Teaching philosophy for 2018

 ¡Feliz año nuevo! I just downloaded Becky Thompson’s new book,  Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice. I’d been looking forward to reading it knowing a bit about the classroom environment that Becky works to cultivate, but I’ve hesitated as I haven’t felt that this type of classroom experience was possible as my face to face teaching is disappearing, and I fear my work becomes more and more disembodied. In preparation I’ve decided to revisit my teaching philosophy, for the first time for myself and not for a faceless job market.

My present philosophy focuses on language learning through building and connecting communities. Imagining a philosophy for 2018 I consider my fears — Teaching for an institution that relies more and more on modes of distance ed (compressed and point-to-point video) leaves me, and I’m guessing my students, screen fatigued. While I teach them that they cannot multitask successfully I am necessarily multitasking through every class, looking from the screen of students’ faces to my computer screen to the “real” faces in front of me. I’ve given up on disallowing phones in the classroom. I’ve seen the benefits of distance learning for working students, students who are parents, and all of the above. It means access and possibility. But I also see this as an alibi for not providing opportunities in the first place by way of financial support and affordable daycare on campuses. It’s like we’re holding onto the vestiges of the classrooms that once existed in denial that they’ve been gone.

Here is what I hope that I can do in the new year, without compromise —

  • When we enter the classroom we respect the space by being present with everyone else in the room, whether that space is virtual or physical. We can sit in silence with each other without reaching for a distraction from the moment.
  • The classroom does not need to be an emotionless space.
  • We learn to fully listen to others.
  • We can make mistakes together and support each other as we learn from them.
  • I see the best in my students and follow a strength-based approach to guidance.
  • I keep the bar high with respect to practice that requires skill building, critical analysis and deep thought. I can cut out any work that doesn’t serve those purposes in order to respect their time outside of class.
  • My grading will be a tool for developing accountability and self awareness. It will not be used as punishment.
  • I won’t avoid the manifestations of implicit biases that occur with seating arrangements or differential access to technology.
  • Assessments will take into account the building of a solid base of knowledge, not just accumulation.
  • We will make time to reflect, not only push forward.
  • Culture will not be a stand alone topic, rather it will be integrated into the curriculum.
  • The value of rigor will be emphasized, as a good in itself.

What does your philosophy look like? Have you found that you need to compromise or re-imagine your goals?


Obstacles to learning a new language, or how drinking may help you speak more fluently

My takeaway from studies of how alcohol may help you speak more fluently is that adults are anxiety-ridden and we self monitor our speech. I’m not going to encourage my college students to drink, but the example is a good way to illustrate that our hesitation and stumbling when speaking makes us sound less fluent — we’re so overly concerned about not coming off as unintelligent that we end up unintelligible. Thinking about my adult beginning students in Spanish and all of their self doubt, I created this list of the biggest obstacles to their learning, from my own observations.

  1. Frustration that you aren’t getting it quickly enough. Those students that I have had contact me this semester that have felt they are failing, are in fact doing very well. There is a misconception that you must have to understand everything and get everything right in order to pass, and that if it feels difficult you must be failing, when in fact confusion is perfectly normal. You may be pushing yourself out of your comfort zone if you are accustomed to things coming more easily. How to get past it – remember that being frustrated is normal, and take stock in your successes. What things can you say in Spanish that you couldn’t before? Instead of looking at the mountain ahead of you (which will always be there), remember to look behind you occasionally to see how far you’ve come.
  2. The fear of making mistakes holds a lot of us back, none of us want to sound foolish. We may not feel like ourselves when we speak another language because we aren’t able to communicate in the same way, which increases our anxiety. An important part of getting out of your comfort zone is putting aside your pride. Think of a time when someone for whom English is not their 1st language spoke to you and you had some difficulty understanding – did you make assumptions about that person’s intelligence or abilities to learn? Most likely you didn’t form any negative opinion about that person, and rather just focused on helping them to communicate. If you did find yourself frustrated with that person, you might think about the work it takes to learn English and the courage it takes to speak in another language. When you make a mistake and feel like giving up, remind yourself that you’re a beginner, and show yourself the same respect and encouragement as you would for someone learning your first language.
  3. Negative beliefs about your ability to learn a language – This is something that we hear about often with respect to STEM classes; assumptions about a lack of innate ability can inform your success in the area. For adult language learners these negative beliefs often come from high school experiences. Maybe in your HS WL courses were not required and most often taken by students that also excelled in English. Maybe the classroom environment didn’t foster the type of concentration required for learning. Maybe you did okay in the classroom but didn’t get the type of real world experience needed to build your confidence. You also may have seen kids pick up a language quickly and have developed the assumption that it’s too late once you’re an adult. The way in which you learn changes as you age, but that doesn’t mean that adults cannot learn a language! It only means that you need to find the way that works for you, and that will require patience.
  4. Lack of immersive experience – I truly believe that anyone can learn a language, because we see evidence of this outside of the classroom every day. For adults, we have time and financial constraints that prevent us from having immersion experiences necessary for proficiency. The extent to which this may be overcome depends on the individual’s circumstances, but recognition of this obstacle can help us be more understanding of our own progress. Remember that the more contact you have with the target language every day the better. Watching TV or listening to the radio in Spanish is great, but it won’t give you the messy and uncomfortable interactions that you need. There are likely experiences in your own community that you could explore that you may have been avoiding because of anxiety about going out of your comfort zone. Search for a local Spanish conversation Meetup. Or search online for learning programs that include interaction with Spanish speakers. Keep in mind that if you are learning Spanish there are lots of opportunities out there, and if you are feeling hesitant, remind yourself of the personal benefits that you will gain by doing something that’s hard. 

