“I think that as a country, as a world, we will be in such a better place if we all have the opportunity to really celebrate our unique identities, our differences, our similarities, and what all there is to take away from it. Life is short. And because life is short, to be able to celebrate what you can do and not worry about what you can’t do is probably the most powerful thing you can do.“
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As this podcast is released, the Olympics are in full swing. At the Olympics we see celebration of excellence and the emotions that come with the experience of developing physical expertise and mental focus and seeing just how far they can take human beings.
Language is a miracle of expertise. Because most human beings develop language skills naturally from infancy, we tend to underestimate the skill involved and to ignore the accomplishments of our brain that allow us to speak or sign, and later read and write. If we take on the study of an additional language as a young person or adult, we often come emotionally from a position of self-consciousness and self-criticism, often dropping out of the language race too soon, and following up with statements about how we learned nothing, were not “good at language,” etc.
Such statements demonstrate that we do not yet grasp the nature of language as a basic human tool and gift, rather than as a topic of study. They demonstrate that we do not yet know how to celebrate this amazing expertise of ours, whether we are gold medalists in language use or just happy to be using our “language muscles” to run around the track for fun and exercise.
Celebrate language, yours and others’. Celebrate the amazing race we run every day, expressing how we feel, what we perceive, naming the world, changing minds and hearts, doing research together, being human. Just because we get to run this language race every day instead of every four years doesn’t mean it isn’t every bit as amazing and exciting as watching athletes bring their lives and expertise to an event that is thrilling, challenging, fun, demanding–and to be celebrated.
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Norah Jones: It’s such a great pleasure for me to welcome, today, my dear friend, colleague, companion, Clarissa Adams Fletcher. Hi Clarissa.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: Hi. How are you today?
Norah Jones: I am doing very well. And we were just enjoying a story of how, though you have been a Spanish teacher and continue to be a Spanish teacher at Dunwoody High School, north of Atlanta, that your heart was originally with Portuguese. So I’d love to hear why Portuguese? How you got back into the whole Spanish thing? Do tell.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: Well, I would love to. I went to Vanderbilt as a supposed Spanish-Econ major. I had it all planned out. I was going to be a double major. Took my first class, and I think it was micro-economics, had to either be micro or macro. But anyway, I took that econ class and I went, “I’m pretty sure that this is not going to be the pathway that I’m going to be able to maintain.” And I took that, and I struggled through econ, and I got into Spanish and I talked myself into an upper-level course, because at my school they didn’t have AP Spanish, at the time.
So I had to do the placement tests and I was told, the guy said, “I think I’m better than this. I think I could do better.” So he said, “Okay, well, come on in for an interview.” And I did an interview with him, and he was like, “Yes, I do believe you should be placed in a higher level. So [crosstalk] I want you to do a conversation class,” because back then, there was not a lot of speaking when growing up there. We did a lot of reading. We did a lot of auditory comprehension, but speaking, not so much.
The conversation class, which was, I can’t even remember the number. It was 207. It was conversation with Monica Morley, was the professor. But anyway, that class was full. So I had to take… why can I not remember… it was Spanish culture and civilization. That’s what it was. And I thought, “Ooh, Ooh.”
Norah Jones: Really?
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: I did. Well, I have grown… It’s funny how you grow as a person and in the area. So I was one of those people who wanted—like I understand when my students say to me, “I just want to learn to speak Spanish.” Or they say, “Why did you want to do Spanish?” Or “What made you want to do it?” I said, “I want to speak Spanish. I want to sound like a Spanish-speaking person,” whatever that was. And I said, “Well.”
So I wanted conversation. So culture and civilization was like history, economics. I was like, “Ooh, I don’t want to read more. I don’t want to do that.” But I was on a class that was open. So I talked myself into this place. I could then say, “Now I’m good. I’m going back to intermediate Spanish.”
Norah Jones: I’m good with that.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: [crosstalk] So I did the Spanish culture and civilization, and it was a Cuban professor, Enrique Pupo-Walker. And… I was born in Atlanta, went to an urban inner-city school. I enjoyed all of my people but all of my people looked like me and there were no Afro-Latinos at the time. So I really hadn’t heard real Spanish people speak Spanish. So Enrique Pupo-Walker from Cuba rolled out with his. I was like, “Oh… [laughter] Oh my. I may have bitten off more than I can chew.”
