Higher level thinking in high school Spanish

I got a great long note from my former student Maija Langeland Scarpaci, who taught high school Spanish for several years. Let me just move aside and let her do the talking:

During my last teaching job, I taught the highest and lowest levels of Spanish offered at my high school – AP Spanish Literature and Basic Spanish, which had lots of kids with IEPs – and loved teaching both classes equally. But because I’m someone who likes to talk about concepts and ideas, I found the curriculum as it was designed for the lower level to be unsatisfying. So I changed it.

After doing some research, we found that many kids in Basic Spanish weren’t going beyond a year or two of Spanish study, and as there was no language requirement for students in the school’s special education program, the kids weren’t encouraged to continue. But I wondered if traditional basic language classes weren’t particularly advantageous to these kids. Maybe the material was (1) boring for them, (2) frustrating for them, and (3) not relevant to their lives. My department head and I sat down and asked, How important is it that these kids are able to perfectly conjugate “-ar” verbs in Spanish? Not very, we decided. Would we rather that they know more about issues that are relevant to the Spanish-speaking world and therefore to them, since there are so many Spanish speakers in the US? Yes, we decided.

We redesigned the curriculum so that it would address more issues and less grammar, and ultimately I had them reading lots of the same stuff that my AP kids were reading, or at least by the same authors, but in English. These kids were exposed to Darío, Cervantes, and García Márquez – not easy stuff, even in English.  We devoured newspapers, reading endlessly about current events; the students were amazed by the number of articles we found about issues that were relevant to Spanish class and to the US, even in our part of the country. We watched some great documentaries; a class favorite was one about the coffee trade in South America, as my students discovered parallels between their coffee habits and the coffee farmers and their families thousands of miles away. We also watched a fascinating episode of 30 Days. Its focus was a Texas Minuteman who lived for a month with a family of illegal Mexican immigrants in LA.

Now, instead of talking about the weather and colors, my students were dealing with more advanced (and interesting!) ideas than they would have otherwise, which enabled us to talk at a different level (there’s only so much you can say about the weather in Spanish). In the class as it was originally designed, much of the questioning and material for tests would be from Bloom’s most basic level, but we were able to do so much more in the new class:

  • Prediction: After researching the Minuteman trend along our borders, did the kids think the Minuteman in the 30 Days episode would return to his work at the border, or would his month spent with the family change his perspective on immigration?
  • Analysis: I asked my students: Why do you think he changed his mind? What happened in the show that caused his new perspective?
  • Application: Right after we completed this unit, there was a huge bust at a New Bedford, MA factory, and over 300 women who were working there were deported to their home countries. It was very controversial because many were mothers with babies, many still nursing, and they were separated from them without any regard for the children. My students were able to look at this situation with more insight and perhaps more empathy by applying what they already knew to be common to many immigrant situations.

It’s not lost on me that my best teachers and classes were in high school and grad school; those were my smallest classes and the ones where the teachers were most interested in what the students had to say. Students talk when questions are good. My AP students were always very happy to answer any questions, but the students in my Basic Spanish class were much more reluctant. I had to draw them in and did so by using materials and asking questions that were relevant to them or to life. I let them know that I was interested in their opinions.

Of course, there are many ways to do this while speaking Spanish, too. When I was a teaching fellow at Boston College, I had a great mentor; she taught all the introductory Spanish classes at the college, I never heard her use a word of English, and I thought, How is that possible? But she showed her students how to use the language instead of telling them, by performing and by asking her students to do the same. Everything was acted out, over-dramatically, in order to make her points stick. During one lesson on the subjunctive mood, she had a male student down on one knee as he proposed to a female student in front of a very amused class. Her questions were not particularly analytical or evaluative but required students to be expressive, essentially the opposite approach/scenario of the one described above in the high school course. In a college level introductory language course, with very bright and very willing students, the lessons and the questions remained very basic, in order for her to achieve the goal set by the department, which was to use only Spanish and have the students master basic Spanish.

At my high school, in my introductory course, with students who struggled academically (and often socially), the lessons and the questions were less basic, more complex, based less on grammar and more on real life, all in order to meet our goals: Keep students enrolled in Spanish, have them feel and be successful in the course, and open up their minds to ideas and situations they had not encountered before.

The “hola” image came from this site. The Don Quixote image came from here. The photo of Garcia Marquez came from this blog. The photo of Dario came from here. The photo of coffee cherries came from here.

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