Strategies for teaching about the earthquake in Mexico and Puerto Rico after hurricane

The New York Times reported this week that almost half of Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens. That’s not a big surprise to me, as it’s a true/false question that I give to my students about the Spanish-speaking world and most get it wrong. I don’t think that’s because they are completely unaware that PR is part of the U.S., since they tend to know that Puerto Ricans serve in the U.S. military and can travel freely to the mainland, but they also know that Puerto Ricans don’t vote in the general election for president, so they look at me in disbelief when I say that they are indeed U.S. citizens by birth. I think it’s important to remember that while it may be new information, they are not disinterested.  

In an effort to teach about the devastation on the island after hurricane Maria, I would like to share what I covered in my intermediate Spanish class:

  1. I began class with T/F questions to test previous knowledge and then introduced basic vocabulary, and the term Estado Libre Asociado. I did find that students were engaged after the T/F questions since they did all get the citizenship question incorrect, and they were anxious to understand better.
  2. We looked at this article from BBC mundo about the neighborhood of La Perla and I showed them the beginning of the video for Despacito (believe it or not most of them haven’t heard of this song, they’re not nearly as interested in pop culture as I am).
  3. I then showed the entire video for Calle 13’s La Perla, ft. Rubén Blades. I asked them to  focus on the images that they saw and jot down some of the activities that they saw people doing. I then went through the post-hurricane images of La Perla for comparison, focusing largely on the skateboarding bowl. _97990025_img_0191image source
  4. We discussed the hopefulness in the video, for example I pointed out the children planting a garden, and contrasted that with the stark images from the article. I hope that reporting from the island will increase and I will soon be able to share more stories of reconstruction as well. We have been discussing music as well, so it was a good opportunity to ask about the rhythms that they heard and to identify the genre.
  5. We have also covered indirect object pronouns, so we analyzed a couple of lines from the chorus: “Aquí yo tengo de to’ no me falta na’ Tengo la noche que me sirve de sábana.”

Thank you to The Comprehensible Classroom for wonderful materials for teaching about the earthquake in Mexico, which inspired me to adapt a cultural lesson on universities in the Hispanic world to include the organizing and rescue efforts of students at La UNAM. As realia, they examined the poster “¡Nadie a las aulas, todxs a las calles!” filosofia_y_letras_0 

image source

I then introduced los Topos and hand signals that they use, all of which was very understandable to be able to stay in the TL, and a captivating lesson for the students.

My hope with these lessons is to demonstrate interconnectedness, in order to see more clearly the ways in which we can help. Thanks to all the educators doing the same!

First Day Strategies

Ca-ca cambios… First Day!

I have collected so much great information over the summer to set my classroom goals for this year, now 4 days before day 1 I’ve scrapped a major assessment that I designed and am rewriting the syllabus, again. More disciplinary engagement = more changes!

This academic year my goals are to advocate for language learning, to broaden my lesson planning towards a deeper understanding of culture, to connect my students to multilingual communities, and to show them how Spanish is useful to them in their communities.

Keeping this in mind, my strategies for the first day are:

