Thursday, September 29, 2011

That spark in their eyes (or why language teachers have to stop making excuses and make time for culture!)

Yesterday I did a new lesson with my 7th graders that reinforced everything I've always felt about integrating culture into language study.  It was one of those lessons where you just WISH the principal would pop in to see how things are going.  (Of course, they never pop in THEN, they pop in right when you're troubleshooting a technology problem and some kid needs a band-aid and another kid needs you to sign his pre-arranged absence note and give him the work for the next 3 days because he's going to Disney World and...)  AND it was one of those lessons in BOTH periods, which is even better because it's much more likely that it's really appealing to a wide range of kids, and not one of those things that works like magic with one group and the next group acts like they're about to fall asleep.  What was this magical lesson, you ask?

It was one of my favorite kinds of lessons -- a made-from-scratch lesson that integrates culture into language practice.  One of the best things about my job is that I get to do as many of those as I have time and energy and creativity and sanity to make, because I don't have a book or an "official" curriculum or anything else forcing/tempting me to do p.33 today and p.34 tomorrow and p.35 the next day until the kids want to scream...  Not that there aren't good things in textbooks and other such materials, but I'm glad for the freedom because it encourages me to experiment and revise and invent, which (at least in my opinion) results in a much deeper and more exciting learning experience for the kids!

This particular lesson was a new activity for our "school" unit (school supplies, school subjects, and related basic grammar) where I wrote the kids a letter from an imaginary pen pal in Spain that they had to read and answer questions about. (The only thing better would be a REAL pen pal, but my kids don't have enough language yet for that!)  In the letter, "Raquel" (my real host sister in Spain's name) told the kids about her school day: what classes she has at what times (which I found by Googling schools in Madrid until I found one that had a schedule posted!), what school supplies she brings every day, and other aspects of a typical day.   My students, as a whole, tend to hate reading activities because they're the most "boring" of anything we do in my class.  I don't blame them, because yes, reading a paragraph and answering comprehension questions is nowhere near as exciting as playing Go Fish with vocab or exchanging information with your partner.  But reading is one of the four language skills, and therefore important to language study... not to mention a great opportunity to reinforce cross-curricular reading skills that the kids need for their other classes and the all-important TESTS!

Except in this lesson, the usual groaning and complaining and glazed-over eyes were absent.  They were replaced by squeals of surprise, kids jumping out of their seats to make comments to each other and ask me questions, and little mini-teachable-moments in the middle of reading.  The cultural aspects "Raquel" included in the letter -- having a break during the school day, getting 2+ hours to eat and have siesta, having religion class, school lasting until 5:00 (because of the break and siesta!) worked just like I had hoped.  We had spirited discussions (in English) about what it would be like to go home in the middle of the day or have religion class.  When everyone finished the comprehension questions, we had a big whole-class discussion that was just as animated, covering everything from religion to amount of homework to instruction types.  (The kids were worried that Spanish kids wouldn't have time to do homework, and then really excited when I told them there's not nearly as much homework there... and then groaned when I told them that classes are mostly lecture and memorization!)  They were engaged and excited and so involved in their learning that they hardly wanted to stop talking to play the game at the end of  class.

This is why I love teaching culture: I love exposing kids to the fact that the way you do something isn't the only way to do it.  I love expanding their minds to embrace the idea that the way you've always lived isn't the "right" way, and it might not even be the "best" way.  I love having the chance to help them look at themselves from another point of view, compared and contrasted to another way of life.  Some of them were still talking today about wanting to live in Spain and have breaks in the day and a relaxed lifestyle, while others were glad to be in a school where we play games and learn actively instead of sitting in lectures all day!  Either way, their brains were stretched in an exciting way... while also practicing their Spanish and using their reading skills!

It saddens me that some language teachers push culture aside because they think they don't have time for it.  Also depressing is the way that some teachers throw facts and figures (capital/population/two famous artists/one famous dance...) at their students and think they're "teaching culture".  That's like saying you're going to have your kids read a book and then just giving them an outline of the plot to read!    Besides, while some kids might say they "only want to learn language, not culture" (which sadly, I've heard from several kids, probably influenced by parents who think language learning is about verb conjugation), their engagement in lessons like yesterday's lesson demonstrate that culture is an essential way to tap into higher-level thinking skills in the language classroom!

