Teacher Montse and the Middle School Spanish Program
From the get-go at FFS, students begin to realize that “learning Spanish” is more than just learning how to speak a different language; it is a doorway into understanding that there is a great big world beyond their experienced communities, and that learning about different cultures enriches our lives.
Beginning with the Pre-Kindergarten class, students take Spanish class twice a week at Frankford Friends School. They learn about different Spanish speaking cultures and develop a strong foundation of basic vocabulary through a variety of engaging activities, many of which students look forward to as they move from grade to grade. By the time students reach fifth grade, they are ready to take on a more in-depth, five day a week Spanish program, led by Middle School Spanish teacher and sixth grade advisor, Teacher Montse Roda-Bencells. A native of Barcelona, Spain, Montse is a scholar of linguistics and world languages. Any observer in one of Montse’s classes can immediately feel the passion she has for teaching young people about Spanish culture and language, and most of all, for her students. And, in return, Middle School students quickly become passionate about learning Spanish as well. It is no surprise that upon graduation from 8th grade, many of our students are placed into advanced level Spanish classes in their new high schools.
The first thing you will notice when visiting any of Teacher Montse’s classes is that EVERYONE speaks Spanish. With many visual aids in place and a strong sense of community, even those students who are new to FFS and with no background in language quickly come to realize that they are in a safe space where they can take risks, make mistakes, and have a voice, in Spanish! Make no mistake, though, this is not a Spanish Immersion program. Teacher Montse is cognizant of the affective filter, meaning that when students are put in a stressful situation (such as being in a class where only Spanish is spoken) the anxiety levels of some students are raised, creating an obstacle to their progress. Though Teacher Montse encourages everyone to speak in Spanish as much as possible, with growing expectations as students move up each year, English is spoken to translate or as needed to delve into conversations about the language.
Part of Montse’s practice involves using teaching gestures. An uninformed guest may wonder what they are seeing, but the students surely understand. Teaching Spanish for Montse is not just about using her voice, it is about using her voice with intense inflection, in conjunction with arm and hand gestures, an array of facial expressions, and again, with passion. For example, students know that they should all answer a question together because of a simple hand gesture made while the question is asked in Spanish. It is truly an amazing sight to see!
Beyond what is visible to the general observer comes a tremendous amount of planning, preparation, and learning. In a recent interview, Montse shared with me the background of her work.
Adrienne Avery: What makes your Spanish program unique compared to other language programs?
Montse: The approach I use to teach Spanish is called Comprehensible Input (CI), based on the research of Dr. Stephan Krashen in the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Dr. Krashen has developed five hypotheses that pivot on the belief that language learners best acquire a new language when they are fully absorbed in the message, even if they do not fully understand all of the words they hear or read. In order to build long-lasting proficiency in a second language, teaching must target internal, mental representations of the language, which cannot be learned from memorizing lists or formulae.
The uniqueness of this approach has three aspects. First, it targets real communication instead of mastering learned grammatical formulas or vocabulary lists that do not lead to authentic language acquisition. This is the main pitfall of grammar based approaches: they teach about the language, but not the actual use of the language itself. Second, this approach recognizes the individuality of each student while processing language acquisition. As Dr. Krashen explains in his natural order hypothesis, “students progress along the natural order in the same order, but at different paces.” Finally, the third aspect is that this approach highlights the importance of having a warm, relaxed, focused and stress-free classroom environment in order to have successful results in language acquisition. Students need to feel comfortable, welcomed, celebrated, and valued so that their affective filters (their level of anxiety) stay low and do not become an obstacle for their learning.
A: Over the past few summers you have been deeply involved in your own learning experiences to expand upon and improve your teaching practices. What did that look like for you?
M: I have spent the last two summers attending a summer institute called the Stepping Stones Curricular Framework, which focuses on learning and expanding upon the CI approach to teaching a second language. We learn the specific framework of Stepping Stones and how to put it into practice within our curriculum. The beauty of it is that they give you a daily framework, but you, the teacher, are still free to incorporate what you want (and need) in terms of content. For my middle school classes, each individual lesson using the framework takes about three days to complete. The Reading Workshop component lasts much longer because we read a Spanish novel in each class, each trimester.
A: I’m curious about the Reading Workshop and Shared Reading/Writing components. This sounds a lot like the curriculum that we use at FFS for English Language Arts, Units of Study, Reading and Writing Workshop Framework, which was developed by Lucy Calkins at Teachers College, Columbia University. Are they connected?
M: Tina Hargaden is the developer of the Stepping Stones Curricular Framework. Before being a foreign language teacher, Tina was an ELA teacher and a remedial reading teacher who studied with Lucy Calkins at Columbia. Tina’s framework for teaching a second language follows the same framework that Calkins developed. Both of these models focus on a sequence of language functions: description, narration, information, opinion, and argument.
A: What differences have you have seen in terms of student progress/learning since you have started to use this model?
M: With this approach, students are less worried about making mistakes, so they are more apt to speak and write in Spanish more freely. I explicitly tell them that mistakes are welcomed and are part of the process to acquire a second language. I can tell that my approach is working when students in eighth grade still remember stories we worked on together in years past. They would never remember specific drilling activities such as conjugating practices, even though they have picked up the natural rhythm of the language and are able to have a simple conversation in Spanish. This does not mean that we never work on Spanish grammar, just that we do not focus on the traditional “drills” of memorizing and practicing grammar rules. The CI framework is flexible enough to allow sporadic grammar mini-lessons. Just as students do in their English literacy classes, we listen to what sounds right or wrong when we are reading, and we edit what looks right and wrong when we are writing. Some students are very interested in learning the grammar of the language and want to have this explicit knowledge. When we do work on grammar skills, I target the structured and conscious learning part of the brain.
A: Within this framework, how do you find room for autonomy in your teaching?
M: While this framework and curriculum informs my teaching and the structure of my program, it is still a flexible program that is meant to be personalized in order to meet the needs of different learners. And this is what I try to do every year based on the experience of the year before and my knowledge of my current groups of students. I tell my students that they need to do their 50% while I do my 50%, which is to be the best possible teacher I can be, preparing for my classes, giving feedback, and always being available for my students when they need support. Students need to do their 50% by listening with the intent to understand, by participating in class, by following directions, and everything else that goes into having the successful results we all want for them!