And so my RA at the time was also—she was not Spanish a major, she was a Latin American studies major—and she and I talked and she said, “Well, Latin American Studies does Spanish and economics and blah, blah, blah.” I was like, “Okay.” I said, “Well, maybe I can.” She goes, “Then that way you wouldn’t be locked in the econ but you could still have your Spanish.” She goes, “Then you would have to do Portuguese also because Latin American Studies major, you had to do a major in one and a minor in the other.” So I said, “Okay.”
And I went to class for about two weeks and I was distraught because I could not understand what Enrique Pupo-Walker was saying. I would just sit in class for about every day and I’d go back and be like, “Cindy, I don’t know what he’s saying. I’m going to fail. And this is supposed to be my love. I love Spanish, but I don’t know what this man is saying.”
And so she gave me some tips. She goes, “Well, he drops his esses.” She goes, “So if you just imagine that you hear the S at the end of a word, and that he runs them together, you’ll understand what he’s saying.” And I was like, “Okay.” She goes, “And then be patient.” And I said, okay. And after a while, the cadence, it came. And I was really kind of like, “Okay, I might be okay.” And so that was how I got into it.
And then I took Portuguese. You had to take Intensive Portuguese.
Norah Jones: Intensive Portuguese.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: Intensive Portuguese. Right. And so that meant you only had to do it for like a year. So I did um… Well, it was the equivalent of two years in one. And so I decided, “Okay, I’ll do this.” And I had this teacher and it was too funny It was funny because there were two tracks. There was one taught by a Brazilian professor, and then there was one taught by this lady of Asian di— and at this point, I don’t know, I don’t remember her name, but she was the more intense one.
And I was like, “Hey, why can’t I get the one that’s like the Brazilian laidback dude.” But the funny part [crosstalk] the irony was that his son was in her class. So, I was like… And there were only six of us in this class. And we met every day, we met, I think it was 60 minutes, 55 minutes. It was like an hour every day. There were six of us. And I mean, you couldn’t hide.
So every day, you had to come with your work and you had to come ready. So at the end of my year of Intensive Portuguese, I felt pretty good. I was like, “I think I’m pretty good.” And I liked the way it sounded. And he would always invite us to his barbecues. So we went to the feijoadas and it was good. And the food was good. The people were fun. So Portuguese kind of… because I think the way it was introduced to me, other than the fact that the lady was really hard, I felt really good about it.
So then I went to do my study abroad in Spain, got lost in Portugal. Well, not lost, wrong verb. Left. [crosstalk] So we were on this train. It was like a weekend. Like a point day. And we went to, I guess we went to Lisbon. And we went to Portugal and came back. And at that time, you had train tickets. And of course this was pre-phone, pre-everything. Like prehistoric times.
And I get on this train, I’m on my way back, and I can’t find my ticket. And the conductor comes through and he says, “Okay, well, when you get to the next stop, you’re going to have to get off and get a new ticket.” “Well, okay.” This was the 80s. Stuff wasn’t particularly expensive. I was like, “Okay.” Get off the train. Now, he doesn’t tell me that the train, it doesn’t really have a stop.
Norah Jones: Oh, golly.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: He says it’s a stop, but it’s not a “stop.”
Norah Jones: It’s not a place where you can buy a ticket.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: No, you could buy a ticket. It just wasn’t going to be stopped long enough for you to get off the train. And there was a line. And so there were only maybe two or three people. And I thought, “Okay.” I get on, I get up to the line. The lady says, “You can’t buy a ticket.”
I can’t remember it was a lady or man, but anyway, she says, “You can’t get a ticket.” And I’m like, “Why? The train is here.” And she’s like, “Because the train just left.” I’m like, “Excuse me?” I’m like, “I’m sorry. Could you repeat that again?” And I looked back, and for sure, the train is moving. And I’m like, “Well, this is not going to be one of the movie scenes where I can go run and catch that train.” I’m like, “I don’t know. What?”
