My Journey as a (Spanish) Teacher

My Journey as a (Spanish) Teacher

As  a native speaker, I find it fairly easy to stay in the target language (TL), and I’m aware that it’s important to keep my communication simple and to do as much as I can to keep my instruction at the proficiency level of my students, and, more importantly, to make it comprehensible, which sometimes I find tiresome. But, hey, that’s my job!

The Foundations of My Journey

Before moving to the United States I was a preschool/English teacher in Colombia, and comparing my experience teaching English in Colombia vs teaching Spanish in the United States, it was easier for me to focus just on what I needed to communicate in English, than what is sometimes more complex for me in Spanish.  I have had different experiences teaching in the United States, having been in a total of eight schools in 17 years. The first program where I taught FLES, all Spanish teachers were required to stay 100% in the TL. I had success doing all I could to get my point across in my classes. I spent a lot of time looking for visuals, making posters, and using a lot of TPR and gestures! The program was successful, but my students thought that I couldn’t speak English. The children were trying harder to communicate with me in the TL, but there was more to it than that. I had a website, and also sent newsletters home, but the parents still thought that I didn’t know English.

Trying to Find My Way  

During my four years teaching in that school district, I was approached by a parent only once, and his comment was, “I thought you didn’t know English!” At that moment, I had mixed feelings. Yes, I wanted my students to use Spanish with me at all times, during class, recess time, in the hallway, and so on, but I was also sad, because I was also there to “promote bilingualism,” and they thought I only knew Spanish. I was traveling from classroom to classroom, and the homeroom teachers stayed in the classroom during the 20 minutes of Spanish instruction. I recall that I rarely had to work hard on classroom management because the teachers were there to help. I also realized that I didn’t really know anything about my students.

Seeing the Value of Teamwork and Mentors

Despite all of these critical reflections, I still learned so much there, where I  learned so much about being a Spanish teacher in the United States. I had seven awesome colleagues who had been teaching for a long time, so they were always open to listening, and their classrooms were always open if I needed to learn more. They respected me and the strengths I brought to the table as a native Spanish speaker, and they mentored me, too. As a new immigrant at that time, they provided strong support! Those ladies shaped a lot of the teacher that I am today!

Forced to Change Course with Opportunity in Adversity

Sadly enough, the town voted against a tax override, and the school district lost the Spanish program. Spanish language instruction at the elementary level fell victim to other budget priorities. To this day, I still don’t understand why there is more emphasis on high school foreign language instruction than in the early years when it makes a lot more sense in so many ways. I did decide to create my own program targeting pre-K kiddos, but that’s another story! After a few years of working independently, I decided to go back to a school because I was really missing being part of a school community.

Growing More Flexible 

Once I moved to a different school, the policies about teaching 100% in the TL were different. The school already had a Spanish and French teacher for grades 4 through 6, so I was hired to create the other part of the program with the help of my colleagues, and we used a backward mapping process to create our curriculum for grades pre-K to 3. Both of the French and Spanish teachers used some English with their students. Although I had a little flexibility to create the program, I first stuck strongly with using only Spanish in class out of habit and desire to push students to use the TL. I started noticing that the other language teachers had such strong connections with their students, and their students would actually look for them during recess time. That was when it dawned on me that I had been missing an opportunity to connect with my students and get to know a little bit more about them. So by my second year in the school, I finally became more flexible and started to allow interactions with my students in their L1 during times out of my class.

Building Deeper Relationships

Children would actually come and sit next to me by the bench on the playground, and we had great conversations, rom talking about my family in Colombia to their plans after school! That’s when I realized that it was okay for them to use their L1 to communicate with me during recess time. I also feel that because I am a native speaker, they need to know that I am bilingual and that I have interest in their language and culture. Keeping my class at 90 to 95 % TL in my classroom continues to be my goal.

