Episode 19 – Multiplier Effect: A Conversation with Sheri Spaine-Long

It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 19 - Multiplier Effect: A Conversation with Sheri Spaine-Long

At the core of a membership association for teachers is the opportunity to have teachers engage other talented teachers, because we know that’s where the energy is.”

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My guest for Episode 19 is Sheri Spaine-Long, the Executive Director of the 10,000-member-strong American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP). A teacher, professor, and world-farer by background and passion, Sheri brings extraordinary leadership skills to this important role, to the benefit of not only the members of the organization and their students, but to communities worldwide. Take a look at the extent of her impact in her biography.

How do we promote, develop, and advance that which we believe in?
Where do we find the lever and the fulcrum to move the world?

Sheri shares with us specific approaches her organization takes to engage and motivate those in the field of language education, as well as stories of educators and communities in the US and beyond. Her stories demonstrate powerfully that there’s a “multiplier effect” when tools and opportunities connect educators to each other around the country and world, educators to students in their classrooms and schools, and students to diverse and welcoming communities — each connection to the benefit of the individual and to the whole.

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The transcript of this podcast will appear here.

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It’s About Language – Episode 19 – Multiplier Effect: A Conversation with Sheri Spaine-Long

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Norah Jones (00:01): My pleasure today to where we’re going to start that one again, my pleasure today to welcome my friend and colleague Sheri Spaine-Long. Hi Sheri.

Sheri Spaine-Long (00:13): Hi Norah. It’s great to be here.

Norah Jones (00:14): And I’m delighted to have you here today, Sheri, you are the executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. How many members do you have and why does that organization exist anyway, what’s going on with that organization?

Sheri Spaine-Long (00:30): Sure, Norah and, and I guess in full disclosure, I should say that Norah is a member of the AATSP, the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. We have 10,000 members. Our membership is basically comprised of teachers of all levels, meaning, K through 12 teachers plus Higher Ed of Spanish and Portuguese throughout the United States. And we have some international members as well. Our mission is really to promote and develop and advance the teaching of Spanish and Portuguese worldwide. And it’s quite an organization. We have a lot going on all the time and we’re over a hundred years old.

Norah Jones (01:14): Well, that’s a long time to be in existence. And that means that it’s been useful for people for more than just say, joining an organization and talking to each other. What are some of the things that, that the organization does that is unique?

Sheri Spaine-Long (01:28): Yeah, well, we have a lot of different things, but I’m going to start with a couple of our larger programs. We have a lot of different programs and activities. I should say this, we are a national organization, but we also have 50 AATSP chapters that are usually statewide chapters or a state, perhaps it’s very populous, like California has multiple chapters. And so there are activities and programs and so forth at the national level, but there are also, programs and activities at the local level. And that’s really the backbone of who we are because, you know, teachers connecting with teachers in terms of sharing in terms of learning from each other is really at the heart of what we try to promote. Of course, we try and do this nationally as well. So we have a website, which is aatsp.org.

Sheri Spaine-Long (02:33): And when you go there, you’ll see that we have contests, for example, the National Spanish exams; that’s a multi-level contest and an assessment. We have, uh, one of our very most popular programs is the Sociedad Honoraria Hispanica. And if you’re not a Spanish speaker, that’s fine. The loose translation is the Hispanic honorary society. It is a national high school society that outstanding students of Spanish are inducted into. And that program, we have roughly 3,600 chapters that are active and many, many thousands of students that meet in high schools throughout the U S and do things that are so amazing. First of all, back in the day when I was in high school, those groups were very elitist. They mostly just lit beautiful candles and had a wonderful ceremony and [then] recited a little bit of Cervantes.

