Welcome to the 2019-20 school year!
I’ve been processing this post for quite awhile. I think it speaks to a deep truth about our context as world language teachers in the United States, a truth that we as world language teachers try to ignore, that I have tried to ignore. I hope you take the time and effort to fully consider its implications.
If you’re reading this, chances are you read a dozen other blogs, follow Facebook groups about WL best practices, attend conferences, study pedagogical books, chat with colleagues, and all the rest that makes up being the best we possibly can for our students when they walk through our doors. Chances are you spend countless hours pouring over the subtleties of WL instruction.
But here’s the dark truth. None of it matters if our students only take a couple years of WL.
A few years just isn’t enough.
What is enough? I would argue that “enough” is when a young man or woman becomes proficient and interested to the point that they can successfully begin to consume the language in their free time for fun–either through music, or television, or movies, or reading, or long-distance friendships, or whatever. At that point, the student at least has the platform to develop some aspect of their personality around continuing to improve in the WL, to form part of their identity around the WL target culture(s). This probably happens somewhere in the Intermediate High/Advanced Low area. That’s when it happened for me.
I would argue that very few k-16 students reach that point. In Virginia, the advanced diploma requires 3 years of a language, and over half don’t continue onto level 4. Fewer yet carry on to 5 and AP because they simply run out of time and graduate.
Let’s be real. What percentage of our non-heritage language students actually become proficient (able to interpret native level input and comfortable in speaking) at our target languages?
Is 5% too low? What about 2%?
That’s just not enough for me. Period. I don’t know what else to say. It’s so disheartening when you actually come to face the full weight of our system’s failure, despite all our wonderful efforts. Language learners just need way more time to become proficient than what our programs mandate from them.
The Counter Argument
Some might argue that even if our students don’t maintain and build upon their Spanish, studying a WL is still beneficial to brain development. But I’m unwilling to consider my efforts to teach Spanish as a mere brain exercise, like an elaborate Sudoku puzzle. It means more to me than that, and I work too hard for that.
The Long-Term Goal
I think the long term goal is obvious: bilingual education starting in elementary school. The research is definitive. It’s possible for students to undergo content instruction in the target language without a dip in standardized test results of said content, whether it be math, science, social studies, etc. In the long run, this is how we change the game of world language instruction. We go teach elementary school, and middle school math, and all the rest in our target languages, and after consistent WL study for ten years or more, our kids will have the L2 for life.
But in the meantime, I have a new, intermediate goal: to make sure that every student I teach signs up for Spanish next year.
The Role of CI
To be clear, I still think that teaching via comprehensible input is the best way to ensure that students take the next level in our programs. It is the world language teaching philosophy that focuses most on student engagement (even enjoyment). It focuses the most on the celebration of the classroom community, of celebrating students’ uniqueness. It prioritizes teaching the most interesting content possible rather than skill-building through grammar exercises that most students find unappetizing. It teaches to success rather than moving through a prescriptive timeline, boosting confidence. It’s just so much more enjoyable to students.
More than Just CI
But we can do more. We can think strategically about how to build interest in our program more.
We can make sure we’re bringing in interesting target culture inquiry and experience to really inspire a deep interest in our languages. We can make sure to really bring these experiences to life. I don’t mean watching Coco for Día de los Muertos. I mean creating an altar where students actually bring in photographs of their ancestors and loved ones to celebrate and honor with their favorite foods, drinks, and past times. I don’t mean reading an interesting article about Pok-a-toc, the Mesoamerican ball game. I mean recreating it in the courtyard outside with the actual hoop and the real rules and all. I don’t mean creating a menu brochure for your food unit. I mean making ceviche in class, brewing Jamaica tea, and sampling different, unheard-of fruits. I mean learning the basic steps to the Salsa and practicing them in pairs. We have to inspire a love of our TL culture to catalyze the interest in the L2 itself! I know I could do better, so I’ve committed to it this year.
We can strategically rethink how to increase retention in our programs so that more kids are coming back for more years.
We can pay extra attention to getting students to enroll in the level just beyond the graduation requirement. For my context in Virginia, that’s getting students to enroll in level 4, since Virginia only requires level 3 for the advanced diploma requirement.
To this end, in December and January, we can really sell our level 4 when it comes time for course sign-ups in the winter. We might even strategically design the post-mandatory class (level 4 in Virginia) to have a particularly interesting theme, such as legends of Latin America, or Voices of Equality in Hispanic Society. A buddy of mine out in San Francisco (shout-out to Joe!) even teaches a level 4 class that’s all about the music and dance of the Caribbean. Why not? Just keep kids enrolled and coming back to improve!
We can purposefully build excitement around our post-requirement classes, such as field trips, or anchoring parts of the year around a popular show like El Internado, or building an exchange program offered to upper-level students, or offering a summer trip to upper-level students, or building in field trips.
We can continue non-honors level courses through the upper levels. We’ve had many kids in my school turn down level 4 because it was only offered at the honors level, and they were nervous about that fact alone.
We can specifically dispel student apprehension about continuing on into the upper levels. I’ve had too many students tell me they didn’t sign up for level 4 because they heard it was a lot of grammar. They heard or just thought it was going to be way harder. WHAT ARE WE DOING PEOPLE? Making your upper level classes super hard is the best way to discourage students to continue on. I’m not saying give everyone A’s, or don’t assign work. Not at all. Students gravitate towards appropriate challenge. But there’s no reason for upper-level classes to be harder than the lower levels. It’s all just i + 1. Upper level classes have this reputation because for far too long, many teachers have focused on demanding perfect grammar output in the upper levels, so these courses become gauntlets of grammar.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody is telling teachers to teach like that. What students actually need is continued language exposure. Even in reference to feeding AP programs, what they needs is to build out their vocab into more and more global concepts, not to do a million grammar worksheets.
Make these classes fun! And see your enrollment skyrocket!
And, in the long run, all across the country, we can fight for bilingual education, so eventually we can reach the point where we’re graduating students who have the skills and language proficiency to make the L2 stick for a lifetime.