Learning by Sharing

By Kelly Violette, Spanish faculty & College Counselor

I often tell my students that teaching someone else is one of the best ways to test your own understanding. I love assigning a challenging grammar activity and then listening in as students debate what the right answer might be. As they work to explain to one another, out loud, the why behind their thinking, you can practically hear the fragments of understanding clicking together. The benefits are similar when we ask a student to stand in front of the room and present their learning to the class in the form of a formal presentation. The work of compiling information, sorting it into neatly defined categories, and preparing to explain it in a way that’s clearly comprehensible to others (in a second language, no less!) is deeply beneficial to the presenter’s own understanding of the concepts at play.

Josefa Ruiz and I got a great reminder of the value of this type of undertaking when we presented at the NWAIS Fall Educator’s Conference. Our workshop, based on 6+ years of Spanish Discipline Group work, was titled, “Improving the Student Experience in the Second Language Classroom.” The presentation centered around the evolution of our Spanish program here at EPS, best summarized as (1) a dramatic restructuring of our Middle School program (from Spanish-level-based to grade-level-cohort-based) and (2) an equally dramatic philosophical shift throughout our discipline. As a result of the changes in our curricular design, pedagogical strategies and—most importantly—shared philosophy, we now offer a program that is proficiency-based and celebrates the growing ability of each student to communicate their thoughts and ideas in Spanish. Our classrooms are safe and comfortable environments, alive with conversation, where students are uninhibited and unafraid of “messing up” as they learn how to use the Spanish they know.

The NWAIS presentation provided Profesora Ruiz and me with a unique opportunity: for a period of about four months leading up to the conference, we focused significant time and energy on examining carefully the big-picture of where our Spanish Discipline has been, where we are now, and where we want to go. We gathered data, dug through discipline group records and meeting notes, and reflected on our current Spanish program and the process it took to get where we are today. Condensing all that information into one brief presentation was a challenging yet extremely rewarding experience. We grew wiser through the process of stepping back and taking stock, mirroring our students’ experience in many ways as we self-reflected, researched, summarized, identified the most important and relevant points, condensed, and, ultimately, presented to our peers.

Our presentation at NWAIS was well-attended and generated productive conversations with teachers from around the region. Those conversations extended beyond the conference itself: In the weeks following, we hosted classroom observations and lunchtime conversation with colleagues from other schools who asked to visit our classes. The conference experience was deeply valuable in the way it sparked conversations, made us take time and space to reflect and look at the big picture, and encouraged us to distill the growth we’ve experienced over the last few years into a neatly-packaged, comprehensible presentation less than an hour in length. But perhaps the greatest benefit of the entire experience was the reminder of the unparalleled value of learning by sharing.