Saturday, November 30, 2013

Station Wagon Not Necessary

Post by Cristina Zimmerman: Cristina is in her 13th year of teaching Spanish, the last three years at Bettendorf High School. You can follow her on twitter at @CristinaZimmer4

My mom was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. after she and my father married when she was 32 years old. My dad's parents were also Mexican immigrants. My earliest memories are of eating huevos rancheros, frijoles and drinking atole for breakfast while Julio Iglesias (yes, Enrique's dad) or Lucia Mendez played on the record player in the background. Some of those breakfasts included homemade salsa made by drying out chiles on the comal and then grinding them up on the molcajete. Trips to the Mexican grocery store for pan dulce and carnitas were frequent and on Saturday nights, Sábado Gigante was the only show that we watched (If you don't know what any of these things are, no worries. Neither did my students. And thus the reason for this blog post). It was important to my parents that their children be exposed to their culture, even from the small white, rural town of Eldridge, Iowa.

Nearly every summer we drove 2,000 plus miles to visit my grandparents in Villagrán, Guanajuato, México (You should look up Guanajuato. It's beautiful. And if you want something not so beautiful, also look up Las Momias de Guanajuato. Then let me know what you think). Crammed into a Dodge Aspen station wagon, my brother, sister and I made memories that none of my friends could on their family trips to Six Flags. There is no better way to learn appreciation for what you have (and what others don't) than to cross the Mexican/American border by car or foot. Truly, one is stepping into a different world. Instantly, the language changes, the signage, cars, and buildings shift backwards about 20 years, and roads that were once wide open and clean, are now narrow, dirty and full of bicycles and crazy drivers. Yet, I loved it. I loved the changes of odors, the landscape, the people, the appreciation for and importance of religion, the music, the food, and most importantly, the language! I'm sure that any language teacher reading this can identify with that love of another culture. That love is what drives many of us to teach the language that we do.
Somewhere, though, we language teachers forgot something. If you look at most textbooks, they are organized by superficial themes and then are broken down by grammar topic and a list of vocabulary relating to said superficial theme. At the very end of those chapters will be a page about something culturally relevant to the theme. Usually by the time you get to the end of the chapter and the culture page, you're so pressed for time that you might talk about it for 15 minutes then move on to review the grammar tense you really need them to memorize for the test (yeah, the one that they will forget about three days later, give or take a day). 

Rinse and repeat.


How many times have you heard someone say, "I took four years of (insert foreign language) and I remember how to conjugate a verb, but couldn't tell you what I was saying?" Then they might go on to say, "But I do remember when we (insert cultural activity/theme) and it was a lot of fun!"


Teachers are creatures of habit. We do what we think works (because if it ain't broke, why fix it?) and often teach how our teachers taught us (because if we learned it, it must work!). Our teachers, for years, drilled us with conjugation charts, fill-in-the-blank grammar exercises, and dull listening activities. It is all we know as language teachers. Well, I'm here to admit something: My teaching was broke. I was that teacher. I knew I was unhappy, but I didn't know why. It must be because these kids didn't study their vocabulary list! It must be because they didn't practice on the conjugation website long enough! It couldn't be because what I was teaching them lacked context, meaning, and cultural relevance!


Enter Twitter and the Global Exchange Initiative.

I can't rave enough about Twitter (and more specifically how it led me to the resources of @karacjacobs and collaboration with her via Twitter). I know many teachers are fearful of the T word and its hashtags; however, Twitter has truly changed how and what I teach. By making connections with others, collaboration through tweets and direct messages, participating in #langchat discussions, and sharing of resources, I can now say that I feel like my teaching is repaired.  Not perfect, but definitely healing. Why? Because in my Spanish IV classes I have taken the focus away from memorization of perfect conjugations and context-less vocabulary lists, to using the language to learn about current events and increase cultural knowedge and awareness (ideas I hadn't thought about until collaborating with others on Twitter). Rather than working to help kids memorize vocabulary through games (although we still play them on occasion), students are using this new vocabulary while discussing, reading, listening, and writing about current events and cultural themes that are interesting and relevant. I still teach grammar but do it in the context of what we're studying and try to find it in the authentic resources we are using in class. Students can carry these themes and events and apply them to other classes and in their lives in the future. It provides them a global perspective that they were denied by previous lessons that artificially taught them about por and para, for example. And if the themes/events/topics are no longer relevant, I get to look for new resources to use that are, because I'm no longer tied to a textbook. It's a perfect marriage!

Guanajuato, Mexico

Furthermore, by puttting culture first, I now have more time and opportunities to bring in guests and seek other learning opportunities for my students. We are currently studying the topic of illegal immigration. To give students faces to connect with visitors of our country, we welcomed college students from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Mexico who are studying at Scott Community College on a scholarship program. My students maintained a 40-minute question and answer session with them about various themes, with little help from me. Was the grammar perfect? No. Was their message communicated clearly and were students engaged? Yes. Is this a memory that they will take with them in the future? Absolutely.

Another benefit of putting cultural and global awareness first is being able to participate in the Global Exchange Inititiative. In addition to our scholarship student guests this week, Robert Dillon, (@ideaguy42) Director of Technology in Affton, Missouri, and the man in charge of this initiative, came to visit. Our students at Bettendorf High School, along with four other high schools around the nation (coast to coast), are assisting in publishing e-books that will be used in an afterschool literacy program for students in Guatemala. Our students have been tasked with reading authentic children's stories, editing and processing  them, then selecting illustrations for their books. How much more meaningful is it for students to know that the work that they are producing will now end up--literally--in the hands of Guatemalan children? Global collaboration and service learning. Not possible in a grammar only curriculum.

So how do I tie this back to my childhood trips to Mexico? Well, I can't. I cannot take my students on those same trips, summer after summer, to give them the appreciation of a culture so misunderstood by many Americans. However, by putting culture as the driving force in what I teach, students can explain to you, in Spanish, what is a comal and why corn is important in Mexican cuisine. They might also be able to explain to you how corn production plays a part in illegal immigration to the United States. Their conjugation of the subjunctive is not flawless. But it wouldn't have been if that was the only thing that I had worked on this past week. Even in the city of Bettendorf, Iowa students can be exposed to culture and collaborate globally, without traveling 2,000 miles in a station wagon...which wouldn't be safe now due to narcoviolencia.

Ask a Spanish IV student about that......

Las Momias de Guanajuato


  1. Cristina - this post touched my heart in so many ways. With each paragraph I read it reminded me of the yearly summer trek to Crystal City Texas (1,000 miles) in my parents Chevy Impala to visit my grandparents and my cousins. Those are wonderful memories I still cherish to this day. We are blessed to have a teacher of your caliber join our team at BHS. I have seen first hand the impact you have made with not only our students, but with our team as well. You are making great connections with kids and creating meaningful experiences. I would bet anything that someday a student will tell you that he/she decided to become a Spanish teacher because of the impact you had on them! Won't that be cool! Keep pushing the limits in order to give kids an authentic experience. You have my full support! Wonderful post Cristina!

  2. Love this Cristina! Thanks for sharing your reflections here. You have inspired and helped me so much during this past year - thanks for that too!

    1. Cristina, I feel like you express what all of us language teachers really want to do in our classroom, give students something to remember and inspire them for a lifetime. it's definitely how I feel about German and Chinese. And I can totally relate to your summer vacations, because my immigrant parents packed us into the backseat of a blue Aspen station wagon to explore the United States, because they couldn't figure out how to drive us to Germany!

  3. I have just three words for this: job well done.