And so, I come back and there’s this group of nuns. And it’s funny because this story is probably … Let’s see. This is probably 40 years old or something, but I can remember this like it was yesterday. And I get back and there was this group of nuns. And they’re talking to me in Portuguese, and they’re like, “You’re going to need to ask one of these taxi drivers to take you to the next stop to meet the train.”
And I’m like, “I don’t speak that much Portuguese to be able to…” Like what would this be? “Interpersonal conversation with a challenge, with a problem” [inaudible] And I thought, “I don’t think I can do that.” And she says, “Well, there won’t be another train until tomorrow.” I said, “Oh.”
Norah Jones: I’ll do it.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: I said, “Well, okay. I guess I’m going to have to.” So I approached this taxi driver. I tell him my situation. And he’s like, “No.” And I’m like, “No, no, no.” He’s like, “No, I can’t do that.” And I was like, “No, no, no. Let me tell it to you again in a different way, with a little more intensity.” And so anyway, I convinced this taxi driver. I get in this taxi with this random man. I will have to think about it now. I’m like, “Wow.” I get in the taxi. We drive to the next station. We have just missed the train.
Norah Jones: Oh golly.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: And so, I can’t remember what happens at some point. At some point, I remember thinking, “Hmm, I’m in a random taxi with a random man in the middle of Nowhere, Portugal. And nobody knows where I am.” And at that moment I lost it. And he was like, “No, no, no, no. I’m really nice.” And then he starts showing me pictures of his kids and his grandkids. [laughter]
So I think he must have had the same thought, because I did have thought, “He could throw me out the car and I would just be left and nobody would know. They wouldn’t even know where to start looking for me.” And so anyway, we managed. So he finally says to me, he says, “Well, if we don’t make it, if we don’t meet up with the train,” he goes, “I can’t cross the border.” And I’m like, “I understand.”
And we managed to catch the train, I want to say 12 kilometers before the border. And so we get there, because we passed a couple of stops, and every time we get there, the train had already left. And we finally got there before the last train and we got out. The people on the train car, because I was with some friends, obviously. The people on the train car were like cheering. They were like, “Yes!”
Norah Jones: I had this visual of your car—very much movie like—chasing after this train through Portugal. I wish there had been a videographer there to have taken that.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: I know. It’s funny. And I thought, wow. And then of course, because I realized I don’t really have a whole lot of money. And I said to him, I said, “I don’t have enough money to pay you for however much this is going to.” He was like, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” Well, anyway, so we get there and my friends give me some money We give him all that we have and I get on train.
So I get back to Spain and I’m telling my… Well, Vanderbilt had… you should stay with the Señora, but you also had kinda like someone your age who would help you. So I’m telling this family the M——– family. I’m telling them the story. They’re like rolling on the floor, just cracking up, like it’s the best story ever. And I’m like, “I’m not amused. I don’t know why you find this [crosstalk]. I feel as though I’ve been traumatized. And they’re just like [makes laughing sound].”
So I think that’s why Portuguese won me over because I was like, “Wow, with only two years of Portuguese, I managed to get myself out of a ridiculous situation.”
Norah Jones: You sure did.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: And I thought [crosstalk]. Well, of course I think the man upstairs have a lot because that could have gone so wrong.
Norah Jones: It could have. And I think it’s adorable, if I may say it that way, the part of the story where you burst into finally tears and he recognizes what it is that you might actually be upset about. And it’s not just missing the train.
[Promotion of podcast and show notes]
Well, you know, Clarissa… [laughter] All of us as language teachers have very interesting stories. Although that particular story, I would say, beats most of the interesting stories that language teachers tell. But it’s bound to have had an impact on you. I mean, you were talking about your background in Atlanta. You’re talking about the kinds of people that you came across, the Afro-Latino, the experience of being in the different courses and so forth.