I loved that spark I saw as the kids read and talked and thought yesterday, and I love seeing it again and again in other similar activities we do. Language and culture are intertwined in life, and they should be the same way in the learning process.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Una tarde llena de cultura... ¡¿aquí?!

On Sunday, I went with three of my fellow middle-school teachers to a flamenco performance... right here in our little Midwestern city!  A parent of one of the students at our school dances with this local flamenco company and invited us to the performance, which was an hour-long recital of all the company's dancers.  An hour of bright swirling ruffles, passionate gestures, flying guitar fingers, and stomping rhythms that seem to settle right into your hear.  The dancers and guitar and cajón players were dazzling, even the beginners!  And through it all, the sweet sounds of Spanish sweeping me back to afternoons in the park, subway rides, Sundays walking through art museums for free, Borbon and Moorish and modern architecture all mixed together... and that intangible, indescribable "Spain" feeling.  Right in the middle of Sunday afternoon at home, between lunch on the couch and NFL football.  Amazing!  Plus, it was my husband's first time experiencing the beautiful combination of sights and sounds that is flamenco, so it was exciting to share this little piece of Hispanic culture with him!

It left me uplifted and wondering... what other amazing things happen right here all the time that I don't know about?  What cultures and art forms and activities do I miss because I don't know to look for them?  What could we be missing while we sit and watch tv on a lazy afternoon?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Wow, that must be really hard!"

"Do you have a homebase?" One of my sweetest 6th grade girls looks up from her project, her eyebrows arched over her soft blue eyes.

"random..." I think. It's the very end of the day; homebase was over 6 long hours ago. But I'm accustomed to random, especially from my 6th graders. "No, I can't have a homebase because I'm not here all year," I reply in my cheery talking-to-a-kid voice.

"Oh so you're only here for this trimester and then you go to somewhere else..."

"Right! Then I go to my other schools!" I've had this conversation a million times with both kids and adults. Who can blame them? My job isn't exactly normal.

"WOW!" Those sweet blue eyes grow big with more empathy than I expected from an twelve-year-old. "So you have to take down your WHOLE room?!" Now the blue eyes are scanning my poster/photo/realia-plastered walls.

"Yep! It's a lot of really hard work!" I grin at her and start to walk away to check on some other groups. As I go, she almost falls across the table in her excitement to recap our conversation to her tablemates. "She has to take ALL of this room down and take it to another school... wouldn't that be SO hard?!" Appreciative glances around the room and nods from the others.

It just felt really nice to be understood by a kid, especially when I've been feeling completely exhausted and run down every afternoon after school lately. I think when kids realize how hard we work, they develop a new respect and appreciation for us.

6th graders are the best!

Monday, September 12, 2011

I remember

It's fall of my senior year of high school and I just finished a long essay test in A.P. Lit.  My hand is exhausted from writing and my brain is pretty tired too, so I'm looking forward to watching a video in my next class.  I head downstairs to A.P. Gov and the lights are turned down low.  There's a burning building on the tv screen, but I think Mr. M's just getting the movie ready.

When everybody gets to class, Mr. M tells us that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.  It's CNN on the tv, not the movie we're watching.  Wow, what a terrible accident!  He lets us watch the footage for a couple of minutes and then starts the video.

Partway through the video, the teacher from the room next door walks in, looking like he's seen a ghost.  He says ANOTHER plane has hit the OTHER tower of the World Trade Center.  What?  How could TWO planes... Mr. M turns off the movie and switches back to CNN.  Now both towers are burning with big ugly horizontal stripes where the planes hit.  The reporters are using words like "attack" and "terrorists".  We are glued to CNN now, listening to the reporters speculate as if they know what's happening any better than we do.  They don't, of course, but our brains desperately want someone to explain.

3rd period ends and we spill out into the hallway, asking everyone else whether they heard what happened.  I think we just sit and talk in 4th period.  Then, there's Marching Band.  One of my friends in my section in band has his birthday today. I brought cookies for all the horn players, but he doesn't want them.  He says his birthday is ruined.  We can't believe we actually have to go outside and practice marching our show!  Can't we just watch the news or sit around some more?

The sky is crystal clear as we practice.  Clear blue and completely empty.  You don't think you really notice planes in the sky (especially when you're supposed to be concentrating on marching and playing!), but it sure looks wrong when there aren't any at all for the entire 45 minutes of practice.  There's also hardly any traffic on the two major roads that intersect by our practice field.  Our music just sounds eerie in the silence, and our marching clashes with the stillness all around.  Nobody can concentrate.  We just want to go inside.

