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Personalizing Spanish class

By Jennifer Snelling
December 9, 2015
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Sarah Loyola does more than teach Spanish. She helps students connect with other cultures and discover who they are within the greater world. It’s a tall order that wouldn’t be possible without technology and a philosophy bent toward project-based learning.

“If you ask anyone what they want to do with a language,” she said in an interview with Huffington Post, “it’s speak it.” Using social media and iPads, Loyola created a new curriculum where each theme fosters a global mindset, and each unit ends with a project. Students are graded on their Spanish, but they are learning about the world. Instead of teaching Spanish from a grammatical perspective, she teaches toward proficiency.

Each day, Loyola’s classes focus on three modes of communication: interpersonal, presentational (either written or spoken) and interpretive listening or reading. Students work independently or in groups using iPads to mine authentic Spanish language resources, such as videos of people speaking in their native tongue or blog posts by Spanish-speaking writers. All of this leads to a more personalized approach to learning where Loyola is a mentor and coach and the students are active participants in their own learning.

Path to personalized learning

Personalized learning wasn’t always Loyola’s approach. She had more than a decade of teaching middle, high school and university Spanish under her belt before she was inspired to change everything about the way she taught.

It all started in 2012 when she attended a Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) conference and returned to the classroom with a new outlook on learning and teaching. She convinced administrators at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina, to pilot iPads, and she created a paperless Spanish class called “Spanish Through Technology and Social Media.”

The course is nontraditional in its use of technology and social media to improve language proficiency in the areas of speaking, writing, reading and listening. It is project-based and culminates in a video project tied to themes, such as “social and cultural identity” or “life of an immigrant.”

For example, for the theme on “life of an immigrant,” Loyola’s students go into the Charlotte community and interview actual immigrants about their experiences. The students use apps such as Corkulous to organize ideas about an immigrant’s home country and SimpleMind to highlight things about the life of an immigrant. Finally, they download the video clips from the interviews to create an iMovie featured in a digital bulletin board, which they share with the class. 

The year after Loyola started the class, it was named one of the “5 Classes Most Likely to Pique Student Interest” by the Charlotte Observer’s South Park Magazine. Last spring, she was named ISTE Outstanding Teacher.

Lessons grounded in the ISTE Standards

Loyola doesn’t use tech for tech’s sake. She uses it to allow her students to achieve a higher level of learning. For instance, while her students do use iPads, rather than a pen and paper, to record information, they also use devices to build on existing knowledge and become more involved in their own education.

They are using technology to create, collaborate, communicate, research, make decisions and solve problems, all hallmarks of the ISTE Standards for Students.

“I’m not the sole possessor of knowledge spouting facts in front of the classroom.” she says. “I am their mentor and coach, and the students are in control of their own learning.”

The rewards for this personalized learning approach are immense, she says. “I feel that in many ways I, too, have become a student again, as I constantly search for imaginative ways to enhance my teaching and student learning.”

Digital citizenship is a key for successful tech integration

Devices in the classroom don’t come without challenges. Students can become easily districted if there aren’t clear parameters, and of course, there’s cyber-bullying and the danger that students become so engaged in tech that they forget to be present in their lives.

To combat these digital age challenges, Loyola says Providence Day School has a digital citizenship campaign to help manage the potential problems. When the internet first appeared in schools, she says, there weren’t many rules because educators weren’t sure what the rules should be. As schools continue to become better at managing students and technology, the rewards far outweigh the challenges.

“I absolutely refuse to use a textbook to meet my pedagogical goals, and enjoy showing my colleagues at Providence Day and beyond how this is possible,” she says.

Sharing tech skills and insights with others is one of the essential indicators of the ISTE Standards for Teachers, which also advise educators to inspire student learning and creativity, design digital age learning experiences, and model digital age work and learning, among others.

She relishes opportunities to help other teachers and is active in the ISTE community. In fact, it was at an ISTE conference that she was approached by Huffington Post’s “A Teacher Like You” campaign and was subsequently featured in an article about why people are passionate about teaching.

Beyond assisting her colleagues at Providence Day School, Loyola has written articles about ed tech for Edutopia and Huffington Post and has presented conferences, including iPad Summit in Boston.

“One thing that’s really reinvigorated me as a teacher is to realize I am an early adopter with educational technology,” she says. “It’s pushed me to write articles that highlight using technology in classrooms in general. Writing is one of the unexpected things that has come out of my experience with ed tech and has been really fulfilling.”

ISTE is looking for educators like Sarah Loyola who are transforming education using technology! Are you one? Apply for an ISTE Award before Feb. 29.

Photo by Logan Cyrus