Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Desolation of the Cultural Barrier

Post by Keith Bonnstetter: Keith is in his 23rd year of teaching Spanish, the last thirteen at Bettendorf High School. Keith was named 2013 Iowa World Language Teacher of the Year this past fall. You can follow Keith @bonnflakes

I teach at Bettendorf High School where passion, pride and purpose rule. It is here where I am allowed to use my creativity to bring Spanish alive to my students. I believe that learning a world language is much like making a quilt, not just an ordinary quilt but a crazy quilt where all of the pieces are irregular shapes and sizes. Each shape is reminiscent of the different components of the language: speaking, writing, listening and reading. As a world language teacher it is my job to guide my students as they begin to cut out their individual pieces; to help them to trim the edges and begin to assemble their masterpiece. Each student’s quilt is unique to the skill-set they bring, but in the end they will all leave my classroom with a finished product.

The thread that stitches the blocks together is culture. If I were to merely teach about the countries, the beautiful museums, magnificent churches and natural wonders, our stitches would be uneven. It is my task to introduce my students to the people of these countries, to help them to discover that their single story about a culture is inaccurate. In The Danger of One Story, Chimamanda Adichie elaborates on this idea. When my students begin to see that we are more alike than different, the “they” begins to fade and “they” become part of “us."

Introducing my students to popular Hispanic music is one way that helps my students put a face to the language. Another way I have helped put a face to a culture is planning a trip to Spain, Mexico or Costa Rica. Every time I have traveled with a group, I have insisted that there be a home-stay. I have done this partly because I wanted the students to use their language skills, but more importantly, I wanted them to experience the people. Once they felt the love and genuine happiness that surrounded them, my students began to see real purpose for learning the language.

If my students cannot travel, I bring the Spanish culture to them. Every spring I begin searching for families who can host a student from Spain for four weeks in the summer. Many host families have then sent their children to Spain to spend time with their new “sibling”. Seeing purpose for language learning fans the flames of passion - this is essential. Once they find passion and purpose beyond a college requirement, they can look back at their quilt with pride, knowing that the endless hours of studying nouns, verbs, grammar and syntax has helped them to develop a friendship that will last a lifetime. Once the flames begin to burn brightly, students see language learning - their quilt - as something real, something meaningful.

Teaching a language is valuable, but teaching a language infused with culture is priceless.

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