Hello! Welcome to our first post of 2019! In this post, my goals are to reflect on the things that I learned in the past year from working with and for heritage learners and to explore some of the goals I have for working with and for these learners in the upcoming year. To start off, I know I’m late to the party of New Year’s blog posts, but I’m also trying to learn to unplug from school during breaks. I’ll also be honest and say that I originally intended to write my next post about takeaways from ACTFL, some of which I will include here. It didn’t happen. Life happened. I’m striving for a little more acceptance and a little less judgment, in all areas of my life, but especially professionally. So with that in mind, here it is, better late than never.
Things I learned this year
1. Don’t be afraid to share what you know.
I truly believe that as educators, we all have valuable information to share. When I started teaching my first heritage class eight years ago, I scoured the internet for blogs, websites, any information I could find from people who were in the same boat. And to be honest, I didn’t find much. I was craving some first-hand accounts of making these classes a success. I found research, but I wanted the practical. What were people doing in their classrooms? Even today, there still isn’t a lot out there from the trenches of heritage teaching. There is a space for your voice.
I know it is scary. It is a vulnerable thing to put your voice out there for possible scrutiny. Anyone who knows both Adrienne and me knows that Adrienne is the driving force behind the work we do. Every time she comes to me with a new project, I think “Am I qualified to do this?”, but I trust Adrienne and I do believe that we work well as a team, and so I take the plunge and we dive in. And every time we start brainstorming something new, the ideas just start to flow. Now, I’m lucky to work with Adrienne. She is a wealth of knowledge and is committed to learning more all the time. She’s also good at sharing what she knows in digestible ways. I often wonder what I have to add, but when we start working, things come out of my brain and my mouth that I took for granted or didn’t realize that I knew. When we finish a project, I often find myself saying, “I wish I had known all of this when I started teaching heritage.” I know more than I think I know and so do all of you.
Sharing what we know is not just valuable for the people that we share it with, it’s also valuable for us as educators and in turn, valuable for our students. Sharing information makes us reflect on our own learning. It makes us evaluate our practice and think about what is going well and what we can improve on. So if you’re not ready to present at a conference or run a workshop yet, start with reflection. Start with just one lesson you teach. What did you learn from teaching it? What about that unit you just finished? What would you keep and what would you do differently next time? Did you have a home-run lesson? Journal about it. Tell a colleague. Post about it in the Facebook group. Did you fall on your face? Talk about that too. What lessons did that failure hold for you? Keep track of what you are learning as a teacher. It is gold. And when you’re ready, branch out. Present at a local conference or even just to your department. Maybe you are brimming with information and you are ready to shout it from the rooftops. Do that. As educators, we are our own best resource
2. Be inspired, not overwhelmed.
As with everything, sharing also has two sides. We live in a world of hyper-sharing in our personal lives and in our professional lives, when we look at the education community as a whole. On the one hand, it is amazing to have all of this great information at our fingertips, but it can also be overwhelming. What I have had to learn this year is to not compare myself to other educators. In the back of my mind, I always have the Theodore Roosevelt quote “Comparison is the thief of joy.” It’s true, but how do we do that? I’ll give you an example. In an upcoming post you are going to read about Adrienne’s success with her narrative unit, which went amazingly well. Mine didn’t go as well this semester as I had hoped it would. I could get lost in comparing her success to my lack of success in that unit, or I could cheer her on. I could feel like I failed my students, or I could reflect on the amazing writing that I did see when I read their final narrative pieces. I can also look at her success and what I learned from my own unit and alter my course for next year. I’m learning to let myself be inspired without being overwhelmed.
Now for the more heritage-specific lessons.
3. Bilingual speakers are not two monolingual speakers in the same body.
This idea came from Dr. Diego Pascual y Cabo, Assistant Professor of Hispanic Linguistics and Director of the Spanish Heritage Language Program at the University of Florida, as he spoke on a panel on the history and current state of heritage language studies. So what does that mean for us as heritage educators? It means that we should not expect monolingual behaviors from our students. Since I started teaching heritage classes, I have been frustrated by teachers or others who criticized or undervalued the language that heritage students use in their daily lives and bring into the classroom with them. His comment got to the heart of the frustration I was not able to express. The sheer fact that our students are bilingual has effects on their language. So can we stop holding them to the same expectations as monolingual Spanish speakers? Bilingualism is something that we celebrate with our students. Let’s stop punishing them for it.
