“Follow your passion, even if it is not your strongest suit.“
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For Cheri Quinlan (bio), her passion has been the Spanish language and connecting with and learning from speakers of Spanish wherever they may be found — along a neighborhood stroll or across oceans and mountains.
That’s the wonder of language and culture. They awaken passion in some, but connections in all. Through passion or connection comes respect. There comes a desire to hear the stories of other people, near and far, present and absent, those whose experiences and perspectives closely mirror ours and those whose life in this same world seem almost otherworldly based on their experiences and conclusions.
Herein lies the urgency of understanding what language is all about. Not “learning language,” per se, as we think of it in school or via an app. While that broadens our view and opens our thinking by the very nature of exposure to new words and concepts, we can follow that path to realizing the world is a very big place indeed simply and specifically knowing the role language plays in our perception of the world. We form sounds (and/or gestures) to mean concrete objects first, then abstractions. We learn these sounds and gestures from others; we combine to form families (with dialects and perspectives) and then groups, then societies and nations or “tribes within nations” (who “speak our language”). If for a brief time we are open to the realization that this path of language is open to all, but begins at different points, takes different paths, and therefore at any moment reflects a perspective from where others stand on their paths — we are transformed. There’s no going back. We have insight. We have to at least allow the thought that others are entitled to their viewpoint because in fact they, like we, have a reason for where they stand and how they think.
For Cheri — and I hope for you — the realization is exciting, empowering, empassioning, and life-giving and life-directing.
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Pedagogies of Digital Composing through a Translingual Approach
Norah Jones: It’s my great pleasure to welcome Cheri Quinlan to this podcast. Hi Cheri.
Cheri Quinlan: Hi Norah. How are you today?
Norah Jones: I am well, thank you. And I am very excited about this podcast because I can tell you there’ve been a lot of successful learners and native speakers that I’ve had over the past several dozen podcasts and what I’m really excited about is going in the direction of how intimidating a language can be. At least as are opener because well, Patrick Moynihan declared himself the worst French student and yet he’s now speaking language in Haiti. And I remember that I’m such a perfectionist, I didn’t want to open my mouth because I might make a mistake. And then when I did open my mouth, I made a fool of myself around the world. Tell me about your background with language and are you one of those natural people? Did you jump right in?
Cheri Quinlan: I would say no, I didn’t jump right in. I think about when did I first realize there was a language other than English in my world? And it takes me back to my first grade classroom with Miss Luther, and Miss Luther taught us Silent Night in German. And that was my first foray into another language. And then I remember I was probably in elementary school, maybe fourth or fifth grade and my neighbors were a little bit older than I was and they were studying Latin and I remember them sitting on their front stoop doing their Latin homework and I was quite intimidated by that. As a seventh grader, I was in the high school marching band and no, it wasn’t because I was such a great flute player. It was because the school I went to was very small and if they had a body they could put in the high school band, they did. And I remember walking down the hallway and hearing a teacher having a conversation with a student and it was in Spanish and I was amazed by that. I said, “Wow, that’s really quite cool.”
And so when I got to high school, I didn’t have the opportunity to study language before then. I had a choice of either French or Spanish and I guess I tossed a coin and I ended up in Spanish class and yes, I was intimidated by that. I remember it was my toughest subject in the beginning. I thought if I missed one day of class, I would be lost forever. I’ll say it as that. I remember as a sophomore in high school, I had a teacher she was very short in stature, but very large in being a little bit of an intimidating force. Today, she’s a friend of mine, but back then, it was a little bit different. And I remember my dad was graduating from the FBI National Academy and I told my mom, “I can’t go to his graduation. I can’t miss this class. I’m going to be lost for the rest of my career.”
Norah Jones: Oh my. One day. Wow.
Cheri Quinlan: One day. Exactly.
Norah Jones: Well, you must bring them a sense of that experience of being intimidated and that sense of having the opportunity to have a cataclysmic failure, with even just one day to what you then became. How did you become engaged in those very languages that so intimidated you?
