Advice for teachers new to teaching heritage speakers
Imagine being an American high school student placed in a basic literacy class. You need this class. Perhaps you are aware that your writing is full of errors. You may even recognize that this could be good for you. However, there is one major problem: your teacher is British. Nobody in your world speaks like her, not even educated adults. Sometimes you do not even understand her! A kind and progressive educator, she never corrects your dialect, but there it is every time she opens her mouth. Would you imitate her? Would you try to figure out which part of her speech to imitate and which part to discard? Or would it just be way too weird?
Unless you share the cultural background of your students, you are weird to them. Probably very weird.
It is my own voice, my own dialect, that dominates my classroom. Even when working with authentic resources, it is my voice that scaffolds materials used in class. One quick & rough way that I assess literacy on the very first day of school is simply by observing the eyes that glass over the moment I start speaking Spanish. The top third often can adjust, whereas the least literate third of my class often shut down when first confronted with a different dialect. I suspect that this is not limited to non-heritage speaking teachers; I have a Salvadorian friend who once told me that his first week on a scholarship in Spain was immersed in depression because he could not understand his professors. You could try adapting your dialect to your target population, but if you are a Spanish teacher you will quickly see how futile that can be. While most of my heritage speaking students are Mexican-Americans, this year I also have kids in my class whose families come from Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Argentina, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. Even the kids from Southern Mexico sound weird to the kids from the North! There is a reason why they hesitate to speak Spanish among themselves until they have developed solid friendships. To put it bluntly, you simply have to prepare to be the Brit teaching American English.
One way to prepare is to plan on using a lot more scaffolding than you think they need. Don´t be bullied by the top third of the class who forcefully indicate that they understand. Watch for glassy eyes and antisocial behavior. Those are signs that the student is lost, or has been lost for years. Be clear that every student is going to earn a good grade in your class. Not “can earn” a good grade; is going to earn a good grade. My experience with heritage learners of Spanish is that they bond and will eventually react positively to community goals. State that goal from the very beginning, and repeat it as you stop the lesson to make a graphic organizer to explain an authentic resource. Repeat it as you write what you just said on the board because you want everyone to observe the spelling. Repeat it whenever a student is tuning you out.
Heritage learners also need to hear a huge variety of dialects, but forcing that on them is a hard sell. Some of my heritage learners are so deeply immersed in a relatively homogeneous community that they do not differentiate between what is regional dialect and what will be widely understood universally. The idea that eventually, for example in college, they will need to be able to communicate with people from many regions is rarely a convincing approach. Too far away. Students need to be interested in hearing a different dialect now. That is why we start the year watching El Internado and not El señor de los cielos. Students need to feel that people they know, not just their teacher, speak different dialects of Spanish.
My main strategy is to explicitly and repeatedly invite them to join a larger community of Spanish speakers. Soon after they become addicted to El Internado I begin to introduce other videos and audios that expand upon the dialects (and registers) that they have been hearing. Enlarging their language community through reading and videos is the only way I manage to address the issue without communicating inappropriate value judgments about their language. As Jody Noble pointed out recently on a facebook discussion, the identities of heritage learners are often wrapped up in their language. For adolescents with few secure anchors (feeling like outcasts both here and in the country of their parents), their language will not change until they want it to change. Here are some sources I use to help expand my students´ language community:
Sources for human interest stories (videos and audios)
(1) Radio Ambulante is kind of like the NPR radio program This American Life, but in Spanish and focusing on Latin Americans. Lots of interesting episodes; my favorites include El náufrago and Instrumentos de guerra. Barbara Davis has a collection of processing worksheets on her TpT store that accompany some of the episodes. They ask students to focus on specific details while listening and are great for post-listening discussion. I do not collect these as a grade; instead we use them as a framework for listening & discussion, often followed by a quick write that I do collect and grade.
(2) AJ+ español has a small but very interesting collection of Spanish language videos supported with Spanish subtitles. I have used them in my advanced non-heritage learners classes as well; my favorites include La Cholita Luchadora de Bolivia and La Velocista Ciega.
(3) Although the language in the articles at Veinte Mundos tends to be too advanced for my students I often peruse their articles for human interest stories. They often come with a short video, or a quick google search will uncover a video related to the subject of the article. So many interesting pieces; students have enjoyed learning about Biblioburro, La Música que sale del basurero, and Ecobici.
(4) Azteca noticias has a recurring part of their broadcast called El Otro México which focuses on some aspect of the Mexican experience. Check out this one on el oficio del afilador. A simple google search for “el otro México tv azteca” will turn up lots of 5-6 minute videos. While I love watching these, I have a harder time making a graphic organizer on the fly for these. Perhaps that is a project for the future…
(5) I always get a lot of mileage from these short, pleasing videos called 6 grados de separación. Each video traces the cultural appropriations that have led to objects and practices that are considered typically Mexican, such as horchata, rebozos and La Virgen de Guadalupe. The graphic organizer is easy: print off a blank world map and have students fill it in as you watch. Since this goes fast we watch it once without writing, and then again stopping at each spot to give students time to write notes and help them find the right place on the world map. You can find a list of all of the videos here, where I blogged about using these videos with non-heritage speakers.
(6) I use RTVE sparingly because if I am going to make lesson plans around a video I want to be able to download the video to my computer and be sure that the video will be available in the future. Sometimes I can manage to download a news item from RTVE, but it is hit and miss. Nonetheless I do like to occasionally show the first ten minutes of one of their documentaries, which will often take us twenty or more minutes to actually watch because these tend to be more challenging for my students. Every thirty seconds or so I will stop it to check for understanding. If the video does not work, sometimes you can find it on youtube.
Please feel free to recommend more sources for short human interest stories in audio & video. I have just barely scratched the surface, but while I am sliding down the chute of an academic school year I rarely have time to search the internet for new sources. Having a source that routinely publishes new articles is invaluable!
What about speaking and writing?
I have written so much about reading that you might think that my classes are mostly receptive skills: reading and listening. You would be correct. Or rather, the writing they do is to verify their comprehension and work out the ideas that they are processing. I rarely comment on spelling, word choice, grammar, sentence structure or anything that is not connected to understanding the message that they are trying to communicate. I am convinced that students learn to write by reading, although there are good reasons to do some writing with your heritage learners especially if the input was challenging (read pages 30-32 of that paper closely). I also believe that they learn to speak by listening. Although there is speaking in my classes, there are even stronger reasons never to insist on it.