Looking to the future

Hello, readers! I hope you are having a wonderful summer. For me, I’m down to the last week of vacation and decided I should probably catch up on some blogs. With the exception of my one tutoring session per week, I have managed to completely walk away from being a Spanish teacher and concentrate on being anything-but-a-teacher. I love my job, but thinking of Spanish education 24/7 gets pretty exhausting after 190 teacher days. I bought a house and discovered that I really enjoy gardening, even though I hate being hot, sweaty, dirty, or constantly attacked by bugs. Go figure.

I suppose this is when I should make some goals for this year or something, but instead, I am looking even farther to the future. The inspiration for this post came from something that Sara-Elizabeth recently shared on Musicuentos, the invention of the Babel Fish. She got a surprising amount of pushback on Twitter, because although she made me think about the topic (which is the point of blogs, right?)  I didn’t feel like she was attacking our profession. I have some disagreements, but I also think that she made an important point.

One thing that Sara-Elizabeth argues for is that Google Translate has gotten a lot better over the years. And it has. (I was in high school when the first internet translators appeared and I could only use them to get the gist of a passage.) However, I would argue that a practiced speaker of a language can still tell that it’s not normal speech almost immediately. For Spanish purposes, it will use the wrong past tense. It makes all ‘you’ into ‘usted’ even if the situation wouldn’t call for it. ‘Su’ is translated as ‘he’, even if the possessor is female. Every year, I have at least one student who writes ‘me gusta el partido’. A partido is a political party, not a fun-times party: that’s a fiesta. (And further baffling because seriously, who doesn’t know the word fiesta? I know they know it!!) In other words, translators are great for getting a basic message across… usually. I still wouldn’t trust one with say, my medical advice from a doctor. They’re still pretty terrible with slang, and they just can’t convey the same feeling, emotion, and flavor that a text does in its original language.

The other counterpoint I’d make is that, although I do believe teaching as we know it is going to disappear, I’m not overly concerned for language teaching disappearing altogether in my lifetime. It’s true that we finally have the first reasonably usable virtual reality headsets. (My friend has a VIVE and using it is really cool, but the user looks like a total dork.) My new phone has 70x more storage than my first computer from 1995. However, I am pretty sure I was promised a hoverboard and robotic cleaning servants by now. The so-called hoverboards that we have just catch fire and don’t even hover, and as for robotic cleaning servants, well…

So what I’m saying is… if we’re promised the technology by 2030, we’ll see some moderately usable form of it in 2050. I don’t know about you, but I plan to be retiring around then. The rate at which new technologies are created, tested, and applied can’t continue at a breakneck pace forever. On top of that, the biggest barrier is affordability.

Here’s the part where I agree 100% with Sara-Elizabeth: teaching as we know it is on its way out. I think traditional teaching methods where students are physically grouped into a building based on location are going to stick around much longer in urban areas, but in rural, less populated areas that are only shrinking… how much longer is it economically sustainable? When I started teaching at my school in 2010, I had a little over 90 students total. This year, I am currently sitting at 46. Our graduating class size, in just the last decade, has shrunk from about 30 to about 22. This year’s sophomore class only has 19 – assuming nobody moved over the summer. So it’s not that I’m scaring students off (in reality, I have far better retention rates than the Spanish teachers before me)… there’s just fewer kids to teach.

And that’s just the students. What about staff? I think that’s really the part that is going to be difficult. I work with a concentrated group of amazing veteran teachers. But in exchange for experience, I would say at least 1/3 of our staff is at or near retirement age, and I am honestly not sure what is going to happen if they all decide to leave at once. Who will replace them? Will we be able to get and keep quality teachers? What about the teachers who coach multiple activities? Our non-teaching staff is even more critical. I can’t imagine my school running without our three fantastic office ladies. We are in severe need of bus drivers and substitute teachers. It’s the typical small town scenario: everyone is aging out. Many of the kids are leaving and not coming back. It’s hard to face, but that’s the reality of the situation.

