I can’t believe that it is October already! Fall is in full swing and we have officially arrived at the mid-semester mark. I like that we have the division between quarters in my school. It gives us all a chance to pause, reflect, and evaluate how the semester is going so far, which brought me to my idea for today’s post.
Doing this work, Adrienne and I come into contact with so many teachers who face the struggles of teaching mixed classes – classes with a mix of language acquisition learners and heritage learners. While we are lucky enough to teach in a school with a heritage program, sometimes we end up with learners who don’t seem to fit into either track. In this post, I want to tell you about a student that I have the honor of teaching this year. He’s not your typical heritage learner, but he’s not your typical language acquisition learner either. In this post, I hope to do some reflection on this student, his needs, and how learning to teach him has made me a more effective teacher for all my students.
Actually, his name isn’t really Ezequiel, but that’s what we will call him here to protect his privacy. Y’all, this kid. He is precious. He smiles easily, tries hard, and doesn’t give up. He takes pride in his work. When I asked him what he wished his teachers knew about him at the beginning of the year, he told me about his music (he plays the piano) and that we should come hear him play some time. In short, es un amor de persona.
Ezequiel is from Guatemala. His first language is not Spanish, but Mam, a Mayan language spoken in the northern part of Guatemala and the southern part of Mexico. He speaks Spanish and understands when it is spoken to him. We haven’t quite gotten all the details on his educational background, but our best guess is that he finished second grade in Guatemala. He is sixteen now, but he came to us last spring as a fifteen-year-old. Counseling followed our established trajectory and placed him in the newcomer English program and the first level of our Spanish Literacy program, since Spanish was listed as his home language. His Spanish Literacy teacher spent the rest of the semester teaching him how to be a student – how to use his laptop, how to understand the bell schedule, etc. While this was beneficial for him, the class itself wasn’t the best fit for him academically.
A caveat about our program
Our program is still a work in progress. I would love to see us redesign our first level to make it a more welcoming place for students with limited reading and writing abilities. Right now, our first level class is the one with the widest range of abilities. In that class, there are true heritage learners who have been educated primarily in English, but who speak and/or hear Spanish at home. They come with their own wide range of ability, exposure, and confidence levels with the language. Now add our newcomer population to that mix, who also come with their own range of ability levels and experience with the education systems in their home countries. Needless to say, it is a challenge, but a worthy one.
Up until now, we have placed newcomers in that first level so that they can be in a Spanish Literacy class for all four years of high school. Now, we are seeing that is not always the best fit. We need to place students by ability level. For now, we have added a Spanish writing sample to our newcomer intake packet so that we can see which level would truly best suit their needs. A student who was in la preparatoria last week in Mexico shouldn’t go into our first level class and a student who comes with limited educational background in Spanish shouldn’t be told that they don’t have enough Spanish to be in a Spanish Literacy class. Taking a writing sample seems like a no-brainer, and I am kicking myself for not thinking of it sooner, but in the spirit of honesty, I didn’t. We teach, we learn, we get better. I’m sure there is more we could be doing to help with correct placement, like some type of leveled reading comprehension assessment. I hope we can incorporate that as well, but sometimes teaching means finding the fix that is “good enough” for the moment and re-evaluating later. So here’s your daily dose of permission to do your best in the moment without judgment.
So, these changes to our placement process will help our students in the future, but what about this year? My colleague that teaches that class is doing his best, but our set-up leaves students like Ezequiel in the dust.
Back to Ezequiel
Fast forward to this year. Ezequiel is placed in my Spanish 2 language acquisition course. I thought I did my due diligence. I checked his home language, consulted his ELD (English Language Development) teachers, talked with his Spanish Literacy teacher from last year, and we all determined that this placement is the best thing for him for this year. We did question whether he should be in a Spanish class at all, given that his first language is Mam and he is trying to learn English at the same time. In the end, he needed to fill his schedule and after a day full of classes in English, a class where the language is familiar to him seemed like a good idea.
Reflecting on this process, the gaping hole I see is that we didn’t just sit down and talk with the kid. Does he want to be in a Spanish class? What are his goals? Would he rather be in a class with Spanish-speaking classmates or English-speaking classmates? How did he feel in his Spanish Literacy class last year? We didn’t consider the whole kid. It’s hard to be in classes where you are the different one all day long. Maybe he like to be in a class with students who look a little more like him. Or maybe he felt uncomfortable about being in a class where everyone looked more like him but came from wildly different backgrounds and had more language skills than him. Or maybe he had a totally different opinion altogether. The bottom line is that I don’t know because I didn’t ask him. I have to own that and I have to do better.
What I am learning
In the meantime, Ezequiel has been in my Spanish 2 class for a quarter now, and I have learned so many things from teaching him. I have had some successes and failures that have turned into the learnings that I would like to share with you here. Hopefully it will be helpful to some of you.