Then you have this experience of an action using the language, and I added the timeframe under which you didn’t have that much language… You had a heavy tension experience, and then you had to just do it right then. All of these experiences are bound to have informed what you’ve been doing, how you’ve been explaining things, what you’ve been saying to students about, how language and culture works together, what kinds of expertise they need to have or learning they need to have.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: Definitely. So I found out a couple of things. That’s when I would tell this story to my students just to say, “You do not have to be fluent,” because I was obviously not fluent in Portuguese to be able to get myself out of this situation. And I said, “If you pay attention to certain things, you are able to manipulate language a lot more than you realize when you are really in the situation.”
So that was one. And then I think by being a Latin American Studies major, it helped me, I think—long before, there were five Cs—I always saw that link between language and culture. There were just certain things that happened, and they happened around the culture, which informed the language, which then bounced off the culture.
And like you said, the fact that this gentleman and I had this shared experience, whereas… we had this thing in common, he knew this was the human experience. He knew kind of what I was feeling without me ever saying anything. Because I never said to him, obviously, “Oh my.” But he shared, he understood and he knew what would make me feel better. So that whole intercultural piece for me right there, when I look back at situations, it’s amazing. There’s that story, and then I’m going to tell you another real quick one was, in Argentina, and I went to Argentina—probably influenced by Evita—
Norah Jones: Absolutely.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: So pop culture does influence a lot! Evita was playing at the Fox, which is a theater in Atlanta. And I went to see it. I was mesmerized. And then I was just, “Oh, I have to go to Argentina.” Well, little did I know there were no Black people in Argentina. Not only were there not Black people in Argentina, they didn’t drink coffee in Argentina. There were just all these cultural pieces that were just missing. And I ended up staying with a family. Gosh, I don’t remember where they were from, but it’s like Middle Eastern though. Not typically whatever you would consider typical Argentine.
And so, they picked me up and they’re talking. And at this point, I’ve spent a year in Spain. So I figured out it’d be okay. I’ve been lost in Portugal. I got through all that. I ought to be okay. I’m in Argentina and… They’re talking. I’m like, “What are you saying?” I had no clue. I was like.
So, I always tell my students. I say, “So there’s always going to be a moment where you still, no matter how good you might feel about your situation, this is going to challenge you. There’s going to be something that gets you.” I said, “And you just have to figure out how to work through it.”
So I stayed with this family. I was doing a program with um, I don’t remember who it was now… The daughter was kind of my person, but their son was special needs. And his name was Carlos. His name was Carlitos. And I loved Carlitos, and Carlitos loved me. No, I loved Carlitos because Carlitos spoke slowly. So I could understand what Carlitos was saying.
Norah Jones: Oh, there you go. Carlitos was a key for you. Wasn’t he?
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: Carlitos was a key. And so, because I made a connection with Carlitos, I was in with the family, because I didn’t shun Carlitos. And I was thinking, “Me and Carlitos go hang together right over here on the side.” And so, it’s just funny how all of the things, that’s what I told kids, I said, “There’s a lot…”
When you look at, in terms of, I’m teaching AP now, and we talk about cultural comparisons and we talk about similarities and differences, but the similarities, there are so many. Yes, we really as teachers—in the past, I would say more so than now—probably emphasize the differences more so than the similarities. Not necessarily on purpose, but because, oh, that’s what makes the culture. Well, no, it’s not.
Norah Jones: Yes.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: There’s the history which informs the culture. And even as an African-American, as a Black person, I look at the history. There are certain things I do as a black person that if I’m around other Black people, I don’t have to explain because they know… because we have a shared history. Whereas I may have to explain to my friends that are not Black. Not because they … It’s just not a part. And I would always go, “Oh, I don’t know why we do it. We just do it.” And as soon as you can say, “Well, I don’t know why we do it. We just do it,” all of a sudden you’re talking about culture because—
And that’s what I keep trying to tell the kids. I’m like, “Culture is such a part of you that you don’t recognize it. And until you cannot really appreciate someone else’s culture, until you recognize it, A, you have a culture, B, it informs and helps you move and shapes how you experience and how you see things and the way you see things and the why.
And the questions that people might ask you, or the questions that you can anticipate that people might ask of you.” I said, “And if you’ve never been outside of your own culture, then you don’t have that experience.” I said, “And so those are the things that help you really truly appreciate a language or a culture because there’s not a language without a culture.” And they’re so… it’s such a combination, they’re so conjoined, there’s no other way to pull it apart.