Hitting My Stride and Learning the Value of Patient Beginnings

I am now in my third school (as FLES teacher), where the program is awesome! We have a seven-day cycle, and I get to see my students five out of every seven days. I can do so much with my students! And the consistency in our schedule definitely helps the program.  In this school we spend the first days in English, in fact, nobody teaches any of the subjects because we spend the first days getting to know our students and making space for our students to get to know their teachers. This has been the best idea ever! Kudos to my school principal for encouraging us to start our school year this way. Last year was the first time it was done schoolwide, and it made a big difference in that it was an opportunity to connect with my students without the pressure of digging into my curriculum right away. During the first days we discussed classroom procedures, explored the space, and talked about the rules in class and how important it is to follow them to make it a safe space for everyone. We used TPR with the rules, and then it was easy to transition to using them (and TPR) in Spanish.

Honing My Craft and Holding Myself to the Same Standards 

I keep the poster in front of the classroom to refer to the rules whenever I need them. I also teach hand signs that are connected to “passwords” they need in class. (See my post about “passwords” here.)  I also have a poster that says “En español,” and I point at it when needed, and a hand sign that I use if I have to use English (Time out sign.) I usually use this sign and accompany it by saying “Voy a hablar…” and my students say “inglés.” If they have a question for me, they request permission to use English by asking “¿Puedo hablar inglés?” So I figured I also have to signal it when there is the need to use English from my end.

Weaving in Complexity and Culture

I try to keep my teaching at between 90% and 95% in the TL, and sometimes I actually have classes with the  TL at 100%, but there are times when I feel that it is necessary to use my students’ L1. When teaching culture that goes beyond the tangible. They also see me taking risks with words that are difficult for me to pronounce. I am working hard on incorporating more culture into my classes and to be able to give voice to the different Spanish speaking cultures. They’re so diverse! My students already know enough about El Día de los Muertos, or La noche de las velitas, but if there is something new or unique, I’d rather use five minutes of my instruction time in English making sure everything is clear, than letting things go by and being responsible for inadvertently instilling or reinforcing stereotypes, however subtle..

Taking the Summer to Reflect on Reflections!

Writing this post has been so great to take the opportunity to reflect about my own journey and process as a language teacher. This is my own experience, and this is how I have arrived where I am right now with the use of TL in my classes. I know as teachers we have to look at what works best for us and most benefits our students.  I am just happy to be able to share my own journey with you. I would love to hear what you do in your classes and learn about your journey and your own process of adaptation over time! Please feel free to add a note in the comments!

Another School Year Has Ended! Now What?

Another School Year Has Ended! Now What?

 Yes! Another school year has ended, and now it’s time to reflect upon on it. I have always been good about writing a list OF reflections at the end of the school year, thinking about what worked or what didn’t, what I need to continue working on, and what I will keep doing in the new school year. However, since it’s essentially a note to myself, I rarely benefit from anyone else’s experiences (something I value highly!) and I often lose the list during the relaxation and shuffle / travel of the summer. This year I decided to use my blog as an open forum to reflect on my school year. I know it will always be here (unless Blogger shuts down!) so I can come to back to it when I need it. I have also saved a copy in Google Drive, something I suggest you can use to safely store your reflections too! This document can also be used as a reference to set your goals for the new school year.


Teaching in the Target Language

As a native speaker, I find it an easy task staying in the target language (TL) and keeping my instruction at the proficiency level of my students. I come from teaching in a FLES programs where we were required to stay 100% in the TL, to the point that my students thought that I couldn’t speak English. Yes, the children were trying harder to communicate with me in the TL, but there was more to it than that. Once I moved to a different school, the policies about teaching 100% in the TL changed. That was when I realized that I had been missing an opportunity to connect with my students and get to know a little bit more about them. It was okay for them to use their L1 to communicate with me during recess time. I feel that because I am a native speaker, they need to know that I am bilingual and that I also have interest in their language and culture. Keeping my class at 90 to 95 % TL in my classroom continues to be my goal.

