The ACADEMIC MISSION of Evangelical Christian School is to create a vigorous academic culture that kindles a passion

for learning, develops intellectual gifts and cultivates a Christian worldview, so students are prepared for collegiate success and

equipped to lead lives of integrity and influence for Christ.


Our classrooms are redesigned to not only integrate current technology but also to foster critical thinking, group collaboration, project-based learning and focus on identifying problems as well as finding solutions. Engaging students in class to become owners in their learning creates a dynamic learning culture and teaches them that exploration is endless.


The ECS Spanish Language Revolution

Who knew that getting rid of classroom desks in Spanish class could be part of an effort to revolutionize student language acquisition?

After nearly 30 years of teaching Spanish at the university and high school level, ECS World Language Department Head Dawn Shute abandoned the traditional methodology she learned in college which had guided her instruction for three decades. Boldly, she tried a new approach.

     “I had one of those ‘Ah-ha!’ moments.” Mrs. Shute explained, “Students would come back every single year and say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Shute, I miss you and loved your class so much, but I don’t remember any Spanish.’ That was like a dagger to the heart of a teacher! And I thought, If I were a driver’s ed instructor, and my students just loved my class but left not being able to drive, I would be the one doing something wrong.”

That epiphany launched extensive research by Mrs. Shute on second-language acquisition, which included reading, talking to other teachers, studying blogs, listening to podcasts and attending in-person training sessions.

Following her comprehensive study, Mrs. Shute proposed that ECS become a Pre-K-12 acquisition-driven instruction program (ADI). ADI is a complete about-face from the former approach which involved a heavy focus on teaching grammar and requiring students to memorize long vocabulary lists. “The goal is for our students to actually be able to use this language to communicate with people that are native Spanish speakers.”

The new instructive approach, called acquisition-driven instruction is actually not new at all. ADI involves providing comprehensible input in the target language through careful listening, reading and storytelling, which is the way humans acquire language. It emphasizes conversational language and acquiring vocabulary as students listen, read and create stories. The more students hear and read comprehensible language, the more they will acquire correct sentence structure, including how to use the correct verb tenses.

Spanish class, high school, elementary school, innovation in teaching

In the past, ECS has had Spanish teachers at different levels incorporating aspects of ADI through TPR (Total Physical Response) and TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). The difference is now we have an integrated approach using age-appropriate language instruction from Pre-K through high school. Our high school principal and ECS graduate, Ryan Cummins, can still use much of the Spanish he acquired in Mrs. Bierbrodt’s class using TPR.

When the world language department made the change to acquisition-driven instruction in all Spanish classes from lower school through high school in 2019, the change was well received. “We saw immediate excitement and joy from students,” Mrs. Shute remembered. “We were no longer talking about the language and explaining it. We were talking in the language in a comprehensible way so that the kids stayed engaged. Instead of focusing on numbers, colors and days of the week, we incorporate those through discussing things such as what I like, and what you like, as well as other high frequency words. Now we have students creating stories and acting them out. They are invested in what they are doing in the classroom.”

This method was applied to the Lower School also. McKenna Turnbow, elementary Spanish teacher, said her goal is to lay the groundwork to help her students acquire basic language. She explained,

“I’m trying to expose them to words that are really important that they would say in an everyday context. They are learning ‘I want,’ ‘he wants,’ ‘she has,’ ‘he’s called this,’ ‘her name is’ because those are the things that they can use to create little stories.”

She laughed, “We talk a lot about pizza because all the kids want to talk about pizza and ice cream.” She introduces common Spanish words that her students would actually use if they met a Spanish speaker. With this foundation, they will be prepared to expand on their Spanish skills and have deeper, more complex conversations in middle and high school.”

Because the foundation of research-based ADI is built upon how humans acquire language, Mrs. Shute said, “It is such a natural way to meet students where they are rather than memorization.”

“We develop community in the classroom. We establish low-risk situations for students to not be afraid to speak and answer questions,” Mrs. Shute added. “This creates buy-in so they feel like it’s their community. As they share, they gain competence. “And if you feel competent in something, you want to keep going.

“We don’t correct grammar while students are speaking.” Mrs. Shute expounded, “In doing that, you’ve told that student that how you pronounce something or how you conjugate the verb is more important than the message they are delivering. That causes students to focus on form rather than meaning and they stop talking.”

