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THE POWER OF AFFIRMATION
Jan Evans, Spanish Department, Calvin College

The following was first addressed to student conversation group leaders, but can be food for thought for all of us who teach foreign language.

     It was the summer of '92, and it was a pleasantly warm evening in the Chicago suburbs. My husband, Steve, and I were in my hometown for my 25th high school reunion. I had the usual amount of anxiety someone has before one of these events. As we opened the door to the Holiday Inn Crown Plaza I was still wondering, "Would any of my close friends show up? Would I recognize people I should know? How would my own process of aging compare with that of my classmates?" We found the room where people were supposed to be gathering. Almost immediately I heard a friendly voice say, "Hi! Jan. Yeah, this is the place. Good to see ya!" Relieved, we ventured into the room. I was not prepared for what happened next.
     I saw someone across the room that I hadn't seen in 25 years. Without thinking, I turned around and faced the other direction, not wanting to be seen. I was breathing hard and I could feel myself turning red from the base of my neck to the top of my forehead. My husband saw my reaction and assumed that I must have seen an old boyfriend. More amused than worried he asked, "OK, who is it?" "It's my Spanish teacher," I said.
     The same man had taught me Spanish all four years of high school. He was not an evil man. He had taught me an incredible amount of Spanish, but he had also taught me and all of my classmates that we could never meet his standards, we would never be really good at speaking his language. No doubt his motives were honorable. "Students will only reach as high as your expectations", he must have thought. But from our point of view, he gave impossible tests no one could do well on. As juniors in high school we were stumbling through texts that would be used in a college advanced lit course. He had a way of slicing up whatever you said and never helping you put the pieces back together again. In short, in his presence all I had ever felt was inadequate.
     At that moment, with my back turned to the man, I told myself that there was no good reason why, at age 43, I should still be intimidated by him. I had studied at la Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. I had recently completed my master's degree in Spanish Literature at Emory University. At that point I had taught Spanish for 12 years. Even so, as my knees shook, I was asking myself, "Should I speak to him? Should I speak to him in Spanish? Will he correct me if I say something wrong?"
     I decided to take the offensive and greet him first, so I made my way over to him and said simply in Spanish, "Quiero saludarte." He turned, recognized me immediately and said with a warm smile, "Tengo que abrazarte primero." Surprised and relieved, I gave him a hug. We talked about teaching. He had just retired. He complained that in his last years of teaching he had never been able to do with his classes what he had been able to do with mine. He told the small group who had gathered to listen to him how he could never get the students today to work as hard as we had worked for him.
     At that point in the summer of '92 Steve and I thought we might be moving back to that are a of Chicago again, and I asked him about job possibilities. He said the job market was really tight, but not impossible for a talented person like me. Was I talking to the same man? Yes. And I was finally hearing after 25 years the words that I had so longed to hear. The words of affirmation. The words of recognition that said I had worked hard, and that what we had accomplished together was significant, worthwhile, and even excellent.
     Now, why have I told you this story? I have told you this story to show you the importance of encouragement in learning. I had to wait 25 years to hear the words of affirmation I so desperately needed to hear. Your students should not even have to wait 25 minutes to hear the affirmation that they need to keep them going. In order to learn a foreign language, you have to believe that you can do it. You will help your students to believe in themselves if you respond positively to their efforts, even if what they say is not perfect.
     You might say, now wait, Prof. Evans. You went on in Spanish, you must have had enough self-confidence to go on, you're a Spanish teacher now. The truth of the matter is that I did not go on to major in Spanish in college. Because of my basic sense of inadequacies, I thought I couldn't do that. I kept Spanish as a minor, however, and I found after I graduated that it was much easier to find jobs teaching Spanish than English, my major (and actually more fun). Both Connecticut and Illinois allowed me to teach Spanish full time with a minor. When I got to Minnesota I couldn't teach full time with a minor, so I went back to college to complete my major, at the age of 36, and found the encouragement I needed to go on to do a master's degree at Emory University. I am now enrolled in a doctoral program at MSU.
     I have not told you this story to stir up any sympathy for my situation. I have told you all of this so that you will see how important it is to help each student believe that he/she can learn by praising all his/her correct responses and affirming his/her every attempt to make sense in this language. With this attitude in mind, you can see that there are no stupid questions. A question proceeds from some kind of confusion, some lack of knowledge. It takes courage to even ask a question. So the student should be taken seriously and responded to seriously, even though you think the question is, perhaps, simple, trivial, off the wall, or most often, something that you think he/she should already know.
     Am I advocating not correcting errors? No, not at all! But there are ways of correcting errors that build up confidence and ways of correcting errors that destroy a person and his/her efforts. The first step is to make a judgement about the importance of the error. Is it an error that gets in the way of communication? Is it being repeated? You certainly will want the conversation to flow and not be correcting every error. Once you have decided that the error is worth correcting, the key is helping the student to see his/her own error and self correcting, if you possibly can. If there is no recognition of error, then you can model the correct answer in your response to him/her. If there is still no recognition, you can point out the problem.
     Your students will come to you at multiple levels of knowledge, competence and confidence. All of them still need to be affirmed. All of them need to believe that they can speak Spanish before they will. All of them will look to you for encouragement. Give it often. Give it freely. Give it well.


The Arts History & Customs Service Learning Contemporary Issues Pedagogy Language Teaching Units
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