A) allows you to spend time with people that you like
B) you enjoy doing
C) you are good at or at least capable of
D) will help better your life in the short or long term
Each year, we ask students to make a similar decision when we ask them to sign up (or not sign up) for the next language course. There are numerous reasons why students choose to continue or not continue their study of the Spanish language. One of our jobs as language teachers, a subject that is still an elective in most schools, is to make it more likely that students will choose to continue than not. We have to be marketers, whether we like it or not, if we want to sustain our program and ultimately our jobs.
There are surely many factors working against us in this...
- Technology is getting better at allowing people to communicate with people that speak another language without actually having to KNOW that other language
- 75% of Americans don't speak a second language which increases the chances (especially in certain geographical areas) that students have no role models with this skill except for the teacher
- Second language study is not required for graduation in most states
- Competition from other programs that attract high-achieving students such as College Credit Plus programs, Post-Secondary Options, and A.P. courses
Many of these things are beyond our immediate control, but some things are not. The same motivations that you had for choosing how to spend your free time on Saturday are not all that different from what motivates (or demotivates) our students from continuing their language study. The good news, is that a teacher or...better yet...a whole department of teachers can have a big impact on those factors.
Do your students feel prepared for and capable of continuing?
Being prepared is a two way street of course. The best teacher in the world can't prepare students who are not willing, but these are not the students you want in your program anyway! Attracting students to continued language study begins with your quality of teaching. Better teachers retain more students.
Is your class enjoyable?
Many teachers resent the dog and pony show that they feel kids expect today. Today's students are no longer content to sit quietly as the teacher lectures them on grammar rules and hands out conjugation worksheets. Truthfully, they shouldn't be content with that - if that sort of teaching produced fluent Spanish speakers, we wouldn't have 75% of the country not able to hold a conversation in another language. Nor would you have to hear "I took two years of Spanish in high school and all I can say is HOLA" from every third parent at conferences.
Making your class enjoyable does not mean that you have to play games every day and throw "fiestas" every other week. An enjoyable class starts with you and the relationship you have with your students. It comes from putting yourself in the place of your students while at the same time making decisions as a teacher. More than anything, teenagers enjoy each other. If you can plan activities that allow them to express themselves and learn about each other, even the driest topic can become interesting. If you can be vulnerable and honest and share yourself with your students - your mistakes, your successes, your sense of humor - they will enjoy spending time with YOU and you will enjoy spending time with them. They will do what you want them to do because they care about you and trust that you have their best interests at heart. If you build a relationship with them and help them to build working relationships with each other, they will enjoy their time in your classroom. When you chose how to spend your Saturday, you wanted to spend it with people you like doing something you enjoy. Your class can become that and your students will want to come back year after year.
Will your class benefit your students in "real life"?
As the teacher, of course you understand how and why these skills are useful for the future. You will find parents that also understand this because of their experiences in the work force. If you teach in an area where there are a lot of Spanish-speakers, your students may already see how these skills are useful. If you teach in northeastern Ohio like I do, you may have to work a little harder to show students how their Spanish language skills will benefit them in the future.
The best thing I ever did was switch to a proficiency-based model of teaching. Everything we do is geared at preparing students for a real-life task. It is not about learning how to conjugate verbs in the imperfect tense for some unknown purpose. It is about teaching students to fill out the questionnaire at the doctor's office, navigate the metro, buy groceries and successfully follow a recipe. It's about helping kids FUNCTION in a Spanish-speaking world, relate to Hispanic co-workers, and have a more exciting trip or vacation. These types of things mean something to students. They don't have to ask "when am I ever going to use this?" because they already are using it.
Case in Point
Since the merger of the two high schools in our district 4 years ago, we have seen a drastic decrease in the number of students continuing to upper level language courses. Many of our students study the language for just two years. By the end of the third year, we have a handful of students left. So we had to start looking at what the numbers were telling us. The numbers were telling us that certain teachers had a much higher percentage of their students continue to study the language, and other teachers had hardly anyone chose to continue after spending the year with them.
The numbers spoke louder than the grades did. Some teachers had students who earned C's still wanting to continue while other teachers had A students jumping ship. Some teachers had "rough" kids that were eager to keep going while other teachers had star students that just didn't want to do it anymore.
So what do you do? If you have a department with multiple Spanish teachers, experiment with which teachers teach which courses. Identify the teachers who are losing students so that the rest of you can assist - can you swap classes occasionally so that you have contact with those students? Can you team up and do some activities together? Be honest with one another, discuss your strengths and weaknesses, and set reachable goals. Once a program has been damaged, you are not going to change it over night, but if you keep these things in mind you will reach a tipping point.
Ten years ago, at a high school of about 1,000 students we had 15 students in Spanish 4 and 5 students in Spanish 5. After just 3 years of concerted effort, we had 100 students in Spanish 4 and 25 in Spanish 5 despite our student body being the same size. Today, it is time for us to look at this again. With the shuffling of teachers and courses now being chosen by seniority, our numbers have again dwindled. But the good news is that there ARE things that we as teachers can control if we are committed to growing and building our program.