Whole Brain Teaching

This was my first full year using WBT. As a result I feel that my students were more engaged, and I spent less time focusing on discipline issues in my class. Due to the limited amount of time I have with my students I only use level 1 in WBT, which involves these steps:
1. Five Classroom Rules
2. Teach OK
3. Attention Getters
4. Scoreboard
5. Hands and Eyes
6. Mirror
7. Switch 
I will need to be more consistent in using the steps and definitely need a wider variety of “Attention Getters” in Spanish. If you use WBT, please share your Attention Getters with me! Also if you would like to try WBT next year, here is a link to the visuals in Spanish.

Reward System

I use the WBT Scoreboard system for the whole group. I use the “pesos system” for individual participation. If a student challenges himself/herself to stay in the target language, they would get a copy of a printed peso to keep in their billeteras (a paper craft made at the beginning of the year). There were three opportunities for the children to use their play pesos to buy from my “tienda”. The tienda was filled with pesos, stickers and erasers. We got to practice sentences such as ¿Cuánto cuesta?,” “yo quiero un  lápiz,” or “deme un lápiz, por favor.”

The “pesos system” got a little bit messy by the middle of the school year when students started to lose their pesos and billeteras, and, as a result, a lot of  feelings of frustration were in the air. I have to find a better way to keep track of their points which translate into participation using the TL during
class.

Interactive Notebooks

When using Interactive Notebooks, it needs to be clear that if you let your elementary students do this alone, they will take a lot time on it! This is my third year using Interactive Notebooks, and I sometimes forget about this. It is also necessary to put the samples together in advanced to have a visual to show to your students so they know what the final outcome will be. It is also important to be sure that the activity is at the level of your students. Something that has worked for me is to do activities with my students at the same time, making sure that they don’t get behind and always leave coloring for the end. Don’t use liquid glue – don’t even have it in the classroom because I learned the hard way this year when one of my students spilled glue all over his notebook. Glue sticks are the best! What I really love about Interactive Notebooks is that at the end of the school year students have a resource to take home to practice during the summer. I didn’t use them a lot this year, which I regret a lot because the excitement about this in past years has been great!

Flipped Classroom

I started my school year strong on this, making videos for my students and sending communication with families about it. I teach at the elementary level, and the success of this really depends on how involved and available parents are to be able to sit with their kids. I might give it one more try in the new school year, but not keeping it as my priority goal.

Culture

I have to confess that one of my biggest fears is passing down stereotypes of other cultures to my students. Remember that I have reserved 5 to 10% of the L1 to use in the classroom when needed. On the issue of culture is where  I give myself permission to use the L1 in class, especially to clarify any messages that can come across as stereotypes. I know some teachers have an strong opinion about doing this completely in the TL, but I do have to confess that I feel better if I allow room for using the L1 to clarify and maybe have deeper conversations about other cultures. That’s what has worked for me so far!

I incorporated some “light” use of the culture into my daily routine comparing the weather and temperature in different Spanish countries and sometimes even calling my mom in Colombia to allow my students to have basic conversations with her, and they loved it! I still have to work on stepping out of my comfort zone to share with my students more about cultures other than Colombia and Mexico.

Communication with Parents

I used a website hosted on Haiku, but because it was password protected it made it hard for some parents to access it during their busy routines. My goal was to get rid of paper newsletters, and I did, but the password protected site wasn’t helpful this year. I have heard of other teachers using Instagram and other social media outlets to share with parents while still protecting the privacy of their students. I might look into it and decide on what to use next year. I am open to any suggestions you might have, so please share them with me in the comment box!

What Am I excited About?

After 15 years of being in Boston (which is also the total of years I have been in the US) and 7 years of teaching at the same school, my family and I will be relocating to Austin, TX this summer. I will be teaching in grades K-5 at an elementary school, so I am excited to be working with a wider range of groups. I was the only PreK-3 Spanish teacher in the school I was teaching at in Boston, and now I will be part of a team of two more teachers teaching the same grades! How sweet is that?! I am excited to have more companeras.

This summer I will be attending the iFLT conference in Tennessee for the first time, and although I already use TPR I can’t wait to take it further and start with TPRS!

How did your school year go? What are you plans for the summer? Any goal for the new school year yet?

Have a restful summer! You deserve it!
Carolina
Fun For Spanish Teachers