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Lisa is a devoted Spanish teacher. She is always looking for ways to make the Spanish language come alive for her students. She spends much of her private time thinking up new and exciting lessons, hunting for realia, and creating materials for her classroom. Her husband complains a lot, because Lisa is almost always at the computer, typing, designing and creating. Late one Sunday night, after she'd already gone to bed, Lisa had a fantastic idea for a lesson. She had been reading books by other language teachers full of great ideas for the classroom, and these ideas stayed with her, even as she slept. She rose slowly from her bed, careful not to wake her husband, and went over to the computer to work on the lesson. "Pwongngngngng", the computer twanged its familiar greeting. It was just soft enough not to wake her husband, but just in case, Lisa lowered the volume.


She was planning a lesson about the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, and wanted to include a "fantasy trip" to a cemetery. She had read about such trips in a book of teacher ideas, and thought that it was just the type of activity the students needed to get the "feel" for the holiday. She would allow her students to create their own ofrendas - or remembrances - for their own dead relatives and friends, pets, or even famous people who had passed on. At school, there was very little attention paid to mourning and expressions of sadness, and she wanted to address that need while conveying cultural information about the Day of the Dead. She finished the lesson plan by one in the morning and breathed the heavy sigh of accomplishment and fatigue. She returned to bed to get some sleep before having to get up and go to school the next day.


As the students walked into Spanish class on Monday, they were confronted with "tombstones" made of white paper bags, which Lisa had placed over their chair backs. The effect was that of sitting in a cemetery. Having set the scene, Lisa began her "performance". She explained that she was the caretaker of the cemetery and that they the students - were invited on this special day to participate in a celebration of the dead. "Tsk. Oh, please!" Tony groaned. The objection stung Lisa and stopped her in her tracks. "Gross!" moaned Amy. Lisa decided to ignore her students' complaints and continue. She had information to disperse and there was no time for sidetracks.


Suddenly, Noah started to cry. The discussion of cemeteries and death caused him to remember Leroy, a beloved custodian who had retired the year before. He died several months after retiring, but Noah had only found out several weeks ago. Because so many of the adults at school tried to shield the students from grief, he had not had the opportunity to mourn Leroy’s passing. Leroy and Noah had been very close, and now Noah was feeling his loss, maybe for the first time. Lisa stopped the lesson, and focused on Noah, Leroy, and the emotions, sadness and pain.


On Tuesday the paper tombstones were still in place, though slightly more ragged and torn than the day before. Lisa smiled at Noah, who seemed pleased to be in class. Under his arm he carried a paper supermarket sack, on which he had scrawled "R.I.P. Leroy" with the years of his birth and death. He hastily jerked the bag that covered his seat from the chair back and delicately put his own in its place. He sat beside his memorial for Leroy and smiled. This was his tribute to his friend. Lisa looked down at her plan book. She could just barely make out the label "Monday", which had been changed now to "Tuesday" in the block sectioned off for this period. She was slightly concerned about the delay in the progress of her "super lesson", but one look at Noah's offering assuaged her guilt at being one day behind schedule. She was, however, anxious to begin again. "La muerte," she began to say, "means death". "LA muerte???", shouted Cynthia. "Uhch. Why la? Isn't la feminine? Why does death have to be a feminine word??? Men are more likely to kill than women. Just look at all our wars!"


Lisa sensed a lesson in linguistics coming on, but stopped herself. She began to explain that the concept of gender in language really has nothing to do with males and females, but it was pointless. There was a huge battle forming in the back of the room and it was getting more and more heated with each passing minute. The boys had reacted to Cynthia's comment about men and wars. They joined the battle and were launching a counterattack. Amin said angrily: "You just say that because men are superior. Women couldn't fight in a war. They're too weak!" Lisa attempted to steer the conversation back to the lesson at hand. She held up a photo of a family on their way to the cemetery to celebrate the Day of the Dead. She started to describe the picture by saying "Ellos van al cementerio...,� but couldn't finish. Molly interrupted by saying: "Yeah, and that's another thing...how come if there are men and women in that picture, we have to use the masculine ellos?" The lesson would have to wait again. There was a whole world of discussion and explanation begging to be addressed. The class discussed issues of gender and traditional and stereotypical roles of men and women until the bell rang.


