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Making Content More Engaging with @eTwinz Alberto & Mario Herraez (Ep 35)

/ Jason Sholl

Alberto and Mario Herraez, known as the eTwinz, are award-winning educators and presenters originally from Spain that moved to Utah several years ago to teach 5th and 6th grade in a Spanish Immersion School. After coming to Utah and starting their teaching careers they were hungry for more learning. The eTwinz graduated with a Master’s Degree from the International University of La Rioja and, currently, they are working on their PhD focused on future-ready skills in partnership with Camilo Jose Cela International University from Madrid, Spain. Follow their social media account @eTwinzEDU and follow them individually @aalbertoherraez and @mmarioherraez. Their website is https://www.etwinz.com/.

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Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Hey there. It's Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad here, and in this episode, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alberto and Mario Herraez. And in this episode, we had the opportunity to really talk about their dynamic teaching, how they are able to engage students, especially in this unprecedented time. We talked about SEL, we talked about some strategies that they use to increase motivation and engagement in their students.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Now, Alberto and Mario, they are known as the eTwinz, and are award-winning educators and presenters, originally from Spain, and they moved to Utah several years ago, to teach fifth and sixth grade in a Spanish immersion school. After coming to Utah and starting their teaching careers, they were hungry for more learning, so the eTwinz graduated with a master's degree from the International University of La Rioja. And currently they are working on their PhD, focused on future-ready skills, in partnership with Camilo José Cela International University from Madrid, Spain. I hope you enjoy the episode.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome Alberto and Mario, it's so great to have you here today.

Mario Herraez: Hi.

Alberto Herraez: Hi.

Mario Herraez: Thank you for having us, of course.

Alberto Herraez: Yeah, we're super excited to be here today.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You all are just a hit, and educators are really love you both. They love your engaging presentations. Of course, your accent is just awesome, so I love to hear [inaudible 00:01:45]. And you have a lot of energy, you're very dynamic, and just carry a lot of enthusiasm. I had been wanting to have you on the podcast for a while, so I'm super excited that we were able to make this work. And I have been in other Zoom sessions with you now, in the world of virtual PDs, I have heard your story, and it was so fun to hear about how you came to be where you are today, specifically teaching in Farmington, Utah. I'm curious if you could share a little bit more about that and talk about how you got to Utah with our audience?

Alberto Herraez: Yeah, sure. It is quite an adventure. If we think, in moving from Spain to the States, and specifically to Utah, it's crazy. We were studying our degree in Spain, at our university, in the same city that we lived back then, and we had this opportunity to do our last year of college on an internship here in the States. So we moved here on a scholarship to do our last year internship of teaching.

Mario Herraez: And we got here, so we did one year. After that, they were going to hire us. So, after, we decided to stay. Why not? On our adventure, we moved like 6,000 miles away from home, just to teach. We love it. So here we are. After five years, we like it here. It's been amazing.

Alberto Herraez: It was crazy because ... this is the program that we used to move here. It is called [inaudible 00:03:34], and it is basically students around the world, they apply to the program. And this non-profit organization, what they do is create this huge pool of candidates. School districts from all over the country, what they do is go to the pool and pick the candidates that they want to host. We applied for that program, and we got an email saying that we were selected to go to Utah. We were in Spain, I remembered that day, and we needed to google Utah. Right?

Mario Herraez: Yeah. What is it?

Alberto Herraez: It sounds really ignorant, like there guys were super ignorant, but you just think about it. In Europe, we know about the big cities, San Francisco, LA, New York, Chicago. So we were like, "Utah?" And it was really funny, because the school ...

Mario Herraez: Yeah, the school was-

Alberto Herraez: We got offered to go.

Mario Herraez: Yeah. It was in a city called Syracuse. So we googled that, and we were like, "Syracuse." And it took us to see it's New York. And we were like, "Oh my goodness. This is amazing. It's a college city. We're going to go there, have so much fun." We were 20, so we were thinking about partying on the holiday and all of that.

Alberto Herraez: And then, when we moved here, we realized we cannot get into the class. But we were 20. That's another whole story, for another day.

Mario Herraez: Yeah. And it took us to New York, and we were so happy. And after that, we saw Syracuse Utah, and it's a farmer city. There's nothing wrong with that, and we loved it so much there, but there was such a big difference between those two cities that we were just shocked. We were like, "Wow."

