How to navigate the beginning of the year when students are placed in the wrong classes.
One of my favorite things about summer is Sundays. I love the feeling of a Sunday when there is no school the next day. No last-minute lesson plans to finish or papers to grade. No nightmares about the copier being broken when you get to school and having to wing it with all of your classes. The relaxation I feel on Sundays in the summer is pure bliss.
My last blissful Sunday of the year was last Sunday. We teachers went back to the grind on Tuesday in my district. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but that first alarm clock is brutal, whether you love you job or not. The week that followed was a whirlwind. With more meetings than actual work time, it felt like we got to the end of the week and I wasn’t sure which end was up.
One of the curve balls that came my way this week was the realization that the schedule corrections we had asked for from our counseling department at the end of the last school year hadn’t happened. It was an honest mistake, as the email had gotten looked over in a sea of others, but it was stressful to start checking and rechecking rosters to make sure all of our students are placed correctly before the school year starts. I personally hate to tell a kid they are in the wrong class on the first day of school. I want to focus all of my energy on making them feel welcome, not kicking them out!
At our school, we go through a pretty extensive process to make sure that our students are registered for the right courses from the get-go. Watch for a post in the spring about what we do to avoid all the issues that you are going to read about in this post. But even with all the lengths we go to and the checking and rechecking, last Friday when the freshmen ran through their schedule for the first time, there were heritage students in Spanish 1 and Spanish 2 that we had somehow missed.
So what do we do now?
If the student hasn’t crossed the threshold of your classroom yet, then do everything you can to have them placed properly before that happens. Take the time to check your rosters thoroughly. Our teacher portal shows us the student’s home language and course history. Check those if you can. I typically go through all of my rosters (heritage and non-heritage) and look at each student’s course history to make sure that they passed the previous course. I know it may sound like overkill, but I can usually go through my five sections in less than an hour and it saves me so many headaches down the road. Use this as an information gathering tool. If a student’s home language is listed as Spanish, then check their course history to see if they have had other Spanish classes before. If so, were they traditional language acquisition classes or heritage classes? Even if they have been in traditional language acquisition classes, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was a good fit. Contact the student’s counselor to see if they know the student personally and get their feedback. Call their parents if you can. Present the class as a unique opportunity that your school is providing for their student and students like them. Ask them if they think it would be a good fit for their student. Many parents are happy to hear that you are being proactive and looking out for their child’s unique needs.
If it’s too late to make any changes to student schedules, try to scan your rosters ahead of time and make a mental note of the students that you want to keep on your radar. Seek them out and make them feel welcome. Go through your normal first day routine and try to leave some time at the end of class to talk to the student or students one-on-one. Ask some questions about their impressions of the class. Speak to them in Spanish and see how they respond. If it becomes clear to you that they are in fact, a heritage speaker, then tell them how much you would love to have them in class, but that you don’t think it would be fair to them. This class isn’t going to meet their needs, they are going to be bored, etc. Phrase it however you want, but make it clear to them that you aren’t kicking them out. You are offering them something better.
Dealing with Push-Back
In a perfect world, that student would skip happily off to counseling to change his or her schedule and that would be the end of it. But we all know that isn’t always reality. We may face push-back from the students, the counselors or even the parents. So let’s look at some of the possible scenarios and ways to respond.
There are usually two lines of arguments that come with push-back over placing a student in a heritage class – I like to call them “the easy A” and the “it’s too hard”.
Let’s talk about the easy A first. From a student perspective, this is a no-brainer. Why would they want to go into a class that is going to challenge them if they could skate through Spanish 1 or 2? Let me add a caveat by saying that these students are few and far between in my experience. Most of my heritage learners are proud of their Spanish skills and would be insulted to be put in a class with students who are learning Spanish for the first time. But those are not the students who will be giving you push-back. They skipped happily off to counseling to change their schedules. We are talking about the students who may struggle in school or don’t feel confident in their Spanish skills. They are the ones who may be looking for an easy A, or an easy C for that matter. From a counseling or parent perspective, sometimes this argument may be used as a means to bump a student’s GPA or lighten their academic load, especially if the student is struggling academically.
So how do we combat this argument? First of all, we know that speaking Spanish does not always guarantee that a student will automatically get an A in a language acquisition class, especially if that class is grammar driven. However, saying that outright to a counselor, parent, or student may be damaging. It may come across as saying that they student is not smart enough to pass what they have already deemed an “easy” class. That is not our goal at all. We teach heritage classes because we want to build our students’ self confidence in the language, not tear it down. A more effective argument may be to turn the tables. Remind the party pushing back that we do not allow native English speakers to take classes designed for English language learners just because it would be an “easy A” for them. It wouldn’t meet their needs and it wouldn’t be fair to the English language learners. It’s the same situation when we put a native or heritage Spanish speaker in a language acquisition class. It’s a class designed for people who are learning the language, not people who already speak it.
Now let’s look at the “it’s too hard” argument. Some students balk when they hear that our heritage classes work on reading and writing skills. Many students will say, “But Miss, I can’t read or write in Spanish.” Usually this isn’t true. If they read and write in English and speak Spanish, they can usually read and write in Spanish, they just may not have done it before or have much experience with it. We tell them that they are in luck because that what our heritage classes are for – to teach them how to read and write in Spanish. At this point I also use the free college credits and seal of biliteracy on their diplomas as carrots as well. If they are still hesitant, I ask them to just try it. We can always change their schedule back if it doesn’t work out. Then I take them and introduce them to their heritage teacher myself. Hopefully there are a couple of students they know in the heritage class and they will jump right in.
What if the heritage class they need won’t fit with their schedule or is full? There’s always the option of waiting until the following year and signing up for a heritage class to begin with. This may not be a popular choice, but I think it’s one that should be delicately presented before we leave the student in a class that is not designed to meet their needs. If all other options have been exhausted and the student stays, then work together with the student, parents, and counselor to come up with a plan to meet their needs as best you can within a traditional language acquisition classroom. Then let it go. Love that kid. Let them know they are a vitally important member of your class. When it is time to sign up for classes for next year, you will have the kind of relationship with them and their parents that lets them know that you always have their best interests at heart. And when you recommend that they try a heritage class, I bet they will listen.
Even still, I will confess that I have allowed heritage students to stay in my language acquisition classes, especially in the upper levels. Language is so closely linked to our identity that it can be an emotional thing. I have had students that had emotional blocks around speaking their heritage language. I have had others that for whatever reason, were rejecting their roots and that meant their language too. Those students need support too. And sometimes it means staying right where they are. Was staying in a language acquisition class the best for them linguistically? Nope. Was it the best thing for them emotionally or socially? Maybe. It’s a tough call to make and one you shouldn’t have to make alone. Maybe I should have pushed them, maybe not. In the end, we teach humans and humans are complicated. There are no easy answers. All we can do is be there for our students as best we can with the knowledge, experience, resources, and intuition we have been given.
So as we trade in our summer Sundays for the worries and trepidation of the school year, sometimes we have to take a deep breath and trust that it will all be ok. Treat this Sunday as a summer Sunday and start fresh again Monday morning.
All the best to you and your students as you embark on this new school year!