Dr. David McAlpine University of Arkansas at Little Rock
The students in my Methods of Teaching Second Language class don’t believe me when I tell them that my best Spanish teaching experience in forty years was in a middle school classroom! It’s true! Those of you just beginning your career in a middle school will soon learn this, and those of you who are middle school “lifers” already know that these youngsters in grades 5-8 respond to content that is connected to their everyday lives and to instruction that actively involves them in the learning process. Your middle school Spanish students may show higher competencies in the three modes of communication than many of their high school counterparts because of their openness to learning new concepts, their curiosity about themselves and others, and their unabashed willingness to be a part of real-life situations.
How can the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century help create an engaging atmosphere for middle school students? Let’s look at the 5Cs and try to draw some classroom ideas from them.
This Standard should be the easiest to meet, as middle school students enjoy listening, speaking, reading, and writing about themselves and others. Guiding the middle school student through tasks that involve problem solving will keep them engaged in the learning process as you move from meaningful listening to speaking activities; from age-appropriate readings to writing activities that range from interpersonal notes to other classmates to presentational products such as children’s books and travel brochures.
The paradigm of products, practices, and perspectives is just right for middle school students. They relish investigation of the strange and sometimes weird reasons why speakers of Spanish speak, act, and think as they do.
Middle school students are ready to see the connection of this new language with the other disciplines being explored in this novel educational structure. Should you be a part of a middle school “team” that allows you to collaborate on interdisciplinary lessons and projects, be sure to consider the unique contribution a second language offers to the development of communication skills, cross-cultural awareness, healthy attitudes, and 21st century skills.
Students between the ages of 10 and 14 enjoy making comparisons and contrasts between their first language and culture with that of the new language and culture. Having students work with authentic materials gives them the opportunity to see both the similarities and differences between the Spanish language and cultures with that of their native language.
While it may be more difficult to take middle school students out of their classroom environment to use Spanish in culturally appropriate settings, many middle school teachers have been successful with short-term, well-chaperoned study abroad trips. Others have developed service-learning projects where middle school students volunteer in Hispanic community centers and churches. Having your middle school students use their presentational language skills in the local elementary schools can provide both a real-life use of language for your students as well as build middle school programs. Of course, your middle school students are digital natives and are highly motivated by opportunities to use technology to communicate in Spanish, both within and outside our country.
As I think back on later teaching experiences in high school and in undergraduate and graduate university classrooms, I continue to flash back to my first teaching experience with my 150 middle school students. I often wonder if my love for teaching wasn’t engendered by those students’ enthusiasm for life, for learning, and for Spanish!
Adair-Hauck, B. (1992). Foreign languages in the middle schools: A curricular challenge. Pennsylvania Language Forum, 64, 12-18.
Clark, S. & Clark, D. (1994). Restructuring the middle level school: Implications for school leaders. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Curtain, H. A., & Dahlberg, C. A. (2010). Languages and children—Making the match (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.