Elizabeth Munro, Euclid High School, Spanish Teacher
World language programs are floundering in many public schools across Ohio. Boards of Education and taxpayers do not view money spent on world language study as an important element in student achievement. Despite years of research that has determined that the study of a world language will improve a student’s ability in native language expression, mathematical processing and more, school districts are opting out of world language study. Even as these school boards adopt mission and vision statements that include words like, “preparing students to compete in a globally integrated world,” they cut the one academic tool that will allow students to do so. Why is it so easy for districts to do this?
We can continue to blame it on the stereotype that Americans don’t believe there is a reason to learn another language. And then we can throw up our hands and call it a day. But we would be denying the fact that there is a public clamoring for students to learn another language. We would be ignoring all the online language learning programs that are exploding in popularity. People do want to learn other languages.
I suggest that we world language educators look at the way our curriculum is designed. Most of us are still using a curriculum that could be labeled, “A User’s Guide to World Language Study.” The introductory language classes study vocabulary themed units that employ simple useful grammatical phrases. If students want to understand the reasons why a group of people live the way they do, that information is generally taught in English, not the target language. Our curriculum is not designed to teach students to discuss these culturally essential questions in the target language. Nor is the traditional curriculum designed to allow entry-level students to learn how to communicate ideas that are relevant in the educational culture of today. We cannot easily integrate what we teach with what is being taught in other classes.
Our entry-level curriculum does not provide the foundation a student needs to develop cultural empathy or to develop an understanding of the cultural assumptions that form the basis for why people do what they do. When we ask our students why they want to study a world language, the answer is usually, “I want to talk to people.”
World language programs need to be relevant in this interconnected global climate. Because our students have access to information from around the globe, the curricular material we present in the classroom must immediately be seen as relevant by the students.
So where to begin? We should begin with introductory units, making sure that we incorporate the notion of cultural empathy. What do I mean? How can it be done without too much fuss? What is an example of a curricular re-write? Let’s for example, look at one of the first units we teach in first year is “describing oneself, describing others.” What might it look like?
Our new unit could be called, “What is beauty?” Our new learning goal might be the following; “Students can use the target language to describe, compare and contrast notions of beauty in various cultures.” I hope that you notice, that this goal fits in beautifully with the Ohio World Language Standards. Additionally, it incorporates the verbs of “rigor” that our Common Core advocates are looking to instill in our teaching. The vocabulary unit may be expanded to include more copulative verbs. So instead of just employing the verb “to be”, we can include, “to seem,” “to appear” or “to become.” I would suggest teaching them as vocabulary units instead of grammatical forms with introductory students. We can also include superlatives, conjunctions, possessive forms and interrogatives as grammatical units.
Include new notions in your lessons. Instead of just describing people or things, ask students to compare contrast and offer opinions. Ask students to provide opinion from the point of view of someone in another culture.
Color. Students can be asked about the beauty of color combinations and then show them fabrics from various cultures. Ask students to express what concepts colors might represent and contrast those representations with those of other cultures.
Physical Descriptions. Compare concepts of beauty in the present and past. Compare concepts of beauty from culture to culture. Use art from your target culture to elicit reactions to the notion of beauty. Ask your students about individual characteristics then ask them to combine those characteristics. The results of that exercise can be hilarious.
Behavioral Descriptions. Compare images of people with different expressions on their faces and ask them, who is more beautiful and ask them to explain. Ask them to describe their best friend.
Assessments. Clearly we can use a combination of tests of knowledge (vocabulary and grammar tests) and performance tests. I like to provide students with a choice of assessments that will include a writing component as well as a spoken one.
Language teachers need to consider some things as they attempt to create “A Participants Guide to the World.” First, a unit like “What is Beauty?”, will take longer to implement than learning how to describe things. One must consider what topics will remain in a curriculum and what must be set aside. Second, the grammatical forms needed to employ a unit like the one above, should be considered thoughtfully. I would suggest setting aside the old notions we have of teaching grammar in a specific order. Forcing topics to fit despite having no foundation in appropriate grammar is frustrating for students and teachers alike. Third, obviously deals with resources. OFLA has done a fantastic job of making available the plethora of online resources available for the world language classroom. The challenge to teachers is to collect them and organize them. Additionally, many of us teach in schools in which computers that allow students to interface with others online are not easily available. How can teachers create those communicative opportunities without reliable computer access? And finally, there is the time necessary to make curricular changes that make sense for our students and ourselves. Although teachers need to consider these issues, none of them will prevent us from creating a curriculum that is effective, relevant and allows our students to develop the skills they truly need for participation in the global climate in which we live.
A curricular design that responds to essential questions like, “What is Beauty?” reflects the demands of the new Ohio World Language Standards (OWLS). It allows teachers to develop interdisciplinary connections that we know are important in the learning of our students. This type of design easily spirals into to the curriculum at the AP level. Our beginning level students can gain the preparation and skills they need to feel comfortable and successful in the more demanding classes at the third, fourth and AP levels.
The object of this kind of curricular design is to provide the opportunity for all students to participate in the use of the language we teach. They can analyze what they see instead of only memorizing and spitting it back out at us. They have the opportunity to proffer opinions in the target language. But most importantly, they build an understanding of cultural issues, like aesthetics, from the beginning of their study. They begin developing the cultural empathy that allows them to not only speak the language but to participate fully in the culture of the language they have studied.
For anyone interested in considering other units like this one, please see my blog at gcresourceguide.blogspot.com. I have begun working o n a variety of units, designed mostly for first and second year Spanish. However, perhaps teachers of other languages can use the blog as a starting point for their own explorations into designing a curriculum that responds to the new OWLS and in relevant to the students we teach. Additionally, the blog does contain other information for students and teachers who are seeking international experiences.