Cheri Quinlan: Well, I think what happened and it was again from this same teacher when I was in Spanish 3, my school offered a scholarship to students to study in Mexico and they would send three or four students each year to Guanajuato, Mexico at the time to study. And I decided to, well, I’m going to give it a try. I did well in the class. I actually did well in the class, even in my sophomore year. I just didn’t have the confidence in the language at the time. And so that really just changed. That changed my life. I spent a summer in Mexico studying with other American students from around the country, lived with a family and I just had the greatest time of my life.
To this day I’m still friends with several of the people who studied there with me. Two of them are from Texas, one from New Jersey and one from Florida. We still keep in touch after all these years. And I have a funny experience that I’m going to share because it just kind of highlights how you can go out on a limb and try to use your language and sometimes maybe embarrass yourself a little bit.
Norah Jones: Oh good, an embarrassing story, go for it.
Cheri Quinlan: Oh, it’s a great, embarrassing story. Right down the street from us, there was a laundromat and we had to take our clothes to the laundromat for señora didn’t have a washing machine and dryer. And so I went there and I said to the lady, “Necesito sopa para lavar la ropa.” What did I ask her for? You would think I asked her for soap to wash my clothing, but no, I asked her for soup to wash my clothing. And so after she recovered from laughing, I guess she figured out that it was actually soap that I wanted. And we made the exchange. This same summer, I told my señora that I was going to “Preparar para casarme” instead of “para cantar.” I told her I was getting married instead of going to sing. But those were learning experiences along the way. But I think that’s when I learned that, you know what? You can make those mistakes in language and still get your idea across and learn from them.
Norah Jones: Well and survive. It seems like one of the aspects, please comment, is that people feel intimidated because they’re afraid of making a fool of themselves. And this is especially difficult for adolescents whose brain studies, we know, show that they do feel like they’re threatened, their lives are threatened if they are made a fool of.
Cheri Quinlan: And that’s why the classroom has to be a safe place for students to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. I remember one of my favorite principals—and I had several favorite principals—but one in particular, he used to tell me that the only safe place, it’s better for students to make mistakes while they’re with us in a safe environment than when they’re out in the real world. And I thought, wow, that’s a great lesson there. And so, on a micro-level, I try to do the same thing in my classroom, give students permission to make mistakes and to learn from them and to move forward.
Norah Jones: Cheri, you are talking here about the idea that language has the possibility of failing to choose the correct word or the correct expression to make communication clear. Classes are offered in an instructional setting in which grading happens, in which accuracy is graded on a scale so it’s possible to get up a letter grade or a number grade having produced something, but not having produced it as accurately as it should be. And I’m putting air quotes around here. For regular speech, native speech. How do you blend the training and making mistakes safely with the requirements of a area of study found in most schools?
Cheri Quinlan: Well, I think one thing, I think this is going to address your question. Many, many years ago, back in, I guess it was back, I was a young teacher. I had the opportunity to take a course in proficiency. Actually two courses, one was a graduate course and one was a certification course to become a proficiency tester for ACTFL. And it was a grant opportunity and I took advantage. I took advantage of any professional development opportunity I could get.
But I have to say that that particular experience really changed my approach to teaching and my approach to learning, because it allowed me to give students opportunity to use language or gave me permission to give students opportunity to use language in real world situations and to really focus more on meaning than on form. Now that doesn’t mean that form was thrown out with the baby with the bathwater. We still kept form in there, but more important was the meaning and the message. And that really, when I finished that training, I did become a tester for ACTFL, but that was not the important part of that experience. The important part was it changed my teaching and my focus in the classroom.
Norah Jones: What was the response of students in front of you? What was the response of their parents? Their guardians? What was the response of the administration to the way that you began to transform your classroom?
Cheri Quinlan: Well, the students were more engaged. The parents, I think back to one particular experience on Back to School Night, that was never my favorite night of the year. I used to have nightmares about Back to School Night. And of course, one time I almost left the house with my slippers on because I forgot to put my regular shoes on after coming home. There’s also that. But I remember one year what I did for back to school night, I probably did it more than once, but I remember doing it in particular this one year, I actually led the parents in a TPR activity.
Norah Jones: TPR being?