  1. My particular anxiety is how to adapt the ideas that I have been collecting to a DE class. The modes of instruction that I use are simultaneous video. Last year I shied away from sticking to the TL and using truly communicative activities out of tech fatigue. This year I want to focus on what I can do. I loved Creative Language Class’ ideas for creating first impressions. I can prepare them for hearing only Spanish by having “pay attention – what do you understand?” on the screen as they come in. I can then introduce myself in the TL and then give a short intro to cognates and listening strategies.
  2. Tell them more about myself, and learn more about them. My natural instinct is to avoid talking about myself, but I forget to tell them about my own language journey. I also want them to learn about each other to start building community on day 1. I will bravely use the PQA techniques offered by Teaching Comprehensibly with Lauren Tauchman, getting them to use the microphones on the first day to announce commonalities with their classmates as they introduce themselves. 
  3. Begin with a strength-based approach. I’m going to talk to them about different learning styles and explain that they will find that there is one thing that they are very good at even while they may struggle in other areas. I will ask them to pay attention in the first week to what they think is easiest for them – listening, reading, writing, speaking. After getting to know their strengths I can look to those students to take the lead when doing activities based in their learning style.
  4. Finally, to remind them that they are not only language learners, but speakers. Which brings me to my last minute expectations change – I will have them keep a portfolio of contact with Spanish outside of class, adapted from a seminar I took led by Pablo Muirhead, and his resource handbook Strengthening Spanish Language Instruction: Practical Strategies for Strengthening Your Students’ Proficiency in Spanish, 2nd Ed. Objective: To recognize the ways in which Spanish is present in their community and taking advantage of opportunities to engage with Spanish outside the classroom.  The contacts could be beginning a conversation with someone, listening to a Spanish radio station, picking up a local Spanish newspaper, or attending a religious service in Spanish. In their reflections they will answer:


  • What was the activity? Describe the source/situation.
  • Did you understand everything that was said/heard/read? If not, what strategies did you use to understand?
  • If you were speaking, were you understood by the listener? If not, what strategies did you use to make yourself understood?
  • If you read something, what was the content? What communities is the publication written for? Describe the content.
  • List 2-3 words that you learned.
  • What is one thing that you discovered, that was new to you? Did you meet someone new, speak to someone that you know but that you’ve never spoken to in Spanish, become familiar with something that you did not know about before? IMG_20140425_161054_300


Language Advocacy Project

No quiero que se acabe el verano… but… 

I actually really enjoy writing lesson plans and syllabi, so I’m happy to get started! One of my teaching goals for this year is to rethink some of the projects and assessments that I’ve been hanging onto since I was a teaching assistant to be sure that they follow the objectives of leading towards proficiency and cultural literacy. One of those to be reconstructed is the cultural project, which requires students to go out into the community in search of opportunities to connect with Spanish-speaking cultures. The project has taken on different forms, from visual presentations to written reflections. The results are always mixed, with many students looking for the easiest options and presenting superficial results that misrepresent those cultures. Because I teach via distance I aim to create clear guidelines to avoid these pitfalls, but I continue to have the issue of students not taking the assignment seriously. Service learning would be a great alternative, but I don’t have that option.

This year I’m transforming this assignment into an advocacy project. Throughout the semester they will work in small groups to research a topic on Spanish language/cultures and then create something that can be shared with either the campus or the greater community. The objectives are twofold: to learn how an aspect of language study affects the student, and to promote language study. Students will talk about the experience and final results of the project during an informal presentation in English during the last weeks of class. I hope that they will be able to answer for themselves how they benefit from learning Spanish and in what ways their own bilingualism will benefit their community. 

Examples of topics: Why world language study is important in the U.S.; careers using world languages; psychological benefits of language study; Spanish language in your community; Hispanic Heritage Month.

Examples of projects include: Short video presentation that may be shared on campus FB page; participate in Latin American Student Organization activities and take pictures to share with class and campus; create a poster and host table in common area of campus; learn to prepare a local Hispanic dish and share the recipe; create book display of Latin@ authors in library; write a book review for campus paper of book by Latin@ author; write OpEd for local paper … any other creative ideas welcome!


Build Advocacy into your summer planning

Happy Summer! Whether you are teaching summer school, traveling with students, taking classes, or finding time to relax and enjoy time with family and friends, it is surely a little diversion from your busy routine during the academic year. However, we know that your teacher brain is always thinking of plans and good intentions for…

via Advocacy in Action — Wisconsin Association for Language Teachers

Slow teaching and learning in urgent times

For language instructors it may feel lately like our advocacy is falling short. The need for language learning in the 21st century is indisputable – we may cite that U.S. schools are falling behind other countries in FL skills, and share current research on the benefits of multilingualism , which only confirm what we already know from experience. Yet, we are faced with dwindling enrollment and curriculum requirements that do not fully meet the demands of the global marketplace. Our world language deficit requires a comprehensive response that looks at K-16 education as a whole, and the collective will does not appear to be there.

Much of this lack of will has to do with the general devaluing of the humanities; this is the struggle of Liberal Arts institutions as a whole that face drastic budget cuts to what were once considered core programs. Still, we might find ourselves in meetings with bottom-line types and realize that we can make an argument for WL courses that is pragmatic. Language skills are certainly a benefit in technical fields, especially health care. People outside of academia often say to me, “you teach Spanish? That must be in high demand!” When I say that it is not they are incredulous, and express how much they wish that they had better language skills. Undoubtedly there are economic benefits to being multilingual that people in a wide variety of careers recognize. So where is the disconnect? Why aren’t more businesses talking about the need for early language education so that they have the skilled workforce that they need? 