So, I worry. We can’t really consolidate our school anymore – we already encompass about 100 square miles. Some of our students live upwards of 20 miles away from our main building. I am pretty sure it’s just a matter of time before schools like mine disappear and are turned into online-only education. I am against that for kids for a variety of reasons, but if that happens, will there be a place for me? What would I do if I couldn’t teach Spanish there any longer? I have plenty of talents but… I like what I do now. I like my students. I like my coworkers. I don’t want that to change. But, and I think this is the whole point Sara-Elizabeth was trying to make, is that we need to be prepared when – not if – it does.

Useful advice for teachers

Earlier this week, I posted Useless Advice for Teachers. Since I try to be a positive person, I thought I’d share some advice that actually was useful in my career. Most of these involve the phrase, ‘Time is money, friend.’ from the goblins of World of Warcraft. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you only live once. Being a miserable is not worth it, and teaching is a job that can quickly cause burnout if you’re not careful. So here are my bits of helpful advice:

  • Take care of yourself first. By now, you’ve probably heard the phrase or seen the meme that says ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’ This is definitely true for teachers, which is exhausting in a multitude of ways. Even a day where students are mostly self-directed requires a ton of multitasking and decision making on the part of the teacher. If you are tired, hungry, sick, or grumpy, it will affect your ability to teach well. Obviously, you can’t just skip work every time you don’t feel well, but it’s super important for us to be taking care of our physical and mental health. Get enough sleep. Eat decent food. See a doctor if you’re sick – yes, even if you have to take a day off and your students will probably not make a lot of progress on the day you’re gone. The students will learn a lot less if you have to take multiple days off to recover from a more severe illness! Martina Bex just had a fantastic post for those kinds of days where you literally can’t even – you can find it here. (While this post was sitting in draft-land, I also ran across this wonderful article called “When is it okay to say you’ve done ‘enough’ for a student?” which discusses the pressure put on teachers to give 110% to every student every day, regardless of the personal repercussions.)
  • Grade only what you have to. In the same vein of taking care of yourself, one thing that keeps many teachers up late at night and working through their lunch break is grading. Some advice that I received in college that is part of my teaching mantra is to grade only what I have to. From the get-go, I have only put in 2-3 weekly formative assessment grades and a summative grade every few weeks. In fact, my biggest problem is forgetting to do summative assessments. I am constantly informally assessing students. With every question I ask, I am wondering, ‘Do you get it?’ If a student can’t answer, then I know we need to back up and try again. Even such minimal grading with only a pool of about 65 students still takes me hours each week. And I know it’s much worse for most other teachers. Grading is also something that can wait. Truly, your students will not suffer if you take another day to return daily classwork. (However, the caveat is that you need to return graded-for-accuracy or graded-for-content work within a reasonable amount of time so that students have adequate time to self-evaluate and improve before the summative assessment.) But if the choice is skipping lunch to grade papers, or to take a brain break and eat a legitimate meal? Eat the meal.
  • Pick your battles. In any kind of situation where there is an inherent power imbalance, there are going to be power struggles. Let the small stuff go. Kids are going to sneak peeks at their cell phone. They’re going to eat candy even if they’re not supposed to. And then there are the students who will, intentionally or not, attempt to bait you into a fight for whatever reason. One of the most important skills to being a successful classroom manager is knowing when to push and when to back off. However, we all get it wrong from time to time. Don’t fight yourself over that, either.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. In most cases, you’ll need to adapt lessons to fit your particular class and their needs. However, there are plenty of materials available (for cheap or free) that are good enough, especially if you’re hurting for downtime. (See point #1!) Any lessons that I post on here are free for use or adaptation by others, and many other bloggers follow a similar policy. With the advent of the internet, you can spend your entire career looking for or building ‘the perfect plan’ without ever taking the time to teach it! So use what you can, adapt what you need, and keep some of your own sanity.
  • You control the atmosphere of your classroom. Although we cannot control what our students choose to do, we are completely in control of what the atmosphere of our room is like. Is it going to be noisy or quiet? Are students going to be working individually or in groups? Is it going to be a safe space, or a place where students have to be on guard? I think the biggest point here is that we also control the overall tone of the room, which goes way back to point #1 of this post. If you lose your cool and let your room turn into a pit of despair, the students will take that and run. I make it a point to be annoyingly cheery, even if I don’t feel that way, because if I’m grouchy, then the students take it as a cue that they can be grouchy too. And then I get even grouchier because I have to deal with disrespectful behavior, and it’s a terrible cycle. As the adult in the room, it is our job to break that cycle. We are professionals. We are not perfect, for sure, but it is on us to do our best to ensure that our classes are positive centers for learning.