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Obviously I don't know how many of our listeners know that ... obviously your bio, you are eTwinz, so people know that you are twins. But if they don't know, I'm letting them know that I'm talking to both Alberto and Mario, and it's fantastic. I love how you're tag teaming, so I'm never quite sure who's talking.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I'm curious, though ... it's interesting, backing up a little bit, I love how you came to Utah and you weren't for sure ... and it's very beautiful country. I have been, just a couple of times, to Utah. It's gorgeous, the geography, and people are so friendly, and so I think it's fantastic you ended up there as opposed to maybe some of the larger cities that you had heard about, being in Spain. But I wanted to back up a little bit and ask you about, how was it that you both ended up becoming educators? Is this a shared passion you've had for a while? Or one day, one of you were like, "Hey, I want to be a teacher," and the other was like, "Yeah, that sounds good. I want to do that, too." How did that come to be?

Alberto Herraez: Yeah. No, actually we knew that-

Mario Herraez: He copied me.

Alberto Herraez: What?

Mario Herraez: You copied me, right?

Alberto Herraez: Actually, no. I didn't. Yeah. We knew it since we were so young, that this was our passion. I think we should start, if we're going to explain this, talking about that why, why we joined this. And the point, we were bad students. Not really bad, but we were and we are not really good at memorizing stuff. We were not really good on reading something, and then memorize that, and put in the test. We were really bad at that. Our education, back when we were in school, it was all about that. You memorize something and you put it back. So we were not really bad students. We always say that we've failed. We were failing, actually. I remember, it was like ninth grade, we failed like five or six classes because we were not good at that.

Mario Herraez: Yeah, I would say we were not bad students. I feel like the way that we were taught was wrong. Or maybe not wrong. It didn't fit our characteristics, because as Alberto said, we're on a style now. We're not those kind of students or teachers or whoever, who sit in a chair, memorize a huge text. We are more like, we need to do stuff. We need to interact with people. We need to watch something. We're more visual. It's so hard for us to be just sitting in the same chair for hours, because we are very active. Back then, it was just impossible for us to be in the same seat for eight hours. And the education was like that.

Mario Herraez: We were like, "There should be another way. There should be another way to teach. There should be another way to change education and all of that." That's why, at that point, when we were like 14, 15, we started to work with kids, in soccer, and then summer camps, and all of that. And we loved it so much. Between all of those things, our desire to change how education was. Plus, we were loving working with kids, so we just knew that we wanted to do this.

Alberto Herraez: And it is something like, for example, we thought that there was another way to do things. We thought that we could change education, and share with everyone, and demonstrate that other education is possible. This is what we are trying to do, in our classes, and also social media, or social channels, help teachers to transform their practice, and say, "Hey, this is possible. Other kind of education is possible."

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I really enjoy to hear about how you were as students. I also did not love the memorization and love the really traditional structures of school. But, as a kid, I felt like I had to abide by all those compliance structures in school, so I learned how to play the game in school really well. But what I appreciate you is the courage to say, "Memorization doesn't really connect with how I learn, so I'm just going to push back on that." I appreciate the courage that you had, to be like, "Hey, you know what? It doesn't really match my learning style, so I'm just not going to do it."

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: But obviously you found ways to be successful without having to succumb to the structures of receiving failing grades and so forth. I'm curious about how you were able to get to where you are today, and think back, and figure out, "Hey, this is not how learning should be, and we're going to create ... we're going to lead the way in showing how we can make learning more accessible to everyone."

Mario Herraez: Yeah. I would say that, we were not bad at memorizing. We were bad at memorizing like 200 pages. Yes, sit in a chair. We understand that memorization is another skill, and it is very important nowadays. But there are other skills that were not taught back then, and are very important as well. So just give the same importance to all of the skills, could be communication or problem-solving skills, as much as memorization.

Alberto Herraez: And I think we changed when we found we wanted to be educators. I like this quote that says, "You are born twice in life, one when you are actually born, and the second one is when you find why you were born." And this is what happened to us. We found out that, actually, this was our passion, education was our passion. So we decided to get to college, and started studying education. And since then, we graduated cum laude, with honors, because we were so passionate about what we were studying that we were so involved on that.

Alberto Herraez: Now we got our master's degree after that, and now we are working on our PhD. If we made it, everyone can make it. It's what I always tell my students. I was not that good a student back then, because I felt my needs were not being met. And right now, I'm working on my PhD, so this is possible. It's possible to success in life, even if you have a lot of challenge in your way up.

Mario Herraez: Yeah. And how we found that, or how we change things, it's when we got our first year of teaching that we ... I would say, a couple months before we started, we were like, "Okay, we need to do things in a different way." We are very, very curious. We love to learn about everything. So we started to read different stuff, and back then, we didn't know a lot about project-based learning. But we started to read new ways to teach, because we were not taught that in our university at college. So we started to read about how we could teach in a different way, in Spanish or science or whatever.

