An Interview With FASPS Spanish Teacher, Charles Sisson

Posted by Kyle Lewis


Kyle: Tell us how long you’ve been at FASPS and what you teach here.

Charles: I’ve been at FASPS since before I had any gray in my beard, and, if I’m not mistaken, that was 10 years ago, at the start of the Middle School.

Kyle: What were you doing beforehand?

Charles: Before teaching at FASPS, I was teaching in a magnet school in Pinellas County, Florida, which itself was a change of scenery from six years in Paris.

Kyle: Earlier you mentioned you had lived in Denver.

Charles: Yes, I grew up in Denver, and I finished my college degree there. After I came back from Chile, I taught in Denver public schools as they needed Spanish speakers.

Kyle: So you studied both French and Spanish?

Charles: No, I picked up French when I was in France.

Kyle: And you’ve spent how much time in Spanish-speaking countries?

Charles: I studied for a semester in Mexico, and I lived and worked in a school in Santiago, Chile, for a year. Then I summered in Argentina, in Buenos Aires. After that I visited Spain and Costa Rica repeatedly, and Mexico on a few occasions as a tourist. I would emphasize though that the United States is also a Spanish-speaking country, and that I stay very connected through media and other means here.

Kyle: Briefly, how do Spanish and Mandarin, or world languages, fit into the Middle School program at FASPS?

Charles: We’re a French school, so we follow the structure set by the French Ministry of Education, and in that system students will have two foreign languages. Obviously, our first “foreign language,” English, is very strong because that would be, from the French perspective, our English program. Then Mandarin or Spanish would be the second foreign language in that system. Typically, in France, they might include German or Latin or Greek, and, of course, we include Latin in the family of world languages that we have at our Middle School, but Spanish and Mandarin play the role of the second foreign language.

Kyle: Do you hear from former students what level they start at after studying Spanish at FASPS?

Charles: We’ve had some students who have had great successes. Our students typically start in Spanish 2, 3, or 4 in high school. Students who start in Spanish 2 oftentimes make that choice thinking they’d like to have a real area of strength during their transition to high school and all the demands that high school represents. When our students go into Spanish 3 or 4, which means they’ve essentially skipped a year or two ahead, they usually have a talent with language or they have a drive or other variable that allows them to jump comfortably ahead. I have a former student who’s going to be teaching robotics in Spain very shortly through her work at MIT. I have students who have gone on to travel back to Spanish-speaking countries, Spain, Latin America, and have done service work abroad using the language conversantly and across the spectrum of fluency. Our students, because of everything they bring with them to the Spanish classroom, are frequently able to go on and be perfectly trilingual as they develop.

Kyle: We have some native Spanish-speaking students at the school, right? Do they all take Mandarin?

Charles: Those students have typically gone into the Mandarin class because that’s an opportunity for them to stretch; it’s more beneficial for them to take a different language and have that range presented to them.

Kyle: You wanted to talk a little bit about self-paced learning. Can you first explain what you mean by that?

Charles: Self-paced learning is pretty much what the name implies; there’s nothing really mysterious or unusual about it. It’s just having students learn at a pace that makes sense for them. This is an idea that is strongly advocated in a book that Eric [Thuau] recommended to me, Ken Robinson’s “Creative Schools.” He argues extensively and convincingly that learning at your own pace is more effective and more reasonable in today’s environment. Self-paced learning is just learning as you can when you can. The reason that it’s worth mentioning is that that’s actually not common practice in education today. Certainly in many public schools in the United States and throughout the world there’s an idea that students ought to be learning at a particular, normal pace or faster than that. Differentiation and learning at your own pace are only becoming popular really in today’s environment.

Kyle: You were saying earlier that public schools in the United States are penalized if the students don’t keep a certain pace?

