It was a hot afternoon in Chinandega, Nicaragua the day I decided I wanted to be a Spanish teacher. Messy and sweaty children were trailing me down the dirt roads of an incredibly poor village called El Chonco, helping me carry shovels and water, and singing and dancing along the way. I turned around to see who else had joined us and at that moment I knew. Following me were two things I loved coming together, being with people and, as simple and complicated as it is all at once, the Spanish language, and I felt confident in that passion that became a dream that day. Since then, I have experienced both mountains and valleys in my journey through teacher education.
My first true experiences with languages, the ones I actually remember, are connected to the exchange students my parents hosted when I was much younger. When I was two years old, Sara, a high school student from Sweden, lived with my family for three years. Sara spoke multiple languages and it always fascinated me. When I was five years old, my parents adopted my brother, Jack, from Russia. In the months leading up to his adoption and the years that followed, I can remember practicing Russian alphabet books with my Grandma and even trying to teach Jack how to speak the language of his birthplace. While Jack did not have much interest in the language, I most certainly did. Babushka, the Russian word for Grandma, is the one I still remember to this day. After adopting Jack, Sara came back to visit and she brought along her best friend, Cristina, from Spain. While I was only little, and I don’t remember many details, I do remember the overwhelming feeling of just wanting more - I wanted to understand, wanted to respond, and wanted desperately to be a part of their world and their conversations in a way that I couldn’t at the time.
Later, when I was a sophomore in high school, Yannik came to stay with us from Germany, and in the summer that followed, I went to visit his family. During my junior year, my parents welcomed Kate, from Russia, into our home to help connect Jack to the culture and the world from which he came. Yannik and Kate connected me to language in a new way, in a way that invited me to encounter language, not just listen to it or speak it, but to live and experience it. Today, a poster hanging in my classroom quotes Rumi: “Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.” Through Kate and Yannik, I believe this idea, that the world is bigger and so far beyond what I know, came crashing into my life. I don’t know that I really understood this at the time. It seemed to me our native language was what separated us, but it was no big deal because other than that, we were the same. And while it’s true that we aren’t separated by much as humans, our native language, or our second or third languages for that matter, do seem to be the outward expression of who we are, which can seem simple, but it is really just the preface to the way others first experience where we come from and what really makes us.
I took Spanish all four years of high school, but it wasn’t really anything to write home about. In fact, I removed myself from Spanish 3 “Honors” during the first week of class. I liked Spanish just fine, it wasn’t incredibly difficult for me as it seemed a lot like memorizing vocabulary and working with formulas as we “removed the -ar, -er, or -ir endings of the verbs and correctly conjugated the verb based on the subject of the sentence.” My language learning experience in high school wasn’t dynamic, it never left the pages of the textbook and it did not seem possible to connect it to anything else going on in my life personally or otherwise. I think this is what made Nicaragua so incredible and shocking and moving for me. I loved the people I met so much. I loved the chance to participate in the Nicaraguan culture, language included. Suddenly, language was more than just a class in school. I remember feeling a bit of disappointment that I had seemingly wasted my high school Spanish career now that I had this new dream, but it was a mountain I was willing to climb! To the University of Dayton I went, as a duel-degree seeking student in Foreign Language Education and Spanish.
While at the University of Dayton, I remember feeling disappointed in some of my teacher education and language courses; Similar to my high school language classes, they seemed to counteract the authentic experiences and feelings I had had while living in Latin America. My courses focused more on the technical parts of the language, the grammar and structure, versus the relationships and culture, which were my initial motivations for this pursuit. As my Spanish developed and improved, my courses became more authentic, with an increased focused on the cultures of the Spanish language and the people speaking it. I recognized the importance of building a structural and grammatical understanding to fully participate and engage in the cultural and authentic side of language learning. I also began to understand the importance of building language and cultural proficiency simultaneously. Eventually, through the national language learning standards, I learned my idea of “proficiency in a language” and “authentic culture” are one and the same. In Spanish, there are two different verbs for “to know,” saber and conocer. Saber refers to knowing information, facts, how to do something, etc. Conocer means to be familiar with something or to know someone or something personally. I have learned that to be truly proficient in language, one must both saber the language, but also conocer that language, too.
