Virtual Foreign Language Learning, Oh my!

So, saving money that was probably wasted in the first place, means that foreign language teachers will be replaced by DVDs!  Instead of being able to interact with their teachers, students will now try to learn a language such as Spanish from a recording only.  While DVDs can assist in furthering a student’s language ability, it cannot do so by itself, and there is no substitute for having a teacher help a student learn a foreign language.  Yet, many penny-pinching school systems are turning to ‘mechanical’ learning and hoping that nobody will notice the difference! Virtual learning vs. real-time, physical instruction.

Today’s article is about some Morris County Schools that have decided on virtual foreign language learning:   Rob Jennings, “‘Virtual teachers take over world language instruction in several Morris County NJ schools,” September 6, 2010, Daily Record

The new Spanish teachers in the K-8 school district are informed and personable but available only on DVD.

After losing all three elementary school Spanish teachers due to budget cuts last spring, officials turned to “distance learning” to fulfill the world languages curriculum requirement.

The Spanish DVDs did not require additionalmoney in the 2010-11 budget. Assistant Superintendent Deborah Grefe said the DVDs were already included in the district’s subsciption to Discovery Education.

Grefe said the 20-minute virtual lessons will be shown during social studies periods in grades K-5. The program guide reads that teachers, though not necessarily proficient in Spanish, will “make sure students are engaged and are repeating the vocabulary.”

“He’s entertaining. He plays the guitar,” Grefe said.

Amid steep cuts in state aid and a record number of budget defeats last April, many school districts in New Jersey were forced to scale back, eliminate or modify optional programs and services starting with the new school year.

While cuts in courtesy busing and extracurricular activities have drawn much of the public outcry, educators are increasingly concerned about the impact on world language programs — particularly since starting in early childhood is seen as crucial.

World languages have been part of New Jersey’s K-8 core curriculum since the mid-1990s. However, nothing in the content standards specifically requires instruction by an actual teacher.

The state Department of Education does not keep a count of districts utilizing DVDs, but appears to be at least implicitly encouraging the trend — and not just in world languages.

“We have said to the field school districts to look for equivalencies to meet state requirements,” said Beth Auerswald, a DOE spokesman.

“Alternate methods of meeting state standards are common across subjects because of the difficult time we’re in,” Auerswald said.

At least eight school districts in Morris County scaled back their world languages programs for the 2010-11 school year, ranging from reducing the grades taught to virtual instruction.

In Long Hill, the K-8 district eliminated a part-time Spanish teacher at the grades 2-5 Millington School and spent anywhere from $5,000 to $6,000 acquiring a Beth Manners collection featuring CDs and “a whole collection of finger-puppets,” Superintendent Rene Rovtar said.

Rovtar said she is disappointed by the cuts and other reductions but noted the district had no choice.

“This is the outcome of losing $750,000 in state aid and having our budget cut $250,000,” Rovtar said.

Donna M. Farina, president of the Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey, described world language cuts as “the fallout from the budget issues.”

“People have decided that language is expendable … This is very short-sighted,” said Farina, who lives in Bayonne and has taught Russian and French.

Farina said the cutbacks could reverse gains made since world language programs were expanded to the elementary school level. She said she feared that the end result will be that “only an elite few will be well-positioned to take on globally important careers.”

For example, at the private Dwight-Englewood School, where the grades K-5 tutition is $23,800 per year, world language programs continue to thrive.

“We haven’t been affected by the massive cuts across the state,” said Janet Glass, who teachers Spanish in grades 3-5 at the private school.

Glass, named national foreign language teacher of the year in 2008, does not recommend relying on DVDs.

“Kids do pick up vocabulary from videos, but they never master the interactive skills. It’s not to say that comprehension doesn’t take hold, but personal interactive skills is what most families want their kids to master,” Glass said.

Joan Jensen, who teaches French at Chatham Middle School, agreed that DVDs are a poor substitute. “For me, the key element is the interaction between the students and the teacher. You don’t have that with a computer program. If you don’t have a teacher there to guide or encourage, a lot can be mis-learned, or not learned at all,” Jensen said. “I understand that some districts are forced to do this,” she added, “but it’s just unfortunate.”

In Madison, the K-12 school district lost an elementary school Spanish teacher due to budget cuts but opted to scale back the program to grades 4 and 5, rather than attempting to keep it grades 1-5 via DVDs. “We did consider it,” said Madison Assistant Superintendent Barbara Sargent, adding that officials surveyed “peer districts” in Morris and Somerset counties before deciding against it.

“What you get with a live teacher in the classroom is a great sense of the culture … the history, the intonation,” Sargent said.

In Rockaway Township, Grefe emphasized that the district did not entirely shelve its in-house Spanish instruction. Students at the Copeland Middle School will continue to attend classes taught by an actual teacher. That teacher, Grefe said, worked part-time last year but now has a full-time schedule and will provide some lessons to fifth-graders, enabling them to cross the “bridge” from DVDs to traditional study starting with the sixth grade.

She acknowledged the teachers involved might not know any Spanish, but said the DVDs are designed for just that situation. The only concession — instead of grading students starting in the fifth grade, teachers will merely provide assessments.

Grefe said that a positive development is that the videos will introduce kindergarten students to Spanish, whereas classroom instruction previously did not start until the first grade. DVDs for kindergarten and first grade feature a female instructor using puppets.

She acknowledged that the DVDs do not offer the same level of instruction that, until last June, was provided in person by teachers.

“It’s probably the second-best we can do,” Grefe said. “There’s never a substitute for a live person.”

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