Sheri Spaine-Long (03:40): And boy has that changed now! The wonderful Spanish teachers that are members of the AATSP sponsor these chapters and the chapters do amazing work in the community with Spanish speakers or people that want to learn Spanish. That just is something to behold in terms of the multiplier effect we have in communities working with Spanish speakers. And those Spanish speakers in turn help our students have direct access to Spanish and see how Spanish is used outside of the classroom. So there’s a lot going on with experiential learning that we sponsor as well. And that’s just one of our programs. We also have publications that help professors and teachers really kind of engage a research-based approach to teaching Spanish and Portuguese. And I know I’ve said Spanish, Spanish, Spanish a lot. I don’t want to give short shift to Portuguese at all.

Sheri Spaine-Long (04:47): They are a smaller part of our membership, but they are a very important part of our membership. And so most of these programs that I’m pointing out, we also have a national Portuguese exams. We include Portuguese students in our many contests. We have a national poster contest. That’s headed up by Crystal Vicente. That is going on right now where students get to essentially compete with their beautiful artwork to be either featured on our website. They also win small prizes. And so, and usually we have a poster represented on the cover of our conference program as well. So like many professional associations, we also have an annual conference. As we are recording this during the pandemic, that of course is a tricky subject because the conference, um, the conference scene in general has changed so much.

Sheri Spaine-Long (05:53): There’ve been so many virtual encounters this year, but we are hopeful that we will be meeting face-to-face in Atlanta, Georgia this summer. And we tend to have conferences domestically one year and then out of the country the next year. So we’ve been to many fine venues over, over the over time, if you will. Most notably in 2018, we were in Salamanca Spain, and that’s also always an enormous treat for teachers to be able to save up their money, hopefully win a scholarship, hopefully get some support, some support from their local schools or universities, and go abroad and get a chance to listen to Spanish in situ if you will. Um, and we have many other opportunities, too. We have opportunities for students and teachers to go to Latin America as well. So it’s hard for me to summarize.

Norah Jones (06:56): Well, you did a beautiful job describing it. And the thing is underneath everything, I hear encouragement. I hear opportunities for educators, for students. And you have, well, you won the Steiner Award for leadership in foreign language education from the national organization ACTFL back in 2019 for doing such enthusiastic leadership. Why Sheri? Why?

Sheri Spaine-Long (07:28): I, I, first of all, I absolutely love language learning. So that’s at the core of everything at the core of everything I’ve done in my career, I’m a Spanish teacher and basically will always be, but I think the thing that jumps out at me before I became an executive director, I was a classroom teacher. I began in a junior high school, if you will. And then I went back for more education and ended up being a university professor. And what I know for many, many years of being in the classroom is that it takes a long time to learn a language and that students have to be highly motivated. And so when I look at so much of what the AATSP tries to do and tries to accomplish, we want to encourage, we try to motivate through whatever means we possibly can, whether that would be helping somebody to get abroad, because they’re a teacher that feels like — and yes, this happens, that their Spanish or their Portuguese is getting rusty because they are not a heritage or native speaker and they need contact to feel like they are delivering, you know, product to their students and being a good example.

Sheri Spaine-Long (08:48): So that goes on. This year, I think a lot of teachers have found that they’re working more and trying to do language maintenance like that. But also with our students, they can get scholarships to go abroad and through the Sociedad Honoraria Hispanica, through the national Spanish examinations. And these are tremendous motivators because it takes so long to get from those early years, you know, that sort of halted beginning Spanish or Portuguese to that level of fluency that’s captured so well in, in your moniker, Norah. And everybody wants to be fluent. I mean, that is the name of the game. And if one is fluent or if one has a reasonable level of proficiency, there are so many more doors that open up to students and to teachers with respect to … When you think of our students, the one thing that they, they really say they want is they want, for example: Spanish at a professional level so that it can help them get a better job or a better paying job.

Sheri Spaine-Long (10:02): And so this whole idea of helping make that argument and showing students the opportunities in the workplace that aren’t just being a teacher. I mean, of course we all love teaching. And so we are people that use Spanish in the workplace, but since there are so many more options. I think teachers now and all of our collective efforts across the profession with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and many others, we try to really present students with these doors so they can see what they’re going to do with their Spanish. Because it is not an overnight thing to learn a language. You have to be patient, and you also have to do language maintenance once you’ve got it. So these are things that when I decided to not be a classroom teacher and step out of my role in the university, and I pondered this executive directorship, it’s just a wonderful national and international stage to try and make these things happen so that our students have more opportunity.

