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6 Common Questions about Teaching a Heritage Spanish Class

I recently had the pleasure of collaborating with Ashley Mikkelsen (Srta Spanish) for a Youtube video collaboration discussing the common questions teachers have about Heritage Spanish class. 

These are the common questions we addressed in the video: 

1. Who are heritage speakers exactly? What’s the difference between a heritage speaker and a native speaker?

A lot of schools unintentionally misname their heritage speaker class offering when they call their class Spanish for native speakers. It may sound trivial, but the difference is worth considering. If you look at the students in these classes, most of them are not the actual definition of a native speaker because a native speaker is someone who has been educated in a country that speaks that language. What’s the big deal, it all amounts to the same thing, right? 

Not so fast, there is a big difference, and that is based on the approach of the topic, and the student taking the class. When we misuse terms that provide meaning to who they are, where they’re from, and how they identify, we lose the opportunity to meet them where they are truly at. The difference between native and heritage speakers is based on exposure to a language, whether that is the primary language for the society they were raised in, or a secondary language that certainly exists in their upbringing, but society didn’t drive the language any deeper into their minds. Society is a big piece to the puzzle. 

What language does the world around your students speak? The language spoken to them while at the grocery store, the bank, the sports complex, the religious entity, or the gym will drive home language acquisition in a different depth and capacity if one versus the other. 

Society all around them is speaking a language as a primary language. That’s just the way of it, it’s how all societies operate. People speak a language and that eventually rubs off on a child. Now, for a native speaker to be defined as such, they will be experiencing a society that speaks a language, and they themselves will be speaking that same language from birth. There will be no interruption or crossover, the world will begin to take shape and color in the blank spaces based off the vernacular and colloquial rhetoric the society they grew up in would provide. That’s how they’re a native speaker of that language. 

It’s important that we don’t misuse phrases and rhetoric that already hold distinct meanings in a language. What I’ve seen and is being shown across the board, are that a lot of students that are signed up in American heritage Spanish class offerings have actually been born in the US and all of their schooling and living has been in an English speaking society. Furthermore, they’re learning Spanish from their family and a few key extracurricular activities such as clubs or religious affiliations and such, and so that’s where the heritage component comes in. They’re a heritage speaker because, yes, they’re fluent in Spanish in an auditory and vocal sense. But it’s mostly all the vocabulary, phrases, ideology and idioms that are ascertained via listening to what is spoken in the confines of the home or their family unit. 

Nothing against familial connection at all. But it does bear mentioning that in order to understand where our students are beginning, we must consider how they are encountering the language. So, if a student is primarily acquiring the language gleaned through non-academic channels, they are typically learning vocabulary associated with those types of conversations. 

To say, there’s not a lot of academic language in Spanish being communicated in droves, nor is there really a history of reading or writing academic-level Spanish. This, as all their schooling has been done at school in English, in a society that thinks, processes and small-talks in English as well…and so when we talk about, “should this class be called Spanish for heritage speakers, or Spanish for native speakers?” Look at your students and think about whether the critical-mass majority of your students have been raised in the US, going to schools taught in English? Or, are they like newcomers to the United States from another Spanish speaking country? 

Our native speakers are a lot of what we categorize as our “English language learner (ELL or ESL) students” who have just come here from another country. Their Spanish is fluent, but they’re learning English on the fly. Those students are native speakers of Spanish and need to be encountered in a specific way. 

Now, there are certainly the rare cases where, yes, you have enough native speakers or students that have gone to a Spanish Immersion School, while living in the US and they’re at a high proficiency level. And there are also some classes that have students that are primarily new-to-country students as well, but these types of class groupings are quite rare. If this is the type of students you are predominantly encountering, you are then encountering a true Spanish for native speakers scenario. If this grouping of students is your reality, you could correctly call your class Spanish for native speakers, to help you properly meet your students where they are at.

You know what, ultimately, you call your class whatever makes you feel the most proud or able to connect with them. I don’t want to get in the way of any teacher being able to connect with their group of students. But I have found that using the proper terms and rhetoric to frame a group, has helped me to better define, better address, and better guide that group in encountering them where they truly are at the beginning, picking them up, getting them to buy in, and helping them to self-actualize, learn and blossom on the other side of their intellectual journey in my class.