Charles: There’s great consternation among teachers about the consequences of high-stakes testing. I can speak to my own personal experience working in Denver, Colorado, where we had an amazing staff of dedicated teachers who came to a challenging socio-economic environment on a mission to put their advanced degrees in education to work with students in what I thought was nothing less than a heroic way. The students showed great growth, but under No Child Left Behind, because of the demand for a certain level of performance, the school where I was working was shut down. So, yes, if a certain pace and a certain performance are not met, even if in a given year there’s more than a year’s growth, you could find yourself facing closure.

Kyle: What’s the difference between self-paced learning and differentiation?

Charles: Self-paced learning is working through the teaching-learning cycle, the idea that you’re going to check what your students as a group and your students as individuals know, and then you’re going to teach based on that information, and then have them working exactly where they are on the learning continuum. I think that self-paced learning is a subset of differentiation. Self-paced learning is meeting each student exactly where they are in the learning process and offering them the tools to learn, to confirm on their own that they’re learning, and then to move on and keep careful track of what each and every student in your classroom is doing.

Kyle: Whether we’re talking about a student who may need a little more help or a student who may need a little more challenge.

Charles: Exactly. In my sphere of world languages, everything humans can conceive and express is part of what I could be teaching. We have a lot of freedom. It requires mastery of some foundational vocabulary and grammatical structures, so for students who haven’t mastered those, it’s best to work with them so that those areas are internalized and absolutely rock-solid before they move on. Some of our students are able to do that at a rate that can only be done by students who have so much background with language. For those students, giving them the opportunity to explore many different areas of cultural content, of the language, at a pace that suits them is going to allow them to go well beyond what other students could learn in their career at Middle School, to the point where we have students who go on really having Spanish as a language they can converse in. Self-paced learning is not only working through the standard Middle School curriculum and offering accommodations to either support or challenge students; it’s making sure that they have total mastery of what they’ve learned, and if they master things quickly, they can go into a different paradigm in their learning here.

Kyle: Is this something that’s happening at the grassroots level among teachers here at the school, or is this something that’s being discussed faculty-wide?

Charles: I think that the answer to both is yes. I heard about this through some of the very exciting teaching that’s going on at the Lower School level. Pierrick as a teacher-leader there has been instrumental. I have heard from many of the French teachers that that’s a practice they’ve had in place for quite some time. It’s something that’s much less common in American pedagogical circles. It’s come at least to me through the fine work that I’ve seen my colleagues doing. I don’t know where the initial spark came from.

Kyle: Can you give a concrete example of how this might play out in your own teaching?

Charles: Sure. I can imagine a couple of scenarios. Imagine we have a student who’s coming in from abroad and they’re joining a Spanish 3 class in eighth grade, and they’ve never had a day of Spanish in their life. When they come to class during certain activities, they can join in, they can use visual cues, they can listen for cognates, and they can try passive comprehension in the same way that an ELL student would in a humanities class in eighth grade. They might feel a bit overwhelmed, but they’ll absorb what they can. Then when we get into, say, a composition time, they’re not going to be able to sit down and write three paragraphs in Spanish. So what I’ll offer them is all of the supports for all of the learning modes that are available both through our textbook purchases and through the nearly infinite resources of the internet to be able to go back and, in a curated fashion, explore the most useful resources to take them through the learning journey from the foundation, and hopefully they will catch up to where their peers are towards the end of the year.

Or, in another situation, we might be in a Spanish 2 class, moving away from the simple present tense and the vocabulary of describing people, into a broader context. Some of our students might have some gaps in a few of the grammar points or the culture or the vocabulary that we’ve been studying along the way. Then we might have a class interview where students will have written questions and they’re all communicating with one another. Then, when they go home and are asked to continue their learning, they might all be at different places on the continuum, but they’re self-assessing. They’re communicating that to me, and I’m guiding them to where in our resources, where on the continuum learning is going to be most efficient for them. I might have 19 students in the class, and they might do 19 different homework assignments, but each one is exactly where they need to be to get the most out of those 15 minutes of learning.

