Teaching Philosophy

Initially, the exercise had nothing to do with the end of the world, but as summer approached in my second-semester Spanish class, something unexpected and quite wonderful happened. I circulated around the room, listening as my students debated the relative advantages of city life to life in the country. And then I heard them. Their Spanish may have been less than perfect, but there they were: the “fearless” student and her shy, reserved partner, availing themselves of all the vocabulary at their disposal, boldly and clumsily deploying tenses that they would never have attempted in a more controlled environment, hotly debating whether they would prefer to spend the end of the world in the city or the countryside. I discarded the carefully constructed lesson plans meant to lead students over the hurdle this pair had so casually surmounted in one improvisational flourish. The best I could do was step back as the entire class got caught up in the fervor of the impromptu debate, and was transformed.

This class, which took place long ago, has formed the backdrop of the evolution of my teaching philosophy over the years. My teaching philosophy is now organized around four fundamental pillars, each of which is reflected in my students’ eschatological debate: (1) encouraging communicative practice and experimentation through the integration of authentic materials; (2) empowering students with the skills necessary to learn independently; (3) promoting language and literature as tools for critically understanding and thinking about the world; and (4) challenging received cultural and intellectual notions about our place in it. With no specific content to call its own, the teaching and study of languages consists of literally anything and everything that can be communicated, informed by a disciplinary knowledge that extends to the same social, political, and cultural contexts that provide context to the texts and artifacts that a society produces. I approach my commitment to this interdisciplinarity, at all levels, as a profoundly urgent social and academic responsibility.

To address this responsibility, I have developed a student-centered, task-based approach to language instruction that coalesces around the subjects that students feel passionate about, and attends carefully to each student’s inclinations in order to provide the tools that they require to pursue them. Providing student-centered experiences requires making imaginative use of the traditional arsenal of teaching tools and tactics that we wield, but also of art and artifacts, literary texts, television and film, music, sports, and current events that specifically engage students’ interdisciplinary interests. My knowledge of technology and familiarity with web spaces have yielded mechanisms to provide my students with both enhanced (yet still structured) experiences in class, as well as opportunities for individual support outside of class. At the same time, my foreign language classroom creates ample space for language’s inherent improvisatory aspects; ultimately, I believe that a fundamental part of being an effective instructor is my capacity to realize when the thoughtful deployment and scaffolding of these mechanisms create opportunities to relinquish control and allow my students to perform whatever makes language and literature interesting for them.

A typical 50-minute grammar class will include an entrance ticket as a “small teaching” opportunity for interleaved retrieval practice, or will invite discussion of a photograph that subtly questions or breaks down traditional beliefs about Hispanic culture. This is followed by supported practice of the topic of the day that provides me with immediate feedback on class preparedness and understanding of the topic (e.g. a Kahoot! game). After addressing specific questions about the grammar (which was learned outside of class, supported by videos or other pedagogical material followed by structured, low-level practice), the class would flow into a group-based structured interview or information gap exercise, offering the students a controlled opportunity to produce language. The class would end with a writing or reading exercise demonstrating increased mastery of the topic, perhaps recycling the photograph or material studied in previous classes. All of this is supported by a robust reflective teaching practice that includes a program of videotaping my classes and reviewing the effectiveness of my own instruction, frequent peer observation, and numerous opportunities for students to anonymously share their experience of my classroom, providing me with ample data to adjust, course correct, and create an instructional environment that appeals to the specific dynamics of each group of students.

My student-centered, interdisciplinary approach to instruction extends to the literature classroom as well, where I see my role as that of a facilitator who encourages student-led knowledge creation. I ensure that students feel comfortable speaking up, seeding discussion prior to class by signaling the themes that they may encounter in their reading. I also require that students share their own analytical questions class-wide message board, creating spaces where they can help and engage with one another prior to and after class. Meanwhile, I organize student questions into thematic groups and match them up, if possible, with my previously distributed questions. By the time we meet in the classroom, students have articulated in writing at least two ideas to share with the class, and know that they will spend class time engaged in a discussion facilitated by me, but organized around their own ideas and interests. Because discussion of literature cannot be separated from the conditions surrounding its creation, I heavily supplement the reading of texts with important historical and socio-political considerations in order to assess the importance of literature in its proper context and as it relates to contemporary readers. The confluence of all of these tools creates a safe, engaging, student-centered, and interdisciplinary intellectual environment.

My goal in the Spanish classroom is foremost to motivate and engage students to think, talk, and write in the Spanish language and about Hispanic culture in a productive, meaningful way. As a language and culture teacher, I have the fortune of teaching a subject whose matter is thinking, talking, and writing; as a teacher of literature, my fortune lies in watching students blossom into adept readers and critical thinkers. The set of relevant topics and the ability to create interdisciplinary spaces for language are limitless; that is, the possibility of motivating and stimulating students to be excited about learning is far greater in language than in most other subjects. I seek constantly to leverage this near infinite toolbox to create a more engaging, interactive classroom environment in which students can communicate effectively and effusively about the things that they feel are worth communicating, can transform a mere classroom experience into an authentic breakthrough, and be themselves transformed.

Rev. 2018