What about you? Any other advice that you would contribute as useful advice for the classroom? We could all use a mental pick-me-up right about now!

Useless advice for teachers

When it comes to advice for teachers (especially newer teachers,) I have a pet peeve. It drives me bonkers when I read blogs or twitter posts that are full of feel-good platitudes that don’t actually help anyone. I’m not talking about an encouraging post or anything like that; those are good. Let’s help and support each other. I’m talking about the ones that should theoretically be obvious to teachers or overly simplify a complicated topic. Some of my “favorites” include:

  • Love your students. If you don’t at least marginally like kids (of whatever age you teach) then you won’t make it past student teaching. I guess one could argue that you should love your students even when they’re being unpleasant, but… I figured that’s pretty much a given.
  • Have a behavior management plan. The issue is, I think, that some teachers struggle with enforcing their behavior management plan, not that they don’t have one. I feel like this advice also glosses over the fact that some students are unreachable by us for whatever reasons, or many teachers deal with administrators who won’t back them up when they do use their behavior management plan. And mostly, in my school, our behavior issues stem from teenagers being teenagers. I suppose I could give detentions all day long, but it won’t stop a social butterfly from talking rather than doing his work, or magically cause a forgetful student to remember to do her homework.
  • Create engaging lessons. “I want to be super boring and hope the kids learn nothing from me,” said no teacher ever.
  • Incorporate technology. This one is a bit of a nitpick, but I feel like the techie revolution is overwhelming and dismissive of teachers who are really good teachers but are slower to adapt to the constant barrage of technology changes. Do I think you should incorporate technology into your classroom? Yes, of course. But again, this platitude ignores the fact that some – many? – schools are still struggling to have functional computer labs, much less 1:1 situations. And honestly, you should only use technology if it enhances what you’re already doing. When I do TPRS, I like to type up the stories as I go to give an extra burst of written input. It’s very easy to do with my projector. However, whenever we do illustrations, we always use paper. It’s far easier for me to copy a blank template of six squares than to have students attempt to draw on a laptop trackpad. There is also the problem of students misusing technology to the point where it is a distraction and disruption to your everyday class activities. I don’t mind having to remind a student about my expectations on a regular basis, but this year, I have a class that has such difficulty regulating their behavior on the computer that I might go back to paper with them as the default. It’s not worth the lost time in class or the loss of my patience solely to check the ‘used technology’ box.
  • Encourage your students to do their best. This one needs no explanation.
  • Let your students control the learning. Like some of these other quips, this one is a complicated situation beautifully wrapped up in a shallow one-liner. Students, when left to do what they want to do, generally don’t work on educational activities. So as educators, part of our job is to ensure that students are completing some sort of educational curriculum. After that, I do think that it’s important to include student voice and choice, especially in a subject that can be as free-form as foreign language. However, what happens when your students really don’t want to be in control of their learning? I have a few classes this year that will happily comply with whatever I ask them to do, but if I ask them what they want to do (educationally), they just shrug. They don’t really care – to them, I’m the teacher and it’s my job to tell them what to do. Sadly, they’re not invested enough in their own education to want to give it a direction. In a lot of cases for my Preferred Activity Time, the same handful of kids are the ones that end up choosing what we do since no one else appears to have an opinion. It can be tough.

This post is a full #rantchat, however, I don’t believe in offering criticisms without offering solutions! Later this week, I will be posting a secondary post with advice that I think is actually useful for teachers. Tune in then!

