Perspectives, Products, and Practices: the three components of a culture. Our standards call for our students to be able to navigate these concepts within their language of study, yet cultural study is often relegated to the back burner or reduced to trivia facts in a box in the corner of a textbook page.
I teach a professional development series for practicing world language teachers, and we talked about why this takes place. The five most common answers were that “it’s too hard to do in TL in novice level classes”, “it gets saved for the upper levels”, “I don’t know enough about places other than where I studied”, “it takes so much time”, and “I have so much other stuff to get done”. I will offer alternatives to these viewpoints in this post.
These ideas–and some encouragement from some colleagues–are what lead me to start this blog. When I heard the responses above, they solidified for me in one central thought: I don’t know how because I’ve never seen it done.
So today I’d like to show you how one cultural point can provide a launching pad for rich language instruction embedded in culture for both novice and intermediate levels. If you haven’t read The Language Educator’s article Integrating Cultures into your Language Instruction, I suggest that you do so now. Here’s a link.
Now that you’re back…Have you ever heard of Ratoncito Pérez? How about the Tooth Fairy? Do you have any special memories of when you lost your teeth as a kid? Did you get anything in return for your teeth?
These questions are samples of some of the stage-setters that I use when we are talking about our lives as kids. Some people would call this the “imperfect” unit–I prefer to center it around the cultural components of the products (Ratoncito Pérez and related accessories), practices (what do we do when we lose a tooth), and perspectives (what does this mean to us) connected to this rite of passage as kids. Who is Ratoncito Pérez? He is a mouse that collects baby teeth (called dientes de leche) from children who place them under their pillows at night.
In my novice classes, we do a unit based on traditions, holidays, and festivals. This unit serves as an introduction to the imperfect tense in an organized fashion, though students have seen it in context in other places before this point. Ratoncito Pérez is an excellent example of a tradition within that unit, and is one that naturally invites comparison between cultures.
In my intermediate classes, episode 5 of season 1 of El Internado makes several extended references to Ratoncito Pérez that are embedded in the story line. We study Ratoncito Pérez before watching that episode to improve their comprehension of Paula and Evelyn’s actions.
And to me, this is the point of studying culture. We understand why Paula and Evelyn would think the way they do and act the way the do (the perspectives) because we understand their culture. We also understand what they are saying because we are familiar with the cultural references that they make. In short, cultural understanding is necessary to comprehend fully what is going on in our “other” culture, be it on tv or in real life.
Regardless of level, here is the outline for this lesson:
- Conversation starters from above with pictures of RP & Tooth Fairy
- Authentic resources rich with necessary vocabulary
- Comparison/Contrast with native and other cultures
- Some form of output
- novice: write several sentences comparing and contrasting RP & Tooth Fairy and/or express opinion on which tradition you prefer
- intermediates: write a letter to RP as if you were Paula or Evelyn in El Internado and/or retell the RP story from photo cues
This lesson overcomes the obstacles mentioned by my student-colleagues in several ways:
- “it’s too hard to do in novice levels”: It can be done in novice levels. Choose authentic resources that are attainable for the novice levels and adjust the tasks accordingly. Infographics and picture books can be excellent sources of material.
- “it’s saved for the upper levels”: Most students would choose studying about a kids’ story and other cultures to learning another verb tense. It’s not just the language that captivates them–it’s the culture. Embed the learning of the other material into the culture even at the lower levels, and we might see an improved enrollment in our upper levels. Cultural study is inherently interesting and engaging (kids call it “fun”). Why would we want to delay that?
- “I don’t know about cultures other than where I studied”: In our technological day, this is less of a problem than the days where you had to actually go to another country to find out about it. Use the internet for its good aspects. Join Twitter and follow news and cultural icons from other countries. Become a regular reader of Zachary Jones. And here’s a secret: you don’t have to know it all. You do have to know enough to send the kids off on a guided exploration and be willing to let them teach you too.
- “it takes so much time”: Yes. Excellent lesson planning does take time. But since you are planning anyway, why not use your time to develop lessons that are culturally rich, proficiency oriented, and standards-based? And who knows, not only might you learn something new, but you also might be reinvigorated about what you teach! (And then you don’t have to start from scratch next time either.)
- “I have so much other stuff to cover”: Responding to this could be a blog post on its own. My response in a nutshell: Cover less and students will probably retain more. Embed the “stuff to cover” into the cultural unit (and students will probably retain more). Using authentic resources–or semi-authentic resources–exposes students to concepts that will look familiar when it comes time to “learn” them… which will save you time and students will probably retain more. 🙂
And now… resources!
- My class packet for intermediates–direct tie-ins with El Internado
- How to brush your teeth with Ratoncito Pérez:
- A Spanish primary school’s Ratoncito Pérez club blog
- Reading from the excellent Veinte Mundos (This is what I will adapt for my novice classes.)
- The Tooth Fairy Meets Ratón Pérez at Amazon