Creating A Virtual Spanish Language Learning Community

Creating A Spanish Language Learning Community In A Virtual Environment 

I have never been a Spanish teacher, but I have been learning the language since grade school and speaking it in my personal and professional life for more than a decade. From working in libraries, I know that Spanish language learning can improve Spanish speaking patrons’ experiences.

When the Indiana Library & Historical Board approved awarding Library Education Units for foreign language learning classes, I jumped out of my seat, volunteering to facilitate.

I knew this would be a personal challenge, because, despite my decent level of fluency, I freeze up when someone in the community could use a little help with interpreting or translating. This is, frankly, unacceptable to my sensibilities as a learning community member!

I needed to get my confidence up and why not, at the same time, leap into an opportunity to develop and facilitate an awesome curriculum with the potential for tremendous impact in public libraries?

Step 1: No dinero. (No money.) Ni un centavo. (Not even a cent.) 

Not to start with the negative, but we were limited from the get-go by lack of funding for software and travel. Time to find free virtual resources! For this pilot program, I chose Google Groups for chat and posting resources and announcements and ZOOM for conversation practice groups.

Step 2: Establish the theoretical framework around which the curriculum design principles, facilitation, and our learning community would cohere. 

As an egghead sociologist a constructivist and advocate for the transformative power of experiential and discovery-based learning, I felt strongly that this community needed (structure, of course, in addition to) flexibility, opportunities for reflexive exercises, control on the part of learners, and a safe, collaborative environment to encourage and even require learners to seek out resources of personal and professional meaning to them.

When Spanish language learning and English language learning collide!

When Spanish language learning and English language learning collide!

Step 3: Develop curricula outlining what and how community members would learn. 

I had been thinking about the potential for variation in the Spanish language abilities of colleagues around the state and anticipated a need for a beginner level community, as well as an intermediate or advanced level community. Turns out I correctly suspected I would need to create a curriculum for both groups and offer virtual meetings times for both, as well. When your work role doesn't actually really include teaching Spanish and you've never been a Spanish teacher (but you are no less excited about your project!), who wants to reinvent every wheel? Not I. To begin organizing a logical sequence for conversation practice exercises, I leaned heavily on Infopeople’s Survival Spanish for Library Staff. The PDF and audio files would be community members’ responsibility to read and listen to as they prepared for each weekly virtual practice group. Putting the framework from Step 2 into more practical, everyday terms, I wrote up an instructional design mission to which I would hold myself accountable throughout the curriculum development and facilitation processes:

With a deep understanding of the public library work experience and by staying true to a reflexive, Agile philosophy, the facilitator will demonstrate respect for community members’ unique backgrounds and adapt content, structure, and methods in response to their feedback.

For our learning community I envisioned:

  1. Establishing a clear connection between learning exercises, conversation practice, and library work so learners see the personal value of participation and their managers see the organizational value.
  2. Encouraging independent and interdependent experiential, inquiry-based, and discovery learning of language, community, and other resources.
  3. Inspiring collaboration between library professionals around the state and support for learning and applying Spanish language skills on the job.
  4. Strengthening relationships between learners and their managers in order to support initiatives that make use of learners’ new skills and help them to retain what they’ve learned.

Step 4: Announce the launch of our 8-week learning community pilot project and hope like heck that somebody would sign up. 

I posted the announcement about the learning community to our listservs and weekly e-newsletter, as well as on Twitter and LinkedIn, and reached out personally to individuals I hoped would participate.

Approximately 50 people from around the state requested to join. The news about the learning community was received with great enthusiasm and emails were bursting with smiley faces and exclamation marks. I simply could not believe how many of my colleagues felt unable to communicate with Spanish speaking patrons, even though they already spoke and understood at least a little of the language. They were paralyzed with fear at sounding foolish or making mistakes, but they expressed great excitement in confronting these fears and the prospect of improving library collections, programs, and services for Spanish speakers. I completely related to this fear, which I openly shared with learners in an effort to build rapport and establish my role as a learner too.

Step 5: Tomar la temperatura. (Take the temperature.)   

Throughout the planning process, I wrestled with how to write assessments.

I knew two things going in:

  1. I did not want to test learners on rote memorization of phrases that would never serve them in actual conversation.
  2. I needed to capture community members’ baseline Spanish speaking level so I could track progress and effectiveness of instruction. The assessment instrument needed to ask non-leading questions that would yield non-arbitrary responses and show me at which levels community members were starting so that I could respond to their needs.

And then, serendipity! I had the great fortune of listening to Dr. Will Thalheimer’s interview on Connie Malamed’s podcast in which he expressed, in science of learning research terms, exactly what I hoped to glean from assessment. With a little feedback from the gracious Dr. Thalheimer, I came up with the following self-assessment instrument and administered it through Google Forms:

Think about how much Spanish you know at this point and your comfort level with each of these items. Pick the statement that best describes your current knowledge and comfort levels.

  • Greeting patrons and very simple phrases (e.g. Hello, Goodbye, Good morning, Good afternoon, Thank you, You’re welcome): 
    • I can do this easy, no problem.
    • I am familiar with all of these phrases, but I’m terrified to say them aloud.
    • I know 1-2 phrases (e.g. Hola, Adios), and I can say them confidently.
    • Not ready for this yet.
  • Counting/Numbers/Days of the week/Months of the year: 
    • I don’t know any of these yet.
    • The extent of my Spanish counting and numbers vocabulary is “uno, dos, tres.”
    • I recall some of these but could use a refresh. I can name some or most of these, but my pronunciation is a little shaky.
    • I know numbers, counting, days of the week, and months of the year backwards and forwards.
  • Basic communication and courtesy phrases (e.g. How are you?  What’s your name?  Where do you live? Describing the weather): 
    • I’ve got this down; no hay ningún problema.
    • I’ve heard or used these before but could use a refresh.
    • This is totally new to me.
  • Answering patrons’ questions about library cards, circulation, library policies, computer or other equipment use, or giving directions: 
    • Hazme cualquier pregunta. Contestaré todas.
    • I can get a general sense for what they’re asking, and I know how to answer back for at least a few of these areas.
    • I can usually understand what they’re asking; I don’t know enough or I’m too nervous to answer back.
    • I am not able to do this confidently yet, although I know who to ask or where to find help.
    • Definitely not familiar or comfortable with this yet.
  • I know where to find Spanish language resources to help me serve patrons (e.g. mobile apps, community organizations, print materials, online resources, etc.): 
    • Si, conozco a muchos recursos y puedo compartirlos con todo el mundo.
    • I know of and have used a few Spanish language resources.
    • I am aware such resources are out there but am not yet familiar with them.
    • I am not familiar yet with any of these kinds of resources.
  • My 2 biggest challenges are: 
    • Confidence.
    • Pronunciation.
    • Reading.
    • Writing or translating material.
    • Finding time to learn or practice Spanish.
    • Too few opportunities to use Spanish at work.

El Próximo Capítulo (The Next Chapter)

Qué sucederá en el próximo capítulo? What will happen in the next chapter?

Qué sucederá en el próximo capítulo? What will happen in the next chapter?

Want to know what actions we took to create and nurture an online learning community of learners?

Interested in what potential organizational impacts Indiana library professionals envision?

Curious about our format, structure, or levels of participation, retention, and attrition?

Stay tuned for the next chapter in nuestra aventura aprendiendo con bibliotecarios (our adventure learning with librarians)!

Hint: I am continually impressed by community members’ ownership and initiative. Is that not every facilitator’s dream?!

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