This year I am diving into Spanish class with 3 guiding principles, and activities to go with each. It's been a wonderful week of discussion. While I don't think it's been perfect, this has been a far better start to the year than I expected. I would love to hear feedback. Should there be other guiding principles for class? Are there activities that would better illustrate these principles? Here are my first three days of class with some pictures and descriptions of activities:
Principle #1: You Must Take Responsibility for What You Learn.
On the first day of class I explained to all students from Novice to Intermediate that I was a visiting teacher from Spain. I could speak and understand Spanish, but had no proficiency in English. I needed each student to write a short introduction of themselves to share with the class.
The activity started with a lot of silence. It was the first day of school. These classes were not full-fledged communities yet. They didn't know each other well enough to comfortably ask for help. I circulated through the room complimenting work that I saw, and pointing students towards one another. Slowly the room filled with a warm buzz of conversation and activity. By the end of class every single student had successfully introduced themselves to me in Spanish! Those with greater experience told me a little about their family backgrounds. Others were able to share their name and favorite colors. It was a career high as far as first days of school go.
Principle #2: Communication Requires Risk
On the second day of class I instructed students to complete several challenges. The first was to line up alphabetically by middle name without speaking or mouthing words. The second task was to line up in birthday order. This done I asked what the point of the lesson for the day was. Students quickly figured out that our goal was to talk about communication.
Next, I gave students a card with an animal on the card. From different corners of the room they had to close their eyes and find their matching animal using only animal sounds. It did sound like a zoo in my classroom for a few minutes. Once students had found their partners we discussed how weird and awkward the activity felt.
So much of what students experience in the Spanish or World Language classroom makes them feel awkward or nervous. What if they mess up? What if they sound weird? What if a native speaker laughs at them? What if they can't say what they want to say?
My point is this: Communication won't happen if my students don't press into that awful feeling of discomfort and force themselves to use the language.
Principle #3: It's About Relationship
This one is big for me. If learning Spanish is only or even mostly about a vocabulary list and a set of linguistic skills I think we are missing the point. We can just get a set of Pilots (have you heard of this crazy device that does simultaneous translation with an app?!?) and save money on World Language departments all over the country. At the core of learning language we must understand that there is a real human on the other side of this language divide that we are attempting to cross through language class. Students, do you really believe this? Do you know that in class we want you to learn skills that will connect you to humans?
Today, I played a cultural simulation game with my classes called Bafa Bafa. Besides the hilarity of watching middle schoolers trying to trade post it notes with a second simulated culture, we had the opportunity to talk about the challenges of crossing cultural divides. I asked how many students had faced a relational challenge in the past week. They all had, and were quick to recognize that if culture and language differences were layered on top of the already challenging dynamics of daily human relationships, we have a challenging task ahead of us. But this is what we have to see at the beginning of the year. We will have fun in class, but we are going to take a long and arduous journey together. The path to proficiency has incredible challenges, but we are in it together.
At the end of class with my 7th graders, it finally dawned on me that what we were talking about is a truth from 1 Cor. 13, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal." If my classroom does not emphasize the importance of love and understanding for those from other cultures I am teaching gongs to clang about obnoxiously. If I teach with an eye and an ear for the importance of love and sensitivity I might help my students see that their calling is to take an incarnational love across cultural boundaries. It's what Jesus did for us, and Jesus is the basis for my biblical integration in Spanish class, so this is where I'm starting the year.
Shannon Norquist, teacher of Spanish and Dance at Barrington Christian Academy, mother of 3 lovelies, wife to an artist, modern dancer, daughter to the King.