And I remember having a student—and I could not have articulated it to him this way at this point, but I guess I had been teaching maybe five or six years at the point—He said to me, “I just want to learn to speak the language.” And he said, “You teach too much culture.” And I said, “Well, I hear you.” I said, “That was my experience.” I said, “But I’m going to tell you, you really can’t learn the language without learning the culture.” Or I said, “It’s a richer experience when you do that.”
I said, “Otherwise, you are having kind of an out-of-body experience. Like, you’re there on the outside looking.” I said, “But if you really want to be on the inside, understanding what really makes people tick, and really have the jokes, the eye looks, the rolls, all of that part, the gestures, you have to understand what makes a person whatever it is they are.” I said, “And then that means that you have to find out what your commonalities are. And then from there, what might be different?” I said, “Because if you are only ever going, oh, I just want to try this. Oh, I want to try this, then it’s like you’re on a tour.”
Norah Jones: Boy, zinger right there. You’re taking a tour of humanity rather than being in the middle of it.
Clarissa, a lot of the things that you’ve spoken about, you actually used… Well, I don’t know if you used the word “hope,” but when that Portuguese situation happened, or the Cuban, I should say. The Cuban pronunciation happened, there was a person that gave you hope by saying, “Here’s a technique to take a deep breath and a pathway forward.” And combined with your willingness to stay put, it worked.
And then you’re in Portugal, and the taxi driver gives you hope through his commonality of behavior. And you seem to have brought up here yet another story about the commonality of humanity—which we don’t always spend time in world language classrooms emphasizing as much as you said as the differential—can actually provide hope.
It seems to me like the hope that is needed for today’s classrooms or in general—we’re all humans—but especially for those populations of students that tend to be under-served in world language classes, or specifically to be given a vision of what they can do as language speakers in their lives and careers. Am I hitting on anything that sounds true?
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: Yeah, for sure. Because I think there are two things with that hope, because everyone is not necessarily going to travel in the way I wanted to travel. That may or may not happen. It’s more likely is the bigger you understand, more you begin to understand the culture, the more likely you are to want to see it live. But until that point, to get you to that point, you have to see people… To me, I think I would have been… I would have had an even richer experience as a student to have seen people who look like me… that commonality, that shared experience all the way through.
The hope is that when you get to the hard parts—and you’re going to get to the hard parts in learning the language. I mean, if not, you’re not ever going to learn the language. Quite honestly, you get to the point where you realize that you’re never going to truly learn all there is to learn about the language. You don’t even know all there is to learn about the one you speak first.
But with each piece of information, it takes you to the next level. And that gives you the fortitude to be able to make it through the next challenge when it presents itself. And you get to a certain point, where resilience is really what the key is that you need in terms of learning a language.
Because I have found that everybody has a breaking point. Everybody has a breaking point, but in terms of learning. A lot of times, I will have students who are, who I would consider… who a lot of people would consider… I don’t know how to say it nicely. So, I guess I just have to say it, like the better students, but they’re students who have had more background knowledge. They’ve had more experiences. They may have had more travel experiences, et cetera, but their resilience, their grit is not any stronger, I have found, than the under-served population. The difference is they’ve just had more opportunities. So what you have to do is if you hit that point, you have to find where the breaking point is, where the resilience, where it stops.
And then you have to… that’s to me, the key, that “I plus one,” that’s how you get there. You get them right there. And when you see, okay, they’re not going any further. And I’ll give you an example, being online, I decided this year that, or last year, that I was teaching, I teach AP, I wanted a general population. We call them college prep, but a general population Level Two. Not the ones that have been exposed to everything and had the opportunity to travel. Just regular kids taking Spanish II. They don’t have any interest in taking Spanish III. I just wanted just a regular class [inaudible]
So, because, I mean, I’m a department chair. And so if you’re going to have conversations with your teachers of all levels, it’s impossible to have a real conversation if you only teach AP, because you’re looking at them like, “Well, what do you mean they aren’t going to do so and so?” And because the AP kid is going to do so. And by the time the AP kid decides they’re not going to do it, well, you probably asked them too much to do. Let’s just call it what it is.