Kyle: This sounds like it might become very complex and confusing very quickly for the teacher if you’re assigning 19 different homework assignments.

Charles: Well, I want to first of all thank Pierrick and all the teachers in the Lower School who have come together and shown me their tips and techniques that have made it much more manageable and much more organized through the use of spreadsheets and planning books, and for me without OneNote and without the technology that we have it would be very challenging indeed. But with tools like OneNote I’ve been able to curate a continuum of resources, including information and exercises, and then once you have that pathway set out for students, those diverse pathways that all lead towards greater mastery, then it’s just a matter of documenting what they’ve been doing. That said, it was a real challenge for me. This is a program that I piloted last year. I worked hard over the summer to try and make sure that I had everything I needed in place. It’s something that you don’t just dive into. You work little by little to build something that’s going to be a safe and effective environment for students.

Kyle: How have the past two months been?

Charles: Really the past two years I would say are some of the most exciting of my career because I have many more opportunities to work with students, to communicate with students, explore materials with students in the classroom. The experience is more joyful and more satisfying for all of us, more authentic, and at the same time, when I release the students home, I know that even greater rigor and more tailored information is in the students’ hands. I’m more confident than ever that the teaching that I’m doing is leading to success. One of the high points of my career was seeing a student who was really struggling with the foundations of not only Spanish but of Romance languages. A student who is a native French speaker at home, who struggled with the structure of the language, I saw him connect ideas that will allow him to write in ways that he’s never written before thanks to focusing in on where he was in the learning continuum.

Kyle: It sounds wonderful, a way to really know a student for who that person is in your class as opposed to approaching the class as a group and hoping no one gets lost along the way.

Charles: That already would be a revolution in education, to really work with each individual student where they are rather than with the group, where it is, as a collective body, but what’s even more exciting to me is working so hard with students on self-assessment, which could be a whole other interview. There are studies that show that results on standardized tests and grades are not real indicators of future economic success and positive relationships, basically of happiness later in life. But there are traits that can indicate what will lead to academic, financial, and relationship health later in life, and one of the keys is an ability to realistically self-assess. Having students validate their own work means that they’re understanding themselves and what’s effective for them in learning and where they really are as learners. I’m not holding them back or pushing them; they’re saying this is where I need to be, and I’ve got to focus on this because I want to learn that next thing. Giving them that maturity and that self-awareness, that to me is what’s really magical about this. The partnership and the ability to think in a sophisticated way at a young age as a learner that I know will guarantee them success down the road.

Kyle: You’re going to be speaking at a conference in February. Is it here in Seattle?

Charles: Yes, it is here in Seattle, at the Convention Center. It’s the NCCE conference.

Kyle: What’s that?

Charles: NCCE is a group of technically advanced educators, Northwest Council for Computer Education. I attended their annual in-house conference in late September in Phoenix where they train the trainers, and I was just astonished by the quality of information that we were receiving and the background knowledge. Almost everyone who’s in the organization is a digital integration specialist for their district, or some kind of technology expert for a large school district, or the principal of a middle school or high school, but they’re all still very much in the teaching environment. They’re working with the latest in software programs, sort of at the overlapping of technology and classroom instruction. They go to different schools in their district and teach the teachers how to use technology to do the kinds of things that we were talking about with self-paced learning, or just how to use the latest and best technology for their students. And then they have a conference here in February that draws people from all over the country to come and learn about what’s happening in the latest technology. Seattle is a great place to be talking about the very latest in technology because we have so many innovators here and in our community, even in our school.

Kyle: What’s the focus of the conference, and what’s your talk about?

Charles: The conference will be over the course of three days and will cover a vast array of technology topics. My presentation will be on using technology to tailor learning to a student’s individual needs, so it’s going to be all about self-paced learning, how to structure self-paced learning in your classroom.

Kyle: Very exciting. Thank you, Charles, and best of luck in February!

Charles. Thank you.