Monolinguals, those who only understand and speak one language, only have one lens with which to view the world.
These are the educators who will bring a new lens to our students. These are the educators who will give students the option to remain monolingual or not. They will open the doors to entirely new worlds and entirely new perspectives.
Why is that important? Why should you care?
According to the NEA, global competence is a “21st Century imperative.” The organization even states that the lack of foreign language instruction in the U.S. is a major weakness in our national security.
Language learning translates to higher scores on standardized tests.
Language learning benefits reading abilities.
Students who study languages other than English in high school will likely have more success in college.
Learning languages early improves cognitive abilities.
Bilingual children can former stronger scientific hypotheses and form them more quickly than monolingual children.
There are links between bilingualism and increased intelligence, enhanced memory, enhanced problem-solving skills, and decrease in age-related cognitive diseases.
Language learners develop empathy towards the target language culture.
Solid language programs build the skills of the potential employees within the community, thus strengthening the local economy.
Let’s be honest. It’s just really, really important. The list of reasons why you should care goes on and on and on!
I was fortunate enough to return this week to my alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. I was asked to speak to a group of future World Language teachers, a dream come true! The students sent me some questions beforehand, and man were they heavy hitters. As luck would have it, I spend approximately 64% of my time pondering these exact questions (that’s a lot of time to spend solely thinking about language, culture, language acquisition, and teaching, in case you were wondering). What follows are the questions, along with my responses.
-What are your most successful activities to teach grammar?
This is my favorite question! My answer is, “I don’t teach grammar.”
Ok, maybe that’s just my favorite answer. The full answer is that I don’t teach grammar until the end of the second year. Why? Because it isn’t necessary. In the first two years we are dealing with novices, and novices have no business worrying about accuracy. If we play our cards right, novices (for the most part) acquire grammar correctly in the first place. We do this by choosing target structures that are repeated (and repeated and repeated) in new and unique ways. We elicit corrections, and the novices acquire the correct structures without ever using a “verb chart.” 🤢 We build new structures based on the context of the structures the students have already acquired, and then repeat the process.
Besides, who speaks in “verb charts” 🤢 anyway? Moreover, why are the verb charts completely absent from national standards, and yet so many teachers still feel tied to them? As with everything else in the World Language classroom, you must let the ACTFL Can-Do Benchmarks and performance and proficiency guidelines be just that – your guide.
Now, there comes a time when your students will be ready to begin analyzing patterns in the language. I like to do this when they are headed into the intermediate level. And I do just that- present the “grammar” to them in a way that it is easy to analyze. Songs are an excellent way to do this. Find songs where a pattern is repeated, and let them come to their own consensus about what the repetitions mean. Then, sure, if you want to show them a “verb chart” 🤢 so they can begin to apply the pattern in their own ways, that’s fine (I actually do this, too).
-What do you think made you get the award of teacher of the year?
Who knows what was “the thing”? I have been told that after watching me teach, the committee unanimously voted on me. I think, or I hope, that my work outside of the classroom to promote and elevate the education of bilingual students had something to do with it. The sheer amount of successful programs that I started in my district hopefully played a role. Maybe my leadership roles in AFLTA, DKG, or with the Arkansas Biliteracy Award tipped the scales? Who knows. The truth is, it could have been any number of people where I am now. The most important thing is that it is me, and I am charged with the responsibility of making my students’ voices and their stories heard. Given my areas of expertise, I think the timing is just right for me, and I plan on fighting to make a better future for my “kids!”
-What does your classroom management look like?
It depends on which class and which day. In my lower level classes, I manage the classroom by way of the Organic World Language circle. Most of the “management” hinges on “noooooo inglés” with an appropriate gesture to match. Other management techniques are calls to attention. So much of the class hour revolves around students talking, and I don’t ever want them to think they are being punished for doing exactly what I’ve asked them to do: communicate.
Upper levels are an entirely different story. Upper levels are much too comfortable with me, and typically include a larger number of heritage speakers. For this reason, my upper level classes receive minimal teacher-centered instruction. If you walk in my classroom during an upper level course, you’ll hear a LOT of chatter. As long as it is in Spanish, then we’re doing ok.
-How do you set your rules/regulations in your classroom from day 1?
Our “rules” (aka “goals”) and procedures can all be found on the Organic World Language
website. Basically, setting the rules revolves around setting the clear expectation that we are going to have a ton of fun, but we are going to do it in Spanish. Period. Darcy Rogers, the founder of OWL, calls this the “warm demander.”
So, on the first day, I start of with giant name badges that read “¡HOLA! Me llamo______.” These are laminated so I can reuse them. I wear one with “Profe Cochran” written on it. I lie the name tags on a table by the door with dry erase markers. As students enter, I smile and point and say “nombre.” Students try to translate and I come at them with the smile and the “noooooo inglés,” with an appropriate gesture to match. The kids get the point really quickly. They are also shocked and befuddled at the emptiness- there are no chairs or desks. All of this works to my advantage in setting the expectations.