When we do, even the boisterous lunchroom is somber and subdued.  I think this might be when I found out about the plane that hit the Pentagon.  A boy we know is scared to death because his dad is working in the Pentagon today.  The principals scramble to help him find out if his dad is ok.  (He is!)  After lunch, more watching the news and talking in my other classes until it's time to go home.

At some point, I hear that another plane crashed after it turned around right over OHIO and started heading back toward D.C.  At some point, the towers collapse.  I don't remember when I found out about all of those other pieces of the tragedy.  I don't even know if I saw them live or only replayed.  I think I might have seen the first tower collapse live while glued to the (until then) unchanging images of the burning towers.  Then again, I might have just seen that replayed so many times that my mind is playing tricks on me.

I think marching band practice after school got canceled, because I remember sitting at home on the floor for hours, watching the news until my parents got home.  It wasn't that I wanted to keep watching those horrible images, but I just couldn't stop.  I think I just wanted to understand the un-understandable.  It was like I needed that much proof that it was really happening. If I didn't watch, wouldn't New York and D.C. and Pennsylvania just be how they always were?  These crazy things were happening so far away they seemed unreal, and yet on the other hand they seemed to be happening right in our town, etched in my mind forever.

Now it's hard to believe that 10 years have passed.  My students don't even remember 9/11: they were only one and two and three years old!  I struggle with understanding that they don't understand, that they don't know what it was really like.  To them, it's just like when my parents talk about Kennedy being shot.  You think, "Wow, that would be horrible..." but you can't really imagine the feelings.  You don't really know what it's like for the whole world to turn upside down in an instant, for something halfway across the country to pound you in the chest and take your breath away.  I hope they never have to know that feeling, and I hope I never have to be the adult trying to help a classroom full of kids deal with it.  And yet, I want them to understand and know what it was like.

(image credit: City of Dublin:
This weekend, the city displayed a breathtaking memorial on a field next to my high school: one eight-foot flag for each person killed in the attacks.  3,000 doesn't seem like that many until you see it stretched out in rows like the crosses at Arlington.  It was amazing to reflect as I looked over that field of flags right next to the building where I experienced that entire day.  Children were there with their families, and I was glad to see them visualizing what is history to them and gaining an appreciation for what we adults felt on that day.  Hopefully, those who understand the past will build a better future.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

the best thing about teaching

The best thing about teaching is making an impact on kids.  Sometimes you can see it happen, sometimes you'll never even know. This morning before school another teacher dropped by to share one of those wonderful moments I wouldn't have known about otherwise. In a writing assignment for this teacher, one of my students wrote that she wants to be a Spanish teacher (I would have been excited enough if the sentence had stopped there!) "because I love my Spanish teacher".  :-) !!!  My heart went soaring up into the sky!  I love that the girl wrote that AND I also love that the teacher took the time to make sure I knew.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

happiness is a fistbump and sweltering heat

Tonight was my current school's Curriculum Night ("Meet the Teacher Night", whatever you want to call it) so I just got home.  Not much of a day to write, but I had to record this little tidbit:

At our Curriculum Night, the related arts teachers have to talk for a couple minutes in front of the entire gym-ful of parents about our class, before the parents traipse off to visit the "core" teachers in their classrooms.  This couple of minutes is one of my most dreaded moments of the year, because I hate talking into a microphone.  I think my voice sounds like a five year old and I'm constantly afraid of talking too fast or too slow or too loud or too soft or not clearly enough or something.  However, this was my 3rd year doing it this way and I'll admit... it wasn't really that bad this year.  Guess I'm getting used to it.  After I did my little "this is our class in 2 minutes", I walked back over to the side of the gym, where several parents who couldn't find seats were standing.  All of a sudden, this dad leaned over to me and said "You have the most outstanding attitude!"  He made my day right there... and then gave me a fistbump.  That's right, a FISTBUMP.  From a parent.  About my 2 minute speech.  Funny and uplifting at the same time.  It was great!

And... for those of you who read last week's post, here's a follow-up picture.  800+ current and former marching band members united in music and tradition on the field in near-100-degree heat.  I don't think I've EVER been that hot, but it was still worth it!  (I'm in the "h" of the script on the bottom of the picture, near the crossbar of the goalpost.   My husband was in the left-hand script.  One of the guys who marched was 93 years old!)

(photo credit: Mel Ponzi)