When a conference is more than a conference (Reflections on MCTLC 19)

Hi friends! I hope this post finds you well! I am trying to make up for lost time, so please forgive the blog posts so close together! Mary Beth and I are starting to look forward to ACTFL in a few weeks (eek!!), and I’m trying to make sure that I capture all my thoughts about MCTLC before my brain starts to fill with new takeaways at another conference!

A few weeks ago, Mary Beth and I were invited to present a half day workshop at the Minnesota Council for Teaching Language and Culture conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it was awesome! Seriously. We have been to lots of conferences, but let me tell you friends, this one was SPECIAL. I’m so excited to take a few minutes and talk about the highlights!

The most exciting thing, to me, about this conference is that they have entire tracks dedicated to some unique strands of language teaching, including elementary teachers, assessment, and…heritage teaching! I know that there are several conferences and workshops for heritage teachers available, but when you think about typical state conferences…I don’t know of any other statewide conferences that have this unique option. What this means is that you could go for a solid two days and attend only heritage sessions! I spent some time talking to Grant Boulanger, who is one of my professional heroes and is \the current president of MCTLC, and I realized that this conference is quickly becoming a destination conference for many types of teachers, including heritage teachers. If you are a new(er) heritage teacher, I would genuinely encourage you to consider attending this conference in the future.

In addition, there are some really, really cool things happening in Minnesota with regard to heritage language teaching. In our workshop, I met a man who is teaching the very first year of a Smoli heritage language program. So cool! In addition, MCTLC honored their Minnesota Teacher of the Year at the conference, and it was Pang Yang, who I was lucky enough to meet briefly while we were there. Pang Yang and her team have launched a very successful (and I believe first of its kind) Hmong heritage language program in a Minneapolis suburb. The program is in its third year, and is impressive! Numerous articles and pieces have been published about Pang Yang and her phenomenal program, including this one from MPR, this one in the Star Tribune, and this one from her school district. I believe they are even considering two heritage tracks next year, with one exclusively for the Hmong heritage teachers and one for other heritage teachers. It’s really exciting to observe their commitment to training Hmong heritage teachers and supporting new Hmong programs. Inspiring, and humbling.

As heritage teachers, we live in this funny world where there are usually very few teachers with which we can collaborate in our immediate surroundings, so we end up making lots of connections with other teachers online. One of the things I was most excited about was being able to finally meet a few of the people I had been connecting with online and had felt so much on the same page with for…years! I was super excited to meet the amazing Jenna Cushing-Leubner (FINALLY), who is an amazing force for good in the heritage world! It’s so nice to have someone in higher education that is connected to what’s actually happening in secondary classrooms, and who’s committed to quality training for heritage teachers. In the words of a colleague, “Jenna singlehandedly designed this heritage language track at MCTLC, and made it happen!” Jenna is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater…and also one of the most humble, down to earth people I know! Not only is she the driving force behind the heritage strand at MCTLC, she is also the one in charge of the five day heritage training from CARLA in Minnesota every summer, as well as the one that coordinates several online heritage classes (the Certificate in Heritage Language Education) through the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater every year. When Pang Yang gave her acceptance speech for Teacher of the Year, Jenna was on her short list for helping her program be the thriving, growing program that it is. Needless to say, I was thrilled to meet her! And…she’ll be at ACTFL! If you are going, you can see her presentation on Saturday at 1:30, “Critical Late-access Bilingual Education: A Heritage Language Framework.”

I also super excited to finally meet my dear friend and colleague, Jen Maddeus Lopez. We have been chatting online and collaborating from afar for the last year or so, as we both started to adopt and adapt the workshop model in our heritage classes. It was like meeting an old friend!! I’m so thrilled we got to hang out and that we are actually “real life” friends now 🙂 Jen did a phenomenal job presenting live, in person, for the first time! (She also presented at the online conference, Spanish Teacher Success Academy last year!) It was really cool to hear Jen’s presentation because I feel like we are doing so much of the same stuff, but with different curriculum. I think it’s cool for people to hear that workshop model works regardless of curriculum or books or approaches or schedules…it works in all the ways! Her presentation was called “Teaching Heritage Learners: Becoming a Language Arts Teacher,” and my favorite part of her presentation was actually the beginning, where she talked about her journey to where she is now. I loved that she highlighted all the things she’s tried, where’s she been, what she liked about what she was doing before (and what she didn’t like), and how she got here. I feel like it’s so easy to ignore that part of the presentation…especially when you’re presenting and you feel like you’re supposed to be the “expert.” I loved her humility! Also, I really appreciated all the nitty gritty tips and examples she shared! You can access her presentation here, and you can follow her journey on her newly established and already amazing blog, Growing with Heritage Learners.