But the gen pop people, they’re looking at you real honestly like, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that.” And you’re like, “Why would you not want to go further?” “Because I’m good right here.” So it’s just different conversation.
So, I had this class, and all of a sudden here we are virtual. And so, my coworker, she goes, “Are you sure you want to do that this year?” And I said, “Well, I’m not sure I wanna do it, but I’ve signed up for it now, so I’m gonna do it.” It was my most fun class. Because I would have AP first period, AP second period, and I had my gen pop class third period [crosstalk].
Norah Jones: Back to real life—I wouldn’t say it’s real life, all of it’s real life! [crosstalk]
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: Yeah. Oh, no, it was real life, because you were just like, “Oh, the Spanish, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” You walk in to them and be like, “¡Holá!” And you be had like all the blank screens. I would have felt like I had missed out somehow in virtual learning if I had not had that experience. So I realized that you would talk to them, and they would just look at you. They would never go and complain. They would just not do.
Or they would look at you and say, “Well, is this like? if they had Spanish, and this is just Regular Spanish.” And I’m like, “What does it mean to be Regular Spanish?” They were like, “You talked to us in English and we do some Spanish, but we do it all of it in Spanish. Are we?” And I’m like, “Uh, the class is called Spanish. It’s not called All About Spanish.” And they were like, “Yeah, but you’re a little out of control.” I’m like, “Okay.” I realized I needed to back it up a little bit. Bring it down [crosstalk]
And so we would using Flipgrid all the time. And we had Flipgrid. And what I realized was that I didn’t have the meaningful chunking that I needed. They had taken Spanish I at the beginning of the pandemic. So for us, we’re on a four-by-four block schedule. So a four by four block schedule at the beginning of the pandemic would have been March. So that means they took Spanish I, they began in January. Yes, the very moment.
Norah Jones: At the very moment.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: And in March, we dismissed… pretty much for the year. So I said, “Oh, so you guys really had like six weeks of Spanish I and now you’re in Spanish II.” I was like, “Oh.” It was like my lightbulb went off and I thought, “Oh, we got to take this a whole different way.”
So first we got to build up some resilience. We got to build up some… I can’t think of the word… some confidence. We have to build up… So, whatever it was we were working on, every Flipgrid began with, “Aren’t you going to start with your name, how old you are, where you’re from?”
And then we went from those three, then we would add one more. And then what you like. And then whatever it was we were supposed to do. But because the first time they couldn’t do any of it, I was like, “Oh my God, you can’t tell me your name?” And I thought, “Oh, it’s not you, it’s me.” “Okay. I got you.” So by the time we got to the end, we finally came to this and they would be so proud. By the time they got to the end, their beginning, they would be like, “Me llamo [inaudible. Yo vivo bla bla bla. Tengo catorce años. And da da da.” I was like, “Yes! you at least sound like that part.”
Because the first time I thought, “Y’all don’t even sound like y’all speaking Spanish. I don’t even know what this is.” But from then on they felt like they could do something else because they could always get that first part, because I would say, “You have to talk 40 seconds.” And they were like, “We can’t talk 40 seconds.” I was like, “Well, the first 10, 12 you got. All right. So you’re really only talking 20 seconds.” They were like, Ooh, all right, come on, let’s go.”
And I think that, that part, but also recognizing that it was a different culture. They were all done with the students, but it was a whole different culture. And the resilience, the hope that they could make it. And that really is what happens. I think a lot of times is that kids, once they feel… when they like you don’t believe in them, because they don’t believe in themselves to begin. They’re like, “Well, I’m not good at Spanish.”
And then half the time you hear their parents say, “Well, I was never any good in Spanish either.” I’m like, “Okay. Shh. Just, just…” So I said to them, “It’s my job to believe in you until you believe in yourself.” And at that point, then we’re ready to move. And we had a few lost cases. I’ll be realistic. But the ones that finally got on board and they just started going, we would go into breakout rooms and nobody would say anything.