Mario Herraez: We found out how project-based learning worked, and we loved it so much, so I would say that was our first baby step in education, was studying with project-based learning. Like podcasting, filmmaking, I don't know, theater, all of those things that had a purpose, and we were like, "All right. If I was a student in my own class, I would have loved this, so that's a good thing. So we need to keep doing this."

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Well, first off, I want to say congratulations for being a part of the PhD program, and also being a full-time teacher, and balancing everything that you do. That's phenomenal. So congratulations on-

Mario Herraez: Thank you.

Alberto Herraez: Thank you.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Being a part of that. Yeah, absolutely. And I think it's fantastic that you were able to reflect back on, "Hey, this is what was not working in education, and this is the change we want to see." And I think many educators have this vision of what they'd like to see education look like in their classroom, but sometimes what happens is that we get into the rut of, there's so much to do during the day. We have the curriculum that we have to connect to. We have learning standards and all these assessments and standardized tests, and their might be a district lesson plan that we have to fill out every week, and faculty meetings, and collaborative PLC meetings. Inherently, these are all useful tools, but what happens is, comprehensively, they can mire all the good and engaging parts of education, because we're so concerned with checking off all these other things that we have to do.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I'm curious how ... and you've been really successful, of getting kids and students to be their most engaged and creative selves. So I'm wondering how you're able to balance everything and still make your classroom so fun, engaging, and creative.

Alberto Herraez: I think that this is the question. Out of all the questions, this is the question. I think that first of all is you need to have a principal or administrator that believes in what you are doing. That's the first step. We have a great principal, and when we go to her to present something that we are going to do, she always tells us, "I don't want to know it, but go ahead and do it." Like, "I don't want to know, because I may be canceling, but go ahead and do it." That's the first step.

Alberto Herraez: I remember when we started to roll out this, everybody looked at us like, "These guys are crazy. What are they doing? They are not learning." And then the test results shows that what we are doing is actually working, because they're super engaged, and-

Mario Herraez: Actually working better than the other way, yeah.

Alberto Herraez: Than the other way. Also, talking about standardized tests, we are not big fans of the standardized test. We truly think that some of the 21st century skills cannot be tested in those tests. For example, how do we test critical thinking? Or collaboration? Or problem-solving skills?

Mario Herraez: Or if we talk about social and emotional learning, how do we test empathy? Or how do we test self-awareness? Those kind of things, that are taught in the classroom every day, or should be taught in the classroom every day. You just can't measure them in those tests.

Alberto Herraez: But not just in those tests. To me, or to us, it is so hard to do a rubric, a standardized rubric, for schools around the world or around the country, on those topics. Because what did it say about empathy for me, maybe for someone across the country, it is not. Or what is a good critical thinking skills for me, maybe for someone, it's not. So content is a fact. It is, or it is not. What's the tallest building on earth? It is a fact. It is, or it is not. You are right and you are not. But when we talk about ... those 21st century skills are so subjective, so it is so hard to know what's right and what's wrong, depending on the perspective, point of view.

Mario Herraez: And it's been very hard to tie all this to the content, to our district's plan and all of that, but when we started this, actually, we made a huge mistake, and it was kind of like, "Give more importance to project than to the content." And like, "Do you learn from your mistakes?" So right now, we don't make that mistake anymore. We do projects. You do stuff in a different way, but content always goes first. We always, when we plan, we sit down and we say, "All right, what do I want to teach? I want to teach this." And then I'm like, "Ah, I'm teaching right now phases of the moon." So I want to teach phases of the moon. How can I teach it in a fun way? How can I make a project around that?

Mario Herraez: We don't just come up with a podcast, and say, "All right, I'm going to start a podcast project, and then let's see, or we'll figure out later what I want to include." No. We'll do it in the opposite way. This is the content. These are the standards that I want to meet. And then how do I meet them? How do I teach them in a fun way, in a way that our students are working on a real-world problem. That's how we do it.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I think that's fantastic. I applaud your ability and your drive to incorporate, and really, more than incorporate, but integrate the 21st century skills with the content. I'm curious what your thoughts are on this, but I think that students are able to interact with the content in more meaningful and deeper ways when we focus on the other skills. I think that the trap that education has gotten into in the past is that they felt that the only way to acquire or retain content is through these low-level, Bloom's taxonomy ways. Really, just comprehending, memorization, maybe a little bit of applying, and just making sure that it's applied on a test, and then we're done. And then what happens is that, as students aren't given opportunities to lead, or create, or have a voice.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And what happens, too, is that the content just isn't applied at a high, deep level anymore. The content basically just goes away, and never was really meaningful for students. But what you are successful at doing is being able to integrate these skills. For example, the phases of the moon, being able to ... you said you're asking students to create a podcast for explaining the phases of the moon. And so obviously students have to be creative, and they have to collaborate, and they have to think, they write their script, but they have to know the content as well. They have to be able to talk about why we see phases of the moon, and how that relates to position of the ... I'm a big science geek, so it's your fault for bringing up science.

