A CONVERSATION WITH DR. BILL VANPATTEN: PART 2

Marianela Serrano, OFLA Professional Development Chair
Spanish Teacher, Hathaway Brown School

Marianela Serrano

Below is the second part of my conversation with Dr. VanPatten. As I put together this final part of the conversation and after rereading the first part once more, I have gained a newly refreshed perspective for the beginning of this new school year. I hope you do too.

Editor’s Note:  Part 1 of the interview is available here: https://the-ofla-cardinal.org/2021/05/16/professional-development-4/ 

Q: Dr. VanPatten, where do you see the opportunities for the field of Second Language learning rising?

Dr. Bill VanPatten: The one that is always glanced over and missed, is the power they have to influence the nature of the materials they use. I do not think that teachers seize that opportunity.  They are, at best, reactive to what commercial publishers and people who produce materials give them.  Teachers have a lot of power that they do not think they have. They keep getting the same materials they get because those are the ones they ask for. I do not know how to get out of that cycle, but it is a huge opportunity for teachers.  That is to say: “I want different materials than the ones you are giving me.”

Let’s look at the teacher who is bound by grammar. What if that teacher had a set of materials that made sense to her that was not grammar-focused so that she could get her hands on it and go “You know,  I like doing this.” Because she is bound, she needs something to guide her. Maybe she is not the most creative person or has someone looking over her shoulder.  With a new set of materials that she can figure out how to use,  her teaching could be transformed and she can get away from what she did before because she has different materials to work with.

There are opportunities to get different materials from teachers.  That may be something that ACTFL, national organizations like AATSP, or local organizations like OFLA could do better.  They could help teachers get different materials and help them band together to push on publishers to get different materials.

Q:  For educators in the field, where should they concentrate their professional development?

Dr. Bill VanPatten: I think we have to push on assessment and how students are evaluated.  If we can get people to rethink how they assign grades to students or what it means to assign grades to students, we will have a major impact on teaching.

I think we need to have a two-part approach. We need to have round tables and discussions about what the problem is, why grading is a problem for those of us who want to innovate and get away from traditional grading. Then, talk about what the alternatives are, and then look at how those alternatives may influence those decisions we make.  This will be a long process of a couple of years.  

Focusing on this for teacher development and saying “Let’s get away from grammar testing and let’s look at something else and what these other assessments mean and how they work” would be a great goal.

I think too often what happens is PD jumps into “Here’s something on culture, here’s something on how to use language” without ever asking the question that is driving the teacher’s curriculum with the need for testing and evaluations; it is giving a grade.  So let’s tackle and work on that in PD.  Once the assessments make more sense, then a workshop on how to do more input in the classroom, how to do stories in the classroom can be made available, and as a teacher, I would go to all of them because now I have other ideas about what the outcome should be.

Q:  In your opinion, what should we seek to grade in a classroom? 

Dr. Bill VanPatten: The problem with language learning, unlike other subject matters, is that it is not a subject that you can categorize and say to a student you should be here at this point and here at that point. It does not work that way. We have to think of other ways of grading, maybe grade tasks completed or assignments completed and a scale, in which we do not really look at the quality, but we look at whether something got done or not, and whether the person was successful at doing that particular thing.

I think the question should be: How do we remove languages from that system of GPAs that middle school, high school, and college like to work on?  In our classes, for example, we pretty much said everyone could get an A in this class.  However, you will not get an A if you do not show up, you will not get an A if you are not active in class, if you do not complete all your assignments, and so on.  Otherwise, you will get an A.  

We were much more focused on getting the work done and making the work as meaningful as possible so that the students were basically self-actualizing in a certain sense.  This was at the university level, of course, and not everybody got an A.  Some college students make decisions like “I have a chemistry test tomorrow so I am going to skip my French class so that I can study.”  Then that was a point gone or if they did not do their homework that was a point gone. What we did is to take the emphasis off achievement and put more emphasis on accomplishment.