Hear me when I say this, it’s important to say that these labels we’re putting on students…the labels are not so much that we’re not trying to put students in a box solely for the sake of putting them in a box. I hear that passionate critique pretty often, but it’s important to allow students to be who they are, be where they are from, and provide a clear path forward to where they are able to grow academically from how we encounter them. That to say, is that we’re meeting our students at the real points of need. It’s important that we are getting caught up in semantics of wanting something to be a certain way, and getting caught up in a war of trying to prove that we are right, so much so, that we forget it is actually all about the students, their growth, who they are, who they can be and our role as educators in taking them from that proverbial point A to that point B. So when we can we can correctly assess a student’s level, then that’s going to help us better meet their needs.

The Ascendencia curriculum does a whole lesson on fostering a growth mindset with students. The lesson focuses on each student’s language abilities and breaks down the fact that there’s a mixture of native speakers and heritage speakers in the same class. The lesson goes into detail in defining some of the differences and creating academic safety for students that, in the presence of a “better speaker” or “more fluent speaker” feel inadequate. Inadequate is just a place many of us find ourselves in our journey to becoming our best self. Ascendencia seeks to redefine inadequate as a place to start, not a place to dwell, and we all have to start somewhere! There isn’t much academic benefit to remaining in the place where you are focused on whether or not they’re as good as another student. 

So, the Ascendencia Year One curriculum also has a lesson called Mi mapa de input linguistico and we map out where all of their language input has come from in Spanish, where all of their input has come from in English, and they can really start to see the connection between their learning of a language to things like family bonding, TV, music, movies, extra-curricular groups and those sorts of commitments. They are able to put a finger then, on the pulse of where they are getting their intake, and take an objective look at how they are being built up in the language to acquire it fully, in an academic sense. In the same way it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to help acquire a language!

Mi mapa de input linguistico

This lesson paints a picture for them of why they have what they have for their language skills based on input provided. We encourage a growth mindset by saying it’s okay to not be where you want to be with your language abilities but the best thing we can do is just keep trying and keep having a positive attitude towards where you’re at instead of feeling inferior or inadequate or comparing yourself to other students.

In order to make the situation plain and simple for students, ask them what language is predominantly used in the school they attend? In the music they listen to? In the shows and movies they consume? In the religious entity they attend? All of this comes together to paint a picture for the teacher and the student to better make sense of their starting point. From there, it’s all about fostering a growth mindset. It is okay to not be where you want to be with your language abilities. It is okay to know you need to grow. 

The best thing we can do is define the gap (of where a student is currently, to where they’d like to be in a given time frame), encourage and equip the student for the journey they’re setting out on, and set measurable goals to help keep students inspired and tracking progress. If students are willing to be uncomfortable, bold, and make attempts with a positive attitude…they are more likely to improve their language skills. The biggest thing is to instill in your students that this is a competition with themselves and themselves alone. The goal is simply to get a little better everyday, and it helps to reinforce to them that you have to start somewhere!

2. What does your curriculum look like? Where do you even get started?

When I took over that prep I noticed two things: firstly, the textbook was way too hard for my students; and secondly, there really wasn’t a cohesive flow to the patchwork collection of singular worksheets and packets that were waiting for me in the box marked “materials.” So I knew pretty early on that I would need to remedy the situation on my own, creating material from scratch and working with my students to build out a curriculum that met them where they were at. 

The goal was to create a fusion of culture, history, current events, and then set that against the backdrop of language and cultivating self-care and coping mechanisms that our educational programs typically address in an underwhelming fashion. My first unit that I built with them was an Identity unit which now has since been updated and brought forward. It’s a rich and deeply meaningful unit that’s become an essential starting place for a Heritage curriculum cycle.  