Mario Herraez: Yeah.

Alberto Herraez: [inaudible 00:21:06].

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. I like the integration that you do there, with your content areas.

Mario Herraez: Yeah, of course. I'll give you another example of a project, of what we do. I loved a project that Alberto did a couple years ago, and was phases of the moon, but if you want to take that to a higher level, he asks his students to create a town or a village on the moon. Like, "What do they need to survive in the moon, and to create that civilization on the moon?" The thing is that, "Okay, first, where are you going to place that?" Or, "Where are you going to start that civilization?" After that, you will have to do some math, because of the phases of the moon, your house or your town will be in the dark during some days. "Well, how long? How many days?" You have to do some math and all of that, so actually, you are using phases of the moon, but then you are using collaboration, you're using communication. They are solving a problem.

Alberto Herraez: A real-world problem.

Mario Herraez: A real-world problem. Now you talk about the dark side of the moon. You include all of that in a project, that they love it, because they are actually building something that could be built in real life.

Alberto Herraez: And talking about what you mentioned before, about if they are more engaged in the content, when we focus on those skills, it's like a real-life situation. You cannot learn how to cook by just reading a book that tells you how to cook.

Mario Herraez: Or a recipes book.

Alberto Herraez: This example doesn't apply to Mario, because he's a horrible cook, but ...

Mario Herraez: Thank you.

Alberto Herraez: If you're learning how to cook, you just go and do it. You don't keep reading and reading and reading and reading a book. Or same example, if we want to learn how to drive, we need to actually drive to do it. We just don't read the book and the book and the book, over and over and over until we feel ready. We need to do it. We need to apply it. Because while we are driving, we are solving problems constantly, and we're thinking critically all the time.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, agreed. I think about these skills, and there's different names for them. I know some people call them 21st century, or future-ready skills, or skills for success, or life skills. Whatever we call them, these are these skills that students need to be able to be global citizens, to interact with other humans in kind and empathetic ways, and also be able to create and solve problems, and create solutions.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Memorizing the phases of the moon aren't necessarily going to help us with those things, but here's the thing though, the critical thinking involved, and the understanding of why we see phases of the moon, and then of course the critical thinking, the communication, the collaboration, all these skills you talked about, in interacting with and grappling with the content, those are the skills that will translate. And that content will stick with them, and so, 20 years down the road, whenever they're outside and they look up at the night sky and they see the moon, they're able to think, in critical and deep ways, about what they're seeing. But along the way, they were able to equip themselves with these skills. You also ... and me, being a big fan of your work, I know that social-emotional learning, or skills for SEL, are also really important to you. So I'm curious if you can talk a little bit about whether those SEL competencies or skills that you are instilling in your students.

Mario Herraez: Yeah. We've been big fans of social-emotional learning since a long time ago. But we realized during this quarantine, during this online learning, that it was even more important than we thought it was. And we knew before that, it was super important. Because in that moment, our students were at home, and our students were with their family, which is fine, but they were missing that social interaction with their friends, at recess, And they were sad. We realized that ... we knew it, but we realized even more, that a student can't learn if they are sad. Or a student can't learn if they have a hard feeling, if they are tired, if they are frustrated, if they are anxious.

Mario Herraez: It doesn't matter, we always say that, if you take the very best teacher in the world, and you put in a classroom in front of 20 students that have social-emotional learning problems, it doesn't matter that that teacher teaches the best lesson in the world. They are not going to learn, because there is something that's stopping them from learning, and that something is feelings, it's how they are feeling in that moment. We think that is why it is so important to teach our students how to overcome that feeling, or give them strategies to deal with those feelings.

Alberto Herraez: We truly think that you can teach your students content or skills, and they can have a really, really high IQ, but if they have a low EQ, there is no way they are going to learn. There is no way they are going to perform as well in the future. There is no way they are going to be successful. Because if they go tomorrow to apply to a job, and they get the job, they get into the company and everything, but they have problems to have those social interaction with the people that we're working with, or they feel anxious, or they have a lack of empathy, a lack of respect for other people, there's no way they are going to success.