We need to have discussions about grading and institutionalized education because nobody talks about it.  The first question that we have to ask is: Is it possible to get languages out of the GPA system?  That way we are not assigning grades for a student who needs the 3.8 to get into a school for instance. For languages, we need to figure out how to get ourselves out of that system and do something different.

The grading cannot be about how well you do it because that is penalizing people for their individual differences in language acquisition. 

Q: What advice would you give to someone that is interested in pursuing a career to become a world language educator?

Dr. Bill VanPatten: If you are not having fun, your students are not having fun. My professional advice is to try to make each and every day fun for you, and to have fun with your students.  Because you are not all having fun together it is going to get old and tedious.  

The other thing I’ll tell them is to spend more time in lessons and less time on grading and testing. You will have more fun if you are in the classroom doing things and coming up with fun stuff and having fun with your students than grading and testing.  Try to find that way for you as a teacher to like what you do.  Otherwise, you will burn out within five to seven years if you are not having fun.

Q: What are you up to these days?

Dr. Bill VanPatten: I am writing.  I am working on my fourth novel. Also, I am finishing the third novel of a series that is a murder mystery ha ha ha! It takes place in Central California. These novels are in English. I am two-thirds of the way through in my current novel, which involves a  kind of tragic story.  I am focusing on getting it done to write a sequel to the mystery one.

I am working with several writing groups and I also need to get back to my writing in Spanish. 

I started the Spanish series of books named Ángel, Elena, and Daniel, and the fourth one is Gloria.  It is a series of four different characters and four different little books.  The fifth book is when they all come together. These are great stories and the students are enjoying them.  The students go WOW!!!  All the main characters are Latinos in the US because of my own background. 

In the first one Ángel, the main character is called Diego Torres and he tells you early on that there is nothing special about him, that he is just a so-so guy; except that he does reveal that he has something that is kind of special.  He can read minds but he cannot control them.  Diego is in college and he is 19.  He is at Berkeley and the story is about how he comes to terms with his power and what he finds out about his real background.  The books are all written in the first person in Spanish.  

In the second book, Elena, a 17-year old, has been hospitalized in New Mexico.  Her parents have her in a clinic because they think she hears voices and is cutting herself but she is not.  She is marking herself and drawing designs on her skin.  She hears the Virgin’s voice and she is very precocious and very smart.  Through the story, there is a family drama and you find out the symbolism of the things she is drawing and where they really come from.  

The third one is called Daniel and he is a 21-year-old living in Chicago and is a Mexican Latino. His parents died in an automobile accident so he has been raised by his grandma since he was 10. It turns out that he has visions.  They are these sorts of photographs that show up in his mind. He would be walking and boom he gets this static vision.  He keeps having this recurring one of this woman and he then actually sees her one day, on the street, in the flesh.  The story shows what happens and how his past ties in with hers.  

Then the fourth one, Gloria, which I am working on, will likely take place in Colorado,  is about a 14-year-old girl who discovers that she has the ability to heal but she is in a wheelchair and she cannot heal herself.  All of the characters connect and they meet in the fifth book.  For instance, Elena hears the Virgin mention the name of Diego from the first story, Daniel has a vision of Diego, and Gloria reads a newspaper article about Diego as well.  They all come together because of something that happens to Diego. 

I continue to do these little books for ACTFL like While We’re on the Topic. Russell Simonsen and I submitted a book to ACTFL called Language Acquisition in a Nutshell: A Brief Guide for Teachers as well.  I kind of left the scholarly work behind because I want to talk to teachers about language acquisition, testing, and all of this stuff, so if I am going to publish something that is not fiction then it will be just to put information in the hands of teachers.  Short, simple, concise, and easy to read. 

Note from the writer:  I would like to thank Dr. VanPatten for his time, his dedication, his willingness to help me with the interview and to show me ways to become a better teacher.