Wednesday's class started with a "Do Now" activity as usual. Lisa's classes all started with this writing activity to get the students into the language and to enable them to be creative with it. Each day Lisa posted a new photograph at the front of the room for the students to describe. She encouraged them to explain what was happening or to invent a story around the image. She tried to use pictures that were strange or funny to motivate creative responses. Lisa noticed Michael giggling over his writing. He seemed amused by his description of the day's picture and was very engaged in his work. Although she desperately wanted to start her much-postponed lesson, Lisa also saw that Michael seemed eager to read his sentences, so she asked if he would like the chance to share his work with the class. "Who, me?" he said, surprised by her interest. "I'm no good at Spanish" he offered, covering his paper with his arms. Lisa was troubled by Michael's statement. She had not considered him a "star" Spanish student, but she had never expressed her opinions of his ability directly to him. But then, she thought, maybe he could tell how she felt all along. She began to question herself: Had she called on him frequently, or let him sit silently so as not to embarrass him if he couldn't answer correctly? Did she praise his mediocre grades on exams and quizzes, while openly requiring other students to work harder when they received the same marks? Maybe he sensed


her appraisal of him even when she was not aware of the messages. "Yes, you!" she finally responded. "You are a top-notch Spanishsentence-maker!" Michael's eyes sparkled. "Yeah?" he asked tentatively. "Awrighty then...here goes!" and he read his funny Spanish sentences which, Lisa noticed almost for the first time, were really quite good. Then other students began raising their hands, offering to read their writing. She called on each one, praising the work, and offering suggestions for improvement each time. She quickly located a photograph of a Mexican skeleton statue, a toy typical of the Day of the Dead. The colorful skeleton was riding a bicycle dressed in pants and a hat and was wonderfully comical. She then asked the students to write sentences describing the object, which they later combined to create a class story. They worked together, with only occasional input from Lisa. When the bell rang, the students moaned that they hadn't finished the story. Michael offered to put the finishing touches on the story that night. "After all", he said, "I am a topnotch Spanish-sentence-maker!"


Tony looked troubled when he walked into class on Thursday and Lisa asked him what was wrong. He privately told her that he was worried about the fact that they weren't using the textbook like the rest of the Spanish classes in his grade. Being the responsible student that he is, he thought that maybe they had been "goofing-off" instead of learning and he was concerned that his grades would eventually suffer. Lisa took the opportunity to ask the class what they thought of their Day of the Dead unit so far. Though many of the students seemed to be enjoying the unit, they did not normally equate fun with learning, and as a result, thought that the other classes were ahead of them in the curriculum. They heard from their parents and older siblings that they should be conjugating verbs and they worried that they wouldn't be prepared for their final exams and the following year's level of study. Lisa scanned the eager yet anxious faces of her students. She knew from reading research, attending various workshops, and, most importantly, from her own experience, that the best way for her students to acquire a language was to study it in context. They could memorize verb conjugations all they wanted, but this wouldn't necessarily lead to proficiency in using those structures. But she also knew that many of the standardized tests that her students would


eventually take would require them to conjugate verbs out of context. She was faced with the dilemma of whether to prepare her students for the following years of language study and exams, or to help them to acquire the language so that they could use it in real-world communication, to be able to convey their ideas, feelings, wants and opinions in the language. Despite her better judgment, she decided that it was time to do some overt grammar instruction with her class. She set aside the "trip" to the cemetery for yet another day and began to write out the verb paradigms on the board. "O.K., class...take notes!" she tried to sound eager. She compromised and used verbs associated with the Day of the Dead like "to die", "to cry", "to laugh", "to sing", "to eat" and "to dance." The students obediently copied the verbs in all their inflections into their notebooks. They spent the rest of the period conjugating the verbs over and over again until Lisa decided to test the students' use of these structures. Most students picked up the patterns readily and seemed comfortable as long as their notebooks were opened. They would most likely know how to conjugate the verbs, but to use them in authentic speech would be another story. Lisa knew that she would have her chance to evaluate them the next day.


Friday Lisa asked Sabine to describe a typical Mexican Day of the Dead drawing of a dancing skeleton. Sabine looked lost and claimed that she didn't remember the verb "to dance." Rob tried to help by whispering all six conjugated forms of the verb to her, but Sabine, frustrated by her inability to use that information yelled: "I know all that, but which one of those do I use?" Lisa comforted Sabine by saying that she was really good at Spanish, and that the fact that she couldn't use the verb correctly was not her fault. "It's my fault." Lisa stated flatly as her students stared at her wide-eyed. They had never heard a teacher admit being wrong before. She went on to explain that they would learn a lot more from the fun activities that they were used to in her class than from the textbook. They would have to trust her in class, she said, and she added that she was learning as much from them as they were from her. The smiling faces of her trusting students said it all. They were seeing Lisa as a partner in the business of learning as opposed to the taskmaster, and they liked it. Building on her assurance that each member of the class had something to teach, Lisa finally began the lesson that she had created almost a week before. She asked each student to create an offering for their dead by writing a name on the paper bags which were now looking quite ragged. She explained that it could be the name of someone famous who had died, a friend or relative, or even a pet. After they decided, each student was asked to describe the muerto in Spanish: what they were like when they were alive and what they meant to the student.


