Why Change When Change Is Hard?

Jen Vojtko Rubí is an assistant professor and educator at the University of Cincinnati and coordinates the intensive, basic language program there, assisting over 25 instructors who are primarily teaching assistants and adjuncts.  

I arrived at Cincinnati in the fall of 2017 as a coordinator of the Basic Spanish Program, and I spent that year observing how the program works and getting to know the students and the culture of the department. Our program was very teacher-centered and grammar-centered. We were meeting five days a week, and our students could conjugate a verb. They could fill in the blanks, but they really couldn’t do language. 

Jen Vojtko Rubí
Image Credit: Jen Vojtko Rubí

I was looking for a program that promoted the use of language because our goal as language instructors is for our students to use language in real world situations, with the speakers of that language. We decided to adopt Contraseña to support those goals. I chose to do an incremental adoption, since that change can be really, really difficult sometimes. By doing an incremental adoption it would give me and the instructors time to prepare for that change in methodology. 

In fall 2018, we started piloting Contraseña with three sections of 1001. In the spring we added three sections of 1002 and the online sections of 1001 to see how the program worked across modalities. We had a pilot team: myself, an adjunct instructor, and a couple of TAs. During that year, we met regularly to discuss how the program was working and how to get the other instructors on board with the program. 

Many of our instructors had been working with the previous curriculum for more than 10 years, so adopting a new way of teaching would be a challenge to get them on board, so we offered some professional development workshops on active learning, task-based learning, and flipped learning. Once we got closer to full implementation across the 40 sections, we offered training sessions on how to use the Contraseña program as a student, which helped instructors see how they can actually use language in the classroom. 

Then we looked at Contraseña from the instructor side. We looked at the resources available, the lesson plans, the PowerPoints, and things that could be printed. In our last training session, we asked, “How do we use this as a digital textbook in our classroom? What does that look like?” 

During that year, there were a lot of one-on-one meetings with instructors where I did a lot of listening. I think those meetings helped reduce the anxiety of making the transition because we weren’t just changing a textbook. We were changing the way we teach in the classroom, so giving instructors that space to express their anxiety helped a little—oh, it helped a lot! 

Before the switch, our students and our instructors were tired. We were meeting five days a week, doing the same exercises in the textbook. And we would know exactly how the students would respond to key assignments. We’d ask a question, and we knew what we wanted to hear back. 

Now we’re meeting three days a week and have a flipped classroom. And honestly, sometimes I don’t know how the students will respond to a question I asked, because now they’re able to create with the language. Now they’re able to take all their linguistic resources and work through the task.  

This brings the sort of excitement and spontaneity back into the classroom that we were missing in our program. I feel that the classroom is more fun. It’s lighter. The students are talking, they’re engaged, they’re laughing. And they are experiencing success early on because we focus on what they can do with the language, not so much about what they know about the language.  

As with any change, there were some struggles at the start, but the results have far outweighed our initial thumps. For example, one instructor who at first was just not thrilled with the changes, and he said that Contraseña was just too hard for our students. Halfway through his first semester teaching with Contraseña, he stopped by my office and said, “You know what? I could take my students and plop them in Mexico, and they would get along just fine.” And then he left my office. That was the end of the conversation. I did a happy dance after that, because although it took some time, the instructors saw the value of making these changes. When we give our students this chance to produce language, they can do it. 

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