The Ascendencia Curriculum has four main components: reading, writing, culture and community. The focus is on teaching the whole student and asking yourself, “how would my students best grow, and how can this class help them self-actualize?” Heritage students need a lot of input, similar to L2 Learners. The main difference is in the type of  input that a heritage student needs. Almost exclusively, the need is for high levels of exposure to written input. This is why we do a lot of reading and then follow up with a lot of writing practice. The goal is to help students see it done well, and provide opportunities to then apply what they’ve seen to their own budding writing style.

reading in heritage Spanish class

Hopefully, over time students will dig in and begin to show growth in reading, retention and written skills to try to increase their academic prowess. What makes this class so fun is that it provides the opportunity to fuse together three disciplines: language arts, history, and cultural exploration. When all three of those elements are combined, heritage Spanish quickly becomes a very different class offering. 

At the end of the day, heritage Spanish ultimately becomes a way bigger job than anything I was ever prepared for during my studies at University. It’s simply not taught when you go to school to become a language teacher. We didn’t go to school to become language arts, history or social studies teachers. We went to school, typically, to become Spanish teachers. But now, here we are, with students that need us to grow, pivot, and be adaptable.

It was a huge learning curve when I took over heritage Spanish. The challenge was immense. Creating materials to properly resource my students took a lot of me, but little by little, over a six-year period, I’ve put together a curriculum I am very proud of. The Ascendencia curriculum is the culmination of so many dreams of me being able to build a curriculum for today’s student. Ascendencia is a three-year rotating curriculum. This, as the prep I inherited had a 9th-12th grade age range. The curriculum had to rotate because many students repeat and remain in the class for three years, and in many cases, I had some students return for a fourth year as well.

So, the reason for the cycle was two-fold. Firstly, in avoiding the repetition of the content with returning students, each student would be equally exposed to the full curriculum. Secondly, with four different ages present in a class at the same time, having a curriculum that got progressively harder for some, meant that it would invariably get progressively easier for others. There weren’t enough sections to take a leveled-out approach like, for example, Heritage I, Heritage II, and Heritage III. 

What we do is we have 9th through 12th graders all in the same course and then each year it’s different content rotating through the curriculum cycle. It’s interesting because we have new students coming in and while other students are graduating. The mix and collective group is always changing, and therefore, so are the ways in which the discussion topics are hashed out, and the final products of group projects and presentations vary with the unique grouping of students in a given year. In this way, heritage Spanish is always fresh and able to adapt and differentiate to the current group of students and their reading, writing, speaking and retention levels.

3. What would you say the biggest challenge is when teaching a heritage Spanish class?

The biggest challenge is that there are so many levels in the same class and with those levels further differentiating due to differences in linguistic background…keeping the whole group on an upward trajectory is a major challenge indeed! Even in a perfect world, where schools were properly funded, staffing shortages weren’t a growing problem, and students could create prep offerings based on student interest rather than budget cuts…even then, if you had Heritage Spanish I, Heritage Spanish II and Heritage Spanish III, the different levels aren’t going to be straightforward. 

Much of the game, then, becomes about differentiation. The activities that can move the majority of students forward the furthest, regardless of their current level, are going to become incredibly important. What activity have I found to push my metaphorical crawlers, walkers, joggers and sprinters alike? Free Voluntary Reading has been a game changer. With options sourced to the classroom library to account for various preferences in topic, difficulty, and writing styles, Free Voluntary Reading is a great place to start! We differentiate for students in this way by offering a lot of different free reading leisure books and giving them a consistent routine of 10 minutes of free reading at the beginning of class. Students know that this is their time to dig in, to escape, and to enjoy a good book.

El libro del cementerio

Heritage students deserve to have their needs accounted for and met just as much as any other subset of students. I noticed really early on in my career that the school library’s Spanish section was woefully inadequate in quantity and quality. If I saw the library, as a student, and noticed that only a small section of the library was allocated for Spanish books, and that the selection of titles were outdated and worn, I might be prone to thinking that the library wasn’t for me. I might reasonably conclude that the library was for others. So that’s developed into a passion piece for me. 

I feel like Heritage speakers deserve to have a learning environment built with them in mind, one that’s meeting them where they’re at, makes them feel seen and safe. Though it’s a challenge, the same is true for the heritage Spanish curriculum. Heritage students deserve to have a curriculum built with them in mind and causing their minds to buy in, engage and grow academically. 

