Elementary Language Teachers:  We’re Better Together!

Jennifer Godwin

“Wo ist der Spüle?”  (Where is the sink?)  I asked anyone who even mentioned German when I was in elementary school.  I continued asking this question throughout middle and high school until I was butchering the pronunciation so much that it became unrecognizable.  I loved it, though, because it was one thing that I had held on to since my days of taking a world language in elementary school.  At my elementary school in Greenville, we took a world language class each year, although I don’t remember if it was weekly, monthly or completely up to the teacher.  In first grade, my teacher had a set of Japanese flashcards that she would show us for a few minutes a week.  In 5th grade we had a new student from Germany so his mom would come to our class for about 30 minutes a week and teach us some basic vocabulary.  Each year our classes looked something like this – the language based on our teacher’s interest or what language the students (and their volunteer moms) spoke at home.  I applaud my teachers’ and volunteers’ efforts to introduce us to a new language and culture, but our world and our students’ needs have changed since the early 90’s.

After 5th grade, I did not take a world language again until I took Spanish in ninth grade.  I fell in love all over again. I continued taking Spanish classes through college and graduate school, where I earned my Masters in the Art of Teaching Spanish.  In graduate school, I learned that some districts actually hire teachers to teach world language classes to elementary students.  This seemed far too good to be true.  I student-taught with Gloria Quave at Red Bank Elementary School in Lexington County School District One.  I witnessed kindergartners, yes five-year-olds, speaking only in Spanish, writing books in Spanish, singing songs in Spanish, even doing math assessments in Spanish, and I was forever changed.  I now work in the same school district where I currently teach Spanish to third through fifth graders.  Every third through fifth grader in our district takes Spanish for 90 minutes a week.  The classes I teach are rooted in third through fifth grade social studies and science standards and are proficiency-based.  The only children who are excluded from this are partial immersion students, who take math and science classes in a world language everyday.

Amazed by what the students and teachers were doing in our schools, I decided I wanted to get more involved and help advocate.  In early 2014, I asked a friend and colleague, Liz Lawrence-Baez, what I could do to help and she suggested I become the National Network for Early Language Learning (NNELL) representative for our state.  When given the list of current members, I was a little disappointed with only a handful of names.  I wanted to network and collaborate.  I wanted to see what awesome things were happening in other districts in our state.  I wish I could say that I advertised for NNELL and grew the organization in our state and that now there are dozens of us who collaborate and host workshops annually, but that is simply not the case.  That is why I am writing this article and encourage you to share this article with any elementary world language teachers that you know!

I have found elementary world language teachers to be some of the most adaptable people I know.  We have professional development in our schools, where the focus is usually on math or ELA.  We have professional development at conferences, where the focus is usually (not always!)  on middle or high school learners.  Yet, we somehow always walk away with something.  Elementary world language teachers can listen to just about any presentation or read just about any article and find at least a small way that they can use it with their young learners.  That being said, I would still love to see what these teachers would come away with if they were given more opportunities to network and collaborate with professionals when the focus was on world languages in the elementary classroom.

NNELL could be exactly what some early language teachers are missing in their professional lives.  NNELL advocates and provides professional development geared towards elementary world language and elementary language immersion teachers.  Webinars, news, and a journal, Learning Languages, are available for members on their website with topics that any elementary world language teacher would not have to stretch or adapt to use in their class.   Some of these topics include literacy in the L2, storytelling, developing an effective elementary program, using class time effectively, playing to increase proficiency, providing students with hands-on opportunities, school clubs and summer camps.  Their website also provides parent resources, which include ways parents can help their students learn an L2 at home, but also provide ways for teachers to best respond to parents’ questions and concerns.  One of the most engaging things that NNELL has to offer is their summer institute.  This takes place annually and features prominent professionals in our field and revolves around the needs of elementary world language teachers.

Despite the small amount of members in our state, NNELL has helped me become a better advocate and WL teacher.  During the 2015 and 2016 Southern Conference on Language Teaching (SCOLT), I have had the chance to meet with NNELL members from across the country, including the current president, Nadine Jacobsen-McLean.  I have had the chance to have conversations about best practices in the elementary language classroom, growing an immersion program, and advocating for our programs with teachers far more experienced than myself.  This in-person networking has led me to connect with more people in my position via social media, which has provided me with so many great ideas in my classroom.  Over the summer, I watched webinars which have helped me tremendously this year.  One of these webinars inspired me to create a digital newsletter for my students’ families and this has been a great way to advocate for my program and keep parents in the loop!  I will be representing NNELL with Dr. Kelly Davidson Devall this year and cannot wait to connect with more elementary teachers!

I am so excited about the future of NNELL in our state.  As World Language programs grow in our elementary schools, I look forward to more of you joining NNELL so that we can network with more teachers in similar (sometimes lonely) positions at elementary schools across South Carolina.  My dream is that one day our handful of members grow into dozens of members and that we could host a workshop right here in our state for NNELL members to collaborate, network, and grow together.  If you are an elementary world language teacher, please consider joining me on this mission.  NNELL memberships are only $30!

In closing, I would like to thank all elementary language teachers for being so adaptable and “making it work” after every math and ELA professional development session you have been to and for doing more for our students than simply teaching colors and numbers.  Keep advocating, keep growing, and keep networking even if you are the only one in your school who understands how important world languages are.  Keep making a difference in the lives of your students through growing their proficiency and opening their eyes to world cultures!  Keep providing them with meaningful learning experiences so that one day they will look back and remember a lot more than “Wo ist der Spüle?” when they think about their own journey with their second language.