Move Over, Hogwarts: These Students Really Are Getting Their O.W.L.s

A funny thing happened to me on my way to the classroom the other day: I got bowled over by watching high school students LEARN Spanish.

So what, you say? Ah, but pay attention to that verb. Ask nearly any high school student in the U.S.–I don’t care if it’s P.S. 392 in New York City or Snobster Prep in Massachusetts–what their classes are, and they’ll say this: “I’m taking Spanish [or French, or Japanese, or whatever].” TAKING. Not LEARNING. 

Translation: “I have to do this because it’s a college requirement.”

“I’ve only been taking it since 9th grade because that’s all our district funds.” (OK, maybe not at Snobster Prep.) (…this when ALL the research shows that the best years to learn languages are the early ones!)

“I don’t bother to speak with a proper accent, because when I do, the other kids call me a brownnoser.”

“As soon as I’ve fulfilled the requirements of my school/college/parents, I’ll stop ‘taking.’

So, you’re fluent in Spanish now? “Um, not exactly. We didn’t really speak Spanish, y’know. But we did take it.”

Can you tell this has been a bit of a sore spot with me? And I’m not even a World Languages teacher!

But: a few days I had the opportunity to visit my old high school, Franklin Pierce (home of the Cardinals) in Tacoma. And at lunch one of my former colleagues told me, “You have to see something.”

Her next period was free, so she took me to the room of the teacher next door. There I witnessed a minor miracle. I’m going to get all teachery here for a sec and focus on OBSERVABLE BEHAVIOR, as though I were an evaluator.

  • Every single student had his/her assignment in his/her hands without being prompted: a hand-drawn map of a typical Mexican town, showing names of buildings, i.e. Correo (P.O.) and Panaderia (bakery).
  • All students sat in a giant circle of chairs without desks. As soon as “el Profe” directed, each student turned to the one sitting adjacent and took turns conversing on the assigned topic: “Tell your partner the name of your town, and the size of its population.” “Tell your partner which building in your town is the most important, and why.”
  • From the moment the bell rang, I heard not a word of English.

Did I mention that this was a first-year Spanish class in a mid-sized public school with a free-and-reduced lunch student population of over 50%? And that this was not an Honors class? If you are not, like me, amazed not to have seen a single student try to worm his/her way out of this assignment, or drag his/her feet, or otherwise try to hijack the teacher’s attention onto anything but learning Spanish, well…let’s just say you haven’t been hanging around schools or teenagers as much as I have.

These kids were not only learning, they were having fun. They were proud of themselves. (I heard one kid, dressed in classic slacker mode, describe how in his town, “Robertlandia,” the most important building was the statue of himself in the center of the Plaza. But he said it all in Spanish!)

Turns out this miracle has a very real source: The Organic World Languages program, or OWL. Their website says, We believe in movement, 100% immersion and an emphasis on the importance of creating community in the classroom. This was very evident, as we all moved and switched partners twice during the 20 minutes I was there. (Of course El Profe didn’t let his visitors sit quietly on the sidelines–we got to participate! Turns out I can speak enough Spanish to converse with first-years, but only just.) So, we spoke. We laughed. And we learned.

If only I could go back to high school and start over!

Want to see what I mean? Here’s a short video from OWL that explains its history, emphasizes its effect on test scores, and shows its work in action:

So, I’d like to hear about your own experience with learning another language. Did you? Was it because of, or more despite, your school experience? (If you were raised bilingually, I’m totally jealous, but go ahead and brag.)

4 thoughts on “Move Over, Hogwarts: These Students Really Are Getting Their O.W.L.s

  1. I TOOK two years of Spanish. (Sorry, Gretchen!) I learned more living next door to five Venezuelan guys one summer during college than I did in class. Of course, not all the words they taught me were repeatable in polite hispanic society…

    In two weeks, our student from Spain will be here. He wants to improve his English, but I imagine we’ll all get a good dose of Spanish, too.

    • Cool! That is something I’ve thought of. But I’m even more tempted by going to live in Mexico for a while…I know, I know. Dreams are not plans. But they are a start. 🙂

  2. I counted up once and discovered I had spent 13 years studying foreign languages (Latin, Spanish, German and Japanese.) I speak English really well. The only time I really did well with a foreign language was when we actually lived in the country where it was spoken. My German was quite good when we lived in Germany and my Japanese was good when we lived in Japan. I never lived in ancient Rome, so the Latin has been lost….

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