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Join our project to improve classes for heritage learners!

In June of 2016 a group of CI teachers started a collaborative project. We believed that Spanish teachers are generally not well-trained to teach to the needs of heritage learners. We felt that much of the published material written by academics or textbook companies was not helping our students. Distressingly we have heard about departments who farm out their heritage learners’ classes to the newest, least prepared teachers because these classes tend to be hard to teach. Other departments urge heritage learners to simply abandon their home language in favor of a foreign one. Reaching heritage learners is the pressing but often ignored challenge facing our profession.

We decided to write essays, from the perspective of experienced classroom teachers, describing each facet of our classes. Our hope was to gather so much classroom wisdom in one book that our colleagues would confidently approach their courses with joy. Furthermore, we write as CI teachers who appreciate that the grammar and extensive spelling lessons from the textbooks that infuriate and frustrate our students are rarely appropriate. Too many heritage learners were learning the wrong lesson: that they could never master high-prestige dialects of Spanish, that their own experiences with the language were useless and that the cultural heritage of their ancestors was forever lost.

Our book, Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish: Essays by Classroom Teachers, was published in October 2016 and from the profits we have since donated over 100 reading books to the classroom libraries of teachers. We also have formed a Facebook group, Teachers of Spanish Heritage Speakers, with nearly 400 members.

It is now time to consider putting together a 2nd edition of our book. Working together, so many of us have moved forward and now have a lot more to say. If you are having success teaching a course for heritage learners of Spanish, please consider writing an essay for our next edition.

Currently we have a lengthy description of my reading program and an outline of how I have organized the rest of the class period. There are lots more that can be written about reading programs. If you incorporate reading conferences or have adapted a Lucy Calkins´s style reading workshop, a description of your approach would be great. I plan on writing a new essay about including manga in the classroom library. You could write about comparing typical writing samples before a reading program and several months later… hopefully you already have writing samples saved from the beginning of the year! Perhaps you want to describe a literacy initiative that extends beyond the classroom—bringing kids to the local library and tracking how many continue to use the library afterwards & what you can do to bring those numbers up or even tracking how many books are checked out of your classroom library and what you do to increase that number. There is so much to say about reading; write to me if you have an angle to explore.

I also wrote an essay about my struggle with counselors who would not cooperate in properly placing students. Essays from schools in which the placement system is not dysfunctional would be welcome, or modifications that you have made that work. Every school system is different; recording a diversity of approaches may help teachers problem solve in their own unique situation.

When I consider the main goals that I have developed for my heritage learners classes, I distinguish three objectives: to develop students’ identities as readers, to develop their interest in their heritage and the Spanish-speaking world and to broaden their language community to include many dialects and variations of Spanish. How do you create a compelling language experience for students who have been marginalized and taught that school is anything but compelling? Any of these topics could spawn multiple essays based on your classroom experiences.

I have often thought that the final essay of the collection, Beyond the Classroom by Barbara A. Davis, could inspire a larger examination of how school institutions and Anglo cultural practices can come together to present unnecessary obstacles for heritage speakers. I am sure some of us have observed how our school cultures can simultaneously absorb and repel heritage learners… perhaps ELA teachers may have a sharper focus on this topic.

We also have no essays about school-home interaction. Are there teachers who create community through activities organized through La Sociedad honoraria hispánica, for example? How does that impact enrollment?

There are so many other topics that touch upon the life of a heritage learner of Spanish. If you have a particular insight, please share.

We also welcome thoughtfully developed lesson plans which demonstrate a useful approach to classes for heritage learners.

I believe that the format of the essay lends itself better to deep introspection than the online forums that have emerged. Or rather, it is a question of tactics versus strategy; the online forums address problems as they arise while the essay encourages a more thoughtful approach. If you would like to join our group, please feel free to email your idea for an essay to mikepeto AT gmail DOT com with the phrase “Practical Advice” in the topic.

Thanks,
Mike

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Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners

Last June I gathered a group of educators to reflect on their classes for heritage learners of Spanish. Today I am releasing to the world the first fruits of our collaboration. We have produced a fine book of essays that I think will be very useful for teachers new to teaching heritage speakers. Below I have copied the introduction that describes each essay:

This collection of personal essays addresses an urgent problem in language education: how to teach heritage learners of Spanish.

cover-face-2 Perhaps it is the Californian in me, but I believe that reaching heritage learners is the pressing but often ignored challenge facing our profession. Every year I am contacted by teachers who, willingly or unwillingly, are thrust into a new teaching challenge for which they are deeply unprepared. I was unprepared when I started teaching heritage learners. My impression is that there are departments who are farming out their heritage learners’ classes to the newest, least prepared teachers because these classes tend to be hard to teach. I have read about departments that urge heritage learners to simply abandon their home language in favor of a foreign one. My hope is to collaborate and gather so much classroom wisdom in one book that my colleagues will confidently approach their courses with joy.

