Claudia Sánchez-Gutiérrez is the coordinator of the first-year Spanish program at University of California, Davis.
The first-year Spanish program at UC Davis is composed of three consecutive courses because we are on the quarter system: Spanish 1, 2, and 3. Each quarter, 23 sections of those courses are offered, almost all taught by graduate teaching assistants, most of whom have never taught on their own.
When I arrived at UC Davis, I inherited a textbook and quickly discovered its many flaws. To address those flaws, some TAs and I engaged in the crazy endeavor of creating tons of materials that we shared on the Google Drive, including PowerPoints, PDFs of exercises, and links to videos and to all kinds of things online. As the Google Drive kept growing, our textbook use lessened to a point where we stopped using it altogether because we just liked our own material better. At that point, I asked the TAs what they wanted to do: to work completely from our Google Drive, or to find a book that we felt more comfortable with.
Unanimously TAs voted for option two, as a common book would be extremely reassuring for TAs with no previous teaching experience and would make it easier to ensure that every student was receiving the exact same content at the same pace.
Deciding to flip the classroom
We started exploring the beginning Spanish textbook landscape. At first that was very frustrating because we kept finding the same problems we had with our current book in every single one. For example, cultural contents were rarely emphasized, and, when they were, they were limited to very uninteresting lists of information, like the number of inhabitants in Argentina. Vocabulary and grammar were disconnected. And what frustrated me the most was the overall feeling that learning all that grammar and vocabulary content was a purpose in itself, with no consideration for the fact that the language is spoken in actual real context with actual real people.
As we reviewed textbook options, the team of TAs and I independently ranked all the books we were evaluating, and then we met to discuss our results. The vote was basically unanimous: we picked Contraseña, a program that supported real language projects and real use of the language in the flipped classroom.
We all fell in love with the end-of-unit projects. This was a book where all the grammar vocabulary in culture contents made sense together and brought the students to a final goal, which was to complete their unit projects.
We also loved that the cultural sections were based on real people talking about real-life experiences, contrary to something like the number of inhabitants in Argentina.
What really convinced me was the flipped classroom approach. I was increasingly annoyed by the amount of time that I spent in class talking about grammar—it was all about the grammar all the time. At the same time, the ultimate goal of meeting face-to-face in class was to give students opportunities to talk, to communicate with each other, and to work on real-life tasks.
The fact that Contraseña allows for grammar to be learned online as homework in preparation for class was the definitive argument for me to make the decision. And the Conversar classroom activities were already ready to go, which would make any inexperienced TA very comfortable and prepared to spend class time working on the goals for the course: to get students speaking Spanish.
Making Contraseña—and the flipped classroom—work for our program
Moving to Contraseña was a change from just using a shared Google Drive, where every TA chose their own materials. But over the course of the first quarter, TAs ended up understanding that they could also use the Conversar activities as they wished and, if they maintained the overall goals of the activities, it was okay to modify them a little bit, play with new ideas, or get rid of some. Instructors could have some freedom, but for those who were very inexperienced, it was okay to just follow the book.
And in our program, the courses are taught five days a week. We wanted to create a flipped classroom environment without requiring students to do too much homework. So, we have three face-to-face classes with Contraseña where we use the Conversar activities. This left one day in between classes for the students to really do the homework. They would have the weekends to prepare for Monday’s Conversar activities. Then Monday and Tuesday for Wednesday Conversar activities, etc.
This allowed us to explore a little bit and actually allowed TAs to be more creative, with two extra days to explore other things. Now, on Tuesdays, the students read a graded reader, and we create activities for those. And on Thursdays, they watch a Spanish-speaking series on Netflix. You can imagine how happy that made them: “Oh really? We can watch Netflix at the university? This is amazing!”
Most importantly, the flipped format basically had already set the basis for a fully online course. During the first week of online teaching from COVID last spring, one of my TAs came to me and said they were so grateful to be using Contraseña because they felt like it really prepared them for the online format. So, not only does this flipped model support our goals of helping students actively use the language, but it also supports our instructors in preparing them to be active teachers—in any classroom format!
The flipped classroom model wasn’t originally the easiest to implement in a five-days-a-week kind of course, but we ended up finding a way that made everybody really happy with the adaptation.