Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners

Last June I gathered a group of educators to reflect on their classes for heritage learners of Spanish. Today I am releasing to the world the first fruits of our collaboration. We have produced a fine book of essays that I think will be very useful for teachers new to teaching heritage speakers. Below I have copied the introduction that describes each essay:

This collection of personal essays addresses an urgent problem in language education: how to teach heritage learners of Spanish.

cover-face-2 Perhaps it is the Californian in me, but I believe that reaching heritage learners is the pressing but often ignored challenge facing our profession. Every year I am contacted by teachers who, willingly or unwillingly, are thrust into a new teaching challenge for which they are deeply unprepared. I was unprepared when I started teaching heritage learners. My impression is that there are departments who are farming out their heritage learners’ classes to the newest, least prepared teachers because these classes tend to be hard to teach. I have read about departments that urge heritage learners to simply abandon their home language in favor of a foreign one. My hope is to collaborate and gather so much classroom wisdom in one book that my colleagues will confidently approach their courses with joy.

These essays were written by practicing classroom teachers. We recognize that the teaching situation that each educator faces is unique. Far from describing an ideal approach to teaching heritage learners, many of these essays depart from the very imperfect reality that teachers actually confront. The most dysfunctional element of the program at my school happens before classes begin with the placement decisions that determine whether students are even placed in the heritage learners’ track. The opening essay of this collection describes the evolution of my approach to student placement. I was tempted to bury this essay because it describes one of my most embarrassing failures as a teacher; I hope that others learn from my mistakes.

In the second essay Carol Gaab sets the tone for the remainder of the book by reminding us that compelling, highly comprehensible reading materials provide the best paths to literacy. I am always surprised when teachers downplay the role of easy reading in their classes. It is through easy reading that non-readers become readers. Dragging students through difficult, classic works of literature or less-than-compelling thematic units may expose students to unknown vocabulary, but they utterly fail in leading students to love reading. Our courses must nurture our students to become lifelong readers so that they continue to develop their literacy long after the course has ended.

This idea of creating a compelling experience is the subject of Sean Lawler´s essay. Using a television program as an anchor text, Sean describes how he made use of the interest generated by the program to provide reading experiences appropriate to multiple levels. The reality of at least some of our students is that the school culture alienates them long before they reach our classes. Those of us who are not obligated to follow a particular textbook should look to popular culture in order to attract otherwise disaffected students.

I have come to the conclusion that easy pleasure reading should be the major element of any program designed for heritage learners. In the fourth essay of the collection I provide a description of my easy reading program, “An Easy Approach to Teaching Highly Differentiated Classes”. The essay is followed by a list of the most student-appreciated titles that are currently included in my classroom library.
Adrienne Brandenburg describes how she developed her metaphorical sea legs while teaching classes for heritage learners. The key realization for Adrienne was recognizing that very few of us were trained to teach these courses. Our instincts as second language teachers often lead us to adopt approaches that are incompatible with the task at hand. In her essay “Adopting a Language Arts Approach” Adrienne advocates that we work much closer with colleagues in the English department. One of the things that appeals to me about Adrienne’s essay is the underlying recognition that, even among well-trained CI teachers, the instincts to return to discredited legacy methods of language teaching resurface quickly when under duress. Spelling lists, direct grammar instruction, vocabulary lists: these have all largely disappeared from English language arts classes in favor of planning highly-contextualized teaching moments.

When I consider the main goals that I have developed for my heritage learners classes, I distinguish three objectives: to develop students’ identities as readers, to develop their interest in their heritage and the Spanish-speaking world and, the subject of the fifth essay, to broaden their language community to include many dialects and variations of Spanish.

Broadening their language community does not mean that I want to fundamentally change the way that they speak Spanish (i.e. trying to develop an Argentine accent among Mexican-American students), but rather make them more aware and accepting of the beautiful diversity within the Spanish language. I have grown to believe that this is not just a casual flourish to adorn the “real” curriculum; some students come to class with such a strong desire to exclude what does not sound right to them that it becomes a barrier to developing their own language. My Mexican-American students whose exposure to Spanish is limited to their family and friends will often resist expressions common even in Mexican popular culture if they are not familiar with them. The teaching solution to the persistent student reaction that “we do not say it like that” is simply to articulate the broadening of language community as a fundamental goal of the course.

