For those of you looking for Ms. Ayers in the halls last year, you wouldn’t have had much luck finding her. Leslie Ayers is a Spanish teacher at ORHS, who took a break from teaching to spend time as a student. She spent the year learning more about who she is and what she wants as an educator, honing in on the development of world language curriculum.
While many students know her from her previous years teaching, Ayers was out of the classroom during the 2019/2020 school year on sabbatical – a paid timespan in which a teacher works to further their career or education in order to bring something back to the school. While Ayers knew that she wanted to continue teaching and working in education, she took a year to explore further paths and find a direction that interests her. Ayers used this time to further her education in curriculum development, and learn more about other programs educators are using to teach world language in New England.
Ayers began planning her sabbatical by thinking about her future and what direction of education interested her most. She wanted to create “new windows” that she would be able to open when the time comes. “The year before I applied for the sabbatical, I was looking for something to change up my routine a little bit. I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go…and who I was as a professional teacher,” said Ayers. She was able to tie her interest back to her classroom, and help better the world language program at ORHS. “I started looking into wanting to develop my skills in the realm of curriculum development. And that came out of the whole world language shift and our search for a new curriculum design in general. It was kind of the perfect storm.”
Once she was settled with focusing on curriculum development, the first thing Ayers did during her sabbatical was go to UNH to finish getting her master’s degree. “I was working on my master’s degree in educational studies with a focus in curriculum instruction and leadership. I also did a little bit of work for the [school] district in the realm of looking at a k-12 world language program,” said Ayers. “I had hoped to do a ton of school visits through the months of March and June by going to Massachusetts schools and Maine schools that were already kind of working in this new curriculum model.” Ayers ended up making connections both remotely and in person, learning virtually from other teachers during the pandemic. Ayers and Todd Allen, the ORCSD Assistant Superintendent, were able to physically visit some schools across New England and take a better look at their language programs during the majority of 2019. One school that stuck out to both of them was in Danbury, Connecticut. Students there are taught language at an early age, studying three languages by the time they are in middle school. Most students there graduate high school trilingual. Ayers chose to continue studying how curriculum in world language can affect students’ abilities to perform and succeed. On the plus side, she was able to remotely complete a research project for her master’s degree by talking with a wide variety of people about all things world language.
With the information they gathered, both Ayers and Allen worked on a new world language curriculum together while Ayers was on sabbatical. Unfortunately, the proposal was put on hold by the school board because of everything COVID-19, but Allen hopes the district can review it when everything clears up. “One of the really exciting things about a sabbatical is it’s a great opportunity for a teacher that’s experienced and really capable, but it gives them another outlet to grow and get stronger. I think Ms. Ayers is a great teacher, and giving her the opportunity to do a sabbatical at that point in her career was a really good thing for her professionally. I just think Ms. Ayers did a great job and gave some really great stuff for our district,” said Allen.
The proposed k-12 language curriculum was requested by the school board, and developed by Ayers and Allen to help introduce world languages to students at a younger age. “Our dream is to create a world language program where kids graduate from high school fluent in a language other than English,” said Allen. “It was really well timed that it was a goal that the board set and then Ms. Ayers had an interest in exploring curriculum options and things of that sort. We ended up doing visits with eight different school districts that had k-12 world language programs. [Ayers] conducted a significant amount of research behind finding and connecting with these schools so we could learn from the models they already had in place.”
In the k-12 world language curriculum, there are two main models. The first is a FLEX (foreign language exploratory) model, which gradually introduces world language in elementary school with simple language and cultural teachings. Students may begin to have language class once a week, but class time will increase as they get older. “The idea of that model is to just simply get kids thinking about and exposed to other cultures and languages with the idea that at a point later on, usually fifth or sixth grade, kids will pick a language to study in depth,” explained Allen.
Another model, one of Ayers and Allen’s favorites, is called the FLES (foreign language in the elementary school). Like a FLEX model, elementary students are introduced to world language, but study it in a more serious manner, to the point where they become proficient in certain areas. Allen said that this model starts elementary students with world language classes 3-4 times a week for 20-30 minutes. He also said, “the idea is to really try to immerse the kids in the language itself, so that earlier on, kids are learning, speaking, and communicating in the language. The earlier you start learning a language, the more you can absorb it.”
After all the research Ayers had conducted, she had to go against her findings and construct a totally different model for remote learning. While she was able to examine how some schools are dealing with teaching world language remotely, Ayers didn’t get as much experience with online learning as other ORHS educators may have had from the spring of 2020. She has had to change the way she presents information in her class based on the feedback she has received from her students in these first couple of months, while other teachers may already know how to remotely teach their students. Not only is this a change in her teaching platform, but Ayers has had to make adjustments on how her students are reacting. “The way world language education is going right now is really focused on communicating, and using, and living in the language as much as possible. The remote setting has not been conducive to doing that. I’ve found that I am trying to teach my kids how to communicate, but they’re nervous about communicating via the cameras.” Ayers has learned that she has to rely on older teaching techniques rather than the ones she had studied and was planning to use this year. “Instead of doing a lot of group work and conversation in the classroom like I would be normally if I was in person, I’m relying a little bit more on written work, and grammar techniques, and all these kinds of things that I was trying to move away from.”
While transitioning to online teaching may have been a lot of work for Ayers, it hasn’t seemed to have affected her students at all. Tess Brown (‘23), is taking her first class with Ayers this year. Brown didn’t know who Ayers was until September, and when asked about Ayers’ sabbatical last year, Brown replied, “I had no idea [she had been on sabbatical]. She’s been fantastic [with remote teaching]. She’s been really getting everyone involved and is always doing group activities that kids are getting very interested in and really enjoying in her class. I could never be able to tell that she didn’t have prior experience with teaching remotely,” said Brown. Brown added that she feels like she’s actually learning Spanish in Ayers’ class.
Like Manning, Allen thinks of Ayers as a great teacher, but also applauds her work and passion for curriculum. “I can’t say enough good things about the efforts [Ayers] put into [the curriculum work]. I would hate to lose her as a teacher, but her mind for understanding the bigger picture of curriculum is really strong,” Allen said. “I have a dream that at some point we’ll have a world language curriculum director for our district that can really pull it all together, and she definitely has a strong mind for that stuff.”
Ayers is very happy to be back at ORHS, and appreciates those who missed her last year. “It’s been really great to pick up with students that I haven’t seen for over a year, and see where they’ve grown and all that.”
When asked to share advice with students that she has picked up during her sabbatical, Ayers responded: “I guess my biggest message for kids is to follow your passions and things that interest them, because you never know where it might lead you. I took the sabbatical at a time where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and what my purpose was as a teacher, and it gave me a chance to think a little more deeply about why I do what I do.”