Upper School Foreign Language Teaching and Learning

Jennifer Silver

Upper School Foreign Language Teaching and Learning

Introduction by Yvonne Domings, Upper School Director

How many of us remember much of our high school and college foreign language courses? I certainly remember my high school French teacher, who was lovely, but spoke French with an American English accent and did a lot of “drill and kill” activities like memorizing vocabulary while tossing a bean bag around the room--very effective in terrorizing the student who was the target of the next toss, but not particularly engaging or effective.

In reflecting back on my language learning experiences both in high school and college, I realize that I learned more about parts of speech (e.g. first person singular and plural) and about how the target language compared to English than I did about how to communicate in the target languages. In studying the learning sciences in graduate school, it became clearer to me that this language learning technique was similar to the way I had learned math: memorizing formulas in math was like memorizing vocabulary in language class. Although useful for the test, it was not actually useful when I tried to apply it to real life! Needless to say, to this day I know a lot of vocabulary, but still choke when it comes to speaking any of the three languages I have studied in my lifetime.

I’m proud to say that at Sparhawk School, we believe strongly in not only making learning fun, but also in making sure learning can be applied to real life. By varying the way we present information, varying the way we allow students to demonstrate what they know and varying the way we engage students with the material, we have a better chance of reaching all of the students in our classrooms (CAST.org). In our foreign language classes, we do all of this and more. Languages cannot be fully understood without a real understanding of the way people who speak those languages think and view the world. We teach culture alongside language as the other side of the coin. Many of our students supplement foreign language learning with a trip during Winterim that allows them to not only practice speaking the language, but also to expand their worldview and develop global awareness--an important 21st century skill (P21.org).

As a school, we are fortunate to have foreign language teachers who are all native speakers of the languages they teach. In addition, each of them have a deep understanding of the culture(s) in which these languages are spoken. This knowledge adds a richness to language learning that is vital. Each of our teachers are amazing pedagogues who believe that application of language from the beginning (learning to read, write, listen and speak in the target language) is as important as memorizing vocabulary. Below, I present to you, a description of the exciting ways that each of them excites our students by making this magic happen every day in their classrooms.

Spanish Upper School

By Marta Kelley

When I was studying English back in Spain, I never thought I would end up having to use it on a daily basis here in the States. You never know where life is going to take you, which is why I always remind my students of how important it is to take learning a language seriously. Languages open doors and connect people from different cultures. Languages help us grow and be more understanding of others. Besides, let’s be honest, being fluent in a foreign language? That’s pretty cool too!

My goal as the Upper School Spanish teacher at Sparhawk is to help my students be able to speak Spanish in real-life situations. In my opinion, languages need to be taught within a context and used in meaningful ways. For this reason, while more traditional activities are always useful to give the students a structured grammatical foundation, I always like to organize my units within themes and topics. An example of this can be seen with my Spanish 5 students, with whom I have started a unit on work life and who are currently learning how to write and structure resumes and cover letters in Spanish.

For me, culture and history also play an essential role in language teaching, which is why they are always present in my curriculum. My students learn about the Spanish Civil War through documentaries, research, movies and class discussion. They celebrated the Day of the Dead at a Mexican restaurant, where we were able to taste “Pan de Muerto”, a typical sweet bread eaten on that day. They had a cooking class at the end of our unit on Spanish tapas. Finally, they have learned about the different languages spoken in Spain and have had an opportunity to hear what those languages sound like. My Spanish 2 students learned and discussed the challenges Spanish-speaking immigrants face when crossing the border and starting from scratch in a different country. My Spanish 5 students read and analyzed poems written by well-known Spanish and Hispanic writers, after having learned about their lives.

Last but not least, at the end of every unit, I try to assign fun projects that allow them to demonstrate the skills in a context. To conclude our unit on the conditional verb tense, for example, I asked my Spanish 3 class to create a one-page comic strip where they included two examples of the conditional while creating a cohesive story. To finish our unit on shopping and clothing, I assigned my Spanish 1 students two projects. For the first one, they had to create their own shop and include information such as: name, location, hours of opening, products, sales, etc., which they then had to present to the class. They did an amazing job! For another project, they had to pretend their best friend was getting married, but they still had not bought an outfit! They had to draw an outfit and write a paragraph describing it, using the vocabulary and grammar structures they had learned in class. In each of these projects, they demonstrate understanding of a specific goal (e.g. the ability to use the conditional tense) without needing to be drilled on vocabulary and grammar. My Spanish class is a place for students to learn and grow in a fun and enjoyable way, while also being challenged and asked to leave their comfort zones!

