NOTE: This report is part of a larger article, Action Research: Reseeing Learning and Rethinking Practice in the LOTE Classroom, published by the LOTE Center for Educator Development. Please access the main page for full text and copyright information.
Gigi Austin, Dallas ISD
I am an experienced English teacher who, at the start of this saga, was inexperienced at teaching Spanish to talented and gifted middle school students. I willingly chose to change subjects and grade levels and can now say I am glad that I did. Much transpired between that choice and “gladness,” however. This happy ending did not have a very happy beginning.
At week five of the current school year, my request to have my level two Spanish students sorted into native speaker and nonnative speaker classes backfired. It would have been a perfect divide since I have seventeen native speakers and forty-some nonnative speakers (three classes of seventeen). Due to scheduling conflicts, however, such a perfect divide was not possible. Schedule changes closed, and I was left to teach a beginner level Spanish II class of sixteen fluent Spanish speakers and six Anglo boys who were struggling to remember from last year how to count to one hundred in Spanish. As I saw it, I was about to be spread thinly into oblivion or snapped in half.
I had no doubt that the natives could already pass the final exam for the course before they stepped foot in the room. That is not to say they have nothing to learn about the language and culture. The issue was simply that the curriculum was not designed for their needs. The six Anglos, on the other hand, would need every bit of instruction and attention I could afford them. My priorities would obviously have to be with them.
The question then became, how do I teach these two groups simultaneously? What do I do with the natives? I had no materials for them nor the time to create any. Trying to just keep them busy and force-feeding them the Level II curriculum resulted in negative attitudes, low grades, and discipline problems— all of which had me at my wits’ end. I was angry, frustrated, afraid, and increasingly discouraged. It seemed as though no one understood why I felt this was a problem. After all, most teachers have to teach multi-level classes to some extent, and so my situation was the norm rather than a special case. Good teachers know how to meet their students’ needs and handle discipline problems, right? I started buying into the idea that the problem was not my circumstances but rather my inability to handle them.
Knowledge set me free. I began reading everything I could get my hands on about teaching native speakers. My hunches were verified, and soon I realized that I was not the problem after all. Everything I read indicated that, not only is it pedagogically unsound to teach the two groups together, but to teach a mother tongue as if it were a foreign language is a paved road to failure. It is common (and logical) for native speakers in a foreign language setting to have low grades and develop negative attitudes.
After gloating in the joy of being right, I went about the business of trying to make lemonade with my basket of lemons. I created some surveys in an attempt to find out how the natives felt about the class and what they wanted to learn and then, quite frankly, did nothing with the information because I had no time to create a curriculum from it. Next, I started gathering strategies from other teachers, books, workshops, and my imagination and then tried them out day by day, reflecting on their effectiveness in a dialogue journal. As the summary below indicates, some were more successful than others, but all were valuable in that I learned as much from what did not work as from what did.
The most common advice I received about how to teach the two groups was to use the natives as tutors. I tried this in various forms. One-on-one worked for correcting tests and assignments but was not useful for the presentation of new material. Also, I only had a handful of students who genuinely wanted to tutor. On one occasion, I assigned each group of three natives an Anglo to tutor, and then had the Anglos compete against one another in a game show. Everyone enjoyed the game part of it, but it was clear to me that the contestants had not been well prepared. My conclusion about peer tutoring is that it can only be effective if the native has a sincere interest in learning and teaching.
Another strategy I tried was to have a group of natives teach a culture section for each unit. I carefully planned the assignment, modeling it and providing oral and written instructions with a grading rubric. The first few weeks, I thought I had struck gold because while the natives were working in the library and computer lab, I was able to teach the others without so many distractions. Their final products, though, were of very poor quality, and I attribute it to not being able to coach them along the way. Who knows? With a different group of kids, this strategy may have produced splendid results.
A month or so ago I got the wonderful news that my school will be piloting a middle school native speaker program for our district. The textbooks and materials have already arrived, and I am trying out the placement tests on my current students. Perseverance paid off. I am leaving this research experience with a renewed commitment to the profession and deep sense of gratitude to Elaine Phillips, Rick Donato, and my ARI project mates for pouring the sugar into my lemonade and helping me stir.