Wendy Gómez Campos writes about structuring her program with the end goal being that students successfully pass the AP Spanish language exam. Being successful in an AP course can be enormously empowering for heritage speakers whose families have a limited experience with college. AP Spanish can form the cornerstone to a concerted, school-wide push to attract more heritage speakers to sign up for more highly-academic college track courses.

The essay introducing Krashen´s concept of language shyness is really a short presentation to push educators to read Krashen´s original paper, which is available for free on his website. In my opinion, language shyness is the key concept that all educators of heritage speakers need to understand.

Katherine Thornburgh´s essay on goal setting describes the confusion and struggle that teachers new to heritage learners’ classes may experience. This is an essay about process rather than outcomes; it is an important read for educators who demand so much of themselves that they feel like constant failures in heritage speakers classes. While Katherine´s essay is about her plans to include students in the goal-setting process, just as valuable is the way that she uncovers the reflective process behind effective teaching that I had hoped to nurture when I gathered this community of educator-writers. It is through the writing process, Krashen notes, that our thinking is developed. I hope that more teachers write more about their difficult classes as a path towards imaging a new reality.

In the final essay, Beyond the Classroom, Barbara A. Davis reflects on the unexpected challenges of educating heritage learners in a culture that does not always appreciate the task at hand. An observant teacher of heritage learners quickly gets an insight into how our institutions and cultural practices can come together to present unnecessary obstacles for heritage speakers.

It is my hope that this first edition is quickly followed by an expanded second edition. There are so many facets to this uniquely difficult class that we have not covered and, honestly, I believe that the format of the essay lends itself better to deep introspection than the online forums that have emerged. Or rather, it is a question of tactics versus strategy; the online forums address problems as they arise while the essay encourages a more thoughtful approach. I welcome original essays as well as thoughtfully developed lesson plans which demonstrate a useful approach to classes for heritage learners. The profits from sales of this collection of essays are reinvested into the classroom libraries of the contributors.

Mike Peto
San Diego,
October 2016

For the next two weeks there will be a discount of $2 if you order the book directly from the publisher: https://www.createspace.com/6710481 Use the code YEGVMSNR to get the discount.

7 comments

  1. Can’t wait to buy this book this week! Thank you for sharing! I can not express how much you have helped me getting the Heritage learners program up and running at my school 😀

  2. So excited to have just purchased the book ref’d here.

    FYI, when I was taken to the “Payment” tab, it was not at all easy to figure out how to put in credit card information. I eventually confirmed my shipping address and was able to get to it that way, but others may not be so persistent.

    Thank you so much for the hope you inspire to those of us who expect more results and interest out of our teaching!

    Greg

    ________________________________

  3. Hey Mike, You may have mentioned this before; if so, I’m sorry. Does your school/district have separate classes or sections for heritage learners vs. native speakers? We currently have them both in the same classes, but are thinking about splitting them up. What are your thoughts and experiences with that?

    • I have heard of districts splitting heritage learners into several levels (and native speakers often just placed into the top level), but I have not considered the two paths. Interesting, it makes sense if you have a large enough population of native speakers.

  4. Dear Mike, I am TPRS teacher towards the end of my career. I’m living the dream teaching 6th, 7th and 8th graders for 45 minutes, 2 days a week. It is an elective and they have no final exam. I can do whatever I want in the class. The desks are gone. Each class has a different beginner reader. We use the Cuentame mas book a bit. BTW, my FVR library stinks because I gave most of my books away when I thought I was retiring. With so precious little time I want to be efficient. Your blog about next 100 years really inspired me. I really could just sit and chat with them. 7th grade boy are the most “squirrely”…..but the rest are good at “the game”. What would you do if you could live this dream?

    Cathy McElfresh Covenant Day School Charlotte NC

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s