My Takeaways from #ACTFL19

I spent last weekend in Washington, DC at the 2019 ACTFL convention. If you have never been to an ACTFL conference, believe me when I say that it is a unique experience. Friends, it is HUGE. This year, around 7,500 world language teachers from all over the country and beyond attended. It can be very overwhelming due to its immense size. But one of the advantages of being so large is that it offers workshops on a wide variety of topics. After two days of attending presentations, two common themes started to emerge.

The biggest takeaway for me was about inclusivity and empathy. I attended three sessions that touched on this. Two presentations were about inclusive language. The first workshop by Marialuisa Di Stefano, Abelardo Almazan-Vasquez, and William Yepes was called “Latina/o, Latin@, Latinex, Latiné: An Inclusion and Social Justice Approach.” The second was Dr. Joseph Parodi-Brown’s “Authentic Voices: Create LGBT+ Affirming Classes with Language and Content.” In both sessions, the presenters talked about using inclusive language aimed at making both gendered and nongendered students of all sexual orientations feel welcome and represented in language class. In Spanish class, this could be using a neutral -e on words that normally have either an -o or -a, as in “Tengo muches amigues.” In French class, this could be incorporating the use of gender neutral pronouns like “ille” or “iel.” Either way, the message was that our nonbinary students deserve to feel included and represented in our classes, and that using inclusive language normalizes both nonbinary language and identities, thus leading to greater social acceptance.

Annabelle Allen gave a presentation on a similar theme called “Equitable Engagement: Ensuring Every Student Invests, Is Valued and Achieves.” Her main idea was that all students should feel important and recognized in our classrooms. One of the ways to do that is by featuring both texts and images in our classrooms that reflect the identity and backgrounds of our students. This helps create a strong and positive classroom community where all students feel welcome and represented. In the long run, this leads to higher levels of both success and engagement.

Annabelle teaches in New Orleans, where she has many students of color. I, on the other hand, teach in a school that is not as diverse. But even in suburban, predominantly white schools, it is important to include diverse images, because it helps students appreciate, learn about, and accept different ways of living and thinking. If you think about it, with the majority of books, movies, and TV shows featuring predominantly white characters, do white kids need yet another representation of themselves? Furthermore, if I predominantly feature images of white people, I am perpetuating the erroneous belief that white people are the only people worth talking about and celebrating. That’s not something I want to do.

The second topic I heard a lot about was intercultural competency. Historically, cultural topics in second language classes have almost always been taught in isolation, and almost always in the students’ native language. When I taught with a textbook, the first two pages usually presented a cultural theme, but the true mission of the chapter was to present grammar topics and thematic vocabulary lists. To be honest, I usually had so much to cover in the chapter that I skipped the culture section completely. And when I did teach culture, I taught bits and pieces using the 4-F Approach (only talking about folk dances, festivals, fairs, and food) or the Tour Guide Approach (talking about geography and important monuments). The conversations we had in class about culture were superficial, and assessments on culture often asked students to remember isolated facts (I call this “Cultural Trivial Pursuit”).

At the ACTFL conference, the message I heard repeatedly was that second language teachers need to weave the studies of both language and culture, thus developing intercultural competency. The end goal is that students will be able to “expand one’s own world view; to develop an insider’s perspective toward the target culture’s beliefs, traditions and ways of behaving; to develop a sensitivity toward alternative perspectives and cultural differences and mediate those divides through language; and finally, to expand one’s own identity as a global citizen (Bott Van Houten and Shelton, p. 35).”

Being a visual learner, I appreciate the following graphic organizer, which encapsulates what we all should try to develop in our language classes.

The small italicized “i” in the center of this graphic stands for intercultural competency. The message here is that incorporating cultural appreciation and understanding should be the goal of everything we do in our classrooms.

The topic of intercultural competency is not something in which I have much expertise. I have a few books on my nightstand to read and have a few professional development sessions to attend before I can say any more about this topic.

All in all, ACTFL did not disappoint. If you have the chance to attend one of their conferences in an upcoming year (2020 in San Antonio, TX and 2021 in San Diego, CA), I promise that it will be a very fulfilling, informative, and energizing weekend.