1. Think critically about the amount of English you are using in class.
Duh! Y’all, I am embarrassed to put that on the list, but it was something I had to be reminded of. Luckily for me, I made the switch to CI in my Spanish acquisition classes three years ago, so we are able to stay in Spanish 90% of the time, even in Spanish 2. But the beginning of the year was still a beast. I didn’t realize how much I was relying on English to set-up my routines. All of my beginning of the year information is in English – from the first day interest inventory, to the syllabus, to all the PowerPoints of rules and procedures. And we spent a lot of time going over all of them in English. The poor kid was lost! He came here as a newcomer last May! And I am a language teacher! I should have known better.
If I could go back in time, there is a lot I would do differently, obviously. First, I would evaluate how I could do more of the set-up of routines in comprehensible Spanish. Duh. It would be good for all of my students and set the tone for the year. For things that I have to explain in English to my other students, I could give him an alternative activity to do so he doesn’t just have to sit there and listen to English. Then, I could explain to him one-on-one in Spanish later. Second, I would translate all of the informational handouts. I know it may seem like double the work, but I’m not in my first years of teaching anymore when I had to re-write my syllabus every year. I have a syllabus that I like. I just need to translate it.
Going forward, I have learned to look at each of my lessons more carefully. What am I asking students to do in English? What could they all do in Spanish? What should I keep in English for the rest of the class, but translate for Ezequiel? For example, in Spanish 2, we read a class novel. I used to give a comprehension quiz in English after each chapter. Now they all take a True/False quiz in Spanish . It’s more input for my English-speakers, Ezequiel can do the same activity as everyone else, and I get all the information I need. Sometimes, I have my students do a quick process writing in English after they listen to a lot of Spanish to help their brains make sense of what they have just heard and for me to check their comprehension. Obviously, Ezequiel does these in Spanish. Sometimes, it just takes a small tweak here or there to make a lesson applicable for him.
2. Pair aural and written language as much as possible.
This is another one that should have been obvious for me as a language teacher. Every time that a student can see and hear a word, it doubles the impact. Even in my upper level heritage class, when we read Como agua para chocolate, we listen to the audio book. When I work on my own acquisition, I watch TV shows in Spanish with the Spanish subtitles on. It’s good for all students.
With Ezequiel, I didn’t realize how much he was relying on the aural language he was hearing in class. He aced the quizzes on the chapters of the book where we listened to the audio and read along. Then when I gave everyone a practice test on a chapter to work on independently, he struggled. What changed? The audio. He needed to hear it too. And he’s not just listening, he’s following along. I’ve watched him. This is so good for him. Making the connection between the auditory language he knows and the words on the page is key. So when we took the actual test on the next chapter, I played the audio for him while he read along and he did much better, but still not as well as I had hoped. What was missing? He was having trouble reading the questions. I’m going to have him come in next week and read them out loud with him.
I’m also going to have him start listening to audio books during FVR starting next week. Luckily, we have the audio books for all of the class sets we use in levels 1-3. I’m planning to start with those, but if I didn’t have those, I would try reading out loud with him during FVR. We could all try reading buddies for FVR. That could work in a language acquisition class or a heritage class.
3. Consider the background knowledge required around how to “do school”.
This has come up several different times. The first time was when I thought I was doing the right thing by switching to Spanish only true/false quizzes. The first time I gave one, I explained the instructions in Spanish. I wanted students to listen to what I was saying and just write cierto or falso on their papers for each statement. When I got Ezequiel’s paper, he had just written down the sentences that I said out loud. When I talked to him at the beginning of the next class, it became clear that he was not familiar with the concept of a true/false quiz and had likely never taken one before. After I explained and rephrased several different times, he said, “¿Cómo sí o no?” He got it! For some reason, asking him if each sentence was correct or not and having him write “sí” or “no” made sense to him. Now we do all of those quizzes that way.
It happened again on our first test. I thought I was on the right track. I wrote a Spanish version of the test for him. I changed the comprehension section to sí/no questions. As an IB school, we also have to include questions on the author’s choices (like text features) and opinions and connections based on the text. I explained those sections to him verbally, thinking we were on the right track, but when I got his test back, I realized that we weren’t. For the opinion section, he had copied lines from the chapter, when what I really wanted was his own thoughts on what he had read. Part of that might have been avoided by pairing the aural and written language, like I mentioned in the last section, but I think there is more to it. We have to teach students to go beyond the concrete and to make connections with a text. Most of my other students were used to doing that in English, so it was easy for them to transfer that skill to Spanish. But after a long time away from school, that is a concept that is new for Ezequiel. So next week, when I sit down with him one-on-one to read the questions with him, I can explain that concept as well, and talk to him about it.
Thank you for hanging with me for this long post. I know that Ezequiel’s situation may be unique, but as we have more and more migrant families and even unaccompanied minors coming to us from Central America, it may not be as unique as I think. I would love to get your feedback on this post. Was it helpful? Are you in this situation? Do you have suggestions for me or others who are? Do you want to hear more about how it goes throughout the year? Please let me know in the comments. Also, the blog post linked above that describes CI is one of the best overviews I’ve seen. I couldn’t seem to find an author attached, but I would love to give them credit if anyone knows who wrote it.
I hope you are getting to enjoy some fall weather wherever you are and that you are able to take some time and reflect on your own practice as well.