Sheri Spaine-Long (11:14): They can access things domestically and internationally and support this great need for bilingual multilingual people in the workforce that unfortunately the United States is not leading at this point. We know Europeans are much further  along than we are with respect to producing multilingual and bilingual individuals graduating from our program. So it’s exciting to be a part of the big push, if you will, to be able to produce these students who are bilingual-multilingual. And of course, we’re all very excited about the fact that back when I was in high school many, many, many years ago, you know, your only opportunity was to take Spanish in high school by and large. And there are these wonderful dual language programs that are taking off. And we’ve all said, you know, if we really want our students to be bilingual, we want future citizens of the United States to be multi-lingual to be able to access other cultures and other cultures within our borders as well. We really have to start earlier in elementary school. And these dual language programs are part and parcel of this effort. So it’s pretty exciting to see these things happening. Even though we’ve had a tough year with COVID-19, these things are happening and we’re all pretty optimistic that there will be more growth in the language sector over the next several decades.

Norah Jones (12:49): Speak to us please about who it is that’s attracted to taking languages or who it is that you and those with whom you advocate are attracting. Have the populations of the students that are interested in learning languages and looking to apply them in their lives changed in any way, grown in any way?

Sheri Spaine-Long (13:11): Well, I do think… I don’t…I’m not going to speak from data because I really don’t have that data, but I can certainly in my role, you know, my daily role as executive director, I I’m very privileged to have contact with many, many, many language teachers. And I would say overall, my impression of what they tell me and my own experience is that there used to be the type of student that would hit the university and want to study languages was really quite different than, um, the type of student that is attracted to languages at this point in time. I mean, the end goal for a lot of, well…. I’m just going to say it, Norah. Okay. So when I was in the university many, many, many years ago, language programs were humanities programs that attracted people that either wanted to be teachers or possibly college professors.

Sheri Spaine-Long (14:11): And now I’m going to really date myself. We also did a tremendous job at attracting hippies and dreamers, which is great, right? I mean, everybody, big tent, we want everybody studying languages, but they weren’t necessarily the most focused individuals with respect to where they might be going. So the point that I’m trying to make is that over the last really several decades, there has been a shift toward language learning for more specific purposes and really professional purposes. And so we see, for example, in my experience at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and also at UNC Charlotte, what we noticed was that we were creating programs that would accommodate students that wanted to go into the health professions that wanted to engage legal Spanish. That wanted to essentially use Spanish within a focused profession. And so that’s a very different student. That’s a student that has a better sense of what their end game would be.

Sheri Spaine-Long (15:20): And in a way, because of that, it makes our job a lot easier and harder because we’ve had to really shift the curriculum on a dime to be able to think about how best to accommodate students that have more specific needs, with few resources, and a number of teachers and professors that don’t have a lot of experience doing that kind of instruction. But it’s really broadened the field. We’ve become much more multi-disciplinary, I think, more real world. Uh, there are certainly with, uh, with ….when you think of authentic experiences and trying to get students to understand and have experiences in whatever profession they think they may be going into. Internships are very abundant for example, right now in university programs, and then service learning is a big thing where high school students and university students as well are able to sort of, you know, go out into the community, work in any number of settings or engage people in professional situations to sort of see how language is used in those contexts.

Sheri Spaine-Long (16:34): That kind of thing I think is the biggest shift. We have more focused students than we used to, and they’re really kind of delightful because, and I say this with love, they’re demanding. They make demands of their teachers and professors in ways than back in the olden days of yore, when we were teaching a lot of grammar. And one of the big pushes has been over the last 20 years to really push oral proficiency because students want to know how to speak the language so that they can do it when they encounter those who speak a language. And of course, with the rise of the internet and all of this sort of instantaneous communication, it’s all accelerated at light speed. So it’s a very exciting time, I think, to be an educator, but there is nothing that stays the same. Everything changes from minute to minute, and that can be exhausting, but it’s also very exciting.

