By Mr. Charlie Sellers, Modern Languages Faculty
A Community of Language Learners
“¡Manos con manos, dedos con dedos, puños, palmas, pulgares, dedos índices, dedos meñiques… descanso!” I orchestrate these commands while the class stands in a circle giving each other high fives and joining fingers, fists, palms, thumbs, index fingers, then they wait for the next direction. “Espaldas con espaldas.” Everyone goes back to back. “¡Cinco, cinco, diez, diez, codos, codos, pies, pies!” The students face their conversation partners, and again give high fives, tens, and knock elbow, elbow, foot, foot. They wait for the prompt to respond to an attention-grabbing hook about a brief, animated short film about Día de los muertos. On my cue in groups of two, the students start listing elements that we have studied from Día de los muertos that they saw in the video, which is a novice skill (ACTFL). “¡Díez al revés!” The kids give backwards high fives to their classmates who are standing behind them in the circle, turn to face each other, and, again, responding to another prompt, and they start narrating using the past tenses to recount what happened in the video, addressing Intermediate-High Level discourse (ACTFL).
Two years ago, I radically changed my teaching style. I attended a week-long Organic World Language bootcamp and tried to make my teaching as student-centered as possible (OWL). I got rid of my desks and started conducting class in a circle. While I had previously held true to the ACTFL standard of speaking in the target language 90% of the time and in English only 10% of the time, if at all, I started to speak less in class, and my students began to speak more (ACTFL).
Everything in my new style centers around establishing a trusting community in the classroom that gives students the confidence to feel free to be themselves, the courage to take risks with the language and make mistakes, and the necessary tools to actively use the language at a more profound and sophisticated level. Establishing this community has become the number one component of my teaching.
All of my desks are currently in the closet in my classroom. I found that they created a barrier between me and the students and that with the OWL circle, everyone was getting more individual attention; there were no corners to hide behind or desks to lean on with a buried head. Static and immobile seating assignments, even if they were self selected, created little cliques in the class, and students were always speaking to the same partners or friends with whom they would choose to sit when they came into class. I developed strategies for moving the kids around, making transitions, and getting them to form different pairs and groups. I started to get to know my students better, and in turn they started to know each other in order to become an active and engaged community of language learners. A dynamic community of students who smile, laugh, and seem to genuinely enjoy being together replaced disinterest and self-selected friend groups.
I am proud to say that in this community my students feel like they can be themselves. My students have no problem singing solos to mariachi music, putting on aprons and pretending to take orders at a restaurant, or dancing to the reggaetón that I play as they come into class. I encourage them to be goofy, and I model this attitude for them as well. When I used to take St. Markers to the Dominican Republic with Outreach 360 to teach English at the elementary school level, the leaders told us, “You need to leave your cool at the door.” This is no small achievement in the high school classroom where there is always a certain amount of social anxiety. However, my students have no problem belting out solos to songs that we are learning, volunteering to be the first to present, or acting something out.
During our second unit, ordering in a restaurant, I took the class to the dining hall. Students enthusiastically cheered for the classmates, “¡Esta Lindsay cómo mola se merece una ola… otra ola… un tsunami!” while acting out waves and cheers as if they were at Fenway Park watching the Red Sox. (Trans. “This Lindsay, she’s so cool, she deserves a wave, another wave, a tsunami!”) It truly impressed me to see my students confidently and proudly stand up without fear and present the restaurant menus that they had created and act out conversations/scenes from some performance based tasks that I gave them outside our classroom at the lunch table. Moreover, two boys, Preston and Bobby, whom I teach in another section of Spanish 4, came over to join in on the cheers and to listen to their peers class present. In our classroom community, students feel free to make mistakes. I no longer harp on nitty gritty grammar rules, and the kids in my classroom are more eager to participate than ever.
We have fun. Last year, after watching a short film that chronicled a man’s life as if he were to live backwards from old age to infancy, the class started calling each other by their names written backwards. Rohan and Gavin became Nahor and Nivag for the rest of the year, and they loved it. Another student in the class stopped going by Brett and accepted his new name, “Pollo” (Chicken), because chicken was always the first thing that “Pollo” would talk about in the OWL circle when asked about what he did over the weekend (“I went to a restaurante and ate chicken.”) or planned on doing after school (“I’m going to eat chicken.”).
In turn, the Spanish that is used also seems more authentic because I try to make it relevant to their lives. We frequently start out talking in the circle and the hook or attention getter is something that someone has brought into class or something that is going on in the school. I try to make it as real-life and pertinent to what they are experiencing on a day to day basis as I can. When the mother of one of my students, Sierra, visited for a Family Weekend conference and saw the picture of her daughter working at the classroom restaurant, she said, “She told you that she has a job at a Colombian restaurant over this summer, right?” Sierra had not told me that, but I was head over heels happy to hear that she would actively respond to customers who would tell her, “Este plato es para chuparse los dedos. ¿Qué más me recomienda?” (Trans. “This dish is finger-licking good. What else do you recommend?”) and “¡Guacala! ¡Qué asco! ¿Me puede traer algo diferente?” (Trans. “This is gross! Can you bring me anything else?”) just like we had acted out in class.
I have also come up with thematic units that help establish community in the classroom. In Unit 1, we spoke about identity. In this unit, students also had to complete a short performance-based assessment in which they were told to have a phone conversation with their future college roommates and to ask and answer questions about their identity (“Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert? Why?”) and their habits (“Are you an early bird or a night owl? do you prefer to go out to get together with friends or do you prefer to invite them over?”). We had a great time warming up by this exercise by using a large play parachute; students stood around out the parachute following my commands in English. If they identified with a statement that one of their classmates said about his/her identity (“¡Soy madrugador!/I’m an early bird!), they had to quickly run under the raised parachute and find a new spot in the circle. They loved it!
For presentational speaking in this first unit, students spoke for two minutes about three pictures: one of who they used to be, one that shows who they are now, and a third that shows who they hope to become in the future. Not only did this exercise help students try to reach the Intermediate High benchmark by having them speak in organized short paragraphs in different verb tenses, it also gave the students the chance to know each other and to ponder how their identity has changed as they have grown and how it might continue to change.
Some of the topics that we will talk about this year, like death (we are currently doing a unit on Day of the Dead) and immigration, in which students will have the chance to share their own personal immigration stories and viewpoints, are heavy and very personal. They require an environment in which the students will need to feel like they can be honest and trust each other. As part of the Day of the Dead unit, students will have the opportunity to write a letter and to put together an Ofrenda, a traditional Day of the Dead altar, that they can dedicate either to someone they know who has passed away or to someone from a book that they have read. In creating a supportive community, my hope is that students will feel like they can have the courage to talk about the death of a loved one, which is incredibly personal, and share it with the class. They need to know that they can trust each other.
A colleague of mine once told me that at St. Mark’s, we challenge students to be their best in the most supportive environment possible. That seems to have definitely become the case in my Spanish classroom, and the environment has been made possible by the support that we get from each other in our language learning community.
Mr. Charlie Sellers is a member of the Modern Languages department. Before starting at St. Mark’s, Charles finished his Masters in Spanish at Middlebury College’s campus in Madrid, Spain. He is passionate about student centered learning, service, and the Spanish Language.
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. ACTFL. actfl.org Accessed 21 Oct. 2019.
Organic World Language. OWL 2019. owlanguage.com Accessed 21 Oct. 2019.