long time and many repeated efforts. And I need to remember that the fact that learning takes time is not a negative reflection on my efforts or theirs.