Cheri Quinlan: Total physical response, where I modeled something, said it in Spanish, they followed me silently, et cetera, et cetera. And the experience for both me, I was much more at ease and for the parents, they could see what their students were experiencing in the classroom. And they could see the effectiveness of that. From an administrator perspective, I never had any pushback from administrators at all. I always felt supported in my classroom.
Norah Jones: That’s wonderful. Now you saw that transformation in the way that you were working with your students and there’s a lot of powerful energy there. You were a district supervisor for languages and then you were at the state level with world languages to help others to learn and grow in the classroom. How did that turn out? What are some of the aspects of helping others to see what you saw and supporting them in their own journeys?
Cheri Quinlan: One thing I would say from the perspective of a district supervisor, if I saw a teacher who was struggling or if I had a teacher who when I would conference with them, they would ask me, “Well, what does that look like in the classroom?” And oftentimes, when I say a teacher was struggling, I might’ve had a teacher who needed a lot more guidance than other teachers. And then that teacher who would ask me, “What does that look like in the classroom?” In general, they were a good teacher, but they were curious and they wanted to learn more. And what I would say to those teachers is, “Invite me into your classroom. I’ll give you a demo of what TPR looks like in action.” And they would, and I would say, “Sit in the back of the classroom and you can observe your students, observe me and tell me how effective that is.” And I would have to say many of the teachers who were curious about that, would then try it in their own classroom and would seek out opportunities to also improve themselves.
Something else I did as a district supervisor, because I knew how important to me professional development was, I went to see my assistant superintendent and said, “You have money in here for me for books and for other materials, ancillary materials. I would like an account set up and I’m not asking for more money, I’m asking you to transfer money from those two accounts to a new account specifically for professional development. And I would like to use that to send my teachers to statewide conferences and to regional conferences.” And so I was able to send them to, at the time I was in New Jersey, to Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey conferences. And I also sent several teachers to NECTFL.
And what I would do when I would send them to NECTFL is we would sit ahead of time and we would look at the entire schedule and I would make suggestions like these are some of the sessions that I want to see covered, because I knew the presenters and I knew that they would have a good influence on the teachers. And so let’s divvy this up and see where we’re going to go. And then I’m going to give you however many sessions that you can just choose on your own. And I thought that was a good learning experience for teachers. And then what I would do is I would bring those teachers back to district and they would turnkey their experiences with the other members of the department.
Norah Jones: They help to grow each other’s understanding. I’m assuming that there was a lot of demonstration that went on just like you found to be exceptionally effective when people would ask, “What does this look like?”
Cheri Quinlan: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And at the state level, I did similar things. I’ve always considered myself a teacher, whether I was a teacher of adolescents or a teacher of educators. And so at the state level, I did similar type things. For example, at one point we had a FLAP grant and I had some extra money from the FLAP grant and I wanted to create some units that could be shared with teachers throughout the state. Actually anybody from the country could access them because they were available free on the website. And so what I did there is I tapped teachers who were already expert teachers of language and I paired them up with rising leaders and had them work together to develop units that would help support the implementation of the New Jersey standards.
Norah Jones: Cheri, returning for a moment, integrating the question about the feeling of intimidation, the feeling of concern, of exposure that so many of the young people in this country have when they come in to learn languages as an academic course in middle school or high school, when they don’t have the same level of natural language acquisition available to them brain-wise, what are some of the stories that you experienced of young people coming in intimidated or failing and how the approaches that you experienced and that you shared and that you asked other instructors to experience that helped to transform that feeling and grow more comfort with the language?
Cheri Quinlan: One thing I would say is in my classroom, I would scaffold activities to build success for students. Providing them with the tools that they needed to get better. And something else I used to do also, whenever we would do a little, maybe a presentational performance or I would have students do a dialogue together, I would make sure that we all applauded and recognize the success of students.
Norah Jones: Oh, cool. I got like an applause right in the classroom?
Cheri Quinlan: Yep, applause right in the classroom. Yes, exactly.
Norah Jones: That could really build someone up. How about making mistakes? What again, were some of the ways that students were able to specifically feel safe when they made a bad mistake?