Different teachers, different classes, different goals

This spring and summer, I was able to get out of my classroom and speak with other Spanish teachers across the state. One of my personal things to work on is not being a zealot about my point of view regarding teaching and foreign language acquisition. I want to be kind, open, and willing to help, without making others feel like they’re inferior, wrong, or stupid. Sometimes I am not very good at that, but it bothers me to see other people make sweeping judgments about the way teachers teach in their own classroom, and I feel like a jerk when I realize I’ve been doing it too.

I learned that although being a department of one is sometimes difficult, I am pretty lucky that I get to make all my decisions myself. I am the Spanish teacher, Spanish department chair, language department head, and my own curriculum specialist. I get to make the decisions for myself regarding my own classroom. Other teachers are not so lucky. If they have all those sorts of administrators who are trained foreign language teachers, great! But that’s not usually the case, and so they have to listen to ideas that make no sense. I spoke to teachers who are fighting the acquisition vs. learning battles in their schools. I talked to people whose curriculum is chosen by someone who is monolingual. I heard from teachers who were told they used too much Spanish. (Yeah, figure that one out.)

I am also blessed that my administration respects my expertise and does what they can to get me what I need to be successful. I don’t have to worry about having to use the same outdated textbooks (or being required to use a textbook at all) – if I can present a reasonable argument on why something isn’t working for me, I am either granted the funds, or steered in the direction of someone that can help. The East Butler Foundation has been instrumental in adding novels to my classroom, and I am forever grateful for their help. But not every school has a foundation that offers educational grants. Not every school has an administration who is willing or able to support teachers fully in their classrooms. My school also helps me with trainings, provides professional leave days, and offers tuition reimbursement for qualifying degrees. Not every teacher is so lucky.

Technology availability is another huge difference between schools. My school is 1:1, and although I know I am a very effective teacher wtihout tech, it helps me be a more efficient teacher. With Google Classroom, I no longer have to carry stacks of paper home. With Duolingo, I have a quick go-to activity if my actual lesson finishes way earlier than I intended. With Youtube, my students have numerous opportunities to find target language videos that interest them. Even before we were 1:1, everyone had Promethean boards, projectors, or TVs connected to the teacher computer. It is frustrating to me that some teachers are forced to use slower, more tedious methods of doing things, just because they don’t have the technology, through no fault of their own. I am a staunch supporter of the idea that technology in itself does not make a lesson, but it is a great way to enhance and differentiate your lessons. I can get more done in less time, thanks to technology.

Another ridiculous difficulty that many other schools face is large class sizes. Class size is an interesting quirk because the research appears to be unclear on class size vs. achievement. Some studies say that it is a huge component, others say that it isn’t. What I can say is that class size absolutely does have an effect on the relationship you can have with your students, and how much personal attention you can give them. My usual yearly class load has been about 60 between all four levels. I expect it to hover between 50-70, probably closer to 50 as our enrollment drops. I usually have 8-10 students that I am with for all four years of high school. We have time to build some really close relationships, which is one of my favorite parts of working at a small school. In other schools, there are teachers out there who see 200 or more students per marking period. If you have elementary, it’s even more ridiculous. A friend of mine who teaches elementary art between two schools sees over 600 students. Six hundred. How many of her students will slip under the radar because they don’t demand attention? Or another teacher, who taught middle school Spanish on a block schedule, who received less classroom time with more students – and those students still had to pass the Spanish 1 exam given at the high school so they could get credit? That sets their students up to fail.

A final comparison I have to make is foreign language specific. This summer, I attended trainings on two completely different ends of the learner spectrum. Something that really finally set in my brain is that different teachers have different goals for different classes. I’m the same teacher for all of my students, but I cannot teach my AP Spanish students who are pushing into intermediate high and advanced low proficiences in the same manner that I teach my novices. The idea of comprehensible input and acquisition vs. learning still holds true, but once my students have the high frequency vocabulary down in a wide variety of tenses, I have to back off from TOTALLY comprehensible input. They have to deal with ambiguity, just like in English, since there are many words they still don’t know. (Like the word ambiguity.) By AP Spanish, my students have acquired enough language to be able to edit themselves in a basic way. They have enough words to guess the meaning of unknown words in a familiar context. They know the patterns well enough to puzzle out a new verb when they know the root, but maybe have never seen that particular form before. Spanish 3 is my real difficulty here – they have acquired enough language that totally comprehensible input is no longer needed, but they still need tons of support before they’re ready to rely on context clues. I expect that other teachers are in the exact same boat, and there are no easy answers. It can be a frustrating place to be, with people on both sides of the comprehensible input camp telling you you’re doing it wrong.