Norah Jones (17:30): Sheri, for whom have the doors opened that might not have been opened in the past with that more institutional grammatical approach?

Sheri Spaine-Long (17:45): Well, I think, okay, for whom the doors open. I think that some of the sea changes have been that, for example, with Spanish, but this is true with Portuguese and in many other languages with the rise of the heritage speaker or heritage learner in our classrooms. And that’s huge for Spanish because there are so many students of Spanish that go into a program at any level high school, college, elementary, junior high, who already speak the language of their family, but perhaps don’t have a lot of formal engagement with it. They have tremendous amounts of vocabulary and wonderful expression, but they haven’t polished their Spanish to be able to use it in a professional setting and internationally. And so I think doors have opened with the work of all kinds of wonderful colleagues. I can think of the, the Maria Carreiras who work in heritage language learning…. Kim Potowski.

Sheri Spaine-Long (18:57): I mean, there are so many wonderful, wonderful colleagues that have really sort of dedicated their research and lives to sort of retooling us Spanish teachers to be way more inclusive and not be giving the old traditional Spanish class to the non-native speaker. Like I was when I was sitting in high school, and to figure out how to engage the different populations that we have that come to the classroom with different backgrounds. And that’s pretty exciting. The other thing that’s kind of fun is in Spanish classrooms, I was noticing more and more. Maybe I didn’t have the heritage language speaker of Spanish, but I had somebody who was a wonderful student who came into my classroom, who had another language because mom or dad spoke another language. I grew up speaking another language. Well, they have tremendous advantages because they already are… Have a certain level of bilingualism, to be able to add a third language, to add Spanish because, you know, Spanish is — there’s no secret that it’s the second, most widely spoken language in the United States.

Sheri Spaine-Long (20:11): And in certain regions of the country, it’s spoken daily and dominantly. So it’s something that we’ve all had these conversations with friends that are highly educated, that just found out they’re getting transferred to Miami and they realized they may not be able to engage everybody — they want to engage in Miami — unless they learn Spanish. And so they do. So I think our population has changed a lot with respect to who is in the classroom and we need to meet their needs, has changed a great deal over the last several decades. And that, that too is it’s very exciting and engaging for Spanish teachers to be able to really think about the here and now and how their students need different kinds of background to be able to be able to do what they want to do going forward.

Norah Jones (21:09): Sheri, that’s really, really interesting way of approaching and being able to talk about the growth and the changes and so forth. Is it possible, do we have a system in place in this country? Are we moving in the direction of having it systematized, talking about collaboration and there’s so many exciting things, but is there a system…a system coming up here?

Sheri Spaine-Long (21:35): Well, that’s a beautiful question. You know, the American educational system has some really fine features and, but it’s tricky to have any modicum of standardization across the board. To look at it from a positive perspective though, I will say that there’s been just a lot of curricular experimentation going on for really, since really for the last 20 years. And it’s very exciting because it means that a teacher of Spanish, um, and this isn’t true every in every school across America, sometimes, sometimes there is a strict curriculum, perhaps that a school district imposes on a teacher or a Spanish program and a university or a college imposes on a teacher instructor or professor. But there’s also this amazing freedom for Spanish teachers and professors to basically be able to provide their, and develop their, own content. And because of that, that’s really something that is, it’s a really great thing because we can trial and error what we think works best to develop, for example, whatever the new Spanish majors should look like.

Sheri Spaine-Long (23:11): When I was a student of Spanish, there was a very well-defined Spanish major that existed in almost most undergraduate programs across the country. It had the same components. It had language and literature. It had grammar. It was fairly standardized. It was so standardized that there were even exams you could take to get into graduate school. There was a GRE for Spanish, of course, this was like 30, 40 years ago. But that all went by the way of the dinosaur. And if you look across universities and colleges now, Spanish majors, if you just start clicking around on the internet, that the components of the major look very different than they used to look. And that’s really exciting because there are things like certificates you can get. For professional Spanish, there are all kinds of different course offerings with different titles that are really apples and oranges.