For the first time all week, Lisa sat down at her desk to rest. She looked down at her lesson plan book and shook her head at the crossed-out days, the arrows and the scribbles. She was concerned that she had wasted a week and would be behind in her lessons, but what could she do? Next week she promised herself that she would stick closer to her plans. The students began to speak eloquently in Spanish about their dead. Noah started by talking about Leroy again, followed by Amin, who chose to honor Gandhi. "See, girls?" he said. "Not all men wage war!" Cynthia silently nodded, and then spoke about Christa McAuliffe, who had died in the Space Shuttle disaster. As she spoke about her fight for women's rights, Lisa was struck by just how much that event had affected the lives of her students and just how little they had had the opportunity to express their emotions. Molly spoke about her beloved grandma and Tony spoke about his childhood friend, Sam, who had died of cancer at the age of six. Sabine talked about her cat, suddenly using the verb bailar perfectly well as she described Sheba's odd habit of dancing when she was happy. Amy spoke of her Great Aunt and Rob of his Uncle, who had died the previous year. Michael used his newfound confidence in his Spanish abilities to comment on the life of Raul Julia, the Puerto Rican actor who, as Michael said, "...could form some pretty cool Spanish sentences of his own."


Back at home on Saturday, Lisa walked over to her computer to begin planning the next week's lessons. She was no longer so sure that she had wasted the previous week on tangents and sidetracks, despite the fact that her fantasy trip to the cemetery had taken five days instead of one. In those five days she shared discussions with her students about gender and stereotypes, death and life. She learned that students look for assurance and structure in their school environment, but are also sensitive to teacher expectations and what they perceive as judgments of their abilities. She verified that expressions of emotion are not something to be feared in schools and realized that students need to see their teachers as human beings, capable of making mistakes and also, of learning from their students. She switched on the computer. Lisa opened the folder labeled "Stories", which contained a collection of anecdotes about her teaching. Every once in a while she wrote down her experiences in the style of writing in a diary. She liked to reflect on her teaching, and in this way, she had a running log of her successes and failures to look back on and to learn from. She opened a fresh page, stopped to think of a title to represent the past week's exploration of her role as a teacher, the place of emotion in the classroom and her delayed curriculum and typed "Lisa, Love and the Language Lesson."


Some of the books that inspired this story: On Teaching and Learning Belenky, et al. (1986). Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice & Mind. NY: Basic Books. Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Brunner, D. (1994). Inquiry and Reflection. NY: State University of New York Press. Chapman, A. (1986). Pedagogy and Gender. Lawrentian. November 1986. 6-13. Curtain, H. & Pesola, C.A. (2008). Language and Children, Making the Match. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., & Falk, B. (1995). Authentic assessment in action. NY: Teachers College Press. Dewey, John. (1938). Experience and Education. NY: Macmillan Publishing Company. Egan, K. (1986). Teaching as storytelling. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Egan, K. (1992). Imagination in teaching and learning. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Freire, P. (1987). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: The Continuum Publishing Corporation. Gardner, R. C., & Lambert, W. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. Greene, Maxine. (1988). The Dialectic of Freedom. NY: Teachers College Press. Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as a social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. Baltimore: University Park Press. hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. NY: Routledge. Liskin-Gasparro, J. E. (1996). Narrative strategies: A case study of developing storytelling skills by a learner of Spanish. The Modern Language Journal, 80, 271-286. Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. NY: Delacorte Press. On the Day of the Dead Ancona, G. (1992). Pablo Remembers. NY: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books. Burkhalter, David. "The Day of the Dead", Tucson Guide Quarterly. Fall 1991. Carmichael, E. and Sayer, C. (1991). The Skeleton at the Feast. Austin: University of Texas Press. Cisneros, S. "Mexico's Day of the Dead", Elle. November 1991. Day, D. "A Day with the Dead", Natural History. October 1990. The Day of the Dead Activity Handbook. (1991). Chicago: Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. Día de los Muertos. (1990). Chicago: Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. Garcia, G. "Celebrating Life on the Day of the Dead". The New York Times. Sunday, October 17, 1993. Greenleigh, J. and Beimler, R. R. (1991). The Days of the Dead. San Francisco, CA: Collins Publishers. Lasky, K. (1994). Days of the Dead. NY: Hyperion Books for Children. Masuoka, S. N. (1994). En Calavera: The Papier-Mâché Art of the Linares Family. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Navarro, R. (1994). "El Rojo Esqueleto and La Negra Esqueleta Conduct My Examination." Currents from the Dancing River. NY: Harcourt Brace and Company. Paz, O. (1994). El Laberinto de la Soledad. Mexico: Colección Popular. Rohde, T. E. (1991). El Día de los Muertos. Mexico: Editorial Patria. Sayer, C. (1994). The Mexican Day of the Dead. Boston: Shambhala Publications. Talbot, M. "Living it Up in the Name of the Dead". Daily News. Wednesday, October26, 1994.


MisCositas.com picturebook: Lisa and the Language Lesson  

A story for teachers about lesson planning, reflective teaching, and learning from students. Download this publication for free here on Iss...

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