Cheri Quinlan: Well, one of the things that I would do for my students is I shared with them when I would make mistakes. And I told them the story about the “sopa” instead of “jabon”. I told them the story about “casarme” instead of “cantar.”. And another story I told them was when I was in a restaurant and it was in, I think it was in Morelia in Mexico and I was in graduate school at the time. And I had ordered something and the waiter didn’t bring it to me. And for some reason I could not pull out the present tense of pedir fast enough and by the time I got it out, the waiter had long left my table. And so, I made sure that my students knew that it was okay to make mistakes, that we accept mistakes, that we learned from mistakes. And also guess what? I made mistakes too.
And when students would ask me a question, one thing that I would make sure if I didn’t know the answer to that question, I would tell them that. And I learned that from my high school Spanish teachers as well, because one they did when they were teaching, if we asked them a question, they would tell us if they didn’t know, they’d jot it down and the next day they’d get back to us. And so I let students know that, you know what? We can’t know everything.
Norah Jones: There’s a level of vulnerability and a level of humility that plays a strong part here in this educational sequence. Because that’s what you’re describing, where it strikes me that those are some labels for what you’re describing.
Cheri Quinlan: Yes. And I think it’s important to admit when we don’t know something because then it gives students permission also to admit that. And to not feel so vulnerable in the classroom.
Norah Jones: They become feeling less vulnerable in the classroom itself. Now let’s connect up with the fact that you have taken your rather, shall I say, tense beginning relationship with language and you consistently made friends. You talk about the ongoing friendship you have and the ongoing use of the language that you have. When we have folks that are listening to this podcast and are discerning that you have turned this language into something that connects you outward in the world, how does that play into what you’ve been able to share with students as a district and state supervisor and just now in life that connection outward, what language can do in the world?
Cheri Quinlan: Well, I think one thing is I have a passion for Spanish. I love Spanish. I will talk with anybody. When I walk my dog, oftentimes I’ll see workmen in the neighborhood and I know they speak Spanish and I’ll just start a conversation with them because it’s just something that connects me to that culture and to that language. One thing that I often do now is I’ve connected my passion for language with my religion. During the pandemic, I attended church in Mexico City. I went to our Lady of Guadalupe on a weekly basis. But prior to the pandemic, I worked with my Spanish ministry in order to keep up my Spanish skills and to be able to connect with that community. I took two loves and put them together in one.
Norah Jones: Wow. That’s powerful. Let’s bring that out into the world. Where else have you seen, especially with educators that might be getting discouraged, and at this time when there’s been so much stress, discouragement is even more widely seen. How do you help folks to get a vision of combining loves to bring language into their lives and into the lives and the effect around them?
Cheri Quinlan: Let me think about that. One thing with the pandemic, it’s very hard to get those personal connections for our students. And so anything that we can do to help them see our passion and to bring that passion to them. Oftentimes what I say to teachers, if we’re passionate about something, we bring that passion to the classroom and that transfers to our students. Now, just because students aren’t meeting maybe face to face with teachers, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do. And I’ll just share a story with you.
Cheri Quinlan: Recently, I attended a session on Zoom and I only did it because it was related to a professional organization that I very much cared about. And I said, “I need to support this.” But I have to tell you that my expectations were not very high. However, I was pleasantly surprised because the program that was done, it was all done through Zoom, was so engaging that as soon as I finished, I sent a text to the person who had organized it and gave him all the kudos in the world because he took something that could have been just blah as anything and made it come alive for us, even though we were not in person. And so there are ways that we can do that and to bring that passion and extend that to our students as well. But it does take more work.
Norah Jones: It does, indeed. I am quite confident. I’m going to broaden this out because I know that some of this relationship to the pandemic and approaches for the Zoom and other stresses and strains that are on folks right now, but looking farther down the pike. All right, where do you, as a leader in world language education, see the strengths of the educational approach to language instruction, learning and use, the strengths that are current in the country? And where do you see areas that can be improved? What are some of the pathways to improvement?