Sheri Spaine-Long (24:11): Everybody has the same mission. We’re trying to develop literacy. And we are also trying to move students along the continuum of proficiency, but with very different content. And that’s the really fun thing about being a language teacher is that the content can change, but you can still teach the language, the culture and everything about it. And so it’s sort of a way that an instructor personalizes experiences to whoever their students may be now. Therein lies the problem of moving toward sort of like a more standardized curriculum across the board. I would hesitate to say that there’s a big giant movement in the U S to make all Spanish classrooms or Portuguese classrooms kind of be moving in tandem and in lock step, because things look very different locally and [some] States have different norms than other States.

Sheri Spaine-Long (25:23): And so I say this in a really, with, with love on the one hand, it’s the greatest thing about it. The American educational system is that you have this amazing amount, amount of, of freedom, right? And leeway. But then at the same time, we have the sort of national handicap that we don’t have very across the board standards with respect to where our students might be assessed. And it makes it very, very hard to move. For example, if you decide to transfer from one college to another, or your parents move from one school system to another, because your mother got a new job, well, it’s very unlikely that you are going to have a seamless transition in the language arena. That’s sort of a shame. It’s hard on the student, and that’s when students actually drop out. They become very discouraged and then decide not to go on because they are unable to sort of make that transition.

Sheri Spaine-Long (26:34): So these are things that, I will say, the educational community talks about a lot, but there’s certainly no consensus as to the best way to level the playing field for everybody. And of course we know there are programs in more marginal places that are underserved in rural areas and urban areas where the same level of education is not being afforded students as in a well-heeled, shall we say, suburban area. So there are all kinds of factors that play into our emphasis on local control with education that make it very uneven and particularly uneven in the language learning arena.

Norah Jones (27:23): Do you feel that some of the things that are emerging with regard to State Seals of Biliteracy, the Global Seal of Biliteracy can have, say, a back feed if you will, to helping to…

Sheri Spaine-Long (27:41): These are really great things that are going on, the Seals of Biliteracy and the Global Seal of Biliteracy. And the big champion of course, of that is Linda Egnatz. And she speaks so well about this. If you really see this, this drive toward credentialing, and that includes a component of assessment as a way of, as you put it, back channeling or offering a different entry point and end point for students who may be from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are, are at schools where, and this happens all the time, you’ve got really great heritage, language speakers of Spanish, and guess what? They’ve taken every single Spanish course in the curriculum, and there’s nothing left for them to take. And which is a shame because even though you think, well, yeah, they speak Spanish, but, but this level of literacy that you have to get at to be able to really work with technical Spanish, or literary Spanish, or scientific Spanish or whatever, it’s something that has to be continually developed.

Sheri Spaine-Long (28:57): And so if a student has a multi-year gap, this can be problematic. So there are lots of neat, bright spots where universities will allow high school students to jump into courses, and really wonderful programs like that. But this back channeling of the credentialing is really nice because it’s a way that it, um, you can, you can show that you’ve got multiliteracies and you’re multilingual, with a credential that is recognized and respected because it’s externally valid. And this is a way that it helps level the playing field for a number of students who have been kind of left out of the system, because they maybe weren’t the candidate or the right person to be sitting in a Spanish one and two class in a high school that doesn’t offer anything else. And so it is, these are very exciting things. And what we’re seeing is they have really helped programs grow.

Sheri Spaine-Long (30:01): And so I can think of just locally…I’m actually located in Alabama, Birmingham, Alabama…and there is a high school just down the road that got very involved in the Seal of Biliteracy and their program has grown because again. The credentials are very motivating and students want to graduate from high school with additional credentials. And students that are at the university often go for something like the Global Seal, because this is another way that, that they’re what they… the Spanish that they own has currency and their native language, whatever that may be, outside of just, I took three years in high school, and that’s all I can say about my Spanish, and that’s not very informative. Nobody really knows what that means. But we all know what it’s like to be somewhere with peers that will look at you and say, I took three years of Spanish in high school, and I can’t speak a word, which is always very heartbreaking for a Spanish teacher to hear.

