Creating Community in Spanish Class / by Michelle Nicola

Dear students,

Queridos estudiantes,

I wrote as I began my start-of-the-year letter to my students. I don’t always write my students a letter at the beginning of the year. Perhaps it’s the pressure to keep as many of my minutos preciosos in Spanish as possible, but I usually do a Google Form in simple Spanish or some other questionnaire to gather the relationship-building information I need. This year, inspired by Carla Shalaby’s book Troublemakers, I wanted to talk to my students about how we will be with one another in our classroom space. How will we teach freedom? How will love show up?

I hand wrote the letter and read it aloud to students at the end of class on the first day. I’ll admit, reading it aloud felt a little awkward. Oh gosh, did that silence mean that they thought I was just the cheesiest???

The natural next step was to have them write me a letter in response. It wasn’t something I gave much thought to, not even part of the plan I penciled out with my colleague this summer . . . it was more like twenty minutes before class started I cut and pasted some questions from Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching blog as some idea-generators for a letter to me, told the kids this was one of the five homework assignments I’ll give this year and that was it.

I’m so glad I did that. So glad I had them write letters. Don’t get me wrong, Google forms and other surveys are very useful tools for gathering information on students’ preferred gender pronouns, and gathering big-picture snapshots of our classes. But if I hadn’t paused Spanish for a beat and asked my students to write to me in English, how would I have known about the loud bird that lives with Stewart?

How else would I have known about how Lacey (not her real name; I changed all students’ names in this post) loves running, “the way the cool wind hits my face, how my feet bounce off the track pushing me forward”? Or my student who “swings from house to house,” two weeks at his mom’s, two weeks at his dad’s. Such poetry in that writing! How else would I have learned about Robert, whose birthday is on September 11, who knows exactly how many people died that day and doesn’t like to share about his birthday because sometimes he gets sad because of that?

So many of my students expressed anxiety about learning Spanish. I’m a slow learner, they wrote to me. I forgot all the Spanish I learned in 6th grade, they confessed. One student wrote, “I lost hope in learning when I got an F in 6th grade, but I’m determined to do better in high school.” Along with that anxiety was excitement. “I’m very excited about this school and looking forward to learning Spanish!” Or, “I want to learn Spanish so I can know what my boyfriend’s family is saying about me . . . if Im zoning im think about him.”

Larry wrote me a single-spaced typed, two page letter in which he told me, among other things, that his talents include “football, hide-and-go-seek, Call of Duty: Black Ops, building and creativity.” He told me, “ I have an interest in the world in general; Most things make me wonder. I often find my mind wandering off into my imagination thinking about space and time, if God is real, how, when and where everything came from.” Oh! I really get to teach this kid!? How did I get to be so lucky?

How else, if not for these letters, would I have started to fall in love with my students? As I sat in the quiet, empty office, reading letter after letter, the clock pushing 6:00 pm, I felt a small catch in my heart, a definite beat of love and honor that my students would trust me with the information they wrote. I am so excited for this school year. I am so honored to get to teach these beautiful humans. What a gift their lives are to my life. What a gift it is to be a teacher.

Con amor y abrazos,

Profe Nicola

PS- Here are Hammond’s Sentence Starters:

  • I Wish My Teacher Knew… (challenges/hard stuff I am working through)

  • I Wish My Teacher Knew…(what activities cause me to lose track of time)

  • What keeps me going when working on something hard in class is...

  • My “appreciation language” is (pick one)
    - Quality time like having special time to hang out with the teacher or other special group or person at school
    - Physical touch like a high-five or fist bump or have a dance break
    - Acts of service like having someone do something special for me
    - Words of affirmation like getting a note of encouragement or certificate for a big accomplishment
    - Gifts like small fun objects to remind me of my achievement or to mark a milestone

This last question is based on the work of Gary Chapman who discovered the five love languages of people. His more recent research is around our preferred “appreciation language”. The idea is that when we feel seen and heard, it is through our particular appreciation language. This can be important when providing praise and encouragement to your students.