Most of the content I seem to remember with regards to the process and theory of language acquisition was not learned in the teacher education program in which I majored, but instead the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification program I began during my third year in my undergrad program. The TESOL courses seemed to really challenge us to consider what it was like to be a language learner. We absorbed everything there was to know about all the major influencers in language education and acquisition, their individual theories, their thoughts on best and worst practices.
It was in one of my TESOL classes that the role of context and teaching language in context were introduced. We studied and came to understand that giving context for the language creates an environment that allows the brain to do what it typically does well and does subconsciously, make patterns and connections. I also remember learning about how the brain is able to link the new information or new material to the existing knowledge already stored which promotes and capitalizes on the ability to repeat or reproduce, important characteristics of communication. During college, I had an internship as an English teacher in an elementary school that served a large immigrant and refugee population. It was so easy to put language in context and simplify the material so as to make it accessible for the students. Those skills and realizations have transferred over to being a Spanish teacher, too.
While I know, generally, I am a young person, I seem even younger in the context of my professional career. I am currently in my fifth year of teaching, a first milestone, but in comparison to the other teachers in my department and school, five years is nothing! I mention this because the rate at which language acquisition theories and methods change and evolve has been one of the biggest curveballs to me since graduating. Even in my first five years, it seems language curriculum and teaching strategies have developed immensely. I have a lot of respect and admiration for teachers like my department chair, who is in her forty-second year of teaching, but who is constantly trying to adjust and adapt to best serve her students.
Our school has recently made the switch to Standards Based Grading (SBG), a system that requires us to report the grades of summative assessment only. We’ve been encouraged to implement the system into our own courses in a personal way over the past few years. For me, it has been both a good, new adventure and a really tricky one. It’s been good because, selfishly, it focuses less on grading busy work and more on giving authentic and honest feedback that does truly represent what the student is able to do. In the SBG system, I report the summative assessment grades my students earn based on each of the standards. As we started entering grades by standard instead of just “Test 1” or “Chapter 3,” I realized my coworkers had what seemed like hundreds of standards to teach, assess, and report. Even though I learned about the standards while studying in undergrad, I don’t feel like I truly understood them until diving into SBG.
As a language teacher, provided by ACTFL, I was surprised to re-learn there are just five standards, or, in ACTFL terms, “goal areas.” In my grade reporting, I focus on one standard, Communication, divided into three subsections, Interpretive Communication, Interpersonal Communication and Presentational Communication. This allows me so much freedom in the classroom to help my students be constantly evolving in their language proficiency and ability to communicate.
I believe language proficiency is a process of evolution, which is why I also have a hard time with Standards Based Grading in the language classroom. Not reporting formative assessment, or, “the everyday growth,” is hard for me as a facilitator of language evolution. The everyday participation, the everyday victories and even the everyday mess ups are what so help to develop the language in a way that I can feel my students’ comfortability and confidence with the language growing. I feel as though that deserves to be recognized and noted. To me, the grades my students earn on high stakes assessments cannot and should not be the only academic recognition they get for their Spanish ability.
Since the beginning of last school year, I have been working to find the space in the middle of that, creating frequent, authentic summative assessments. Though it seems obvious, I do have to remind myself that building language proficiency is an experience, and I have the tools and knowledge to make decisions in my classroom about what will be best for my students: For example, a vocabulary list, grammar presentation and test on conjugating the verbs from that vocabulary list, or an assessment in which they encounter the grammar focus with relevant vocabulary in the context of a story. While the story context does require more time and effort in grading and providing feedback, I always feel more confident in how my students are actually able to understand and communicate with the language. I know they feel that confidence, too.
Today, I am in my fifth year teaching. I am the Spanish 2 teacher at my school and have, over the course of these five years, used an online textbook curriculum, left it for a year to “try my own thing,” and this year, I’ve returned to the online textbook curriculum. I have sprinkled in teaching with novels, a Comprehensible Input (CI)-based approach, bits of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), and more. The online platform I use, Voces, combines different elements of language in context, language through stories, comprehensible input, and chapter-organized, old school grammar & vocabulary-focused content. To put it frankly, when I reflect on which style of teaching has worked best for me, how I feel about the curriculum I use, what I hope to see occur everyday in my classroom, what the reality is everyday in my classroom, and what I hope my students really gain after their year of Spanish 2, I feel a bit overwhelmed! While I don’t consider it a bad thing, it is definitely a challenge.
