Teaching Culture in a Comprehensible Input Classroom

Yesterday my friend Diane Neubauer, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa, interviewed me for a paper she is writing for a course about my approaches to teaching culture in my language classes. After I finished the interview I had a moment to think about what I had told her and am writing down some of my major thoughts here.

First, I do not practice what I call “Cultural Trivial Pursuit.” This is a term I created to describe how culture is discussed in many traditional classes, where students learn small, isolated bits of information about a certain person, practice, or perspective that is deemed to be of cultural importance. In many cases, students are eventually tested on a whole group of these isolated bits, usually in multiple choice format. In Spanish classes in my previous school, I had to test students on whether or not they knew where Calle Ocho was (Miami, Florida) or the traditional color of a girl’s quinceañera dress (pink). In French class at that same school I had to assess students on whether or not they knew where the Hotel Frontenac was (Quebec City) or if they knew the name of the artistic style that the artist Claude Monet was known for (Impressionism). Reducing cultural information to a shallow, one or two sentence description turns that information into trivial knowledge. Few students will be able to appreciate the cultural information in this form, and those facts will become just another thing that students memorize for a quiz and forget soon after, like conjugated verb forms and isolated vocabulary lists.

Second, I take issue with a certain type of cultural project that students do in many language classes, because the project almost always must be done in English due to the students’ novice level language ability (yes, even in a traditional third or fourth year language class). In my previous school I had to assign a project every year (Year One: A famous French/Mexican building or landmark. Year Two: A region of France/Spain. Year Three: A French/Latino artist) complete with a research paper in English, an oral presentation in English, and a poster board with visuals and captions in English. Then I would have to give up a week of my class to listen to and grade presentations, thus stalling any progress students had been making in language acquisition. During the presentation week any stranger who walked into my classroom might think s/he was looking at a social studies and not a language class!

Finally, I stay away from being stereotypical or culturally inaccurate. I used to have a large Mexican sombrero that a student brought me back from Mexico. It stayed on top of my classroom TV and if students did something especially nice I would let them wear it, which they loved. But I decided to get rid of it once I realized that nobody in Mexico wore hats like that (I think they exist strictly to be bought by tourists). Students also used to nag me about having a food tasting in Spanish class, and then all of them would offer to bring in chips and salsa (or even worse, Taco Bell), which are way more American than they are Mexican. In French class, those begging for a food tasting would offer to bring in croissants or chocolate éclairs, and while they are traditionally French, the ones we get in America are practically nothing like the ones in France, so I usually said no unless students were willing to bring something besides that, which hardly anyone ever wanted to.

So now that I’ve told you what I DON’T do, let me tell you how I DO approach culture in my classroom.

First, I try to combine cultural and linguistic comprehension goals so students understand the cultural implication behind the expressions they are acquiring. For example, when I teach greetings in French, I make sure to mention to students that it is custom to say “Bonjour Madame/Mademoiselle/Monsieur” and not just “Bonjour” in isolation, and that the authentic former is always said when entering a store to the shopkeeper or sales clerk. In Spanish class, I mention that when a woman gets to be of a certain age in Spanish speaking countries she is often addressed as “Señora” even if she is not married, so it is not a direct equivalent of “Mrs.” in English. Another great example is the use of the verb “to invite” in both Spanish and French, because the implication is that the person doing the inviting will also pay. I can think of so many examples where students really need to understand the cultural implication as well as the literal meaning of words in order to understand an expression fully, and I make sure to address that when necessary in my class.

Second, most of the cultural themes presented in my classroom come from novels, either those that we have read together or those that students read independently. Many of the books available from TPRS Books, Mira Canion, and Fluency Matters contain cultural themes, often talking place in a certain country or during a particular period in history. For example, last year in my Spanish 4 class we read Los Ojos de Carmen, which took place in Ecuador. Major plot points happened in areas of cultural significance, so it was both easy and relevant to talk about those cultural topics as they related to the action of the story. I know some language teachers whose entire curriculum is based on novel reading. They do anywhere between four and six novels a year, which potentially means the in-depth study of between four and six extensive cultural themes found in those novels.

Third, my ultimate classroom goal is to aim for depth over breadth. Linguistically I would rather have my students acquire ten words very effectively then have tenuous, short-term knowledge of 30 words. Many other people who teach with comprehensible input (CI) feel the same way, which is why they concentrate on high frequency words and expressions in their classrooms. I apply the same philosophy to cultural topics. Instead of knowing one or two bits of trivia about a cultural theme (again, no cultural trivial pursuit!), I would rather my students have a deeper understanding of a few significant themes, especially if they are themes that I can connect to something in my students’ lives.