Cheri Quinlan: Where do I see the strengths? I think when we can make language come alive for our students, that is definitely a strength. When we give students the opportunity to use the language. And I often think back to my methodology class, which was a general methodology class in education. It wasn’t specifically for languages, but my professor was a nun and I remember at the time, I didn’t think very much of her class but don’t worry, in the long run, I saw the method to her madness. And so one thing she used to say to us all the time was, “Don’t be a sage on the stage, be a guide on the side.” And it took me a few years to realize what that actually meant and it really was. We are there as facilitators, as teachers. We’re not there to just spout our knowledge out to our students, but to give them the tools and then allow them to run with those tools and to get better at language.
And so something else she did was the first day of class, Sister Madeline was her name by the way, Sister Madeline said to us, “There are 10 chapters in this textbook. Each group is going to take a chapter and they are going to teach the chapter to the rest of the class.” And I left that class and I thought to myself, Hmm, we’re paying good money for this class and we’re doing all the work. This just does not seem to be fair. However, the wisdom of what she did now resonates with me very strongly, because what she did is she put us in charge of our own learning and allowed us to grow as professionals. And I think when we do that for our students, we put them in charge of their own learning and then give them the tools to fly, they can flourish in language.
Norah Jones: When have you seen that happen, especially effectively with students in a classroom?
Cheri Quinlan: When I’ve seen that happen is when we give students real-world situations to use and then allow them to do that. Just as an example from my own classroom experience. I remember in Spanish 3, one of my students said to me, “Can we have a party here?” I said, “No, no, no, we don’t do parties in Spanish class, but we can have a cultural celebration.” “Oh, we can have a cultural celebration?” “Yes.” “Oh, that’s great.” And they said, “When are we going to do this? And how are we going to do this?” I said, “Well, you are going to plan it and it’s going to be all planned in Spanish. And if you can do that, we can have a cultural celebration.”
Norah Jones: You are so sneaky. That’s awesome.
Cheri Quinlan: And you know what? I had a student stand up in the middle of class and she said, Okay, “Vamos a planear la fiesta… digo… la celebración.” And she decided who’s going to bring what and she put it all up on the blackboard. This was in the time before whiteboards. And she said, “Who’s going to bring what? What are we going to do that day?” And et cetera, et cetera. And I was just, I was flabbergasted. I think that really helped me see how we can make learning come alive for students, by giving them the power to own their learning and then to plan.
Norah Jones: And if it’s a party, we’re for sure going to jump right into it. And I know that there are many other things that interest them and what a powerful experience of watching her just literally jump up and start to take control of the things in the target language. Totally awesome. Where are we still struggling? Give us one point. If you were to pick one thing that you’d just love to see changed right now in the culture of how we teach languages in the United States in middle and high schools in particular or maybe higher education, if you want to address that, what should be changed? Bing.
Cheri Quinlan: I think there still needs to, in spite of the fact that the proficiency movement has been around for a good number of years, I think we still need to focus more on message rather than form. In other words, we need to look at the role reversal of what is grammar’s role in a language classroom? And I often compare that to when we think of a movie star. And we think of him or her being the star of the movie. That’s where grammar was back when I was first learning Spanish. And now it has more of a supporting role. And so fans of said movie star, grammar, may not be as happy about grammar taking on a supporting role. But if we really want to engage our students and we want our students to get better at language, that’s where it needs to be.
Grammar is still important and it still needs to be there, but it needs to be in a supporting role. When we look at what we want students to know and be able to do, we have to say, “If we want students to be able to,” and they’ll just throw this out there, “Describe events in the past, what is the grammar that they need to be able to do that? And what is the context in which they need to be able to do that?” And I think if we can truly reverse that role of grammar as being not just saying it, but actually actualizing that in the classroom, that will serve our students better.
Norah Jones: Thank you. And I think back to what you said about the power of combining your language and your religious faith being so important to you and the kind of pathways that you found then to make use of the language in your religious contexts. Students discovering what it is that’s important to them and engaging language in their contexts, how you empower that as an educator, Cheri?
