Chris Lemon, Northmont High School, Clayton, OH (Spanish Teacher, Department Chair)
A young woman from Spain fell in love with a man from Chile, moved there with him and made a family. Along the way Ofelia discovered democracy and political organizing and volunteered for Salvador Allende’s presidential campaign. Along with many other people at the time, she and her family were rounded up shortly after the September 11, 1973 coup and detained for many months. Thanks to her Spanish citizenship, they were deported rather than disappeared, and she has lived the last 40 years of her life in Sweden.
Two years ago, my brother and I made a trip to Santiago, Chile to see the mountains, the museums, and the stars. When we were at the Museo de la Memoria, I bought a copy of Ofelia’s autobiography, Mi historia – y un viaje al fin del mundo. She left it in the gift shop when she flew back there for the first time in many years to give a speech not long before my own trip.
This school year, our instructional time was cut by about 25%, our first quarter was remote, the rest has been hybrid, and we all know how much our students’ learning was stunted in Spring 2020. So, this year we decided to take a step back and ask ourselves what matters most. Maybe your answers are different than mine, but what I chose to focus on was an emphasis on stories, real and imagined (see Krashen article on Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition here), project-based learning and remote exchange. All three of these were already a part of our teaching practice, but they have really taken off now.
We celebrated our third year of video pen pals with la Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, and this year we had about 80-90% of people show up regularly. This compares to about 50% or lower the past two years, in large part because the university students have been online the whole year. The students spoke half of the time in English, half in Spanish, formed new friendships, and incorporated what they learned into class.
Like most of my guests, the UAEM connection started because I met a teacher many years ago who introduced me to another, who then passed this project on to a professor who was interested. I lived in México as an English Teaching Assistant ten years ago, so it is always nostalgic for me to work with these students. I decided with my principal that it would be best to be logged into each of the conversations, which led to accusations from colleagues that I am one screen short of an intervention. I felt like “El Profesor” from Casa de papel.
Other guests joined us remotely, including a student teacher (also from UAEM) and people who live or used to live in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay, and the US. Many were connections (or connections of connections), including former teachers of mine who graciously volunteered their time. In Spanish IV, we study the history of democracy and autocracy in the Spanish-speaking world, and my colleagues helped me track down a former exchange student of ours who came in and talked about how it affected her family and its legacy today.
And I got to thinking… What about Ofelia? It took a few days to get up the courage, and then I direct messaged her on social media and went about my day teaching. Within thirty minutes, she got back to me with a long message about how touched she was that I had reached out and that she would love to come! So, I had my Spanish IV students read some excerpts from her book and run some questions by me. The day came and went and I couldn’t have been prouder of them or happier to have her along. This was right after January 6th, too, so we had a lot to talk about…
So is it working? What effect does sociocultural learning have on students as they work towards language proficiency? Our upper-level students all take the AAPPL test to identify Seal of Biliteracy recipients, and this year my CCP third-year students and our fourth-year students beat the national average scores on that test in all four categories, averaging above Intermediate Mid-3 (I-3) in each area and +1.2 over the national average for the Interpersonal Listening & Speaking. Nine students earned the Seal with I-5 or higher in all four areas and eleven got I-5 or higher in three areas. Some are still waiting on results yet to come in, along with our German students who took the test for the first time this year.
Is it all sunshine and rainbows? Certainly not. We had a pen pal project set up with a school in Ecuador that totally flopped. There was a severe mismatch of ability levels in a couple of the video pen pal groups, and some of my students didn’t show up to their Meets. I didn’t give a few guests enough lead time to come in, and others were cancelled due to snow days. Many students who I began the year thinking were shoo-ins for the Seal of Biliteracy came frustratingly close or lost momentum this year.
As we head into the home stretch, savor those victories from the year and recognize those students who really grew. They might still sound rough around the edges but honor the work that they (and you) put in to get from where they started to where they are now. I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks as my students will be presenting to each other about a variety of topics that they chose, from Machu Picchu to bee conservation to pets in Latin America.
Next year will be a whole new adventure, and I am proud to be an educator! ¡Feliz verano! Happy Summer!