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Teaching Cultural Topics

One of the most difficult tasks as a teacher is how to best approach controversial and cultural topics.  As a foreign language teacher, I find this challenge very important.  Although grammar is what most people think of when they think of learning another language, it is not the only component.  Another very important aspect of foreign language is studying the cultures and people that use the language.

Here are my top three ideas for teaching controversial and cultural topics.

1.  Be as subjective as possible

When dealing with cultural issues, it is easy to get wrapped up in how “different” cultures can be.  I like to start all classes where we will be discussing cultural topics by setting some expectations.  #1: I am not trying to make you believe anything.  Your beliefs are yours.  #2:  My primary goal is to expose you to another cultural and way of thinking.  Although it is different from yours, that does not make it better or worse.

I find this to be particularly beneficial when discussing religion.  I try to highlight different cultural celebrations throughout the year, and most of these center on the Catholic calendar.  I teach in a predominantly Protestant community, so this is challenging in and of itself.

I try to present religious celebrations as facts.  This is what happens during El día de los muertos or Semana Santa.  I also like to allow students to share how these traditions are similar or different from their celebrations.  Here’s an example of one of the activities that I do for comparing Halloween and El día de los muertos.

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2.  Explore both sides of controversial issues

Another tip for dealing with controversial issues is simply to explore both sides of controversial issues.  In my Spanish III class, we are reading Esperanza by Carol Gaab.  This novel is an amazing true story about an immigrant family from Guatemala.  Clearly immigration is a central theme of the novel, and it’s a hot issue in today’s politics.

As to not unfairly influence students, throughout the novel we’ve been discussing pros and cons to immigration.  To start the novel, I showed the controversial 84 Lumber Super Bowl commercial.  It was relevant and got the students thinking about the heartbreaking journey that many immigrants embark on.  I love the ending, and it fits perfectly with the novel.

Another activity that we completed was this simulation by Jason Noble.  It is set up like a game where you must decide whether to stay in Guatemala or immigrate to the USA legally or illegally.  It was fascinating to see the students make the same decisions faced by the characters in the novel.

Another activity that I plan to do is have students come up with a proposed solution for immigration.  I haven’t exactly worked out the details of this assignment, but the final product will require them to think about immigration from both sides.

3.  Let heritage speakers tell their stories

This is difficult for me because my school is 97% white; however, I have had the privilege of teaching heritage speakers before.  I traveled to another school in our district for half a day last semester.  Although it was terribly exhausting, the best part of it was having heritage speakers in my classes.  I learned so much more from them than I could ever teach them.

If you have heritage speakers, take advantage of it.  Showing a video from some random girl’s quinceañera is alright, but showing the video from a student in the class is so much better.  I had a student bring in her pictures from her quince, and we spent the whole day discussing the tradition.  This student was the expert, and we all learned from her.  Before Halloween, we were discussing scary legends from the Spanish-speaking world.  A student shared with me how her grandmother saw La Llorana.  Talk about bring a scary story to life!

Heritage speakers can bring so much to the classroom.  Allowing them to tell their stories is one of the most beautiful parts of learning another language.

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