Thursday, October 22, 2009

Leif "Most Improved in Spanish" - Antilles High School - May 1991 - Age 16

Leif was able to grasp things so quickly that he thought he didn't need to study, and for most classes, he didn't. Because of that, he could be a lazy student. He didn't take notes and he didn't do homework. He didn't study. He was usually able to learn everything he needed to succeed in a class by listening in class.

There were two glaring exceptions and he never really learned to deal with them. They were foreign languages and math. The problem he had with math was that he could quite clearly understand the concepts when the teacher was demonstrating them, but since he didn't do the homework or study, when it came time to take a test, he couldn't remember the method of solving an algebraic equation, for instance, or a formula he should have memorized.

With language, it was the drudgery of memorizing vocabulary and things like verb conjugations, the bugaboos of most foreign language students. It was clear that Leif had an aptitude for foreign language learning as he learned German amazingly fast when he lived in the German village of Sachsen bei Ansbach, where he played with German children and went to a German Kindergarten. It was truly learning by "immersion," and he caught on quickly and in four months sounded like any German child in town.

However, learning a language in less than a hour a day in class is quite another matter and requires a lot of study, which Leif was not willing to do. Just as he did with math, he could understand what was being said or taught in class, but when it came time for him to reproduce it in a conversation, presentation or test, he wasn't able to do it.

Leif didn't care a lot about grades. He said he'd rather "have a life." He aimed for a B average because that's what he had to have if we were going to let him drive and pay for car insurance. He could have been a straight A student with a couple of hours a day of effort, but he wasn't willing to put that in. Most of his academic career he was pretty good at hitting his mark with the B average, but when it came to Spanish and math, he miscalculated what he could get away with.

I wasn't successful at convincing him to take notes or to study, and his grades in both subjects fell when he was a sophomore in high school. I was shocked when I got notices from his teachers that he was in danger of failing both subjects. It was clear that he wasn't going to be able to change his lackadaisical ways enough to bring the grades up without help.

So, I insisted that he sit down with me every evening after dinner and do his math and Spanish homework with me as a tutor. He wasn't happy about it, hated doing it, and complained plenty, but he did it. I made sure he did very bit of it and quite often I had to relearn it myself to be able to explain things to him. All those years since I had taken second year algebra were a definite handicap, but we made it. The Spanish came a lot easier to me, as I had once been fluent in Spanish and it came back more easily.

The result was that by the time the report cards came out, Leif had brought both grades up to a B. By the end of the school year, he got an award from his teacher, Mrs. Dent, for being "most improved in Spanish." He continued to get decent grades in Spanish the next year as a junior, but I continued to have to push him to study every night.

What surprised me was that he didn't pick up more of it from his environment in Puerto Rico. Although the classes at Antilles High School were all taught in English, most of the students there were Puerto Rican and spoke Spanish among themselves when they were out of class. I guess maybe enough of Leif's friends were from the US mainland and his Puerto Rican friends all spoke English that he didn't have to learn it.

Unfortunately for Leif, he didn't take Spanish his senior year at Manhattan High School and by the time to started taking it to satisfy his language requirement in college, he had forgotten nearly all of it and had to start over. He decided maybe German would come easier to him since he had once been so fluent in it (way back when he was five years old!), so he took German instead. This was not a good choice. He didn't remember it, and German proved far more difficult for him than Spanish. I spent a lot of evenings tutoring him so that he could get a decent grade in German. After one semester of struggling, he went back to Spanish, which still required a lot more work than he (or I) wanted to put in, but was easier for him than German.

Some people said I should have just let him fail those classes, that it would have "taught him a lesson" and that he would have "learned what he had to do" to pass. I disagreed with them and I still do. I disagree with any parent who makes that choice, because most kids that age don't realize how important their academic record is to their future, and kids like Leif simply didn't have either the self discipline, the desire, or most importantly, the right study skills, to succeed if left on their own.

It's critical not to do any of the work for them, but tutoring and teaching them, and forcing them to do the work provides several valuable lessons in addition to getting the schoolwork done and the grades raised. First, it shows the parent's commitment to the child's success and their future. It shows that the parent is not going to accept poor grades or failing work. It shows that the parent is willing to invest time and effort to help the child succeed.

Second, it teaches the skills the child needs to learn. These include HOW to study; the methods that work in order to not only learn but retain the concepts, words, etc., or memorize material that can't be learned any other way like language vocabulary or math formulas. It includes learning to sit down and spend an extended period of time slaving away at it. It includes the lesson that sometimes the only way to accomplish a task involves real work and that you can't get away with sloughing off . . . that even if you want to, your parent won't let you.

It did take a lot of my time. I'm glad I did it.

Bravo to Leif for being the "most improved in Spanish" in May 1991. The photo was taken at the Antilles High School awards night on Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. Leif was sixteen years old.

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