Hitting the Restart Button

January always feels to me like a second chance at a fresh start. During the winter break, I try to find a good balance between spending time with family and relaxing, and reflecting on how my instruction has been going and what I need to shake up. To give some perspective, I have been teaching elementary Spanish in the same school for five years, and each year, grade levels have been added or removed from the Spanish schedule. As if that wasn’t challenging enough to create a well-articulated curriculum, instructional time has varied from once a week to twice every four days, to once every four days, and class periods have varied between 20 minutes and 42 minutes. So, I spend a good part of my summer coming up with ambitious plans for engaging content and activities for the year; by January, I realize some of the best-laid plans I made over the summer might be a little too ambitious, or I can see the holes that need to be filled, and the tweaks that need to be made. By now, I’ve gotten to know the chemistry of my class compositions and the dynamics of my schedule, and how these impact student learning this year in ways that are different from last year. As teacher mid-year conferences loom, it is a good opportunity to take a step back, and hit the restart button.

I spent part of my winter break with my finger on the restart button – in my kitchen, at my computer with a cup of coffee that kept going cold and asked myself:

What is it that my students need to know and what do they need to know how to do?

One of the core practices of World Language instruction is to plan with a backwards design model. A backwards design model has 3 steps: identify learning outcomes; decide what performance assessments you will use to determine if students have met those outcomes; and design learning activities to structure student learning towards those outcomes. So, the first step is deciding what it is we want our students to know and know how to do. Some World Language teachers might have more flexibility with this than others, and for some of us what they need to know might not be our choice. It could be determined by external factors, like a mandated textbook or curriculum, or by high school placements. Regardless of whether or not you have control over what students need to learn, you do have control over two bigger questions:

Why? How?

There should be a real-world, meaningful purpose for what students are learning; they should know it, and they should be able to tell others what it is, and it shouldn’t be “because its in the textbook”. A purpose students can connect with helps to engage and motivate them, and can turn rote tasks into something they are more invested in doing and being successful at.

For me, one of the most challenging and time consuming steps of backwards planning is the first one, and particularly identifying good essential questions. A good essential question should be open-ended, promote inquiry, and point towards transferable ideas. So, this winter break, I looked at my 4th grade themes for January and February that I had brainstormed over the summer and saw “All About Me” and “Puerto Rico”. My essential question for the “All About Me” unit was “How can I introduce myself to others?” My essential question for the unit on Puerto Rico was “How is Puerto Rico the same and different from Connecticut?”

What was I thinking?

Alright, so I had thought it would be a fun idea to have students write books about themselves in Spanish at a novice level, where they were applying some formulaic sentences about themselves, with some choice in what they were saying about themselves. Then, I thought my 4th graders usually study the cultures of the Caribbean, so we can start with Puerto Rico. So, back in August I had written some quick essential questions, but I now realized they didn’t really pass the muster of an essential question. The answers are fairly clear-cut; there aren’t any really transferable skills; and they don’t really promote any higher order thinking. More importantly, what is the purpose to all of this? Here is where I got stuck. Why should students be able to describe themselves? What should they be able to say? What is the purpose of it? Why should they learn about Puerto Rico? The standard answer is usually to increase their job prospects, in case they travel, and to build cultural competency. Yes, those are all very important, but what specifically is the purpose of learning specifically this content over other content, and how can I help my students make a personal connection to it?

Unable to immediately answer this question, I looked towards what I had mapped for the rest of the year and felt uninspired. What to study and when to study it is something else that can be pre-determined by something like a textbook or curriculum, or necessary skill sequencing, but we can also think creatively about how to move things around in a way that makes sense. This can be informed by a variety of factors. Following the thematic units in students’ other academic classes, for example, can help to set an authentic context for learning in the World Language. I know that in February and March, 4th graders are studying the geography and culture of U.S. states and why people choose to live in different parts of the U.S. Through that lens, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to study the geography and culture of Puerto Rico, as well as its complex status as a territory of the United States. Puerto Rico’s recent natural disaster and the on-going news coverage of the island’s trials make studies of Puerto Rico even more timely and relevant.

