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The Gift of Ambiguity
By: Spanish Teacher Elizabeth Garcia
Many parents may know of the beloved parenting book The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, by Dr. Wendy Mogel. Of the many lessons Dr. Mogel shares, the one which reverberates the most for me is the idea that it’s okay—and perhaps even beneficial—for children to sometimes fail. That seems to contradict so much about what we want for our children: success, accomplishment, and confidence. But, Mogel argues, the truth is paradoxically the reverse. When children have the freedom to take risks and make mistakes, they learn how to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try again. Everyone will face set-backs, struggles and some failure along the way. The question is, what do we do next? If we’ve had a chance to practice an attitude of grit and determination, then when the going gets tough those skills will prove ever useful.
I think of this lesson often as I teach Rossman’s foreign language program. If you have ever traveled to a place where the people spoke a language in which you are less-than-fluent, you know that communicating in a foreign language involves taking risks, sometimes feeling a bit lost, and knowing that you may well make (often embarrassing) mistakes. But you probably also know that none of these are reasons to hide in your hotel room.
Similarly, in our communication-focused Spanish classes, we learn language in context. That means that instead of memorizing lists of vocabulary words, we target longer language structures (such as phrases) and hear, speak, read and write them in contexts such as songs, stories and conversations. Students are encouraged to use context clues, visual information and background knowledge to build meaning and “fill in the blanks” in their comprehension.
For some students, especially those who are used to always doing very well in school, this experience of ambiguity can be jarring. For me, this is perhaps the highest level of learning in my classroom—learning to be comfortable with uncertainty. In any subject my students pursue in their future education, I believe there will come a time when understanding won’t click for them as quickly as it has in the past. If they’ve already learned that uncertainty, while uncomfortable, is not a reason to shut down and give up, they’ll be fortified with the traits they’ll need to surmount that challenge.
I believe Spanish class should be fun—we sing, we play games, we take pretend trips, we laugh at memes and tell stories. My hope is that hidden somewhere in all that fun are several layers of learning. I hope students in my classroom will indeed learn Spanish vocabulary and cultural knowledge; they will develop the skills necessary to learn a language (any language) and appreciate a different culture; and lastly, they will strengthen their resolve to make decisions and take risks, even when they’re not sure they have all the right answers. That, I hope, will be the gift of ambiguity.