Spanish class, high school, elementary school, innovation in teaching

In the second year of teaching through acquisition-driven instruction, high school Spanish desks were taken out of classrooms. Mrs. Shute explained, “The deskless classroom is designed to improve engagement and take away distractions.” During class, students sat in rows or faced each other in a circle as they talked about their day in Spanish. They are expected to try to remain in Spanish during the entire class period, led by the teacher and other students asking and answering questions, using lots of hand gestures to help with understanding. If students do not understand a Spanish word in their conversation, they are instructed to punch their fist to their other hand to alert the teacher so that she can explain its meaning. “It’s my job to make sure I’m comprehensible,” she said.

Each day, class begins with a variety of conversations related to the calendar – what is the day and date, what is happening on campus, an individual interview or requests for specific prayer. “They want to share in Spanish. You get in the days of the week and other high frequency words. Students acquire new vocabulary just by sharing what’s going on that day.”

Mrs. Shute said, “You don’t have to have special language giftedness to become proficient in Spanish this way. Students with learning differences can thrive in this environment. They’re not studying the language. They are acquiring the language.”

Initially, some students felt uncomfortable without a vocabulary list and rules to memorize. “That was my first reaction,” Mrs. Shute admitted. “I discounted acquisition-driven instruction because it didn’t seem enough to me.” This was not how she learned Spanish, and it was not how she learned to teach Spanish in college. But after seeing individual success from colleagues in Florida and here in Memphis, combined with the lack of long-term acquisition by her previous students, she was willing to give it a try.

Academic Dean and Assistant Head of School Jenny Shorten applauds Mrs. Shute for her willingness to try something new after three decades of teaching. “The field of education is constantly evolving, with new discoveries, technologies, and pedagogical approaches emerging regularly,” Mrs. Shorten said. “We do not jump on every trend, but realize that teachers who follow research are better equipped to understand and implement necessary advancements in their classrooms. This allows them to stay relevant and provide students with a high-quality education that prepares them for the demands of the modern world.

Spanish class, high school, elementary school, innovation in teaching

“Taking risks and being willing to try new teaching methods also fosters an environment of innovation and creativity in the classroom,” Mrs. Shorten added. “By embracing new ideas and approaches, our Spanish teachers create engaging and interactive learning experiences for students, making the educational process more enjoyable and effective.”

ECS middle and high school Spanish teachers incorporate music and podcasts of native Spanish speakers to keep students engaged and exposed to voices other than the teacher’s. They listen and transcribe from Spanish to make the connection from sounds to written language. First-year students love the World Cup song while the Spanish 3 class begs to listen to songs by Morat, Sebastian Yatra and Carlos Vives. “They are listening to them nonstop and even bring me new songs they’ve found as well.” Mrs. Shute said she and other Spanish teachers enjoy incorporating current and fun arts and culture to connect with their students.

Jake Vargo, Jr. ('21), is an example of an ECS graduate that has retained Spanish he acquired through ADI during his high school years. “Jake was a really good listener. He could hear a new structure and then produce original language using it,” Mrs. Shute recalled. In college, Jake was working as a volunteer firefighter. On one call, he was able to understand, communicate with and treat a Spanish-speaking patient while none of the other firefighters could speak Spanish.

Another ECS example of the effectiveness of teaching using ADI was confirmed on a school service trip to conduct an English camp in Mexico. The director of the school in Merida, Mexico said to Mrs. Shute, “What are you doing differently? These kids are speaking Spanish to us, and they weren’t doing that before.”

Spanish class, high school, elementary school, innovation in teaching

“What is language for? Language is for communication. I think that’s one of the key things that we do in our classrooms is see the value in communicating with people that are speakers of another language as a part of being image-bearers and global citizens. Those are just beautiful things that our students need to see. We don’t live in a microcosm, and there are millions of people in our own country that speak this language. It broadens their perspective and gives them opportunities to learn about cultures around the world in the target language.”

Mrs. Turnbow agrees. “I love to see my students develop a wonder about the world. They develop compassion and exposure to people who are different from them. We talk about how Christ loves us, and He loves all people. We get to have so many gospel-driven conversations through studying culture and language. At that age especially, if we can lay the groundwork for how we are loving each other and how we are showing compassion for each other, then that can help them grow in their knowledge of what it means to love Jesus and walk that out.”

Jenny Shorten
Assistant Head of School; Academic Dean

Suzanne Acuff
Director of Student Services

Kyle Story
Academic Counselor

Alicia Armes
Director of College Counseling

Tina Greene
Associate Director of College Counseling

Dr. John Grant
Director of Curriculum Alignment and Worldview

Daniel  Warner
Director of Teacher Development

Allison Thetford
Registrar/Assistant to the Academic Dean

Priscilla Bland
Upper Scho0l Learning Specialist

Christy Vargo

Middle School Learning Specialist