Last school year, I decided to “leave” the online platform. I left vocabulary lists and grammar presentations and topic-based chapter work. Generally, I followed the school’s curriculum overview for Spanish 2. There are certain grammar topics I am required to teach during the level 2, so I did teach those things, but tried to teach them in context. I was adopting a lot of ideas I had read about from other teachers, communicative activities like movie talk, class stories, two truths and a lie, task cards, and more. At some point, though, I became really overwhelmed and in trying so hard to give the language context for my students, it somehow ended up feeling random and misplaced at times. There was no real streamline process. It was kind of choppy. I’m not sure my students noticed, but I definitely did.
Halfway through the school year, we purchased SOMOS, a communicative and comprehension-based curriculum for language class by Martina Bex and her company, The Comprehensible Classroom. I joined the SOMOS Facebook group and was really excited to give the new curriculum a try. There were a lot of parts of it I really liked. I loved the practice activities. They were comprehensive, complete, and really seemed to both build confidence and challenge students in a variety of ways. SOMOS was done by unit-structured grammar topics with necessary vocabulary given at the beginning of the unit. I was taking the ideas shared by other teachers and implementing them in my classroom. While I am back to the online platform, Voces, this year, I am still using SOMOS as a supplementary resource to reinforce and practice with more, especially for the high frequency grammar structures and tenses. I use social media to see what other teachers are doing on a daily basis, constantly trying new things, adding new context for the language, trying to connect them to the language in real life, and building their confidence and comfortability with it.
What I’ve really come to love about the world of language education is the connectedness and community I’ve found on social media. This large, professional community of educators is inspiring, yes, but also incredibly helpful and collaborative. I have adapted so much of what and how I teach today based on what I see Allison Wienhold of Mis Class Locas or Meredith White, known as Señora Blanca, two of my personal favorite bloggers, doing with their classes. Again, it’s a double edged sword. As inspiring and exciting as it is to always have new ideas for activities to try in class, I also constantly feel the weight of comparing what my students are able to do or how I teach something to another superstar teacher because of what I they have posted on Twitter or in a Facebook group or what I read on a blog post. I believe this is just a part of being a teacher, the never-ending tug of wanting to be better for the young people sitting in our classrooms by giving them an experience of language and culture that is accessible, comprehensible, and enjoyable.
As I mentioned above, I first experienced language in this way on my service trip to Nicaragua. Encountering the language in a personal way challenged me to learn more, to put in the work, even when it felt defeating, to build language proficiency. I’ve had the privilege of traveling with my students to different parts of the world over the past few years and the chance to see them encounter the language, the culture, and the people that live both of those essential components has been as moving and energizing as one would expect. It challenges me to keep pushing them, helping them build connections and proficiency, and encouraging them to find their motivation to learn the language.
I am not a native speaker of Spanish, so I do feel I have walked in my students’ shoes. I work intentionally to keep my students engaged and present each class, with a variety of activities designed to reinforce material in order to move their language abilities from working to long term memory, constantly building and refining their proficiency. Some of my favorite moments since really taking a communicative, comprehensible input-based approach the past few years have been observing my students willingness to put themselves out there and try something new. As they become more comfortable just “going for it,” the energy changes, they are willing to laugh at their mistakes, take my scaffolding or feedback seriously, and do better the next time. Listening to the ways they use circumlocution to communicate what they want to with the more limited vocabulary they have is another ever-present display of their growing proficiency.
As I begin the MATL program at the University of Southern Mississippi, professionally, I look forward to earning the official qualifications that will allow me to teach upper-level, college-credit Spanish classes in a high school setting. More personally, I look forward to connecting and collaborating with other language teachers looking to extend themselves, as I am, so as to best serve our students and build culturally aware, prepared and competent speakers of language.