Now, all of this works well for non-Spanish-speakers. Heritage Spanish learners are entirely different. Because of their experiences and their heritage, my class is a huge outlet for them. My number one classroom management tool with these students is to get to know them immediately. We sit in a circle, chairs only, and just talk. We talk in Spanish, so they can see I’m not just any old “güera.” I immediately begin to try to dig in and figure out what makes them tick, because after all of this time I know that I will not get anywhere with these kids by “getting onto them.” Warnings won’t work, even discipline referrals are a lost cause. Contracts, behavior reflections, calls home- it’s the stuff comedy is made of. So I dig in to who they are as people. For example: I need to know immediately that Alex is close to dropping out of school to work on his rap album and “tour” with his musical partners. This is the only way I will be able to keep him from going to the bathroom for the last 15 minutes of every class period, every single day. And when Alex realizes I care about his music, he starts coming to school just to sit in my class.
-What strategies work best/have seen to work best to get student to speak the language in the classroom?
This all comes down to the affective filter. We play a lot of “games” (my sneaky way of “teaching” them), and we have a lot of fun, but truly when the student knows you care about them as a human and their passions, she is much more invested in what you are trying to sell. And if you want to get really technical, spontaneous pairings, made possible through the OWL circle, constant repetitions in novel settings, building on context, and frequent, targetl-language brain breaks all help to move students to Novice High fairly quickly.
-What did you do to write curriculum for SNHS? Did you start from scratch?
In a way, I did start from scratch, but I also built upon the shoulders of giants. Jeanette Arnhart, of the University of Arkansas, is the one person who helped shape my vision of what heritage learning should be. I knew that in the first year we would be exploring and celebrating personal identity and everything related to it. In the second year we would examine how personal identity connects to the community and the world. The key for these classes, in my opinion, is to get students to celebrate their heritage instead of trying to escape it. These students are fragile in that, when they shed their families’ language and culture, they lose a source of identity, a group with which to identify. This division creates a real psychological crisis that is detrimental to the development of the adolescent. The juveniles who choose to join gangs or end up in detention centers are often there because they don’t know who they are. They can’t understand their grandmothers when they tell stories of their homeland, and they can’t have deep philosophical discussions with their parents on the meaning of life. In my heritage learners classes, I want those family conversations to come back to life.
-Do you do OWL learning in your SNHS classes? If so, how is it different than regular OWL classes?
OWL actually does come in handy for discussions. We stand in a circle and pair up, then we switch partners in a way that allows everyone to talk to everyone else. Because it isn’t me standing over them while they sit at tables and just pretend they don’t understand the question, it works a lot better than, well, that. The only thing that really differs from other OWL classes is the level of the questions and the length of time allowed for discussion. Novices need only around 10-30 seconds to answer a prompt, whereas heritage learners can discuss for upwards of two minutes.
-What has been your biggest struggle when working with native speakers?
I get the feeling that the person who asked this question understands what a challenge it can be! Everything I have mentioned previously presents a unique challenge when working with heritage learners (note: native speaker = born/educated in homeland; heritage learner = language passed down/spoken at home). A vibrant, social culture leads to the inability to have a teacher-centered classroom. Psychological trauma from an inability to communicate with family leads to a disinterest in education. But at the end of the day, probably the biggest struggle is to get my students to understand that the language they *do* speak, however limited or intertwined with English it may be, is just right. I tell them all of the time that “proper language is the language of the oppressor.” Dialectical tendencies are not right or wrong, they are just a deviation from the standard. I have boys in my sixth hour class right now who argue with me nearly every other day about the quality of the Spanish they speak. They’re a little embarrassed to read or discuss aloud. They say, “but Miss, this is proper Spanish and our language is IMPROPER!” So we spend a lot of time talking about registers, and what it means to change registers according to the group of people you are with. And I allow a lot of English in my Spanish I for heritage learners course. Why not celebrate bilingualism instead of shunning it?
-What are some tips you can give on teaching native speakers with non-native speakers?
Find Jeanette Arnhart and pick her brain about native speakers. You cannot possibly do that soon enough. Beyond that, heritage learners should never, ever, ever, ever, ever be placed in a course with non-heritage learners. A non-heritage learner course is a language acquisition course. Heritage learners, clearly, have already acquired the language. If this does happen, you have no other choice but to put them in an independent study all by themselves, and that is never a healthy way to “learn.” If your administration puts you in this position, you should find advocates who will help you push through the right coursework to benefit the heritage learners. It’s a matter of equity, really. Title III should be enough of a persuasion for administrators to offer your heritage learners equivalent course offerings as their monolingual counterparts.
I hope our learning experience helps you in your classroom, your school, or just in a general understanding about the inner workings of a World Language classroom!