When we put Heritage speakers in a class for students that are just now acquiring Spanish, we are not doing a good thing for those students. Boredom sets in quickly for any mind that is unchallenged on a daily basis. So it gives me purpose to create resources and materials that enable and empower heritage Spanish teachers to be able to come to class feeling confident in knowing what they’re doing, knowing they actually have resources built specifically for them and their prep, and that their students are engaging with the curriculum content. 

Creating situations in which students are having fun with the act of learning…well, that is something that really makes me excited. Because at the other end of the spectrum is a haunting idea. The idea of students losing their family language due to not seeing the reasons for keeping it alive? That’s just heartbreaking to me. People do what they do, at the time that they do it, for reasons that make sense to them at the time. 

These are very true words, but they become seminal words to live by when placed against the backdrop of a building full of teenagers trying to find themselves and grow academically at the same time. My goal is to see more heritage students see the sense in keeping their familial language alive and vibrantly associated with their life. My goal is to see family units strengthened from a curriculum that encourages multi-generational engagement and engagement with their culture outside of the classroom as well as in it.

To build the family into the educational equation is to connect students to a pattern of lifelong growth, storytelling, interactivity and collaboration. Having heritage classes cultivates a safe space for students at school and helps them continue their bilingual journey. 

4. What is your favorite thing about teaching a Heritage Spanish class?

My favorite thing about teaching a heritage Spanish class is easily the class parties. When we party together, we let down, build rapport and engage on a personal level.  This sets us up for success as a group when, later in the year, we dive into personal or deep topics that challenge our way of thinking. Not to mention, we have a blast when we do.

I find that organizing three times a year for class parties is the sweet spot, but of course, you can do more if you feel strongly about it. I was a little nervous when I approached my students about setting up a class party the first time. Would they buy in? Would they be interested in organizing something? Would their parents be frustrated with me for putting yet another task on their plate? Yes they bought in. Yes they were more than interested in organizing the party, in fact, they straight up organized the whole thing moments after I mentioned it, putting that fear to rest. No, parents were not annoyed. Parents actually rallied around the idea of being able to show their family recipes to the class. 

You can read more about class parties here.

5. What tips do you have for someone who has heritage Speakers mixed into lower level classes?

If you have Heritage speakers mixed into your L2 classes, I’d like to start off by saying that you are being put into a tough spot. I empathize with you. When this happens, we just have to seek ways to make the best of the situation. The whole scenario is really challenging, the whole way around it. It’s tough because you’re basically teaching two different classes, at the same time. In order to give to one portion of the class is to take from the other. What a conundrum. But let’s face it, this happens and it happens a lot!  

literary analysis packet.

So what I would suggest in that scenario would be seeking out doing more self-paced assignments for your heritage student. One option could look like a literary analysis packet. Ascendencia Year Two has one where the learning objectives are listed out on the first page and then as your heritage student works through the novel, whichever level novel you want to assign them, then you can check in with them at various chapter checkpoints to keep them on track. As they work through the novel, the teachers stamps the learning objective on the first page so that’s something that’s a self-paced unit that you can do. There’s a lot of different self-paced lessons available in the Ascendencia curriculum. If heritage Spanish students are in an L2 class, giving them something that’s a little bit more challenging and that’s going to push them forward as opposed to just learning along with the rest of the class is a matter of equity.

6. What resources can you recommend for learning more about teaching a heritage Spanish class?

You can definitely check out my blog at www.profenygaard.com and also www.heritage spanish.com and you can find a ton of free resources that I have available right there on my blog. 

There’s some other blogs I recommend as well Adventures in Heritage Teaching, Growing with Heritage Learners, Growing Global Citizens and My Generation of Polyglots. Those are some good blogs to check out um there’s also some cool workshops being offered by some of those teachers and there’s a really cool Facebook group for Heritage teachers so if you search up Heritage Spanish teachers you’re going to find the Facebook group just finding other people that are also in this boat of learning how to teach Heritage Spanish so you’re not alone there’s a lot of resources a lot of support you can find I’m happy to to help so you can always contact me reaching out on my blog www.heritagespanish.com or www.profenygaard.com

I also recommend the Carla Institute for heritage Spanish professional development.

Gain access to hundreds of resources for heritage Spanish by joining the Heritage Spanish Club. 

join the club image for blog

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6 commo questions about teaching heritage Spanish class