The road to ‘Superior’, and getting heritage teachers there

In my previous post, I insisted that the most awesome thing that an awesome heritage teacher can do is work at speaking awesome Spanish.  In ACTFL parlance = Superior.   But what is Superior proficiency, and how do you work towards it?  

In June 2016, I was a guinea pig for an OPI workshop.  I was already interested in pursuing OPI certification by that point, and so I was looking for any way to rub shoulders with folks who were in the process.  I wasn’t sure if I had Superior level proficiency or not in order to pursue full OPI certification, or if it would be better to do MOPI certification.  

An OPI workshop candidate was called up front to do an interview with me.  I was facing the candidate, and to my back, the trainer was typing notes and comments on a Word doc that my trainee tester could see.  I was easily able to…

  • talk about what I do for a living (Intermediate)
  • explain what some of my interests are (Intermediate)
  • talk about my daily routine and my family (Intermediate)

and also…

  • tell a story from middle school about forgetting lines in a skit in front of the whole school (Advanced)
  • describe my middle school gym (Advanced)
  • explain what I like about teaching (Advanced)
  • narrate how I decided to become a teacher (Advanced)

Then the OPI trainer stopped the trainee who was testing me and said “We clearly have plenty of evidence of ability at the Advanced level.  So what do we do now?”  And the OPI trainees said “Start with Superior probes”.

And that’s when I fell flat on my face.

  • “How do you think that art and music impact society?”  (Superior)
  • “Only about 50% of Americans participate in voting even though we have voting freedom and rights here.  Why is that, and how can we increase participation?” (Superior)

Insert a confused-George-Costanza-gif here.  I wasn’t ready for that level of abstract thinking and that level of discourse.  I muttered out a few sentences for each question, and then just kind of fell silent.  It was pretty awkward.  I didn’t even share an anecdote or example to answer these – which is a typical characteristic of an Advanced level speaker trying to perform an Superior level task.  For some reason, I felt so intimidated.  

Don’t I translate for church on Sunday? 

Isn’t everyone always talking about how great my Spanish is?  (side comment – a bit of white privilege, perhaps?  How many immigrants get complimented on their English?)

Didn’t I do graduate school in Spanish? 

I teach in Spanish, and speak it with my kids at home. What’s wrong with me?  

I’ve only spent about 5 months of my life abroad in Spanish-speaking contexts.  Maybe I haven’t lived abroad enough to hit the Superior level.  

The fact of the matter is, we spend most of our life at the Intermediate and Advanced level.  We ask questions at the store, ask for a stapler, and wake our kids up with Intermediate level language (perhaps some Novice).  We tell stories about childhood mischief and call Verizon to report a lost phone with Advanced level language.  But Superior level speech is generally used in academic settings, Fox News Sunday, professional job interviews, and White House press briefings if and when Trump is not the one behind the podium.

What I ended up doing was spending a year immersing myself in content at this level.  And in July 2017, I scored ‘Superior’ on an OPIc (computerized version of the OPI – boy is that brutal), and a few months later again in my official OPI.

Here are a few of the main characteristics of Superior level discourse, taken directly from ACTFL’s description:

  • variety of topics in formal and informal settings from both concrete and abstract perspectives
  • discuss their interests and special fields of competence
  • explain complex matters in detail
  • provide lengthy and coherent narrations
  • present opinions on a number of issues of interest
  • social and political issues
  • provide structured arguments to support opinions
  • construct and develop hypotheses to explore alternative possibilities
  • use extended discourse without unnaturally lengthy hesitation to make a point, even when engaged in abstract elaborations
  • separating main ideas from supporting information

Below, I’ll share a few examples of things that I did over the course of a year to build up to the Superior level.  

I listened to…

  • CNN Chile
  • Tiempo de Análisis, a weekly podcast from la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
  • …interviews with Mario Vargas Llosa

I typed in

  • “entrevista sobre” on YouTube and clicked on results that caught my attention – how social media is affecting the life of Latin American youth, what it’s like to be a Muslim in Spain
  • “debate sobre” on YouTube and watched debates about capital punishment in Guatemala, educational reform in Mexico, and an address of Pablo Iglesias to the Spanish Parliament

I read

  • novels.  I developed a love for Mario Vargas Llosa during this time (“Cinco Esquinas” is the most twisted novel I have ever read), and also “La Casa De Los Espíritus” by Isabel Allende.
  • news.  I found El Pais from Spain to be the news site that offered good coverage on both U.S. issues and international issues that I valued.  And the articles seem to all be produced by their journalists, in Spanish – not translations from AP Press or other sources originally in English.

I spoke

  • with a colleague who did many OPI’s during her years in the Peace Corps and who knew how to quiz me.  She found a list of thought-provoking questions and sat and threw them at me.  She would force me to support my opinion.  Sometimes she would switch to English when the conversation went above her comfort level.  It was hard at first but eventually became easier.  We got together about four times.
  • with myself using questions I found a list of at http://www.debate.org.  I would answer them and answer these questions to myself as I went biking.

The results

I must say that the entire year was a blessing.  I don’t feel that I only grew linguistically.  I ended up interacting with so many different viewpoints on life, society, politics, culture, and history from so many different Spanish-speaking countries. 

I felt like the year was a crash course in intellectual growth.  Even if I had gotten to my OPI certification process and ended up only scoring Advanced-High, the process still developed me as a Spanish speaker and as a human being.

I see the fruits of it coming out in the ease in which I can conduct discussions with my heritage students.  I’ve still got a long way to go in developing my Spanish.  I commonly come across things in life that I don’t know how to express.  “Charter schools” in Spanish, anyone? 

Heritage language teachers are attempting to get his/her students to improve and incorporate academic registers into their language usage.  I want to encourage all teachers of heritage students to set an example for your students by doing the same.  If input is the motor of linguistic growth, then your heritage students need to experience a high level of Spanish from you – and you can do it if you’re already in the Advanced range and decide to push yourself a bit.  

Go find an episode of Tiempo de Análisis to listen to tomorrow on your drive to work!  

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