4. Heritage speakers are native speakers of their own dialects.
This also came from Dr. Diego Pascual y Cabo and was something I had to wrap my brain around. A few years ago Adrienne and I were able to go to a seminar on heritage language at Colorado State University where we learned about the idea of heritage dialects and academic dialects and how to value all of them and their roles in the lives of our students. Dr. Pascual y Cabo’s comments added another layer for me. I have been spending my time convincing people that native speakers and heritage speakers are two different things. Now I realize that what I really meant was that monolingual speakers and (bilingual) heritage speakers are not the same thing. I know it may seem like just titles or classification, but I think it matters. For many, “native speaker” is the gold standard for abilities in the language. When we fail to recognize our heritage speakers as native speakers, we could be doing them harm. So many of our students come into our classes with hangups about the language they speak and what they know or don’t know. Maybe helping them to recognize themselves as native speakers could have a positive impact on them.
Now, this wouldn’t be a New Year’s post if it didn’t include some goals for the upcoming year, so here are mine.
Goals for 2019
1. Practice what you preach.
Adrienne and I have been singing the praises of Units of Study for a while now. If you’re not familiar with Units of Study, it is a series for teaching reading and writing developed by Lucy Calkins and her team at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Basically, it is a step-by-step how to manual of how to teach reading and writing that is based on lots of research of best practices gleaned from observing successful teachers in the wild. For the past year and a half, we have been adapting the writing curriculum for our heritage classes. Basically, the book teaches us how to teach writing and then we just do what we learned in Spanish with our students.
If you are familiar with Units of Study, you know that it can be overwhelming. It’s dense and there is a lot of information. Adrienne and I have both seen success with the narrative units for our respective levels, and I have really enjoyed teaching it. Now it’s time for me to move on to the informational unit that is supposed to help me teach my students to write about reading and I am balking. I’ll be honest. Last year, I started it and then abandoned it and went back to teaching my second semester novel my own way. We still had a good semester, but I know that Units of Study is full of good stuff that could push them even further. So my goal is to just do it. Read the whole unit. Implement it and let Lucy work her magic. And now that I’ve written it here, I’ll be able to hold myself accountable. Look for upcoming blog posts on how it’s going.
2. Do some research.
After seeing what the Valley View School District was going in Romeoville, Illinois at ACTFL, I was inspired to see if our heritage classes are working. What kind of impact are they having on our students? How are we going to measure success? What kind of data can we pull? Adrienne and I have talked about reaching out to the guy who does statistics for the school district to see if he will help us, since neither of us are statisticians (though I think Adrienne could be). Some things I hope we are impacting are graduation rate and reading and writing scores in English. Those are the things that will keep our district supporting our program. Have you done any research like this? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
3. Don’t let the grading pile up.
Isn’t this always my goal? I haven’t mastered it yet. It’s especially important to me with my heritage classes, though. I seem to put their papers at the bottom of the stack because they are harder to grade and require more of my mental energy. That’s not fair. They deserve the same feedback as my other classes. So my goal is to get started right away when they turn something in, even if I don’t have time to finish it in one sitting. Having some graded is better than none and having started makes me less likely to sit on a stack of essays for two weeks, pretending like they don’t exist.
4. Explore race and being a white heritage teacher.
This is a big one, my friends. Do you like how I just snuck it in here at the end? It has been floating around in my head for a long time. As a white person, it is my responsibility to acknowledge my privilege and give up power wherever I can. How does that translate into my heritage classes? I certainly don’t have the answers, but it is my responsibility to seek them out and listen.
Okay, team. I think I’m ready to go back to work tomorrow. Thanks for going on this journey with me. I hope you are able to reflect on what you’ve learned and set your own goals for the year. I would love for you to share them with us in the comments or on Facebook.
– Mary Beth