Alberto Herraez: People want around them, successful people, but also people that are emotionally intelligent, people that know how to manage their feelings, people that are healthy in that way. And there are people that are struggling with that, and we feel that our job as teachers also is to support the students in this area, more in a holistic way, not just focused on the content, and just content, content, content. A school should be more about feelings and less about content.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Completely agreed. I think that we've all heard of the medical doctor that does not have the good bedside manner, and they could have all the medical knowledge in the world, but if they're not making their patients feel better. Well, obviously they can prescribe medication, but a big part of being a health professional is to be able to communicate in a way that's kind, and a way that the patient understands, because the patient's going to have to go back home and be able to carry on with their lives, be able to incorporate whatever the treatment is that the doctor has prescribed. And so there has to be a level of, like you said, being able to have a level of empathy, to think about what the other person's going through, and not just say, "Here is a prescription. See you later."

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: That's just a really small example. I think I'm just trying to apply what you just said to some examples that I have seen. And I think also heard you talk about EQ versus IQ, and EQ is that emotional intelligence, and how that's so important. That's one of those skills, I think, that definitely is needed, and needs to be more explicitly integrated into the classroom.

Alberto Herraez: Yeah. 100%. I cannot agree more on that. And we have seen that, even us, as adults, how we have been struggling. When we have a lack of social interaction, or we don't know how to make those social interactions in a healthy way, we struggle. We struggle and we make other people struggle.

Alberto Herraez: The first step to do this is just to get to know ourselves. I think that self-awareness is so important, it should be the first step, getting to know yourself. And then, from there, understanding that there are more perspectives, there are more point of views. There is not just one variety. We need to teach this thing, that empathy is the beginning of a good relationship everywhere. At a school, at work, everywhere, you have empathy, you can make healthy relationships, because you're going to be understanding, constantly, the other person, other people point of view. And you can understand, even if you don't agree. We don't need to agree in everything, of course, but we can understand their point of view and respect it.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. I think this is so important, to be able ... I'm so glad you brought up self-awareness. I think that is definitely one of those skills, one of those SEL competencies that we have to continually embed. It's one of those things where, when students make choices, it's not about if the teacher says this is a rule or not a rule, but it's about, as a student, what am I doing that's either positively affecting my environment or negatively affecting my environment, or myself? To make it more about how my actions have impact on others, that's really what we're looking at, and can my own self-awareness, as opposed to, "This is the rule. You do it or you don't."

Mario Herraez: Yeah, exactly. And it is super powerful. One activity that we do with our students ... well, it's like a mood meter. I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with that. Our students link emotions with colors, and then they have a schedule of the week, like a calendar. So they color, every day, how they are feeling. And at the end of the week, they reflect, in a [inaudible 00:31:28] about that. I would say that you don't understand it until you watch those videos, how powerful is having your students reflecting and explaining why they felt in that way, that specific day, and what they did to overcome that. Like, "I was sad because I argued with my parents, or I argued with a friend, and we solved it in this way." Ending that taboo around the emotions is just super powerful with our students, and making our students realize that emotions are something that they need to talk about, and that emotions are something that they need to have strategies to be able to deal with them, is just super powerful. And it's just an amazing activity that we highly recommend everyone to do it.

Alberto Herraez: And emotions are not going to go away. They are not going to go away. They are going to stick with you for the rest of your life, so we need to learn how to manage them, how to deal with them. And that should be step one in our learning, when we're really young. Because I've never been taught how to deal with my emotions. I learned by myself. I did something, and I learned from it, made a mistake and I learned from my mistake, but just by myself. No one helped me out in this process, and I struggled a lot, like everyone else did, I guess.

Alberto Herraez: If we can help our students to take that step, that could be awesome. Going back to the mood meter that we do, it's one of the activities that we do in our classes. As Mario was explaining, we have identified a lot of students that have anxiety, and we couldn't even tell. Using the mood meter, I remember a couple of cases last year that we used the mood meter to identify those students, and we could provide some help for them to overcome the situation that they were going through. And that was one of the best moments of my teaching career, seeing those mood meters from those students to change from anxiety to be happy and motivated in school.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Mario and Alberto, I so admire your passion for education, but not only your passion for education, but this drive to truly help students thrive in more than just content, but being these really well-rounded, productive, positive human beings. So I am so thankful for the work you're doing. And I'm also really thankful that I had the opportunity to have you on the podcast.

Mario Herraez: Yeah, of course. Thank you so much for the invite. It's always a pleasure to talk with you, because you are very passionate about education, and it's always great to have like conversations about education with you.

Alberto Herraez: Yeah, thank you so much for the invite. We are having so much fun, so thank you.