French Upper School

By Anne McCoy

As a language teacher, I strongly believe that learning a language should be a lively experience. It’s very hard to understand how a language is used if you’re just sitting at a desk and filling out worksheets. Students learn better when they move around the room, use their bodies, and try to relate to the people who speak the language they are learning. I use a lot of  different materials, not just a textbook, but props, videos, music etc. It is very important to play with the language in various ways: we say, write, draw and act out the words. Students make things, since a lot of students learn by creating. They can show their talents in drawing, painting, etc. That is why I believe that projects are very important. Students are more engaged in their work when they study something of interest to them.

I also believe that learning a language should be fun. It is fun to realize that without much knowledge, you can make yourself understood. You can use pictures, body language, sounds—all sorts of tools that can help you communicate. That is what we do in French class. We don’t just learn words, we communicate using various means. We keep it simple at first and build up from there. We use the new vocabulary or grammar rule in context. We do regular activities, such as going over vocabulary words and grammar rules and practice them until we can use them in sentences and in dialogues.

When I introduce new material, I try to make it personal right from the beginning to make it real for the students. For example, in French 1, we often start a chapter by brainstorming some words, and then dive into the new vocabulary. Quickly, we make it personal: “Here is a house, here is an apartment”...”So what about you….where do you live? In a house or in a apartment”, “what town is it in”, and so on. After the learning the new vocabulary, we write it down and practice at home on Quizlet. We then use it in class again, with a starting activity that puts us in a speaking mode right away. The students like to draw, so we draw a lot such as when learning the vocabulary about houses and apartment, we drew them, on paper, on the board, and then they did a project where they described a house for sale. Another way for the students to appropriate the language after being exposed to new vocabulary and grammar, is to carry out surveys with their classmates and report their findings on a chart. We did this exercise when we learned verbs (such as: do you like to watch TV? Do you like to talk on the phone?, etc).

For our first projects, our French 1 students, chose regions of France they had to locate, in addition to finding some fun facts about them and some culinary examples. In French 2,3 and 4, we do most of the same things but with more writing and reading. Our goal in the High School is to be able to communicate orally but also in writing. This year, we varied our reading and written pieces, pushing it to including mysteries! We read some murder short stories from France and had to figure out who the murderers were. It was a great way to use the imperfect and passé composé tenses that the students had just learned. In addition to our reading and writing activities, the French 2-3 made a video of their own story. They acted out, filmed and wrote the story. Then the inspector explained how he found out who the murderer was. It was very fun!

In French 4, we focus more on life in France and outside of France. We talk about the media and teenagers, young people’s languages, their hobbies and how they spend their money. We try to compare France with the U.S.A. but also with other French speaking countries. This year we took some time to study an animated movie entitled A Cat in Paris. It was a nice way to review a lot of old vocabulary, as well as to study the cinematography and the music played throughout the movie. The characters were interesting and the story unique.

Finally, a very important part of teaching a language is teaching the culture. A language comes with its cultures, not just one culture, but the many cultures where the language is spoken. Cultures vary from one country to another, and that provides a richness that I can teach to the students. The students love to learn about other cultures, so we always celebrate the main traditions in France, such as Kings’ Day (with our cake), April Fools’ day (with our fish), birthdays (with our French song), and Mardi Gras or la Chandeleur (Candlemas, with our crêpes). We like to include French food. Even when we study regions of France, the students find a way to bring French food to class.  Through language and culture, learning a language is learning other ways of thinking and seeing the world.

Mandarin Chinese, Upper school

By Jasmine Carbone

As a Mandarin teacher at Sparhawk Upper School, my role is not only to teach the students language but also how to use the language. My curriculum is designed around project-based learning (PBL) and topic-based learning (TBL). Both are great ways of developing language skills via meaningful tasks. Throughout the task-completion process, the applicable materials are identified and explained as the task is being carried out.  Students use the topics to build up vocabularies, working with rising sentences (forming sentences using the vocabulary), as well as learn the relevant cultural aspects. For example, an e-book mini-biography project for Chinese 3 & Chinese 5 class: students and teacher work together to identify an interesting context, study the materials, then apply the learned knowledge into delivering the task. While students seek out the language skills to use in their projects, they develop a deeper understanding and grow to appreciate the language.  

The Upper School Mandarin classroom is a student-centered classroom. My teaching philosophy is to motivate and push the students to reach their full potential. We use lots of hands-on activities to make learning fun and efficient.  Students write and draw, watch videos, play games (i.e. Pictionary, Bingo), and use applications like Quizlet and Kahoots. The students work in pairs and groups, such as interviewing each other, making their own videos, to gain more language exposure in an authentic and cooperative way.  Often the students are so engaged that they are not aware the class time is over.