My teaching philosophy centers on making connections between another culture and one’s own. Being able to identify and discuss the similarities and differences across and within cultures fosters critical thinking, a life-long skill that serves students well no matter what profession they enter. Indeed, my students will very often have the opportunity to make use of the critical thinking skills they learn in class, whether they have business contacts abroad, move into a multicultural neighborhood or simply turn on the evening news. Studying another language is a way to learn to navigate different customs and values, even if the world is becoming increasingly English-dependent.
In all my classes, I discuss cultural concepts and their American analogues with my students. These concepts may be presented explicitly in the text we are using, or they may arise when we discuss vocabulary or even grammar. One way to let my students take ownership of their learning is by having them go beyond the textbook and give a presentation on a specific cultural aspect of a Spanish-speaking community. For this assignment, my students have presented on topics as varied as the cultural impact of Afro-Peruvians, the birth of salsa music in New York City and the Argentine game of pato. Culture can and should be a part of every lesson.
My students are prepared to explain the cultural similarities and differences that they observe when learning Spanish. For example, I may ask my intermediate and advanced students to read a fragment of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech and watch the corresponding video clip. They reflect in their journals on the main theme that Vargas Llosa addresses, the importance of reading and literature in his life, and the effect literature has had on their own lives. Being empathetic to the feelings, dreams and aspirations of people from other cultures is easier to achieve with today’s technology, which provides plenty of options to use authentic materials in a variety of formats.
Whether or not authentic Spanish materials are a part of our textbook, I make an effort to include them in my curriculum. For all types of learners, I make frequent use of YouTube, photographs, songs, historical references, newspaper articles and literature. My students learn to make connections between the Spanish language, the varieties of cultures that speak it and those communities’ relationships with the rest of the world. In choosing supplemental cultural materials, I make sure that they support the thematic and grammatical aims of the textbook we may be using.
Most language textbooks these days have a good variety of communicative activities along with chapters that are arranged thematically. Because my classes are student-centered learning environments, students have many opportunities to practice their speaking skills and discuss the concepts they are learning with one another. In general, I ensure that much of the grammar is studied at home by having my students view instructional videos that I create and upload to YouTube. The strategy of learning most of the grammar at home allows us to focus on speaking the language in class.
In all my language courses, among my most important goals is that culture not be lost in translation. Language can both reflect and be the source of unique cultural concepts. Learning the Spanish language along with its related cultures will help my students make those connections.