And we would go into breakout rooms and then they realized I was in every breakout room because I’d have to iPads going and two computers. And I’d be like, “Let’s go. I need to hear something? Why are you not saying anything? Here are the questions. Let’s go through them. So y’all going to help each other.” And then all of a sudden it was more of a community. It was more of a class. It was more okay. And they would be like, “You know she ain’t going to let you off until you say something.” I was like, “Exactly.”
So it was funny when we went back to class—well, we did hybrid—but I ran into a couple of kids, and one of the little girls never had a camera on. Because she didn’t want to do her hair, she told me. And then the other one, I don’t know, she just kind of went and turned her camera off.
Well, I ran into both of them during AP testing and I was like, “Hold up, I know you.” She was like, “I know you too. You’re my Spanish teacher.” I was like, “Yeah. So that’s what you look like?” [laughter] She was like, “You know what? Your class really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”
Norah Jones: See. There you go.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: I said, “Well, look. Good. I’m glad. Did you continue?” “Well…” “Okay,” I said, “I’m okay with that,” I said. “However, I hope we got some lessons so that we can move forward in some other things.” And they were like, “Yeah, we actually did.” I said, “Okay, that’s all I needed.”
Norah Jones: When you plant the seed, that seed can flourish in any number of ways. Just demonstrating how to go about hope, that was impressive. So you just didn’t say, “Have hope.” You said, “Okay, if I want you to just do your name and your age, now do your name and your age and where you live. Now do your name and your age and where you live.” And gave them that ladder, but very patiently. I love it. It’s not their problem. It was your problem. How precious?
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: It was my problem.
Norah Jones: Yeah. Well, you took it upon yourself. And so as the department chair, as a person that is out and about and seeing how things are done in the world, is this happening better? Is it growing or not?
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: So I think the key is to really get the whole department on the same page. And I will give kudos to my—well now I’ll say former principal, because she’s not going to be there next year—but she sort of pushed the envelope a lot on professional learning communities, and just sort of force everybody into the same. So we were really good at middle to upper middle on.
Our weakness of course, was level one, level two, because everybody kind of did their own thing. We had a curriculum that we follow, but how we did it was… you know… So first by me having skin in the game, like I said, I would sit there and I was like, “What are y’all talking about?” And because I hadn’t taught level two, they would literally have to explain it.
I was like, “Well, that doesn’t make sense.” Or they’ll be like, “Well, why are we doing this?” “Well, oh, because we’ve already done it and you have your favorite project.” “So what does the kid get out of it? And why do all the people look the same way? And why don’t we have more variety.” And so I think you have to have those hard conversations, and you have to be okay with people not liking everything you say. But at the end, I think they really appreciated it.
And when we all began to speak, I was like, “No, we’re not just talking about getting an A, B, or C. They’ll get that when they understand what proficiency, what it looks like.” I said, “But right now, everybody, no matter what we think, because grades, at least in our community, grades really run everything. It sounds like they do in a lot of places, but you have to help kids see what proficiency looks like. You have to help their parents see what proficiency looks like.”
And I found that actually by teaching AP and showing the younger students that even at AP, you’re not fluent. You’re not going to be bilingual. You’re on a proficiency continuum. And at that continuum, at the highest—well, there’s always somebody that can be [inaudible]—But at the highest of 5 is an advanced low. And we talk about in English, where are you on the proficiency scale in English? And they’re like, “Oh, I’m superior.” I’m like, “No, you’re not.” I’m like, “I hate to bust your bubble but.”
And they’re like, “Oh.” I’m like, “Yeah, professors who do specific kind of research, those are the ones who are superior leaning towards distinguished.” I said, “You are advanced. Not to use the same words over and over again. So you’re probably like advanced mid.”
I said, “You’ve been doing this forever. So the fact that you could be at advanced low English second language, do you realize what kind of accomplishment that is? So don’t take it and try, don’t beat yourself up if you are not at a certain level, at a certain point.” I said, “That’s not the goal. The goal is to continue to move. But once you see where you are, then now you can peek around the corner and say, oh, this is all it takes for me to get here.”