Sheri Spaine-Long (31:07): And unfortunately that still goes on and you still hear that. And so there are these wonderful credentials that even sort of include this idea of language maintenance, which is very interesting too. So that it can be used, you know, professionally and on a continuum. In a way it makes you think about languages is not just course completion. And I think that’s a big pivot for a lot of Americans to be thinking about language learning is not just a bunch of years sitting in a chair in an institution somewhere in the United States of America that may or may not have an outcome that is useful.

Norah Jones (31:47): That’s beautifully said because that usefulness of language, language is a tool is of course, is something that I believe that educators work with all the time. Sheri, I would like you to do one final thing for us today. Okay? I’d like you to imagine for just a moment the folks that are listening to you thinking about all of this, and this is your opportunity to turn to those folks that are listening. One last opportunity to exhort invite inform, warn. What do you want to have as the last thing to make sure that people have heard today from you?

Sheri Spaine-Long (32:27): Oh, that’s just, you know, Norah, you out-do yourself with these questions. I think the thing that I really want anybody listening to think about is that there are professional associations and there are so many of them, but the AATSP is one of them. We have wonderful regionals in the United States. We have a wonderful ACTFL, a big umbrella association of all the languages there. I can go on and on and on these organizations are there to support you and we can’t do it without you. So a lot of the things that I’ve just rattled off today are there because we have members and memberships are very important to us because that’s how we support these programs for languages. And also how we can advocate for expansion of languages in Washington, DC [and] in your state houses. So that we can take the profession where we need to take the profession.

Sheri Spaine-Long (33:32): The teachers know where they want it to go. I mean, they know they want more language offerings in their high schools and at their universities. But we sometimes are unable to get the attention that our profession deserves because we don’t speak with a collective voice, with, you know, I mean…I need to say: I have 10,000 members, but what I’d really like are double that because there are many, many, many more teachers of Spanish and Portuguese in the U.S. that don’t either know about us or maybe just don’t completely buy in. They think that we are sort of self-propagating. And what I really would like to invite everybody to do is simply explore what we have to offer. We noticed that when we took a membership survey that people joined for maybe one or two reasons. Maybe they give the National Spanish Exam and they really don’t know much more about us. And at the core of a membership association for teachers is essentially the opportunity to have teachers engage other talented teachers. Because we know that’s where the energy is. And so you can do that in person at one of our conferences, or we can do it online and our forum and our Facebooks, et cetera. And so try us on. Come join us. It’s how we support you. And it’s how you support us. And it’s how we help you grow and help languages grow in the U S

Norah Jones (35:09): Beautifully said, and I’ll give a shout out because my membership in the AATSP over the years, and the inclusion of my students as part of the whole experience of excellence in Spanish — and I did the same thing with the French organization — made a big, big difference in their sense of where they fit globally. So thanks for that invitation Sheri, and thanks for heading up the organization that makes that possible.

Sheri Spaine-Long (35:35): Well, thank you. And I would be remiss in my duties if I did not say muchas gracias and multo obrigada for all of your hosting and really providing us with a forum to be able to talk about the language enterprise and language in the sector of education. And it’s important. So I thank you so much.

Norah Jones (35:59): Thank you, Sheri. It’s been a great pleasure to have you today. Thanks for all of your work and good luck. And let’s double that membership. Shall we? And double the impact and then some, how about that? Absolutely. Sounds great. Take care now. Thank you.

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One thought on “Episode 19 – Multiplier Effect: A Conversation with Sheri Spaine-Long

  1. Sheri is always so amazing in her passion for education and the programs of the AATSP. I enjoyed her description of how our profession has changed to accommodate various learners and how we dedicate ourselves to our students. She is an inspiring, exceptional leader of our wonderful AATSP! Thank you for yet another wonderful Podcast, Norah!

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