Students in my 6-8 junior high building study either French or Spanish as a core academic class. Over the course of those three years, they become more confident in their abilities in both speaking and listening in the target language, and the language teachers in my building are working hard at boosting that confidence in reading and writing as well.
Last year, the eighth grade world language teachers approached me about doing some work with them in the areas of reading and writing. One of the first things the French teacher wanted to work on was getting her 8th grade students to write more interesting and complex sentences than “The girl has a baguette” in response to photo prompts. Over the course of our conversation, we figured out that the students didn’t always have the full vocabulary to write to a prompt at the beginning of a unit. They wanted to write more; they just didn’t have the knowledge to be able to do it.
I realized that the learners in these 8th grade classrooms were in many ways like the early literacy learners in grade 2 or so. Though they could read and write fluently in English, they were still learning the vocabulary and structure of their second language. My thoughts immediately went to the book Smarter Charts by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz. One of the things I love about this book is that Marjorie and Kristine explain the different kinds of charts you might find in a classroom and when and why you might use each type. As a teacher of older children, I also appreciated the “how to draw a chart” page. As we pored over the examples of different charts, the two 8th grade teachers realized that anchor charts could provide great opportunity to share literacy strategies with their students in the target language. In addition, the students were familiar with anchor charts and how to use them from their language arts classes. I hoped seeing charts in both places would help students transfer knowledge from their LA classes to their language classes.
As a parting gift, I gave the teachers a large tablet of chart paper and a box of Mr. Sketch markers to get them started. When I checked in a few weeks later, I was thrilled to see anchor charts written in French and Spanish for routines, unfamiliar vocabulary, and grammar and sentence structure (such as where adjectives go in relation to the nouns they modify). Of course, these teachers could have found commercially prepared posters for much of this content, but by co-constructing charts with their students, they could target the exact content and strategy they needed as well as provide an engaging and useful lesson for the students. Both teachers reported that due to this scaffolding, their students were writing more in French and Spanish, and that their writing was much more interesting. Even better, as students gained confidence and more knowledge, the early charts were retired and new ones with more sophisticated content created.
There are a couple of lessons that can be learned from my experience with these two teachers. First, don’t limit your willingness to explore a professional resource just because it’s labeled as a K-2 book or a 6-8 or any other grade book. Creative teachers often find ways to take ideas from just about any professional resource and make the ideas work for their students. If I had discounted Smarter Charts because of the K-2 label, I would not have been inspired to rethink my own charts and I wouldn’t have had the resource the world language teachers needed.
Second, as teachers we need to take risks and step outside our comfort zones. I had no idea if I would be able to think of ways to get students reading and writing more in the target languages. Certainly my three years of high school French over twenty-five years ago were not going to help me. By boiling down the question to its essence, I could see the need was to support these emerging readers and writers. For the teachers themselves, they needed to be open to new ideas from someone who was not an expert in their subject, someone who could approach a question from a new perspective and a new set of eyes.
Carol Dweck refers to this open-mindedness as a “growth mindset.” It is this kind of mindset that we need to model for and nurture in our students. When we approach our work from this perspective and share our new learning with our students, they will see that even as adults we continue to grow and change in our thinking and abilities. They then are more likely to develop a love of learning and resilience that will continue with them into their adult lives.
As I begin my second year as literacy coach in my building, I’m excited to continue my work with these two teachers (and maybe even the sixth and seventh grade world language teachers as well). There are so many opportunities to continue to explore different ways of incorporating authentic reading and writing into these classes; we truly have just touched the tip of the iceberg.
Maybe I’ll even learn more than just the five words of Spanish I picked up on a trip to Costa Rica.
Adieu and adios!
Mindi Rench became a junior high literacy coach after teaching seventh grade LA for eighteen years. She lives in Northbrook, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. When she doesn’t have her nose buried in a book, she drives the mom taxi and is writing a book (either a YA romance or a middle grade adventure) in her head. She hopes someday to write it for real. She blogs at Making It Work in the Middle and tweets at @mindi_r.