Early Language Learning


Julia Thomas, OFLA Early Language Learning Chair Elementary Spanish Teacher, Oberlin City Schools

When I ask my students how they are feeling, requiring an answer in Spanish, it usually elicits a “good”, “tired”, or “happy.” I used to take those responses and be happy with myself that I was checking in with students. Eventually, I began to ask myself, “Is it enough that they can use feeling words to tell me their emotions in the moment? What am I missing that other teachers get to access because they are communicating with students in their native language?” Soon after that, my district took part in a series of training on restorative practices. Though I was admittedly skeptical about how I could use restorative circles in my elementary world language classes, now I see restorative circles as an integral part of my classes.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to attend a virtual workshop on how to continue doing restorative practices in the classroom while on an online platform. Our training was presented by John Weiss, a director at “The Neutral Zone,” which is a center where teens “Lead, Create and Innovate” in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He talked about restorative practices and used this definition: “A restorative practice aims to build communities that are supported by clear agreements, authentic communication, and proactive and reactive tools/strategies that foster community and relationships and bring issues and conflicts forward in a non punitive way that focuses on repairing the harm.” Using this definition, we formed restorative circles to foster community among the attendees. John explained that the circles can be used to do things like check in with each other, discuss challenges and issues, and even teach content. In our circle, we talked about our word that we want to focus on for this school year; mine was “peace.” We also discussed how in our circles with students, we could use mindfulness moments, quotes, and high quality questions to deepen inquiry in lessons. We both modeled a circle online using a circle diagram in the form of a slideshow with movable parts and created our own lesson plans to conduct a circle of our own.

Fast forward to this past fall, where I knew that students would be coming to school with so many emotions: fear, pain, joy, excitement, etc. After some contemplation, I decided early on that it was more important to proactively establish relationships with these students than teach them a new concept in Spanish. I began my new school year with the lesson plan that I created in the workshop with grades 3 through 5. I did incorporate some optional Spanish use when I asked students to tell me their feelings like it was the weather, but other than that, the lesson was in English. We talked about fears and excitement about learning a new language, how to encourage others in reaching their language goals, and how to be kind to ourselves and others in general. From this discussion came our essential agreements for the year, one of which would lead into the way I begin all of my lessons: be thankful.

Now I begin every class with both a check-in about feelings, where I model how to say a variety of things, and model a conversation about what we are thankful for, expressed in the target language. This has truly enhanced the way that my students and I interact with the language and with each other. I feel like I know my students much better and can make connections to what they truly care about, all because I took the time at the beginning of the school year to dig deep. I continue to take the time every class to extend my knowledge about my students. I have also noticed that students who were reluctant to speak before often want to share how they are thankful.

For me, using the restorative circles has rejuvenated my classroom community. Students know that there will be an opportunity for them to express themselves and tell me more than just their surface level feelings, which is even more important given what we have all been facing this school year. I will continue to run circles when it is necessary, and I know that my students and I will benefit.

For an overview of why and how to run virtual restorative circles with information and tips from John Weiss, please click here.

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