Something happened at a JALT event a few years ago that I still wonder about.
One of the featured speakers at this semi-major event was a very popular, very charismatic teacher of very young learners. Many presentations at JALT seem like someone’s first public speaking experience – most of mine are like that – but this one was done right. From the moment the speaker bounded up the steps to the stage in the medium-sized hall she had the audience completed absorbed, getting us involved in simple but fun ways and hitting an arpeggio of emotional notes throughout. The speech was on the teaching of moral values as a part of a preschool English class, sort of a Very Young Learners version of CLIL, and featured plenty of anecdotes of precocious youngsters educating each other and, for maximum cuteness, the teachers on values such as honesty, patience, and kindness. As a JALT presentation it was a complete experience with a clear point delivered by a seasoned pro, and despite my issues with the content I was happy to have seen it from near the front.
I should say that the feeling of being swept up in a group experience is something my particular evolutionary pathway has left me unable to enjoy, a personal blind spot. Most of humanity seems able to regard feeling the same and doing the same as a crowd as a euphoric experience, whereas it usually just makes me nervous. I much prefer to listen to music alone, for example; concerts have too many distractions. When I feel the wave of mass human feeling start to wash over me my first instinct is to get out and over it to avoid drowning. Therefore while I was listening to this very powerful speech and noticing its effect on the audience, myself included, I immediately began looking for straws of doubt to clutch.
The lowest-hanging such straw was the morality of teaching such values to youngsters in what was probably being billed as an English lesson. EFL teachers are generally pluralists and relativists, sensitive to the charge of imposing one’s values over those of our students or our host culture. As charged with positivity as the room was at the end of this presenter’s speech, a few audience members still had to mention this issue during the Q&A. To be honest, I don’t remember the speaker’s responses but I and the room probably felt that she dealt with the issue fairly.
The sticking point for me was on the nuts and bolts of what she was teaching. There was a list of values she put on the screen at one point, full of what we might call a metalanguage of morality – nouns and adjectives for discussing moral behavior rather than the words for actually behaving that way. For instance, patient is an adjective you could use to describe a preschooler who waits for others to be done before taking toys for himself, but you wouldn’t expect the child to use that word in describing his own behavior. It would be bizarre for a kid just learning that others have wants and needs analogous to his own to not only be able to treat others’ wants as equal to his but also to abstract his self-restraint into a noun or adjective. Even the rare kid that age who can describe ideal social behavior would use different words when actually performing it – that is the difference between metalanguage and language, between initiation and “May I help you?” I thought the students might be better served with more language for showing the behavior than for describing it, and this is the issue I raised my hand hoping to articulate.
(See this wonderfully curmudgeonly article by Michael Swan for a criticism of teaching principles of communication as well as lower-level skills)
The person called on before me set a adulatory tone by gushing at how the presenter was a real teacher and an example for the rest of us. The presenter was visibly moved, and for most in the room I guess it was a genuine moment. My main reaction was that it made my coming question seem petty and small-minded.
When my turn came I fumbled through my articulating my issue, with recognition of the cuteness of kids using words like “patience” that probably sounded sarcastic in retrospect. I closed by asking something like “Do you think you’re prioritizing low-frequency vocabulary over words that kids that age would be more likely to use in daily life?”
The answer was a few seconds of silence, then “No.”
A few members of the audience chuckled, and one said something like “That was great.” I felt immediately embarrassed, and suddenly very aware of my bald spot, which I’m sure was being thoroughly inspected by the rest of the hall.
The thought that occupied me for a few minutes after that was that I had been cast as the heel, the by-the-book charmless bureaucrat who tries to stop the heroes of the film on a technicality. I had the presence of mind to pretend it didn’t bother me, and I think I smiled.
After the Q&A ended, while people were standing up and stretching and heading out the door to see poster sessions, the speaker came up to me. She shook my hand and thanked me for the question, and as she was doing so her face had a particular type of awkward smile, the kind that comes with being 90% sure you and the person you’re talking to agree that what happened was unfortunate and want to make amends, but the final 10% of doubt keeping you from going on the record with it. I realized that she probably hadn’t intended for her answer to be the humorously curt dismissal that the audience had taken it as. She also said that I had given her something to think about, which was as good a compliment as I’ve gotten for asking a question.
Later on that day she cleared some space for me at the cafeteria when I was standing around holding my tray like a high school movie cliché, and we had a cordial but mostly empty conversation, trying very hard to show there were no hard feelings. I remember saying I felt she was playing a long game of motivation rather than a short game of competence, which was my way of making peace, and she mentioned growing up in the South.
Looking back at the event now I alternate between two summaries. I think part of me deserved a bit of the slap down I (probably unintentionally) received. If I look honestly at my discomfort with the atmosphere in the hall at that time, I can say my question was at least partly inspired by my need to puncture that warm, fuzzy feeling and bring everyone back down to earth. Plus, whenever I go to a JALT event like this I take an overnight bus, which means the following day I’m functioning on a few hours of sleep and often still wearing the clothes I did my last class in. I probably sounded even more humorless than I felt.
On the other hand, it was still an academic conference, and teachers serious about their work should be prepared for technical questions, even when they imply that you could or should be doing a better job for students you adore.
In any case I doubt anyone else even remembers this. I hope at least they’ve forgotten the bald spot.