The case for ci* in college
7 minute read
Happy (almost) New Year!
Listen, 2022 HAS to be better than this past year, right?
Teaching these past couple of years has been… oh, how can I say this politely… challenging. And that’s on a good day. Like many of you perhaps, at times I long for the days of PC (pre-COVID) when… well, I don’t remember much about what I was doing at that time, but I DO remember not having to wear a mask and how great that was! But that was then.
Now I’m just trying to read the room and figure out how to get my students to learn some Spanish, but more importantly, get them to WANT to learn the language and make more of an effort in doing so.
For the past four years I have been teaching novice and intermediate Spanish at UCONN Stamford, one of the branch campuses of the University of Connecticut. I. Love. It. As a mostly commuter school, my students are diverse in every which way. I have students of traditional college age, some older; heritage speakers and some who have never taken a Spanish course ever; students from different states and of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds. With very few exceptions, all of them are taking Spanish because it is a degree requirement, of which I’m thrilled: I get to teach what I love AND help my charges (many of whom are first-generation college students) become a bit more knowledgeable.
Fortunately for these students, I am pretty good at being Miss Beadle (you know, the one-room schoolhouse teacher in Walnut Creek, of “Little House on the Prairie” fame?). I make it work for everyone who shows up and takes a seat. Putting aside rubrics and pyramids and standards and all that science-y stuff (which I am delighted to leave to the experts), my objective is to get the students speaking so they will WANT to participate and share ideas. With very few exceptions, students who take my courses want to learn how to speak so they can communicate with Spanish speakers. Terrific, I say! I’m ALL ABOUT chatting!
Surely it will come as no shocker to anyone that I use my books in class as the thread that ties together the curriculum. For starters, the stories are comprehensible for my students (made even more so with the glossaries) which allow them to feel like they CAN. Repetition and further comprehensible input by me continues to build their confidence. Many of my students arrive never having read much in Spanish at all, never mind a book, so they begin the course in a panic and go right to the online translator. It takes a few weeks to recondition them to realize that 1) they will make mistakes and 2) their language will not be as fancy as it is in English. If I’m honest, that is a fantastic metaphor for life: mistakes will be made, and less fancy usually gets the job done. If Julia Child said, ( if I didn’t make it up), “First we must boil the water!” (read that with her French accent, please), then we must first lower the anxiety and build confidence. And, by going slowly at first through a comprehensible novel allows students to take risks with language by having a simple text to which to refer. Besides, reading is reading and that is a great habit to reinforce. Oh, and then there are those studies that show that reading is an excellent method to acquire language. All those smart people cannot be wrong.
And they’re not. I have had the pleasure and the challenge of brushing up on my high school French skills by translating some stories for my business partner and fellow author, Theresa Marrama, from French to Spanish. While it is true that I have some vocabulary stored in my middle-aged brain from way back when, I have been able to learn so many new words, phrases and grammatical structures which I am not shy about trying out with anyone who knows French, so there’s that.
In addition to the readers, I supplement the curriculum with other, authentic materials that relate to the theme of the books. Videos from YouTube, podcasts, songs, articles all find their way into my classes. In using these materials students are exposed to other, different language, but are still able to make connections. Furthermore, using the language acquired through reading the stories, they have something concrete and comprehensible to relate to. Higher order thinking skills, indeed.
So, why don’t we do more of this comprehensible stuff at the college level? I don’t know, except to say that maybe it’s the way it’s always been done. To that I say, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got; and in this case, that’s a large percentage of college students who take a language for one-, two-, three- or four semesters and STILL can’t give it a whirl with a Spanish-speaking person IRL (in real life). That’s problematic.
Once upon a time, I was a die-hard grammarian. Having been raised in a two-teacher household, one of whom was a high school English teacher, I delighted in subject/verb and adjective agreement, every kind of pronoun: subject, demonstrative, indirect, direct and reflexive, sequence of tenses and on and on. I was determined to make my students love the mechanics of Spanish just like I did. And it worked for a bit. You know, that bit when schools were still teaching grammar in English!? But when students started arriving not knowing the function of a verb, the grammar party was over.
That was right about the time that I was tasked (with pleasure) with two sections of novice high school Spanish students who also had IEPs or 504s or were otherwise challenged with learning. Not only were they left out of taking a language until high school, but they also had no idea about grammar, and quite frankly, they couldn’t have cared less. In needing to reach them where they were, such was born my first book, La chica nueva, which I STILL use with my novice college students. The students love the story because they can comprehend what’s going on AND take risks to talk about the “good stuff earlier” in their second-language study as Stephanie Slaughter, a college professor at Alma College in Michigan recently shared with me. Professor Slaughter, who uses these comprehensible readers similarly to the way I do, stated that, like me, she still teaches grammar, but within the context of the story or topic.
In keeping with La chica nueva, students are able to talk about relationships and activities, family and jobs, as well as classism and racism - all with comprehensible input which allows them to produce coherent language. The fact that the conversation on some topics doesn’t get too heated because it’s (at first) about fictional characters and that students’ participation HAS to be carefully considered before speaking (that whole “new language” thing and all), well, that’s just a bonus. I don’t need to be an expert on any of the books’ themes, but what I can do and do do is allow students an environment where making mistakes is expected and not knowing something (like geography, for example) is okay.
Again, theory and pyramids and rubrics and standards and the science behind all of what we do aside (it’s not my favorite, can you tell?), we world language teachers have the best jobs. We can - and should - teach so much more than language. We are poised to introduce, or review, such themes as identity, empathy, emotions, relationships (SEL stuff), as well as politics, sociology, psychology, geography, culture, climate change and economics - to the point where language acquisition becomes the happy byproduct of our teaching. And who knows, if students are jazzed enough at the beginning levels of language study at the college level, maybe they will go on to pursue it further! But even if they don’t, shouldn’t that desire to try to communicate with the person at the deli or on the train or at the workplace be enough? Language, after all, is for communication, and communication between people. A global, idealistic view perhaps, but one on which I base my work - all of it.
Read some of my students' comments from this past semester below.