Along the path to proficiency, we encounter many things in our classroom, in our department, and in the field. In this series, we would like to share some notes from the field from educators who have made an impact and have learned something impactful along their journey. Here they will share their notes from the field with us and how their learning has helped shape them, as well as its impact, as they help their students along the path to proficiency.
My mother named me Lori after one of her favorite students in school (my mom was a teacher – so I grew up around school, teacher stuff, books). She chose the middle name “Joy” because she said that I brought so much joy to the family (what mom doesn’t think this way, right?) Anyway, I took this middle name as somewhat of a mandate and I try to find the joy in everything I do – especially in the teaching and learning of languages.
As I mentioned, I was exposed to the art of teaching from a very young age, and I always knew that I would be a teacher one day. I was also very interested in everything “international” from a very young age – I think it was the doll collection that first inspired that obsession. In my home growing up on Long Island, my mother had a doll collection. These were not Barbie dolls or stuffed animals, but rather dolls from around the world – and they were NOT to be touched. Mom had a doll from Mexico wearing a stiff velvet dress and a big straw hat. There was a doll from Italy, with her hair up in a bun holding a fan. There were many others, but I can’t remember them now. What I do remember vividly was the variety and the beauty of their costumes, and the idea that they had come from other lands. My mom and dad purchased these dolls on their travels. To me as a young child, my mother’s dolls were all infinitely fascinating. I wanted to know more, learn more, discover the lands that they came from. But I couldn’t touch them – maybe this added to the allure?
When I was ten-years-old, I saw an advertisement in a magazine for a pen pal club. You see, in those days, we wrote letters and mailed them rather than sending emails. Now don’t get me wrong, as any of my friends and colleagues will confirm, I am a devoted technophile and an obsessive emailer. But I do long for the days when I would run to the mailbox to find hand-written letters waiting for me… Using the form that I clipped from the magazine, I signed up for 20 pen pals. I was supposed to choose one or two countries, but they all seemed so exciting, so I checked off the box next to China, Pakistan, Cuba, Spain and others. Within weeks, I started to receive the most wonderful, colorful, exciting letters from all over the world. And I started writing – to my new pen pals: Svetlana in Yugoslavia, Wahyuni in Indonesia, Ramon in Russia, and Glenda in South Africa. I wrote to my friends for years and years – we exchanged letters written in big bubble letters on onionskin paper. We sent posters, photos, post cards and other souvenirs back and forth. This lasted for years. In fact, over 30 years later, I still correspond with Svetlana, who is now a doctor in Croatia, with Ramon, who is now an engineer in Cuba, and Iji, who is now a journalist in Indonesia. I have also had the good fortune to travel a great deal… I have travelled to Indonesia to meet Iji and to Cuba to meet Ramon. I consider these pen pals among my circle of life-long friends.
Now I will spare you other boring details of my childhood. I have shared these two memories with you as a means of grounding my interest in the world and its languages in some sort of childhood experience. The next milestone for me – as I suspect may have been for you all as well – took place in the seventh grade. It was the first day of school when I walked into my first day of Spanish class. Little did I know that Señor Cullinane was to about change my life forever. He had a grey pompadour haircut and looked square, nerdy, dare I say it? Boring. But Señor Cullinane was anything but boring – he was joyful! He started that class by singing to us in Spanish. He ran around the classroom while he sang. He told jokes and he laughed loudly at his own weird sense of humor. And, he jumped on the desks. I mean, he jumped on the teacher’s desk from a standing position – and he made it! I knew that day that I was going to love that class and that Spanish was going to be my thing. And, if possible, I was going to be Spanish teacher one day – just like Señor Cullinane.
Fast forward to high school – I continued to study Spanish and loved every minute of it. I loved new vocabulary words, I loved conjugating verbs – I even loved the subjunctive! I requested extra work (what kind of kid does that?) I particularly remember poring over short stories in a silly little Spanish reader for novices called Cuentitos Simpáticos (some of you might remember it – it has a big pink smiley face on the cover). But I wasn’t satisfied with just Spanish. In my junior year I added French to my schedule, and by senior year, I was studying Spanish, French, German and Italian – it was the most fun year of my school career – filled with the joy of learning multiple languages.
