Turning awful into awesome

Warning: This post is honest. Some of it does not make me look like a great teacher. I’m not always a great teacher. But I have got to get these thoughts out, and maybe you can empathize with my “situation.”

I mentioned yesterday in my TeachThought challenge post that it wasn’t a great day. It stemmed from several different things. I planned to use stations in Spanish 1 and 2 and, knowing they wouldn’t finish, carry them over to today. The stations weren’t really bad, but some of them were much more involved than others, so some groups were barely halfway done, while others were finishing. I’m thinking in the future I’m going to follow Andrea Brown’s example and have the stations be more free-range and individualized, rather than having groups move in a set rotation.

But that wasn’t the awful part. The awful part was me. In my third period class, to be precise. I’m having some difficulty convincing my Spanish 2 students that moving from grammar/vocab-driven instruction and traditional tests to proficiency-based everything and speaking Spanish all the time is the best way to go. And a select group in my 3rd period class whispers in English. Like, all the time. They typically sit across the room from me, and I guess they think they’re fooling me. They’re not. Usually I can’t hear the words they’re saying, but I can hear the rhythm, and (for those monolinguals among you) it’s not terribly difficult to tell the difference, most of the time.

So yesterday, I was moving around amongst the groups, making sure everyone knew what they were doing and providing assistance where it was needed. Several times throughout the period, I tried to gently remind the students to speak Spanish, usually by repeating what they had said in Spanish. In some classes this works pretty well because then they realize I can hear them and fear of getting caught is enough to keep them in Spanish. Not with this group. I was standing with my back to my English speakers, but very close to them.

I’m not proud of how my students probably talked about me during lunchtime. I spun around and not-exactly-yelled that, by speaking English they were only hurting themselves, they needed to try to speak more Spanish, and a few other things. None of the stuff I said was necessarily untrue (except the part where I said “If you don’t care enough to try, then I’m over it!”), but my tone and attitude were definitely out of line.

I know this happens to teachers once in a while. Compared to a blow-up I had last year, and what I’ve (often) heard from other teachers, this was pretty mild. But this year my life is so much different, both in and out of school. I won’t get into that right now, but suffice it to say that last year was a rough one. And this “mild” incident brought me way, way down for the rest of the day.

Usually, I’m not a person who comes back to things like this. I mean, I, personally, dwell on them, and regret them, but rarely do I bring it back up in class later on. It’s embarrassing. Why would I want to remind people of when I screwed up? Let’s just all pretend it never happened and go back to the way things were before. I think the fact that letting it go was not really an option for me this time really shows how much I’m growing as an individual. I had to talk to my students about it. Here’s why:

  1. I’m asking my students to be comfortable with me. So comfortable that they’re willing to speak up, make mistakes, and learn. How can they ever be that comfortable if this incident is hanging between us? I can’t afford to alienate my students or make them feel the way I’m sure they felt yesterday. And if I’m going to be comfortable with them and know they’re not stewing on this, I need to clear the air.
  2. I’m asking a lot more of my students linguistically this year than I have in the past. In many ways, it’s much harder, both for them and for me. I need to respect and accept that. They weren’t speaking English out of disrespect for me, it was a genuine lack of understanding of what was going on, and a desire to keep me from knowing how much difficulty they were having.
  3. I made all these changes this year, but I realized, my students were not in enough on why I’m doing what I’m doing. If they understood why I don’t want them to speak English (it’s really not just a silly preference, kids!) then perhaps they would put more effort into getting their point across in Spanish, and into understanding what others were trying to say in Spanish.

So, even though my kids came in today, talking with me and laughing like always, I knew I couldn’t just let it slide. They had to know why. So we had a conversation today (in English. I’m pretty sure this is sufficient reason for using English). I started off with an apology. Yesterday was a bad day. Someone piped up “It’s okay. Everyone has bad days.”

They don’t hate me. I’m so glad.

I then asked them to think back to last year. We learned all kinds of grammar and a few different tenses, but if they had been asked to have a conversation with someone, would they have been able to do it? “All I learned how to say last year was ‘Soy cómico.'” This from one of my most naturally talented students. It’s certainly not true, but it was the opening I needed.

I explained that my goal is for them to be able to use the language. I don’t care if they know the word “gender” or how many tenses there are in Spanish (“Do you know how many there are in English?” “Haha, no!”). I want them to be able to use the language if they ever go to Mexico. And then I caught them before they could even think it. I told them that, when I was a sophomore in high school and someone told me I needed to know Spanish in case I went to Mexico, I’d think they were crazy. A girl raised her hand “That’s what I said!” But look at me now! I’ve lived in Costa Rica, I’m going to Spain next summer, and I teach Spanish. And even if you don’t ever do those things, Spanish is growing in the US (regardless of your political views, it’s a fact!). Doctors, lawyers, social workers, everyone has contact with Spanish speakers. Even here in Appalachia we see it with pipeliners and frackers. Besides, learning a second language makes you smarter and gives you all kinds of cognitive benefits.

So that was my (brief) spiel on why my class is important. We will certainly get more into it in the future. Then, now that I was pretty sure I had begun to convince them that this class is useful for something beyond an honors diploma, we moved on.

Why am I teaching so differently? I had already convinced them that the all-important grammar didn’t really matter that much. But why does that mean we have to speak Spanish all the time? Well, lots of research says that we (and I clarified that we means students and teacher) should speak Spanish at least 90-95% of the time. Why? Because it’s a skill we have to practice. We have to learn to understand and to be understood, and we can’t really do that if we rely on English. By this point they were nodding along a little, so I didn’t belabor the point. I did point out that 90-95% does leave a little room for English. Why don’t I take it? Because, for me personally, once I start speaking English, it’s so easy that I don’t want to go back to trying to make them (the students) understand me in Spanish. So, for that reason, I have a blanket ban on all English from bell to bell.

And do you know what? I switched to Spanish to explain what we were doing today. Finishing up (without rotating!) the stations that they didn’t get all the way through yesterday. I told them they could talk or work in groups if they wanted to and, of course, they did.

But I didn’t hear any English for the rest of the period. I saw kids looking up words in the dictionary, I heard them asking “¿Cómo se dice…?” and I heard them discovering new Spanish words. And learning. In Spanish.

So yesterday was awful. But if not for that, we would never have had this excellent conversation today and I would still be trying to swallow my anger at students whispering in English. Instead, I’m happy. My students are happy. And now we’re in it together.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Andrea says:

    Your honesty is refreshing! I’m glad that a bad day turned into a teachable moment – one of the best parts of teaching high school is that they can understand when you explain the reasoning behind your choices!

    Wish you taught next door to me so I could walk over and see you do your 100% Spanish thing. I’m trying to increase TL use, but it’s hard! Would love to have a mentor/partner in the journey 🙂

    1. srastilson says:

      It is definitely hard, and some days we don’t quite hit 100%, but it’s a hard that makes me feel good at the end of the day! What I wouldn’t give to have a language teacher next door! Luckily we have the Internet! 🙂

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