New Teachers, New Perspectives
This summer, NEIA hired four new Languages teachers: two Spanish instructors (Sara Guerra and Maria Camacho), two Mandarin instructors (River Hansen and Li Xie). These four, since starting in August, have formed a close-knit group. In between teaching classes, during their free block, you’ll find them congregating at their usual table in the West Library, grading, sharing lesson plans that have worked, sharing lesson plans that they need help improving, and laughing.
“We like we have fun together but then we can also get down to business,” Sara said. “There’s so many crossovers. Obviously, they’re two very different languages. Two totally different alphabets. But we’re actually able to find common ground in a lot of the ways that we’re teaching students and reaching students. I think our department speaks to modern languages, it’s world languages, together.”
Last year, NEIA pivoted away from its previous commitment to The Rassias Method®. Core to NEIA’s mission is an institution-wide philosophy to always innovate and iterate, even when a certain aspect of our school may be operating “well enough.” Last school year, our administration decided it was time to move on from Rassias, to find a method that would better fit our school’s design and goals.
Chances are, you don’t know the long history of how Americans have learned languages. It’s more complicated than you might think. One of the consequences of World War Two was the U.S. Department of Defense realized that the way they were teaching languages in schools didn’t actually prepare them to speak those languages in other countries. Up until then, language learning was being treated like any other academic subject. Students were being taught to read the language, not to apply it. Today, because of technology, we have many more opportunities to converse with a German speaker than an American citizen did in the 1950s. Students need to be able to both read, write, AND speak in the language. The Rassias Method was one of many creative methods to be invented around this time. It promoted the idea that second language acquisition is the same as first language acquisition, throwing a ton of inputs at students with the assumption that they would eventually pick it up. However, it might not be the best way for our students.
“What a lot of research now is showing,” River said, “is the input can’t just be input. It has to be comprehensible. And there has to be some sort of impetus, whether it’s coming from the teacher or the student, there has to be some sort of impetus to try to use it in production. Some students were getting quite a bit out of the Rassias Method. Some students were very passive and still very hesitant and unconfident when using the language… So right now I think that that is an emphasis for us to kind of bridge that gap.”
As with all subjects at NEIA, the Mandarin teachers want their students to have agency in their education. To learn at their pace, in their way. Both River and Li looked forward to the challenge of building a new curriculum.
“It’s exciting,” Li said. “We build the curriculum and they support us. They give you the freedom to teach the material you want. So they’re very supportive of us… I will be more creative with my teaching. I will try something that I’ve always wanted to try but I didn’t have a chance to do in the past in public school systems. “
The languages department is now NEIA following the Massachusetts state-wide standards. They find NEIA’s competency-based assessment freeing, allowing them to focus on the actual content and learning goals rather than arbitrary grades. (No more trying to translate language proficiency into a numerical or letter grade!) Every lesson comes back to one of the three P’s: People, Practice, Perspective.
Together, River believes their experience with how to learn a language, mixed with Li’s history of working in Massachusets schools, living the culture, and speaking Mandarin as her first language, makes them a dynamic duo.
“I think we make a very good complementary team,” River said. “I think the combination of those two things is great, I just wish every school had access to that balance of resources.”
Learning a language, kind of like learning any subject, can at times make you look “silly.” You stumble over a conjugation, mix-up words, struggle to even get out a simple sentence. To learn, you have to get over a fear of making mistakes in front of other people. Maria and Sara both agree that creating a safe environment, making student feel safe, like their classroom is a place where students can express themselves, is the most important thing they can do when founding a curriculum.
“You know what?” Maria said. “I know I make a lot of mistakes in my English but I know that’s the only way to learn. So if I make mistakes, learn, give yourself the opportunity to learn. So when we are learning, I want you to feel free to say whatever comes to your mind as long as it is in Spanish, just say it, Try it. See if you can do it.”
To get students over that fear of application, Maria and Sara come up with some fun ways to apply Spanish. They play a lot of card games in Spanish 1 classes, both Middle School and Upper School. It’s an amazing opportunity for input and output of language, even when they have a limited amount of vocabulary. The students are not allowed to speak English. They’re given sentence starters. So with a game like Go Fish, the numbers correlate to sentence starters and they have to fill in the rest of the blank. They have an awful lot of fun with it because they spend the entire time in Spanish and it becomes easier and easier for them each time we play. They always start off nervous, but by the time they get through a couple of hands around the table, they’re no longer referencing their cards for the language. They don’t even realize what they’re doing because they’re distracted completely.
All of a sudden, learning a language isn’t scary anymore. It’s just another way to communicate with peers, teachers, and friends.
NEIA doesn’t have a separate cultural competency, because culture and language are intrinsically intertwined. Lessons focus on the daily routines, practices, products, and perspectives of Chinese culture.
Making connections with other content areas, emphasizing the holistic approach to language learning. Li was excited to come to NEIA because all its founders speak Mandarin and they were looking to build a place “to promote Chinese culture,” which Li considers her life’s main goal.
To prove her point, Li used the example of the mooncake. “You can show a student a mooncake and they get it. You can teach them the word for mooncake. But they need to know, why mooncake? What’s the history? There is a story about a lady who left her husband and flew to the moon. We must teach them the stories, not just the words.”
Maria uses music and dancing to unlock the many cultures that feed into the language of Spanish. Every class, she projects the lyrics and the class sings songs in Spanish. Having worked previously at a Catholic, all-girls private school, Maria laughs remembering how limited she used to be in what songs and lyrics she could play. “Music, the students really enjoy. I look for songs that we can sing. Singing, it sets the mood. Music sets the mood. It’s like magic.”
Nurturing Global Citizens
Part of NEIA’s broader mission is fostering global leadership. Students have no way of knowing what language will be most useful to them later in life. While learning the language of Mandarin may be the main goal, there is also an equally important objective of giving teaching the skills and discipline of approaching any language and culture, so that they can succeed in learning many languages.