I know it’s very likely I looked sort of snobby in some of my conversations because I didn’t stop to consider other people’s situations compared to my own. I work in an ideal school, and it bothers me that other schools have to deal with stupid things like overcrowded classes, low funding, or lack of autonomy. In the end, we are all working towards the same goal: to provide the best education we can for our students, and sometimes I need a reality check that it’s not so easy for other teachers, and it’s not fair to criticize the decisions of others because their goals are different from mine.

The testing beast

As we wrap up the year, all schools are embattled with our ultimate nemesis: the standardized test. Thankfully, at my school, we only proctor 2 sets of tests. We administer the NWEA, a diagnostic test in reading, language arts, math, and science in the fall and spring. We also administer the NeSA (Nebraska state tests) to 4th, 8th, and 11th graders in the spring. Overall, the actual testing schedule isn’t particularly disruptive – the NeSA is given during a normal class period and the NWEA involves a couple of late starts. I am forever thankful, compared to many schools who lose entire days or even weeks of instruction to the testing machine. When using words like ‘beast’, ‘nemesis’, and ‘testing machine’, it’s probably no surprised that I am not a huge fan of standardized tests. I have all the usual teacher complaints: it encourages teaching to the test, it takes from actual teaching time, it forces students to find only one right answer for a problem, and so on. Ironically, as a student, I loooooooved testing because I am really, really, really good at taking standardized tests. And then we didn’t have homework. (In elementary school, they even gave us all sorts of snacks and breaks that we didn’t normally get.) Not exactly a ringing endorsement for compliance on testing. As a teacher, I can see the value of NWEA – it breaks down student scores into various categories so we can more easily identify areas of weakness. But as a world language teacher, the scores are pretty meaningless to me. How someone performs in English has very little to do with how they perform in a second language. Well, eventually it does, but not at the novice and intermediate levels where my students are.

I’m going to pick on the NWEA since that’s the one I proctored. As I monitored, I had to ask myself the biggest question of all: how are the questions on these tests actually related to what we do in class? You see, I keep hearing about ’21st century skills’ and ‘use of technology’ and ‘critical thinking’ and ‘project based learning’ and so on (in all areas, not just Spanish). But how are the questions asked on these tests applicable to any of those things? The tests do not ask our students to create, simply to answer trivia questions. I’m particularly harsh on the English/grammar tests, because I wonder – and maybe it’s different in primary languages versus secondary – if the data shows that specific grammar instruction in secondary languages is fairly useless as students will acquire structures when and if necessary for communication, why are we spending time on it in class? How many students do we correct saying ‘me and my friends’ because it sounds wrong according to some arbitrary grammatical rules, when ‘me and my friends’ communicates meaning perfectly well? And I’m not saying that we need to abandon grammar entirely since there is the distinction between formal and informal speech where grammar is a huge component in that distinction, but in casual conversation, who cares if you say ‘me and my friends’ or ‘my friends and I’? What is the point of identifying the topic sentence in paragraph? Why should you need to identify where to put commas in a paragraph someone else wrote?

My thing is, these tests are asking students to interpret… but assessing them in a presentational manner. If I want to know if my students understand the rules of grammar, I think it’s far more useful to assess through them writing or speaking a passage of their own creation. If I’ve learned nothing in the past few years, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter one tiny bit if students know the proper names of things – direct objects, past participles, pronoun-antecedent agreement – it only matters that they can use them correctly. And when it comes to things like writing and grammar, the rules can be and are broken all the time in literature! And don’t even get me started on basic vocabulary questions where students are asked to identify a potential definition, when I know they don’t know some of the words in the choices! And that’s conveniently ignoring the extra difficulties for students with learning disabilities or ELLs.