That is when my essential question kind of started to come to me. The news has been filled with stories of Puerto Rican students moving to the mainland to go to school. What if our school started to see some of these newcomers – what could we do to help them feel welcome and settle in more easily? Here is a real purpose for my students being able to tell a little bit about themselves in Spanish, and here is a real reason for understanding Puerto Rico a little better. There are many ways that students could answer this question, and there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. It also prompts them to empathize with the students of Puerto Rico and ask: if I had to move to another school with a different culture that spoke a different language, what would I want them to know about me? Not only did I now have what I think is a more compelling question and purpose, but I have connected two previously unrelated themes together in a meaningful way.

The second step to backwards planning is to determine how you are going to measure student progress towards the desired outcomes. Usually this will include some sort of performance task, as well as a variety of formative assessments. For my performance task, I decided to have students work in groups to make informational videos in Spanish comparing and contrasting Puerto Rico to their hometown. I can use the videos to teach younger grade levels, and they can also be shared with our local community. So, they will still be using formulaic, novice-level sentences, but with the purpose of comparing and contrasting two cultures. I was excited that this project has the potential to align with all 5Cs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.

I walked into this with some pretty clear ideas about the content I wanted to introduce students to through their learning activities. Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico with a FLES Fellowship from Dalton School and from that had a collection of resources about the geography, colonial buildings, African culture, and Taino hieroglyphs. I sampled foods, took photos, and found recipes.

Before plotting ahead, however, I invited a 4th grade student who is from Puerto Rico to my room for lunch, shared the essential question with her, and asked her what she thought people should know about Puerto Rico. Her answers blew me away.

The first thing she said was “I would want them to know that all Puerto Ricans are not bad people”. The second thing that she said was “Puerto Ricans can be white, too. My mother is very white and people always try to talk to her in English, even though she can only speak it a little bit, and they don’t believe her when she says she only speaks Spanish”.

My student’s answers speak to the critical importance of developing cultural competency among our students, and how this can be a compelling purpose for language instruction. This student, who is in just fourth grade and has only been on the mainland for about a year and a half, has already had experiences that lead her to conclude that many people have negative perceptions of Puerto Ricans. She was also keenly aware of racial stereotyping.

Cultural competency is not just about being able to describe or compare and contrast other cultures, it is also about developing a non-judgmental awareness of other cultures and tackle stereotypes; it is an ability to empathize with other cultures, be curious about them, and accepting of them. Her answers led me to incorporate in learning activities that examine the ancestry of Puerto Ricans to help students see how Puerto Rican identity is shaped by diverse influences, just like our own is. My students will also make on-going comparisons to other aspects of the Puerto Rican culture, like sports to see what they have in common with them, and foods and music. Thus, my students will still be learning to make statements about themselves and to compare and contrast our culture with Puerto Rico; however, I feel that the why and how is the bigger purpose of humanizing the culture of Puerto Rico and making connections to Puerto Ricans. This is a skill that they should then be able to transfer to the study other cultures, and ideally their interactions with people from diverse cultures as they go on with their education, careers, and lives.

I am glad I hit the restart button. I feel like I have a clearer, more rigorous vision of what I want students to be able to do, and why and how they will do it. I am excited to see how these videos turn out. I am interested in your comments, questions, and feedback on this post. Please leave comments by clicking on the comments link at the top of this post, or by following the “contact” link.

Of course, just when I think I have a good revised, flashy plan ready to go, students are getting back into the groove, and we have a nice new rhythm going … WHAM! We’re hit with a blizzard and several snow days scattered here and there. Once again, the kids are excited, take longer to settle, and their attention is elsewhere. Then flu season hits, you can’t keep enough tissues on hand, and someone seems to always be running to the waste basket to vomit. What strategies do you use to pull them back in?

Then, just when you think you might have that figured out, the flu hits YOU, and now, in a feverish stupor, you have to write sub plans. I would love to hear your strategies for re-engaging students after so many interruptions, as well as your ideas for sub plans in a World Language classroom. Please leave comments by clicking on the comments link at the top of this post, or by following the “contact” link, and I will share in a future blog post.