And finally, I look for compelling culture to share with my students. When choosing a cultural topic to discuss in class I ask myself, “Will most teenagers find this interesting?” If the answer is “Yes,” I make plans to present it in class. If the answer is “No,” I don’t (When talking with Diane I talked about having to teach students about an area of Mexico famous for its black pottery, about which my students had almost no interest. She responded by telling me about having to teach her students in Chinese class about the significance of and meaning behind Beijing Opera masks, a lesson that she didn’t think was very well received because so few teenagers have any interest in opera. We both agreed that these are the type of lessons we avoid when trying to talk about culture in class.). I have found that most teenagers respond positively to cultural lessons that have to do with popular music, sports, school, and holiday rituals. Discussing quirky traditions is also popular. I have found that cultural lessons about art are usually only compelling if coupled with another theme (like Picasso’s Guernica, which can be linked to a discussion about the Spanish Civil War, for example). And, most importantly,  I only share these cultural themes if I can present the lesson primarily in the target language. That being said, I have found that I can make most cultural topics understandable to novice learners by simplifying the language.

Feel free to visit my resources page, where I have posted a few presentations about various cultural themes. If you teach Spanish, I highly recommend talking about Caga Tiò, also known as the Poop Log!

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My First Language Presentation

This Saturday I am going to the annual Rhode Island Foreign Language Association (RIFLA) conference. While I have been to this conference many times, for the first time ever I will be leading a workshop. My workshop is about second language acquisition (SLA) theory and comprehensible input (CI) methods. It is a pretty basic presentation that I designed for teachers with little knowledge of either SLA theory or teaching with CI. To be honest, I am pretty nervous. Although I am a fairly good presenter, I have never presented to a group of teachers before. Teachers can, unfortunately, be a tough audience.

What I have tried very, very hard to do in my presentation is steer clear of criticizing traditional methods too harshly, even though I find that so many of the things done in traditional classrooms do not lead to language acquisition. Instead, I have chosen to discuss methods that DO lead to language acquisition.

If anyone is interested in seeing my presentation, it is available below. I give anyone permission to use it as inspiration as long as I am credited.

Second Language Theory Put Into Practice

Wish me luck guys!

My New Grading Practices

One of the nice things about my new job is the freedom I have to do things my way. At my last job, my Department Head dictated how and what we would grade. At first I didn’t have a problem with calculating a grade in which I assessed homework, participation, quizzes and tests at certain percentages. But as time went on and I read more about Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and comprehensible input (CI) practices, I started to have issues with my department’s grading practices.

First of all, I felt that grading participation (based on students volunteering to answer questions) was unfair to quiet kids. I had many shy students who did not ever raise a hand to answer questions in class, so their participation grade was unusually low. I came to the realization that this just wasn’t fair. Some students, no matter what, would rather do anything besides raise their hands to answer a question, and I felt that they should not be penalized for their very nature. Second, I stopped giving high-stakes tests, which meant I was not using the testing percentage at all. This put unfair weight on other grading categories. And finally, I disliked the fact that students could fail all assessments but could end up passing the class if they had an A in both homework and participation, and, alternatively, that students who got an A on all assessments could end up with a C or even lower if they had a low participation and homework grade. All in all, the grade students got in my class was not a reflection of how well they could use speak, write, understand, or read the target language (TL).

Then I met a Spanish teacher at a conference who had four categories in his grade book, which were listening, writing, speaking, and reading. All categories were worth 25%. At first I thought that this sounded like a fantastic way to grade in a language class. But after I had some time to think about this setup, and I realized that there were a few flaws in that system. First of all, some activities done in class could encompass two grading categories, such as an activi listening and writing. In that case, in which category would that assignment belong? Would I just have to pick one or would I count it twice, once in each category? Second, assessing speaking is a long process, because a teacher needs to have a conversation with EVERY student in class. With a large class, this might take up to three days. Chances are, I would only be able to assess speaking once a quarter, which means that 25% of a student’s grade would be based on one assessment. That just isn’t fair or valid.

So after spending some time thinking and reading blog posts about grading, I decided to simplify things. Currently I only have two grading categories in my grade book, formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments refer to those daily, ongoing assessments I give to check for comprehension. Sometimes it is a homework assignment. Other times it is a quick “pop” quiz with five True/False questions about the topic we happened to be discussing in class that day. Sometimes it is a timed writing to see how many words a student can write in five minutes. Summative assessments refer to longer assessments, usually at the end of a unit. Sometimes it is part of a project we are working on or a free write that students have time to edit, rewrite, and resubmit. Other times it is a “pop” test when we are done with a unit.

In addition, all quizzes and tests, either formative or summative, are unannounced. I do this because I want to assess what they have acquired and not what they can quickly memorize and forget once the assessment is over. I have also found that the element of surprise also helps keep my students focused in class, because they never know when an assessment will be given.

And lastly, I operate based on what is called the 80-80 rule. I do not put a grade in my grade book unless 80% of the class scores at least 80% on the assessment. If more than 20% of the class can’t perform well on the assessment, it tells me that I have not done my job correctly and that my students don’t have enough input to perform the task at hand. So when that happens, I go back, reteach, and assess again according to the 80-80 rule.

In addition, I have completely done away with grades for homework and participation. I want my students’ grade to reflect how well they can handle the language. I do not want to assess their work habits or willingness to answer questions, because that is not part of acquiring language.

At my last department meeting I learned that my new district may be moving away from traditional grading practices. For World Language, this means the possibility of grading our students using the ACTFL Proficiency Scale. I’m excited to go that route, because then will we truly be assessing language proficiency. I’ll let you know how it goes.