I guess it matters way more to me that my students learn to do that higher order thinking – the thoughtful analysis, the creation of a new product, or just outright enjoyment of what they’re doing, than to be able to regurgitate answers. But actions say more than words: if we’re told that we’re supposed to care about critical thinking and project based learning, but our students are going to be assessed with basic trivia facts on the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy and the results of that assessment can affect the funding for our schools and the retention of our jobs… we know where the importance really lies. In the meantime, though, I am still going to be working on that critical thinking, those group projects, pushing my students to be creators, not just consumers. I will be teaching AP Spanish next year, so the standardized test monster will be directly looming over me for the first time in my teaching career. I hope my students do well on it, but I would be satisfied if they leave my class with a working knowledge of Spanish and enrichment in their lives. My students are not defined by a multiple choice test.

The irony of technology

It’s no surprise that I am a huge fan of technology. I’m on twitter, I’ve got this blog, I have a blended classroom, and so on. I am literally a child of technology: I wasn’t exactly the most popular girl in middle school. (For some reason, people don’t really care for nerdy, obnoxiously smart and snarky young women. Hmm.) So I turned to this new-fangled internet thing and wow! There were losers like me on there! We could be losers together! And so began some of my life-long friendships; people that I have never met in person but I have known longer than any ‘real life’ friend I spend time with. Suffice to say, I am a little biased towards the good that technology can do for people. Don’t get me wrong, there is an incredibly unpleasant downside (online bullying, #gamergate, doxxing, etc.) but the internet is also a wealth of amazing information, opinions, and ideas that can revolutionize what we do in our lives. The internet helped me through the worst parts of my social development when I was utterly shut down to the rest of the world around me. It taught me how to build my own computer. It continues to help me with developing my expertise as a teacher.

I also feel that technology in the educational world is a very divisive issue. I am struggling with this in my own school. We recently went 1:1 with laptops and I am loving it. There are challenges, to be sure, but I have the skills and tenacity to overcome them. I have my room set up in fashion that encourages communication (both face-to-face and online) and where I can freely move about the room. I understand that my students, for the most part, have used technology as an entertainment device for most of their life and not as an educational device. In this 21st century skills world (or as I like to call it, the world), I consider it a part of my job to teach students to use technology appropriately. And like with any other new skill, they aren’t very good at it. I have to correct my students a lot. But I have to correct my sophomores less than the freshmen, the juniors less than the sophomores, and I pretty much let my seniors make their own decisions because: holy smokes, they’re almost full-fledged adults who need to know how to make the right decision without my hovering. I also understand that there are teachers who struggle with all of these things, and I can be a leader to show them how to manage behavior in a digital world. [Edited to add: After I originally wrote this post, I spent a portion of my day helping another teacher who is, in her own words, ‘terrible with technology but needs to learn about it’. I was happy to spend the 15 minutes it took to walk her through how to set up stuff on planbook.com. I like helping others have a good experience – I practice what I preach.]

But then there are things that outright irritate me, and this cartoon is one of them. I saw this posted on my twitter feed a few weeks ago, and it made me think.

cellphonesuntanThe irony of that cartoon, of course, is that it was shared on a social media platform. It probably wasn’t shared from a beach, but it was very possibly shared from a phone or tablet (considering that 80% of twitter’s users use a mobile device to access it). The people depicted in the cartoon are kids and teenagers, even though 90% of American adults have a cellphone, 58% have a smartphone, and approximately 50% or higher use their phone for entertainment purposes. For some reason, even though the vast majority of Americans have access to technology, using it frequently is considered something for ‘kids these days.’ The perception of people – especially young people – using their cellphones to do something besides make an actual phone call is widely negative. I often hear things like ‘lazy’ ‘only motivated by games’ ‘can’t function without technology’ or ‘why don’t they read a book?’