It’s important that we recognize that language learning is antithetical to the current demands of our economic system, in which we are valued as workers according to how much we can produce and how quickly. I hear the argument that one year of Spanish in college is a waste of time because you won’t be proficient in that amount of time, so why bother? The dedication and rigorous study needed to be advanced in a language, enough to be able to declare oneself bilingual, is practically impossible for working students that cannot afford to deviate from their academic plan. Of course taking even one semester of a language has benefits for one’s academic skills in other areas and can help one become a more broad-minded person, but this is difficult to quantify. Instructors then face immense pressure, as we need to market our classes to compete with slick advertising campaigns of language-learning software that promise quick results. If we’re not careful we can end up over-promising, and our classrooms may become less communicative and more about rote learning in order to provide feelings of immediate gratification. The truth is that there are no shortcuts. That learning a language as an adult at any age is daunting but rewarding, and it can change your life. In many ways I see the need for slow language learning as similar to other efforts to quiet our minds and resist instant gratification through mindfulness. The profession should grow and change, but we also need to be confident in our knowledge that promoting quality language instruction at all education levels requires patience, carefulness, and long-term vision.

Approaching Cultural Competence for Adult Students in the Spanish Classroom


I’m a professor of Spanish at 2yr college in Wisconsin, and have 10+ years teaching Spanish, culture, literature, and advocating for the humanities in any way I can. I moved from a 4yr research university to becoming part of the 2yr system in my hometown. I now share with many of my students the experience of being a first-generation college student in an area fueled by agriculture and manufacturing. What has intensified since I was in HS are the economic pressures – the majority of my students work close to full time, many 2nd and 3rd shift. The liberal arts have a tough sell when they compare living with debt to getting a decent paycheck right away in a factory. In my 3 years here I’ve often felt like I’m in marketing, trying to convincing them that language, which demands years of study, is actually worth their time and money. Slow reading, rigorous study, is a privilege. My goal is to collaborate with other educators to develop lesson plans and strategies that champion the intrinsic value of language learning (while also giving the necessary reminders that it will have economic value in their future).

One of the biggest challenges I have in this academic environment is moving beyond superficial cultural presentations towards cultural understanding and competence. When I find that they don’t understand a cultural concept that I know I spent a great deal of time on, honestly I probably chastise them first, but I do eventually realize that I may not have succeeded in presenting the topic in a way that shows them the value for their lives. They have been trained for looking for the information they will need for the test. The culture stuff is assumed to be fun; something extra to observe to hold their attention. It’s presented as tidbits that we take and use like giving yourself a Spanish name, and has entertainment value like the movie we watch for a break when everyone’s brains are too full of grammar. I haven’t communicated that culture is integral to language learning, and that it is a fundamental to being able to effectively view and interpret the world. 

So I’m starting small by offering the list below of 5 common cultural topics in 1st year textbooks, to which I added adjacent materials that provide a way to go below the surface culture while using comprehensible input. More to come!

1.Greetings:  the problem that arises in this section – stereotypes Hispanic people as being generally more gregarious and passionate. We can begin by discussing differences in greetings throughout the Spanish-speaking world. This article on business etiquette includes a guide to greetings by country in Latin America, which could be translated and adapted to provide comprehensible input for beginners.

2. Day of the Dead: we know that students expect to make altars and eat sugar skulls at some point, which is great, but I recommend also showing this gorgeous video by La Santa Cecilia (Calaverita 2016): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBSIyN1XuRo  My beginning and intermediate students are able to draw a lot from it through cultural comparisons, and undertake cultural analysis with questions such as: What is used to attract the souls of the dead? What do living and the deceased do together? What tone does the song have? What emotions do you witness?

3. Sports: this classroom discussion can wrong go fast from “fútbol is important in the Spanish-speaking world” (yes it is) to “Hispanic people care more about soccer than anything else. It’s like a religion “down there” (yikes!). To avoid that dead end road for the beginning class that may not yet be able to get into the cultural history of the sport, here’s a great list of the influence of Hispanic athletes worldwide, from basketball to racing.

And re: MLB, we can talk about cultural identity, bilingualism, and the power in language learning:  http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/26/519676864/how-major-league-baseball-came-to-officially-speak-spanish

4. Latin@s on television: Challenge students to not only list Latin@ celebrities (you know J-Lo, and that one singer from Colombia), but to explore stereotypes and the role of Spanish in U.S. popular culture. This article from NPR does this, with video clips that should encourage discussion.

5. Clothing – If you can access this episode from The State of Undress on Viceland dealing with Cholita fashion in Bolivia, it’s so good! It also includes Aymaran architect Mamani, lucha libre, and a segment on the importance of the coca leaf. After discussing the myriad ways of saying bluejeans, this year I will for sure cover el sombrero bombín and polleras.