I went on to study languages in college, along with education. I added applied linguistics for my masters degree and focused on world language curriculum and teaching for my doctorate – all the while, learning new languages. I have studied Chinese and Thai, and am yearning to add Hindi and Brazilian Portuguese to that list someday. But perhaps one of the nicest fringe benefits of knowing Spanish has been on a personal level. You see, my language studies helped me find a husband. I wasn’t really looking for a husband at the time… these things have a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it! I was an undergraduate student at SUNY New Paltz when I met Orléy. I had just returned from a summer study program in Oviedo in the north of Spain. A mutual friend pulled me over one evening at a party and said “Hey, you study that, uh, that Spanish, right? Check that guy out over there – I think he’s Spanish – you should go talk to him!” Well, if there’s one thing a Spanish learner seeks out most in life, it’s a good conversation partner, so off I went. We talked a lot that night – in Spanish, English, and a fair bit of Spanglish. And shortly thereafter, we fell in love. We started traveling, we got married, and thirteen years ago, we had a lovely baby boy named Nikolás. And here we are… a bilingual family with a deep love of languages – and of course travel.
Now I am a teacher, a teacher trainer, a mom, and, according to my OPI score, an Advanced High speaker of Spanish! I love my job, I love my family, and I love speaking and learning languages. Based on this passion and my conviction that learning languages can – and should – be joyful, I have worked to design and develop experiences for language learners that involve them in play, in experimentation, and in exploration of new cultures. What follows are just a few of my favorite activities, thematic units, and lessons that (I hope!) have brought joy to language learners over the years (I am including links to resources after each one, in case you would like to investigate further!):
- Play: What can be more fun or joyful than playing games in language class? Using floor maps, students play Twister-like geography games, challenge each other to debates and competitions around cultural topics and more! (http://miscositas.com/play.html
- Simulations: I am a huge fan of the use of simulations in the language classroom. One year we re-enacted “El Grito” – the Mexican call to independence – in which a colleague dressed as the president of Mexico and shouted a speech in Spanish from the balcony to classes of students below (http://miscositas.com/protest.html).
- Culture and celebrations: We celebrate el Día de los Muertos, with ofrendas – both teacher- and student-created, folktales and picturebooks, and cultural comparisons between Halloween and the Day of the Dead (http://miscositas.com/culture.html).
- Fantasy trips: Students in my classes have traveled to Morocco, Senegal, the coast of Colombia – all without leaving school grounds! We make and use passports, learn about food and art traditions, listen to music and visit with experts in these fantasy trips (http://miscositas.com/fantasytrips.html).
- Folktales: A good story can open doors to cultural explorations, while providing students with the opportunity to play, act, and pretend! We use puppets, tech tools, and costumes to re-enact folktales, myths, legends and other tales from the target culture (http://miscositas.com/folktales.html).
- Social Justice and Action: This year we explored the work of the Biblioburro, a man in Colombia who brings books to children in rural areas of the country. Students raised funds to buy books to donate to the cause, with each student sending a personalized letter along with the donated book. Can you image the joy on the faces of both the Colombian kids and our students in NY when they receive their new books and our kids know the impact of their project? (http://miscositas.com/biblioburro.html).
We have likely all read Krashen’s hypothesis about the affective filter. It posits the idea that when we are comfortable and feeling positive, we are more open to learning language. Conversely, when we are threatened, uncomfortable, or unhappy, that filter doesn’t let much in – let alone language. I am a firm believer in this idea as it correlates with my own personal experience. I believe that a joyful classroom is an efficient and effective classroom – and one that students look forward to spending time in. For this reason, I seek joy in every activity we undertake in my middle school Spanish classroom. I invite you to seek joy in yours!
Dr. Lori Langer de Ramirez is the Director of World and Classical Languages & Global Language Initiatives at the Dalton School in New York City. She holds a Master’s Degree in Applied Linguistics and a Doctorate in Curriculum and Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is an author, teacher-trainer, and workshop presenter both in the US and internationally. Her website www.miscositas.com offers free curricular materials in Chinese, English, French, and, Spanish.