When I was in high school, my best friend came back from driver’s ed one day raving about what they got to do that day. Our school had a number of cars bought exclusively for driver’s ed, but as a result they spent the vast majority of their time driving around the small lot and even when they got on the streets they rarely went above 25 mph. My friend told me that only driving the cars slowly all the time was potentially damaging to the cars, so they were asked to take the cars out on the highway and redline the engines: downshift the car into a lower gear and rev the engine as high as it would go for awhile so the engine would be under a strain which it needed to simulate more traditional driving conditions.
Personally, I’ve never had the automotive wisdom of this practice confirmed to me by any mechanic, and today I question the wisdom of letting a bunch of high schoolers who are still learning to point a half-ton projectile loose on the interstate. But this converstion occured to me today when I was teaching my seventh graders and things started getting antsy.
We had been working our way through questionairres and things had gotten pretty easy for them. One of the great blessings of TPRS is that it gives students instant success, but in a middle school/high school setting the confidence spawned by that success quickly turns to “This is easy enough it doesn’t really need my full attention. I’ll do the minimum and spend my remaining effort amusing myself (and that often at my neighbor’s expense).”
This is why I think the practice of Diktats (or Dictees or Dictados or whatever you call it in your language), where the students have to try and tackle output and figure out spelling conventions,works so well. It takes those students who have gotten too overconfident puttering around our little classroom driving ranges and allows them to redline their enginges for a bit. Students need a safe environment, but they also need a chance to be pushed and fail within that safe environment.
So today on our seventh grade German driving range, the focus just was not there. My kids were happy to be in their CI cars puttering around, but some were preferring to rear-end each other, others were doing donuts, and we weren’t all driving in the same direction. I couldn’t even get the signs out for the target phrases without herding cats.
So I switched gears and dropped them into a Diktat. I usually won’t do that on a Monday, but they needed to be pushed and redline those brains of theirs for a few minutes. Vroom. Stress levels go up a bit. “Am I doing this right? How do you spell that?” We redlined their linguistic skills for about five minutes and then dropped back to regular levels. “Hey, I only missed a few.” “That’s wierd.” “I think that German spelling makes more sense than English.”
The focus returned (or more acurately stated: made its first appearance of the day), and we hummed along for the rest of the class period. Vroom Vroom.