Understanding How to Get Your “A”

I don’t know a single student who wouldn’t take an A if it were handed to him or her.

He or she might not feel proud about it, but if As were being handed out for free and he or she didn’t get one, there would be a natural reason to be upset.

I also don’t know a school that allows teachers to hand out As for free. Ds maybe, but not As. Perhaps your teacher is ancient enough that his or her grading method isn’t being inspected yet. You should still be aware that the bean counter mentality has taken over much of the education system and that lots of items that weren’t carefully examined in the past are now being picked up and over-studied by more than one person.

The short story?
Everything has to be measurable and there’s a lot of accountability. You can’t be given an A, so you’ll have to earn it. It’s going to cost you.

¿Cuánto cuesta?

When I was student teaching, I drove a ’91 T-bird to school. It was a nice car. Parking in the staff parking lot, however, I saw a lot of not so great looking cars. One teacher used hippie bumper stickers to cover up rust. We called her car the Peace Bomb.

The students, on the other hand, drove exceptionally nice cars. So, although I was initially shocked, I wasn’t totally surprised when one day during lunch a student approached a fellow Spanish teacher with checkbook in hand and asked, “How much is it going to cost?”

He wanted to pass. He thought money could do it.
I do not advise taking the above strategy unless you want to get expelled. Yes, earning an A will cost you. But don’t try money.

No. You’ve got to make deposits, significant ones, into the few core value categories that your school’s Language Department will defend to each other and that the bean counters can’t examine. That’s where your money needs to go. I’ll explain.

Which of these two is really measurable: accuracy or understanding?

Accuracy is the one that is defendable and definable. When parents and administrators want to see grades on tests, you have to remember that they are outsiders. Most can’t see what you understand, only how accurate you are. They can only see what you got right or wrong. They see the red. If you’re not accurate, you lack understanding. And that’s a good argument. So the burden, often hurled back at the teacher, is to make the student understand.

And that’s your main key toward the A. You have to relieve your teacher of the burden of proving that you understand.

¡No me conoces!

I have always told my classes, “I don’t know you. You have the opportunity right now to become someone new if you want to.”

You need to take that opportunity. Not to come up with a goofy name for yourself, but to shock your friends at who you are going to be. Suddenly, you’re getting As. It looks as if you “just get it.” You understand everything! How did that happen?

Lots of people will argue that “some people are just good with languages.” So, if you want that Spanish A, but feel awkward about the peer pressure you might get by becoming a student that earns it, use this argument and take the responsibility off yourself for being so smart. “Hey man, I just get it.”

Becoming el Zorro

This is not, however, the attitude you want to display to your teacher. It’s the message, but not the attitude. You understand, but not without any effort.

Effort is the visible, yet intangible proof that you are working at understanding. No one would give Donald Trump an A for sitting down in a class called How to Get Rich. He hasn’t learned anything from the class. He’s already rich. He hasn’t applied anything in class. All he did was sit down.

The same is true in Spanish class. If you walk in and just sit down, no A. Even if your work is highly accurate. Teachers have safeguards up in order to prevent cheating. And in language classes, the biggest safeguard is called Participation.

Participation is a category that you can’t leave blank. It is measurable. “Does he participate? How often does she raise her hand? Daily? Weekly? Never? Does he contribute to conversation?” Participation is measurable, but not tangible to the outsider. Teachers keep track of participation, but it remains subject to the observational time called “class.” Every bit of participation happens “in class.” This is the beginning of the ground that only you can defend. You can’t argue in your favor for a category that you haven’t deposited into. In fact, you don’t want to argue at all. You want your evidence to be overwhelmingly in your favor.

So you start by raising your hand and participating.

Most students worry about accuracy, thinking that if they get something wrong, they’ll lose points. I have never met a teacher who takes away points for making a mistake while participating. So don’t hesitate. Don’t worry about how you’re going to get through the sentence. Just open your mouth and be boldly wrong!!!

You must admit to yourself, to your teacher, and to your peers that you are not el Zorro. Not yet. Your Spanish blade is in training. You are going to make mistakes. Now, if your professor corrects you, restate whatever correction he or she made and keep going. That’s called hands on training. Don’t blow it off. Don’t say, “Yeah, that’s what I meant,” or ignore the correction. Most professors will let you make a few mistakes before jumping in if you show that you’ve got something to say.

So have something to say. Or at least be familiar with how to say what you’ve been given to practice. Start working on your pronunciation by reading the homework out loud to yourself. That way, when class comes, your mouth finds the words familiar. Do more. Find something in the homework to ask about. And then, at the right time, ask. That’s not just participation, that’s contribution to the class.

Héroe Status

Now it may take months, but you must train yourself to be a participant and not an observer in the classroom. Abandon your old persona. Shed any label you used to wear that would keep you from the A. As you increase your participation level, you increase your contribution to the class. Being able to say that students contribute to the class is a win-win-win for teachers, parents and administrators. And especially for you!

The evidence for your contribution is felt rather than measured. It is possibly reflected in the participation record you supply for the teacher, but it is argued for anecdotally. Stories of things you’ve said in class that have circulated among the staff, ways you encourage or help the student next to you, your positive attitude toward the work and the subject . . . These are silver coins in the bank. Now look closely and you’ll see that only one item of the three just mentioned demonstrates understanding: offering to help someone else. Yet all fall in the participation category. Coins that can’t be counted, but their weight can be felt.

The gold bars come when you become so comfortable with your performance level that you are better able to express yourself. Your performance and persona mix, making you a performance artist. You are able to craft what you want to say and deliver it with emotion. Feeling.

Enrique Iglesias wrote a song called Hero and performed it in English. Huge hit.

Yeah, but he’s already bilingual.

Ok. But his ability to communicate in English, with emotion, drove the song. One year, for a talent show, my class sang Hero and Héroe lyrics. In fact, the whole audience, nearly 700 people, sang along. It was concert like. Now, Héroe is the Spanish version. The lyrics make even less sense in Spanish, and some of the tenses don’t line up at all. Our crowd didn’t notice and didn’t care. They sang along with the emotion of the song and had a good time. When Enrique performed it, I guarantee you not one of his fans yelled back at him, “Hey there Enrique, your chorus and your verses make no sense! Your verb tenses are all screwed up! Moron!”

And I guarantee that’s how it’ll happen for you. Once you have established that you are truly trying to communicate, not just that you’re trying to talk, but that you have made the jump to being able to get feelings out through your Spanish . . . you are in! You’ve locked up a category! You may make mistakes, but your audience won’t care to correct you. You communicate!

And you’ve removed the teacher’s burden of trying to prove that you understand! You have internalized the language enough that deep down you’ve gotten to the level of emotional understanding. You’re not necessarily accurate, but you don’t have to be. You just need to continue to show that you are deepening your understanding.