Friday, June 6, 2014

The Fate of Sisyphus: How SLOs Can Make Us Happy

By Gerhard Fischer

We must consider Sisyphus a happy man, concludes Albert Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. We all know the basic story: Sisyphus is condemned to push a boulder up a steep hill only to witness it rolling down again after reaching the top. The endless repetition of this task brings with it the image of a condemned man without hope. Camus disagrees. Sisyphus recognizes his absurd fate. This recognition and awareness of his struggle is enough to give him the strength to walk down the mountain again and again to tackle the task of pushing the boulder up yet one more time. Other, more commonly known interpretations of Sisyphus’ fate focus on the futility of the struggle and eventual hopelessness.

I don’t want to stretch comparisons with Sisyphus too far, but I like to see world language teachers happy even though it seems that we work in an environment that forces us to make the same arguments for the value of learning languages over and over again. I would like to say that we have finally pushed the boulder up the mountain where it will stay for good. But then I read comments from some less than enlightened individuals that make me cringe. Allow me to paraphrase one example: At the time I am writing this piece, controversy is swirling around the release of Owe Bergdahl, an American soldier, from long term captivity in the hands of the Taliban. Mr. Bergdahl’s father had not shaved his beard since his son was taken captive, and he had studied the Pashto language and the culture of those who held his son captive. He wanted to understand the environment his son was living in. Some politicians took offense at that. “That makes him look like a member of the Taliban!” was one indignant comment. But the worst offense in one politician’s opinion was the fact that Mr. Bergdahl used a few Arabic and Pashto phrases during President Obama’s announcement of the soldier’s release at the White House. He criticized Mr. Bergdahl for “speaking foreign languages, claiming it was part of a grand plan to claim the White House for Islam.”[i]

This is literally rock bottom for all of us who insist that our students need to know more about the world and learn world languages as their peers in most other countries do. But we are not deterred, we recognize the absurdity of such comments and keep doing our work.

The myth of Sisyphus may not not frame our work completely. We have reason to be happy because that boulder seems to rest at the top a bit longer every time we push it there. There is increasing recognition that world language learning is important. More and more schools are signing on to Wisconsin’s Global Education Achievement Certificate that requires a minimum of four years or learning a world language. What needs to happen to keep the boulder at the top of the mountain, though, is a change in cultural perceptions and supportive education environments.

Together we can help to make that happen. As we happily keep advancing the value of world language education, we can use the Educator Effectiveness Initiative and writing SLOs in our favor. Imagine this scenario:
  •  All SLOs are written in a proficiency based framework. They clearly articulate what our students will be able to do in their acquired language after several years of study. All students (and teachers) will be held accountable to their ability to communicate in another language.
  • Therefore all SLOs have to be grounded in standards-based instruction. The work that began with the publication of the ACTFL Standards and Proficiency Guidelines is now supported in each classroom by clearly articulated Student Learning Objectives.
  •  World Language Teachers use SLOs that are written in clear and jargon-free language to communicate the contribution of world language education not only to school administrators and the school board, but also to parents and the general public.
  •  Support for world language education grows in part because world language educators use proficiency-based SLOs in their work to create a school culture that regards learning other languages as essential for all students.
This is not a far-fetched scenario. We can all see writing SLOs as an opportunity to continue the good work of moving world language education from a purely academic exercise of analyzing grammar and memorizing words and phrases to the rewarding ability of communicating in more languages than one. This is the most important goal of our trade, as we all agree. This is the mountain top where Sisyphus can finally rest next to his boulder and escape his eternal damnation. But getting to this point requires an awareness of the nature of our daily job: We go into our classrooms to help our students learn to use their “new” language across all of our standards and in all modes of communication. We write SLOs to hold ourselves accountable for that goal and to let others know what our goals are. With all that in mind, we will continue to do our work happily. Imagine flipping the Sisyphus scenario. Imagine a cultural shift in our education environment that tosses the boulder to those who oppose world language education. I think we are almost at that point.