Cheri Quinlan: As an educator, one of the things that I think about is I think about giving students control of their own learning. When we’re learning a new context or new content, always engage the students. And for example, if we’re doing a unit on learning about foods, in whatever context, well, what’s important to students? Or if we’re learning about after school activities, well, what activities are important to students? Not necessarily the ones that are just in the textbook, but what ones engage our students and to give them the option to choose their vocabulary that they want to learn. I remember a wise person once said to me that students learn the vocabulary that’s important to them. And it takes me back to my freshman year of college. I remember my professor, Miss Laurie, she for our final exam for a conversation course, she had us come in and talk about something that was important to us. And we had to bring in pictures to talk about and to use the vocabulary that was important to us. We have to give students that opportunity to learn things that they care about.
Norah Jones: Learn things they care about, selective vocabulary and focus and so that helps so much. I’m thinking about stories I would be glad to tell a professor even to this day about things that interest me, where there might be other topics that I would find to be very boring indeed. When you, Cheri, look at your life, your background, how you approached language, what you’ve done, why do you think that you have provided or in what ways I’ll say it that way. In what ways do you think that you’ve provided a unique contribution to world language education in these years that you’ve been engaged in it?
Cheri Quinlan: Well, I think my unique contribution has been, I like to give back to the profession. And so I’ve done many presentations throughout the year where I’ve taken what I’ve learned and what I’ve used in the classroom or used as a supervisor and shared that with others. Now, that’s not something I would have done on my own. I was encouraged to do that by one of my colleagues, friends and mentor, who said to me one time, “Cheri, have you thought about doing a presentation at FLENJ? We could do a presentation on Frida Kahlo, where we both dressed up as Frida Kahlo and we design a thematic unit and practice that in a full day presentation with other colleagues. Let me tell you that that experience was one of the best experiences of my professional life. And I still have people tell me that they remember coming to that presentation and learning how they could plan thematically and give students a reason to use language. And I’ll share with you what our final activity for that day was.
Norah Jones: Great.
Cheri Quinlan: We told the teachers that each group was going to have to create a presentation based on one of Frida Kahlo’s works and present it to the group. In the meantime, we had people beamed in from Mexico City, from La Casa Azul, who were going to choose the best presentation and the people in the best presentation we’re going to spend the summer doing acting as a docent in the museum in Mexico City.
Norah Jones: Wow.
Cheri Quinlan: Well, these teachers were so engaged and I’m walking around, just as you would monitoring what’s going on in your classroom. But in this case, in a professional development situation, and I went up to my friend and colleague, Grisel Lopez Diez and I said to her, I said, “Grisel, Houston, we have a problem. These people think this is really a competition.” And so when we finished, we debriefed them. We said, “Now, how engaged were you in that? Why were you engaged in that?” And then we said, “It was a simulation. This is not a real situation, but we got you engaged and excited about this because you saw the real-life application of it.” We kind of got ourselves out of a little bit of a sticky situation.
Norah Jones: People were expecting a plane ticket, were they not?
Cheri Quinlan: Yes, they were.
Norah Jones: They were indeed. That’s fascinating, but look at how that motivated them. Adults, young people, we all get motivated those ways.
Cheri Quinlan: Right, exactly.
Norah Jones: That’s fantastic. Well Cheri, you’ve shared so many insights educationally, personally. Thank you. I would like to have you turn one more time to those that are listening to this podcast and provide them one last thing to think about invitation, warning, whatever it is that you would like to leave with our listeners today.
Cheri Quinlan: One thing I would like to leave your listeners with today is to follow your passion even if your passion isn’t your strongest suit. My strongest subject in high school was math, but I did not like math so why would I spend my life doing something that I do not enjoy? And so I followed my passion, which was Spanish. And that’s not to say that I wasn’t good at Spanish. I was good at Spanish and I got better at Spanish and I continue to get better at Spanish because it is my passion.
Norah Jones: That’s fantastic. And language brings out a lot of passion and it certainly does for you. And it also, I’ve enjoyed the stories of the times when you have created your own, shall we say humor, not problems, but humor. And thank you for sharing those as well. Cheri, it’s been a great pleasure having you today as my guest.
Cheri Quinlan: Oh, thank you, Norah. It’s been a pleasure for me as well.
Norah Jones: Take good care.
Cheri Quinlan: You too. Thanks.