Q & A: How do you motivate your heritage students?

Hello, friends. It’s been too long. This fall has been incredibly busy with school, presentations and family. I’m sure you’re all finding this year to be more than a little challenging, and as my fall busy-ness starts to slow down, I’m hoping to get some more regular posts up in the next month or so.

Today I wanted to share a question I received recently.

I’ve been teaching heritage Spanish for a few years and I always find that 90 percent of the students won’t do any of the work or assignments on their own, but when we do it as a class and they follow along they get more confidence and actually produce good work. I personally don’t mind this but maybe its a crutch? Maybe their independent work skills just aren’t there yet to do it on their own? The work isn’t too difficult, and some of them tend to do poorly in other classes so maybe they do need this support. I just want to see if its only me or if this is common for the type of class.

Here are some of my thoughts on how you can work with your students if you find yourself in a similar situation:

I find that I see this type of behavior with some of my students every year. I’m sure there are lots of factors contributing to their reluctance to do work. Maybe it seems irrelevant, so it helps to talk about why the learning activities are important and useful. I spend a lot of time building that buy-in, particularly through sharing my goals for the class and asking them both what they would like to learn and why being bilingual is important to them. This isn’t a one-time question; it’s an ongoing conversation. I remind students ALL THE TIME that our goals are to become stronger readers and writers of Spanish. We talk frequently about how we will achieve those goals (practice, practice, and more practice) and reiterate the reasons why these skills, and others, are important.

In addition to helping students see the importance and relevance of the class, and each learning activity, another thing to keep in mind is the importance of building community. Our students may not be used to sharing their thoughts, their feelings, and their writing with classmates. Depending on your school setting, they may not feel safe speaking up in some classes or peer groups. It takes a lot of work to build a community where students feel safe contributing and sharing. One way to do this is to be vulnerable with your students. When you take the first step, it helps students see you as a real person, with feelings and dreams and a life beyond the classroom. See my letter to students for one example to how to start this process from day one.

Another really common cause of that many students is simply lack confidence in their language skills. Students who have never had their heritage language valued in school (due to monolingual education) and who have often been corrected or even ridiculed by family and friends for making errors are hesitant to try because they already “know” that they “can’t” do it. We need to show students that in this space, mistakes will be made because that is how we learn. We can’t just tell them this, we have to show them. That means valuing their language practices, honoring their efforts and not correcting every mistake in their reading, writing and speaking.

Another thing to keep in mind is that modeling is very important. Students may not want to participate if they aren’t sure they understand what you want them to do. They also may be hesitant if they believe they can’t do it well. Providing student examples and doing the work you’re asking students to do (before them and/or while they do it) helps build confidence. I often want my students to be creative, but that’s not always easy when they’ve been drilled on structures like 5 paragraph essays for years. It takes time and I have to start small. That’s one reason quick writes are so great. It’s 5 short minutes, no grade, only share what you want, and I always model and share my own writing.

What else do you do to help motivate your students and help them feel comfortable taking risks in your class? If you have any tips, please share! And if you have any questions that you’d like me to answer, leave a comment below to let me know.

Stay safe, everyone!

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