Yeah. So, I think that’s what it takes to get everyone speaking, literally speaking the same language.
[Some technical issues]
Norah Jones: Literally speaking the same language. Let’s sort of begin to go towards the end of our podcast—I could talk to you all day as you well know—We have, in this society, in particular right now, it’s growing and other societies as well, a sense of not even understanding the cultures and the languages and the identities of people that are right in our neighborhoods or right in our own societies.
With regard to the experience of Black Americans, of Asian Americans, of Latino Americans, et cetera, or recent immigrants, any kind, anything that you can take a look at. What do you think is the promise of world language education with regard to helping? Where do you think the challenges are? Whatever direction you want to take that, Clarissa.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: I think that everyone always talks about how world language educators are… we are the change agents. We are the ones who help students recognize, one, that they have a culture. And I think as soon as you can recognize that everyone has a culture and having a different culture isn’t a bad thing or good thing, it just is, I think that’s the first place.
So for us to be able to examine cultures within our own society, that’s one of the big takeaways to me. And I think that then, when you realize that not only we have an experiment where, in the United States, where we have put all these people together and have made these promises. And it’s a lot of hard work. And we take two steps forward, we take four steps back, we take two more steps forward, we take four steps back. But there in other countries where you don’t even have this recognition yet, which is where I think it makes our experiment such a lofty goal.
And so I think one of the things that can help is that if we become … Well, okay, so first we have that, that part. So everybody has their own culture. But then within that, we have kind of this globalization where there’s a lot of… there’s my unique twist on whatever this is in the middle. And then this country has its unique twist on whatever this is, this in the middle. But whatever this is, this in the middle, that has this little twist, it’s allowing us to touch each other in the sense of connecting.
And I’ll take for example, growing up, rap just blew up. But rap was just a Black thing for a while until Tipper Gore decided that it was getting on her [inaudible] And I remember thinking, “Oh.” But then all of a sudden it became a white people thing. The white people would do rap. Well, then all of a sudden there are Afro Latinos doing rap. There’s Japanese people doing rap.
So all of a sudden, everybody had their own little twist on it. It wasn’t necessarily the same thing. Some of them might’ve been current issues. Some of them might’ve just been for fun. Some of them might’ve been whatever, but that globalization has had a way of allowing us to connect.
I think it’s important that everyone figures out how to express their own culture in terms of another person’s culture. But I think it gives a richer story. And I think that’s where language teachers can allow that individuality, because you will have the opportunity to talk about me, which is always in terms of language. Your first units are always all about me.
So it’s about me and my community. And then you move out from there. And so if I can talk about me and my culture and where I am, and then I can connect that to other cultures, then that gives us a unique opportunity because we’re doing what is really natural in terms of language. I mean, it’s not natural to start off with climate change. You want to get to that point because that becomes a topic for maybe everybody, Again, it connects us. But first, I have to talk about how to fix me.
Norah Jones: Thank you so much. That’s so powerful. And indeed, such a jumping-off point. Thank you my friend. One last item. I want you to imagine for just a second, all the people that are listening to this podcast, and you’ve got one more opportunity to invite or exhort or warn or inform them, what is it that you want to be sure that we don’t finish today without you saying to everyone?
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: I think it is so incumbent upon us, especially if you are middle-age or older, which is where I’m going to throw myself in, to go back and all those things that perhaps you didn’t allow or we’re not allowed to… to go back and figure out how to help the younger generation to move forward.
I think that as a country, as a world, we will be in such a better place if we all have the opportunity to really celebrate our unique identities, our differences, our similarities, and what-all there is to take away from it. Life is short. And because life is short, to be able to celebrate what you can do and not worry about what you can’t do is probably the most powerful thing you can do.
Norah Jones: Clarissa, thank you so much. What a wonderful invitation. And I certainly hope people take you up on that. It will be a more compassionate and joyful world. When they do.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: Exactly. “When” indicative.
Norah Jones: That’s right. You notice I did not use the conditional. I use the indicative. Well done, my grammarian and wonderful language friend.
Clarissa Adams Fletcher: Thank you for having me. It was great.