It was also finally able to meet Kristin Montgomery, who I also only know from the internet, but who is doing some really cool work with her dual language/heritage classes. Both Jen and Kristin shared their year-long plans and lots of different tools and ideas for how to focus on literacy in meaningful, effective ways with their classes. Among other things, Kristin shared about her unit on literary circles. You can find her presentation, “Literacy in Secondary Heritage and Immersion Classes” here. She also shared a powerful presentation during the online conference, Spanish Teacher Success Academy, and you can see my takeaways from her session (and other heritage sessions) in this blog post. You can connect with her and read about the cool stuff she’s doing on her blog, Growing Global Citizens

I also got to see my dear friend, Michaela McCaughey, again. She teaches heritage classes in Rhode Island (!!) and I met her three years ago when she was visiting family in Fort Collins. Back then, it was her first year teaching at her school and she was advocating hard for separate heritage classes. And now, she’s a knowledgeable expert on heritage language teaching! I love hanging out with her because she is SO WISE. And she is super passionate about social justice and equity and I always learn so much from her. She is yet another great presenter from the heritage day of sessions of the 2018 Spanish Teacher Success Academy, which I blogged about here. She presented at MCTLC as part of a panel on how to integrate art into heritage classes, and talked mainly about her units incorporating street art and/or graffiti into her heritage classes, and it was so cool to hear her talk about something she is super passionate about and something I’m not very good at doing – integrating the arts. I think my main takeaway from her presentation (and all the other panelists that shared) is really changing my perspective on art, and starting to see it a) as a text and b) as a tool for expression of identity and voice, something that definitely has a place in heritage classes.

Before I wrap up, I wanted to make sure to mention…it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. That’s true for every conference, honestly, but I wanted to talk about this part of the conference because I think it’s something we, as heritage teachers, need to probably talk about more. I attended one session about heritage teaching that I didn’t love. It was about how to serve heritage students in mixed classes. I think the presenters were well-meaning, but when they tried to give us a list of what to expect from heritage learners, I was really concerned. Now, I realize that heritage learners aren’t perfect, and that they have a lot they can develop and work on, just as any student does. But I was concerned about the long list of negative characteristics that heritage learners bring to class (poor spelling, little knowledge of target culture (?), informal vocabulary and calques, incorrect grammar, etc.). Not only was the list super long…I was concerned that it was not paired (or prefaced) with an honest reflection of all the great things that heritage speakers bring to classes and an appreciation of their language (and identity). I was concerned that what was being communicated to the teachers in the room, many who were not heritage teachers, were all the reasons the language our heritage learners’ language is not good enough…instead of all the reasons to celebrate them. It was really hard to watch, and I eventually had to speak up and share some of my thoughts. I’m not sure my comments were that well-received by the presenters (they were polite, thought), but I’m hoping at least it was a chance for all the teachers in that room to hear a counter-narrative. I know we already see ourselves as advocates (that seems like such an understatement), but I think my understanding of what that looks like is expanding. I don’t just advocate for my kids, in my school, in my context…but when I’m at a presentation at a language conference and I hear teachers speaking about heritage speakers with that deficit perspective, I want to speak up, name it, and share why I think it’s a dangerous perspective. Especially if they are presenting (or teaching) other language teachers.

Last but not least, this conference was a little bit different for Mary Beth and I. We usually share sessions with content, and not a lot of time for processing or application. This time, though, we presented a three hour, hand-on, workshop. There was lots of time for googling, thinking, talking, processing, evaluating what we’re already doing, and revising and or applying new knowledge (in whatever way that made the most sense for participants). I was happy with the amount of questions, processing time, out-loud thinking, and connections that were being made with the “work time” of the workshop. But at the end, I realized that what I had envisioned participants creating (a neat and tidy product) was not really what most people ended up with. I felt like maybe we had failed…maybe we had fallen short, or maybe there was more we could have said, or shared, or helped with. I said something to Mary Beth, and she said…nope. She said, this is what it’s really about. This is the real work. It’s messy. Just like we used to teach our students the ten steps to a perfect five paragraph essay, we sometimes have to present like that at conferences. But in our classroom, we’ve shifted to starting to teach the students as writers, instead of worrying about getting a perfect final product. We now teach the writER instead of the writING. “Friend,” she said, “it’s messy because we’re teaching the teachers how to think for themselves, how to evaluate where they are and where they want to go (and why), and how to think about getting there…instead of telling them how to get there.” I’m so glad I get to work with her. She’s super wise. And, she’s right. Yep, it’s messy. But I like it. And I’ll take it!

I’m still riding the high from the lovely hospitality we experienced and all the great friendships we forged in Minneapolis. We met SO many amazing, talented, and friendly teachers. I didn’t get a chance to mention all of them, or their presentations (check out this fabulous presentation on teaching immigration in heritage classes by Monica Morana and Aracely Thomas). And of course, the beautiful weather didn’t hurt either! We’d love to be invited back to present at this unique heritage-track destination conference. But you know what? We don’t have to. We know there is a wealth of knowledge about working effectively with heritage learners there, and an abundance of talented people capable of sharing it! Heritage language teaching is in very good hands. And that’s what’s filling our cup today.

Happy teaching, friends. Keep your eyes out for an upcoming post about ACTFL in DC in a few weeks!


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