Teaching a heritage learners or immersion class for the first time

So, you’ve just found out you’ll be teaching a heritage learners class.  Chances are good that you:

a) are teaching it because your colleagues don’t want to
b) feel unqualified to teach it
c) have no set curriculum or materials

Welcome to a typical start to a heritage learners class!  Sadly, I would say that most teachers who are new to teaching heritage speakers face these circumstances.  When I was hired to begin teaching Spanish Language Arts classes it was because no one else wanted to or had the necessary bilingual license.  I inherited a class set of outdated textbooks that the teacher before me had bought one by one, many with her own money.  On paper there was a curriculum from the district.  I dutifully started with the first unit following the plan, despite my reservations about it.  Why are we reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a Spanish class?  After three weeks of class I came to three conclusions.

1) Free internet materials have lots of errors in them
2) No amount of pre-teaching and scaffolding was going to help my students understand this text
3) Teaching this class was going to be a LOT harder than I thought

The next day I was very honest with my students and told them my thoughts: this material doesn’t seem to be working for us.  Let’s try something that does.  That afternoon I threw out the text that I had painstakingly spent hours making vocabulary lists and questions for and started back at square one.  In fact, I was starting where I should have started in the first place–with my students.

Garbage can

Know your students

Before looking at any curriculum or activities it is important to know who the students are that you’ll be teaching.  The only thing typical about a Spanish for Heritage Speakers class is that it is very diverse.  You may have native speakers who have recently arrived from Mexico.  One may be well educated and at grade level and the other may read in Spanish at a third grade level and speak an indigenous language at home.  You may have students with family from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guatemala, Colombia or the Dominican Republic.  You may have students whose family has been in the United States for three generations.  Some students will speak only Spanish at home while others will have parents who almost never do.  There may be students who will attend prestigious universities and others who you will not see graduate.  Some students will be taking the class because they don’t want to lose their language and others will be there because they thought it would be an easy class.

Do your best to find out what you can about your students before planning what you’ll be teaching.  Can they read at grade level?  How much Spanish do they speak at home?  What are their motivations for being in the class?  What future plans do they have?  Have they traveled to or lived in other countries?  All of these things will help inform your curriculum goals.

Find your people

Next, find yourself a supportive community.  Here is a list of resources that provide suggestions of places to connect with others, through conferences, websites and list serves.  Most heritage teachers are the only teacher of that class in their school and it’s hard to find others to bounce ideas off of.  Fortunately, there are lots of ways to connect with teachers from other places.  These are good places to start looking for ideas about syllabi and curriculum.

Find your standards

Then, take a look at the Common Core Standards in Spanish.  If you have a class of students in the same grade level look at what they are doing in their English classes.  Piggy-backing off things they have learned in English Language Arts is a great way to reinforce learning and bilingualism.  It also helps to look at what is different between the Spanish and English Standards and focus on these.

Of course, the ACTFL standards are also important and relevant. If most of your students are not orally fluent in the target language, it may be better to use the ACTFL standards for language acquisition as opposed to the Common Core standards.

Teach to your students

Use themes that are relevant to your students.  Don’t be afraid to talk about the tough issues because these are the things many of your students face on a daily basis.  Talking about immigration or gun violence is a lot more motivating to heritage learners than reading Don Quixote.

Differentiate.  Always easier said than done, but using free voluntary reading or literature circles with choice books is an easy way to do this.  Differentiating for my students is one of the hardest things I have to do and one that I need to keep working on.

Give yourself grace

Finally, accept that you will make mistakes, lots of mistakes.  In many ways, it feels like starting over and being a first-year teacher again.  Know that your first few years of teaching heritage or immersion classes won’t be the best teaching that you’ve ever done, but with a good support system and a desire to serve your students you will come to love it!

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