These essays were written by practicing classroom teachers. We recognize that the teaching situation that each educator faces is unique. Far from describing an ideal approach to teaching heritage learners, many of these essays depart from the very imperfect reality that teachers actually confront. The most dysfunctional element of the program at my school happens before classes begin with the placement decisions that determine whether students are even placed in the heritage learners’ track. The opening essay of this collection describes the evolution of my approach to student placement. I was tempted to bury this essay because it describes one of my most embarrassing failures as a teacher; I hope that others learn from my mistakes.

In the second essay Carol Gaab sets the tone for the remainder of the book by reminding us that compelling, highly comprehensible reading materials provide the best paths to literacy. I am always surprised when teachers downplay the role of easy reading in their classes. It is through easy reading that non-readers become readers. Dragging students through difficult, classic works of literature or less-than-compelling thematic units may expose students to unknown vocabulary, but they utterly fail in leading students to love reading. Our courses must nurture our students to become lifelong readers so that they continue to develop their literacy long after the course has ended.

This idea of creating a compelling experience is the subject of Sean Lawler´s essay. Using a television program as an anchor text, Sean describes how he made use of the interest generated by the program to provide reading experiences appropriate to multiple levels. The reality of at least some of our students is that the school culture alienates them long before they reach our classes. Those of us who are not obligated to follow a particular textbook should look to popular culture in order to attract otherwise disaffected students.

I have come to the conclusion that easy pleasure reading should be the major element of any program designed for heritage learners. In the fourth essay of the collection I provide a description of my easy reading program, “An Easy Approach to Teaching Highly Differentiated Classes”. The essay is followed by a list of the most student-appreciated titles that are currently included in my classroom library.
Adrienne Brandenburg describes how she developed her metaphorical sea legs while teaching classes for heritage learners. The key realization for Adrienne was recognizing that very few of us were trained to teach these courses. Our instincts as second language teachers often lead us to adopt approaches that are incompatible with the task at hand. In her essay “Adopting a Language Arts Approach” Adrienne advocates that we work much closer with colleagues in the English department. One of the things that appeals to me about Adrienne’s essay is the underlying recognition that, even among well-trained CI teachers, the instincts to return to discredited legacy methods of language teaching resurface quickly when under duress. Spelling lists, direct grammar instruction, vocabulary lists: these have all largely disappeared from English language arts classes in favor of planning highly-contextualized teaching moments.

When I consider the main goals that I have developed for my heritage learners classes, I distinguish three objectives: to develop students’ identities as readers, to develop their interest in their heritage and the Spanish-speaking world and, the subject of the fifth essay, to broaden their language community to include many dialects and variations of Spanish.

Broadening their language community does not mean that I want to fundamentally change the way that they speak Spanish (i.e. trying to develop an Argentine accent among Mexican-American students), but rather make them more aware and accepting of the beautiful diversity within the Spanish language. I have grown to believe that this is not just a casual flourish to adorn the “real” curriculum; some students come to class with such a strong desire to exclude what does not sound right to them that it becomes a barrier to developing their own language. My Mexican-American students whose exposure to Spanish is limited to their family and friends will often resist expressions common even in Mexican popular culture if they are not familiar with them. The teaching solution to the persistent student reaction that “we do not say it like that” is simply to articulate the broadening of language community as a fundamental goal of the course.

Wendy Gómez Campos writes about structuring her program with the end goal being that students successfully pass the AP Spanish language exam. Being successful in an AP course can be enormously empowering for heritage speakers whose families have a limited experience with college. AP Spanish can form the cornerstone to a concerted, school-wide push to attract more heritage speakers to sign up for more highly-academic college track courses.

The essay introducing Krashen´s concept of language shyness is really a short presentation to push educators to read Krashen´s original paper, which is available for free on his website. In my opinion, language shyness is the key concept that all educators of heritage speakers need to understand.

Katherine Thornburgh´s essay on goal setting describes the confusion and struggle that teachers new to heritage learners’ classes may experience. This is an essay about process rather than outcomes; it is an important read for educators who demand so much of themselves that they feel like constant failures in heritage speakers classes. While Katherine´s essay is about her plans to include students in the goal-setting process, just as valuable is the way that she uncovers the reflective process behind effective teaching that I had hoped to nurture when I gathered this community of educator-writers. It is through the writing process, Krashen notes, that our thinking is developed. I hope that more teachers write more about their difficult classes as a path towards imaging a new reality.

In the final essay, Beyond the Classroom, Barbara A. Davis reflects on the unexpected challenges of educating heritage learners in a culture that does not always appreciate the task at hand. An observant teacher of heritage learners quickly gets an insight into how our institutions and cultural practices can come together to present unnecessary obstacles for heritage speakers.

It is my hope that this first edition is quickly followed by an expanded second edition. There are so many facets to this uniquely difficult class that we have not covered and, honestly, I believe that the format of the essay lends itself better to deep introspection than the online forums that have emerged. Or rather, it is a question of tactics versus strategy; the online forums address problems as they arise while the essay encourages a more thoughtful approach. I welcome original essays as well as thoughtfully developed lesson plans which demonstrate a useful approach to classes for heritage learners. The profits from sales of this collection of essays are reinvested into the classroom libraries of the contributors.

Mike Peto
San Diego,
October 2016

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