This year’s CSCTFL Nominee for ACTFL Teacher of the Year is Grant Boulanger. Grant is a Spanish teacher at Skyview Middle School near St. Paul, MN. He has been teaching languages in a variety of contexts since graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1997. He cofounded a bilingual, project-based arts high school, taught middle school immersion in one of MN’s oldest immersion schools, and ultimately found the sweetspot of his career: innovating novice-level instruction for middle schoolers.
This is the fourth of five posts featuring the regional nominees for ACTFL Teacher of the Year. The purpose of the posts is strictly informative, to serve as an introduction to each of these outstanding educators! To celebrate Grant, please leave a comment on the post with a word of encouragement, a connection that you share, or something that stood out to you while reading his responses to my 10 getting-to-know-you questions!
Why did you decide to become a language teacher?
My initial degree in international business was dead on arrival. After graduation I spent several years teaching through immersion at Concordia Language Villages. I was passionate about sharing my love of languages and Spanish culture with anyone who would listen and CLV was a great place to learn to think on my feet. Their mission to prepare young people for responsible global citizenship resonates deeply with me and my experiences at CLV revealed to me that I was a teacher. Even so, it was years later that I realized I could not force my passions onto or into my students. I learned I needed to be open to and provide ways for my students to come to language learning through their own door. This realization, about 6 years into my career, caused a mind shift that brought clarity and broader purpose to my work.
What is your favorite memory as a language learner?
I was living in Salamanca, Spain. I had always gotten As in Spanish and could read, write and conjugate to beat the band. But it was the first time in 7 years of language study that I was actually listening to messages that I wanted and needed to understand. My first three months in Spain I was practically mute. While I experienced my silent period, I was unwilling (unable?) to say anything unless I prepared and rehearsed ahead of time. I remember walking down the street toward the plaza mayor rehearsing, “I would like to buy stamps for the United States of America please.” As I neared the Estanco, where stamps were sold, I was confident I sounded more charro than Lazarillo de Tormes. I gave my rehearsed line and was literally dumbfounded when the gentleman behind the counter did not respond with his line of the dialogue that I anticipated! This experience, among many others, reinforces for me the need to focus on listening comprehension with my novice students and engage in spontaneous, unpredictable conversation with them on a variety of topics. Language is ambiguous and unpredictable. It can’t be memorized.
What is your favorite word in your target language?
I love words whose sounds and meanings intersect and overlap in interesting ways. The word colibrí, simultaneously strong and fragile, is perfect for a hummingbird. I love the look on my students’ faces when I ask them to spell parangaricutirimícuaro (and they discover they can do it!). I also love slang words from Chile, “¿cachay?” and “Sí, po”, rhymes from Mexico, “De tín, marín…” and idioms from Spain.
What do you love about teaching?
When all my students are working together toward the goal of acquiring Spanish, we form our own 36 person clique. It’s a Spanish-speaking mini-community where everyone belongs – social acceptance is a prerequisite for learning and minimizing anxiety is a must in any language classroom. I get energy from the people who surround me, so it’s really important that I help them feel confident, competent and successful. They, in turn, help me feel the same way. I teach novices. I love the growth that happens over the first year. In May many kids are writing complex stories in Spanish and are surprised when I return their first writing sample with numbers from one to seven and a list of menu items from Chipotle. I’m a vision driven educator and the vision that drives me is one of a country that not only accepts and tolerates, but also foments and nurtures multilingualism; a place where people are aware of and invested in their roles as world citizens.
Describe the best professional development that you have experienced.
I’m a firm believer in continually improving my practice. Culturally Responsive Teaching, a framework for reducing achievement gaps, has helped me infuse equitable principles and practices into my teaching while still focusing on language acquisition. CRT has impacted my teaching in three ways: developing better relationships with students, addressing inequities in my classes and our local program and raising engagement through a curriculum that is responsive to the various cultures represented in my classroom. Observing experienced language teachers in their own classrooms teaching real kids has helped me blend CRT principles with best practice language acquisition techniques. I’ve taught in project-based settings, early immersion, and traditional text-book driven secondary programs. In all settings I’ve experienced good professional development. But the most meaningful and transformative experiences have been observing other teachers, and having other teachers observe me.
Share one of your favorite memories from class.
I believe we need to give people the space they need to come to language learning through their own door. Jason’s severe anxiety kept him from fully engaging in class for several weeks. He spent his time with stomach aches in the nurse’s office. Over time, he realized class was meaningful and relevant to him because we used Spanish to communicate about his friends and classmates in fun, interesting and understandable ways. It was accessible; he was asked to interpret and respond at his own level. He slowly began to trust me, his peers and the process. What began with interpreting and responding to simple questions led, by springtime, to contributing to class discussions spontaneously and letting his personality shine in the target language. Kids like Jason aren’t likely to be successful using a traditional paradigm. Helping him and kids like him find joy and success in the language classroom is what really drives me forward.
Who has made a great impact on your teaching, and how?
I am a 3rd generation language teacher. My mother was my first Spanish teacher. Because of her I hosted exchange students, traveled to Spain at 16 and accelerated language study through high school. Her constant learning and courage to explore new principles, techniques and strategies up until retirement and beyond inspires me. Her example gives me courage to try something new and let go of practices that don’t get the results I’m looking for. Keith Williams, a friend from the art world, has taught me to slow down my teacher brain, be in the present moment and view situations through an historical lens – always from multiple perspectives. There are many others who deserve mentioning. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have taught us. We have to remember to lean down and offer a hand to the next generation.
What is an area of teaching in which you would like to grow or improve?
There are so many facets to teaching. I’m constantly reminded of how little I know and how much more there is to learn. But, if you held my feet to the fire, I’d say one area I’m not good enough at yet is feedback. An enigma I often contemplate is how to help students improve their language acquisition when the focus is on building mental representation rather than conscious awareness of surface level linguistic details.
Why should your language teaching colleagues in the US consider joining ACTFL?
Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.” ACTFL is our national parent organization that is helping us to create a nation of language learning advocates. ACTFL encourages and provides resources for us to improve our practice. They provide data and guidance to help us organize and improve our programs and convince parents, administrators and others that acquiring languages and learning about other cultures isn’t just for the college bound anymore. It’s for everyone. Their advocacy at federal levels, in the face of narrowing curriculums and competing priorities, ensures that language programs continue to be a national priority. Whether you join for practical classroom support or to make an impact on local, regional or national policy, ACTFL plays a critical role in our profession and our country.
What is one strategy that you use to provide comprehensible input to your students?
Personal interviews. Sandra Savignon said, “Do everything you can to get to know your students as individuals, with lives and concerns that extend far beyond the four walls of the language classroom… This information will give you a head start in helping to make class activities more meaningful to all of you.” In recent years I have incorporated student interviews into the fabric of class. Students use Spanish to learn information about their classmates. We learn where they live, what sports they play, the names of their pets and so forth. I sprinkle in a bit of magic by allowing students to create imaginary pets or families. I can honestly say I’ve never seen another technique create such tight-knit, joyful and effective learning communities.