Here’s the reason this cartoon really bothered me: if I were a person, sitting on the beach, reading a traditional book, no one would make a comic about that. If I was reading a book on my beloved kindle, that’s probably not comic-worthy either. But being on the beach, reading a book on my phone? That’s worth making a comic about; the tragedy of being unable to function without my smartphone. And while we’re at it, why is reading books considered a more worthy pastime than playing a game, or watching tv? I think we should judge media by the story that it tells and the thoughts it provokes, rather than the platform by which it is consumed. It would be pretty difficult to explain to me how 50 Shades of Grey is superior to Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of story and pro-social ideas, even though 50 Shades of Grey was originally a book (and Guardians of the Galaxy a comic – possibly the only art form more widely derided than video games).

Although this issue is more pronounced at my school due to our heavily veteran staff, I expect other schools are experiencing the same push and pull of technology in the classroom. That’s normal; it’s how progress is made. But by depicting mobile tech users as clueless and crippled by their need to have their phone at all times, we’re doing our students a disservice. Like it or not, this is the world they – and we – live in. We need to put away the prejudices and meet the challenge with an open mind. That doesn’t mean using tech for tech’s sake, but rather using it in a directed and meaningful way. What can you do to show your students how to use their technological powers for good and not evil? How can you encourage your students to make good tech choices?

Offensive “authentic resources”

In the language learning community, and particularly in the language teaching community, one of our hot-button topics is the idea of authentic resources. The definition and usage of “authentic resources” (authres) varies from person to person. The generally accepted definition is that authentic resources are realia (videos, stories, commercials, whatever) taken from your language/culture of choice and not from the textbook. Some people believe that you should teach only using authres. Others, like myself, believe that authres is just another tool in the toolbox. Then there are others on the complete other end of the spectrum who feel that authres is often not comprehensible input and therefore should be discarded entirely.

But this isn’t about the usage in the classroom. I’m very much live-and-let-live. If a person is happy with their program and feels like their educational tools are working for them, great. The part where they say, “there’s got to be a better way and I need help” – that’s when I step in.

This post is about something that’s been somewhat stuck in my craw ever since I became more active in the language educator community, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it until the lovely Carrie Toth made a post on her blog, Somewhere to Share, earlier this month. (You can go read it first. This is a blog. My words can wait.)

Her first point in that post gave a shape to my discomfort. Something that really bothers me about the hardcore authres-only no-teacher-created-materials position is that the argument discounts all non-native speaker teachers. I try not to take things personally in the teaching world, but this argument is like a suckerpunch. It demeans me. It undermines me. It dismisses all the work I put into learning my second language, especially considering I learned it in the US school system, where we learn bits and pieces of every single culture and dialect of Spanish in the world rather than just the single environment a native speaker grows up with. In English, I am a hardcore grammarian. I am one of those people that, when I learned Spanish, was terrified of sounding stupid. I couldn’t carry a conversation with even the most basic confidence until college because I didn’t want to mess up. It’s also tough for me because I don’t have the vocabulary in Spanish to express myself in precisely the same way I do in English. I am very sensitive to my ability to produce Spanish, even though I’m sure every other non-native speaker has the same fears that I do. Do I sound stupid? Do they know I’m really just making up this word and hoping it’s the right one? Are they going to care that I always put the accent in the wrong place when I say difícil? Probably not.

The problem with immediately discounting materials created by non-native speakers is that it basically says that my Spanish isn’t authentic. My Spanish isn’t real Spanish, it’s gringa Spanish. I’m just a faker. But when I speak it or write it, and native speakers can understand and respond, isn’t that authentic? The argument pokes at that little doubtful hole that is already large enough thanks to my own nitpicky brain; I don’t need other people to make that hole bigger – even though I am sure it’s unintentional 99% of the time. When the majority of language teachers in the US are non-native speakers of the languages they teach, making the argument that only native speakers can offer useful or meaningful teaching materials is a hurtful statement to non-native teachers as individuals and our programs as a whole. It is discourteous to the non-native speakers who spend their precious free time creating materials for everyone to use in the classroom, whether it’s as simple as a blog post or as involved as a novel.

In the end, this isn’t a call to arms to abandon the idea of using authres in teaching. It’s a call to recognize that non-native speakers can offer authentic language experiences too. Just something to consider the next time the authres argument comes up.