The Language Connection

By Lauren Davis, Upper School Spanish Teacher

This year, the ACTFL (The American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language) yearly meeting took place in scenic Denver, Colorado. Hopping off the plane, I knew it would be a great adventure. The conference began with a talk by Dr. Milton Chen, a revolutionary in the field of education. Dr. Chen’s observations and research had led him in many intriguing directions. At a time in which television was just emerging, Dr. Chen saw an opportunity for education through this new medium. Working with several enterprising television producers, Dr. Chen worked to create a program that is now broadcast the world over in many different languages, namely Sesame Street. The sustained success of the program led him in new directions. He channeled the talents that he had gained in starting up the Sesame Street project into finding new spaces for learning to emerge naturally. 

This talk set the tone of the conference. Afterwards, I attended many different sessions on varying subjects ranging from introducing language to heritage speakers to how to use technology in the classroom to language education research and advocacy. If I could sum up what I learned of 21st century learning, it would be that 21st century students need to see and make connections between seemingly disparate disciplines to stay relevant in the increasingly interconnected, interdependent global society they are living. As a teacher, I was asked to challenge my ideas of the traditional classroom and the traditional roles of teachers and students. ACTFL called me to consider renaming myself a “team leader” and calling my students “team members”. The research sessions I attended encouraged me to examine how languages could enhance core subject areas.

My favorite talk, however, was not well attended. It was sandwiched in between two other talks in a room filled by less than 20 people. The speaker came from a linguistic research center in Washington D.C. One slide greatly changed my perspective. In the U.S., we have focused for a long time on the instruction of romance languages, a principle reinforced and nurtured by connections to historical movements and artistic figures relevant to the Western Hemisphere. Therefore, currently in our school systems, we have the capacity, the opportunity, and the desire to learn and teach these languages. What this speaker from the NCLRC (National Capital Language Resource Center) emphasized was that there was great opportunity in forming connections to the people of Southeast Asia, however, the factors of capacity, opportunity or desire limited these languages’ learnability in the United States. For example, some languages had an abundance of opportunity, but no capacity and no desire to learn the language. The speaker’s point was that we are missing a great opportunity.

Since returning, the conference has revitalized my teaching methods and inspired me to create a dynamic, spontaneous, and curious classroom. Ever since, I have begun to look at my role as not so much a purveyor of information, but as a guide for my students’ learning. The projects we complete place social justice or environmental issues at the forefront, using the language as a medium by which to learn new information to forge new connections. In my Spanish 3 classroom, we have completed many grant proposals to travel to the Ivory Coast, India, and Haiti; have worked to connect two companies through a project that mutually benefits each company; have debated the justice in Chilean mining incidents and whaling expeditions. Connecting to the world through language is essential. For me, Dr. Milton Chen’s example of stewarding his gifts and talents and connecting with people who can effect  change inspired a monumental shift of my teaching pedagogy. The warning from the speaker from NCLRS taught me to expand my horizons to think outside of Latin America and integrate the world into my Spanish classroom. Since ACTFL, integration and collaboration have essentially guided my classroom choices. I sincerely thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in this conference.

About Westtown School

Westtown School is a Pre-K through 12th grade Quaker, coed, college preparatory day and boarding school in West Chester, PA.
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