Thursday, September 29, 2011

That spark in their eyes (or why language teachers have to stop making excuses and make time for culture!)

Yesterday I did a new lesson with my 7th graders that reinforced everything I've always felt about integrating culture into language study.  It was one of those lessons where you just WISH the principal would pop in to see how things are going.  (Of course, they never pop in THEN, they pop in right when you're troubleshooting a technology problem and some kid needs a band-aid and another kid needs you to sign his pre-arranged absence note and give him the work for the next 3 days because he's going to Disney World and...)  AND it was one of those lessons in BOTH periods, which is even better because it's much more likely that it's really appealing to a wide range of kids, and not one of those things that works like magic with one group and the next group acts like they're about to fall asleep.  What was this magical lesson, you ask?

It was one of my favorite kinds of lessons -- a made-from-scratch lesson that integrates culture into language practice.  One of the best things about my job is that I get to do as many of those as I have time and energy and creativity and sanity to make, because I don't have a book or an "official" curriculum or anything else forcing/tempting me to do p.33 today and p.34 tomorrow and p.35 the next day until the kids want to scream...  Not that there aren't good things in textbooks and other such materials, but I'm glad for the freedom because it encourages me to experiment and revise and invent, which (at least in my opinion) results in a much deeper and more exciting learning experience for the kids!

This particular lesson was a new activity for our "school" unit (school supplies, school subjects, and related basic grammar) where I wrote the kids a letter from an imaginary pen pal in Spain that they had to read and answer questions about. (The only thing better would be a REAL pen pal, but my kids don't have enough language yet for that!)  In the letter, "Raquel" (my real host sister in Spain's name) told the kids about her school day: what classes she has at what times (which I found by Googling schools in Madrid until I found one that had a schedule posted!), what school supplies she brings every day, and other aspects of a typical day.   My students, as a whole, tend to hate reading activities because they're the most "boring" of anything we do in my class.  I don't blame them, because yes, reading a paragraph and answering comprehension questions is nowhere near as exciting as playing Go Fish with vocab or exchanging information with your partner.  But reading is one of the four language skills, and therefore important to language study... not to mention a great opportunity to reinforce cross-curricular reading skills that the kids need for their other classes and the all-important TESTS!

Except in this lesson, the usual groaning and complaining and glazed-over eyes were absent.  They were replaced by squeals of surprise, kids jumping out of their seats to make comments to each other and ask me questions, and little mini-teachable-moments in the middle of reading.  The cultural aspects "Raquel" included in the letter -- having a break during the school day, getting 2+ hours to eat and have siesta, having religion class, school lasting until 5:00 (because of the break and siesta!) worked just like I had hoped.  We had spirited discussions (in English) about what it would be like to go home in the middle of the day or have religion class.  When everyone finished the comprehension questions, we had a big whole-class discussion that was just as animated, covering everything from religion to amount of homework to instruction types.  (The kids were worried that Spanish kids wouldn't have time to do homework, and then really excited when I told them there's not nearly as much homework there... and then groaned when I told them that classes are mostly lecture and memorization!)  They were engaged and excited and so involved in their learning that they hardly wanted to stop talking to play the game at the end of  class.

This is why I love teaching culture: I love exposing kids to the fact that the way you do something isn't the only way to do it.  I love expanding their minds to embrace the idea that the way you've always lived isn't the "right" way, and it might not even be the "best" way.  I love having the chance to help them look at themselves from another point of view, compared and contrasted to another way of life.  Some of them were still talking today about wanting to live in Spain and have breaks in the day and a relaxed lifestyle, while others were glad to be in a school where we play games and learn actively instead of sitting in lectures all day!  Either way, their brains were stretched in an exciting way... while also practicing their Spanish and using their reading skills!

It saddens me that some language teachers push culture aside because they think they don't have time for it.  Also depressing is the way that some teachers throw facts and figures (capital/population/two famous artists/one famous dance...) at their students and think they're "teaching culture".  That's like saying you're going to have your kids read a book and then just giving them an outline of the plot to read!    Besides, while some kids might say they "only want to learn language, not culture" (which sadly, I've heard from several kids, probably influenced by parents who think language learning is about verb conjugation), their engagement in lessons like yesterday's lesson demonstrate that culture is an essential way to tap into higher-level thinking skills in the language classroom!

I loved that spark I saw as the kids read and talked and thought yesterday, and I love seeing it again and again in other similar activities we do. Language and culture are intertwined in life, and they should be the same way in the learning process.


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