~ by Sarah Foose ~
I first fell in love with Spanish as a ninth-grader in a private Christian school in Pennsylvania. I didn’t really know anyone in my daily life who spoke Spanish and I already decided ahead of time that I was NOT going to like it. I had studied French in elementary school and loved it, even though I wasn’t very good at it. Spanish just didn’t seem as fancy or international (oh, my ignorance!), and I wasn’t interested in the running of the bulls or anything from Spain. But it was the only language offered, so I reluctantly signed up.
Something happened once classes began, though—I started to like it! It turned out to make much more sense to me than French ever had (probably because French was my first foreign language and I could use my knowledge base in français to decode the Spanish). It made more sense to me than anything else ever had, and I couldn’t get enough of it. My teacher gave me a Gideon’s New Testament in Spanish and I started listening to songs and music from Mexico, Spain, and throughout Latin America. I had never really considered the existence of Latin America before except I once had a classmate from Brazil. Suddenly I was aware of a whole ethnic group I had previously known nothing about. Latinos are a vast, diverse collection of people whose history is vital to understanding the world and the United States as we know it.
My Spanish teachers were eager to share their passion without judging me for my ignorance. They gently led me and my class towards greater knowledge of the cultures of Spain, Argentina, and Mexico. A field trip to a flamenco dance show blew my mind with rhythms, attitudes, movements, and joy that I had never previously witnessed.
Spanish class became much more than a place to practice grammar, though we did do that. I began reading the Bible in Spanish, memorizing Bible verses, and praying in my newfound language. I learned that this new way to communicate with God gave me fresh eyes and a soft heart towards passages of the Bible that I had previously taken for granted or considered too trite or familiar to be useful in my spiritual walk.
I reached a new level of satisfaction and wonder when I signed up for a missions trip to Mexico after my first two years of Spanish class and discovered that I could interpret and even share the Gospel in the Spanish. I would go on to participate in other missions trips to the Bronx and the Dominican Republic where I could hold meaningful conversations with non-English speakers for the first time in my life. It is a beautiful dynamic to be able to speak to someone in their heart language, and it all began in a classroom at school!
Over time, this fascination for the Spanish language grew and I was able to study abroad in Mexico and go on to specialize in college in Mexican culture, Spanish, and immigration studies. Speaking Spanish has opened my heart and my world to thousands of people I would otherwise never be able to communicate with.
Why do I share all these details about how I came to love Spanish? What do they have to do with the topic of teaching Spanish classically? I haven’t mentioned the idea of “classical” Spanish because I hadn’t heard of classical education during that phase of my life. When I found it as an adult and a prospective Spanish teacher myself, though, I recognized many of these traditional, classical tools and approaches to learning in my own Spanish journey. None of my training happened in traditionally “classical” settings, yet my teachers trained us with many classical tools. Tools such as immersion, repetition, chanting or singing of verbs and other grammar, and emulating a master or native speaker were all part of my Spanish training, and continue to be pillars in my Spanish classroom.
What makes my Spanish classroom “classical”, though, if my non-classical school teachers seem to have taught me the same way that I now teach my students? I see the difference as twofold: first, the attitudes about education of the teacher, parents, and students, and second, the interplay between what happens in any given classroom with the rest of the curriculum.
The attitudes about learning, such as are embodied in the idea of scholé (restful learning) have a transforming impact on the learning process and the classroom environment. The concepts that knowledge comes from the God of Truth and that learning is to be enjoyed, savored, and cherished change everything. That we can peacefully act this out in class as a learning community is a precious gift.
I am part of a classical school faculty and have been teaching classically-educated students in the physical and virtual classroom for seven years. I am privileged to work with students who have a beautiful foundation in grammar and beyond. I find that when I teach them Spanish in the late or even early elementary years, my lessons are not falling on rough, untilled soil in their minds. The rest of the curriculum and their parents’ and teachers’ work (and their own hard work) has prepared them like a tilled field, already fertilized, planted, and just in need of gentle cultivation. The classical tools of learning I use are already familiar to them and easily connect to what they have learned and are currently learning in their other courses.
If I am a student, I can chant verbs in any language class around the world. But if I am chanting verbs in a context that teaches me that I can find pleasure in that chanting, that is a different experience. Furthermore, when this pleasurable verb chanting exercise is presented in a way that connects it to the grammar lessons I learned in my native English language grammar class, even played with to encourage me to use my logic skills to analyze it as I memorize or simple rhetoric skills as I lead the chant or creatively memorize it to a tune, then this is different still. This is just one example of the phenomenon that what we do is overshadowed by how we do it and why we do it.
Amidst the Latin, logic, rhetoric, and grammar, Spanish provides not only a sweet elective that “we should all really learn someday” but is a training field where students can work out and strengthen their pure trivium skills, find enjoyment in their work, and become citizens of the world. Teaching Spanish from a classical mindset in a greater classical context deepens these interdisciplinary connections and brings the whole student into the learning experience. Thank you for allowing this modern language to still be a part of this ancient and great conversation!